Sunday, June 1, 2008

My Conclusion to NZ

Note: this is a bit lengthy. But it is my honest conclusion to an incredible half a year in a place that has given me so much. I have also put together a collection of my favorite photos taken throughout New Zealand. You can find them here:

It still amazes me sometimes how when you make a plan for something to happen and how fast it happens. I came to New Zealand with no plans. Just the idea and desire to see the world and hopefully learn a little bit about myself. The goal was comprehension. To see the world by making myself venerable to it so that I could understand the way it works and hopefully find a bit of understanding in myself along the way.

Six months ago I arrived in a foreign land with no plans. I made the plan to get here and that was more of a plan than I wanted. Packing up, moving out, and saying goodbye was by no means easy. I got on the plane, and that was enough I thought.

When I arrived, the immigration officer checking me into the country asked where I was staying. I told him “I don’t know“. He gave me the look that either I was doing something very wrong or I was simply crazy. “So you just showed up on a one-way ticket with no plans in a place you‘ve never been?” he asked. “Um…Well…Yeah” I told him and gave him a semi-guilty grin after just realizing that this in fact was real and not just a dream anymore. I was so determined of just getting here, that I never really thought about what I would do when I actually got here. Getting here really was the only plan I wanted to make. Everything would just fall into place. After 4 immigration officers told me there was a problem with my visa and an hour in the waiting room, they eventually let me into the country.

Half a year in New Zealand and now, I’m about to embark on probably the longest journey home I could possibly take. I have no idea what the next couple of months will bring, but if they are anything like the past few months of traveling around the two islands of this British colony in the Southern Pacific, then it will be even more an experience I will not soon forget.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time now. This is my last post from New Zealand. It seems, through comments and emails, that people are actually reading this. Knowing that there really is someone on the other end of all my internet gibberish, I have begun to almost feel a bit responsible to articulate a real and honest conclusion to not only an experience of monumental proportion but also of a country full of monumental experiences. How do I summarize a nation? How do I begin to tell the world about a country that has taught me so much?

In describing New Zealand. It seems that most would probably want to start with a reference to Lord of the Rings. Then go on to describe all the amazing “post card” scenery that you seem to be constantly surrounded by. Maybe I could throw in a few livestock jokes and make comment on the 16 million sheep and 4 million people that the country houses between its two main islands. I’d probably tie it all together with a traveler tale or two of my own. Then make a conclusion saying that this country is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I’d also make many references to how I’ve never met a more friendly and open people in my 26 years on earth. But all those things that I could say, however, would be the obvious. Anyone who has ever heard of New Zealand knows these things. If you’ve ever read about New Zealand in a book or flipped on a travel program on the television and seen anything about New Zealand, you know it’s amazing. If you have any interest in seeing the world…at all…you probably have New Zealand somewhere on that list of “places to see before I die”. It’s no secrete, this country is beautiful, amazing, kind and generous. It has so much more to offer the world than just wool and dairy products. But then, I’m back to my original question. How do I, personally, summarize a country? Not just any country. How do I summarize half a year of living, working and traveling in New Zealand? I feel obligated to tell the world about this place. And properly tell the world. From a place that has given me more than I could imagine, I at least owe it that much. But where to begin?

My first impressions of New Zealand were not as dramatic as I thought they would be. I had entered a foreign country and a foreign land and flown half-way across the world to get here. Upon stepping off the plane, you see signs in English, people speaking a language that you can understand (for the most part). I saw familiar cars and roads and businesses. It was in fact, almost a mirror image of anywhere, USA where I had just left. Upon closer inspection, you begin to start seeing the differences. Subtle at first, until the frequency of these observed differences increase almost exponentially. Everything soon becomes foreign. Then you know, you are not in Anywhere, America.

Having drove a decent sized vehicle most my life, Gas prices were among the first things I noticed while driving on the wrong side of the road through the city on the bus after leaving the airport. $2.00nz/liter. Once I figured out how to convert the ever changing American Dollar and figure out liters to gallons, I calculated that gas is about $6.00 US per gallon. Obviously, this came as a bit of a shock because I was looking at buying a vehicle to travel in. Owning a car is probably the best option for really seeing New Zealand if you plan on spending more than a few weeks here.

Further inspection of other everyday costs in New Zealand you will find that the cost of living here makes it difficult to actually live here let alone travel. Just a walk through the grocery store and you will see what I’m talking about. An average block of cheese that might cost around $6-7 in the US will cost $13.00-16.00. A loaf of whole grain bread of the average quality will cost around $6.00. A liter of milk costs $4.00 (there are 3.8 liters to the gallon). With the prices at the grocery store so high, you soon start to realize why going out to eat at an average restaurant with average food will usually cost you an average of $20. Add $6-8 per beer. Also be prepared to pay for ketchup or other sauces you may want with your meal. The only thing that doesn’t molest the wallet is the fact that you don’t tip in this country. The downfall is that the service needs some work, which is probably the reason you don‘t tip in the first place.

How could it cost so much over here? Especially food? I’ve often wondered this as I drive by hundreds of thousands of sheep and cows that graze the countryside. I mean, NZ produces so much milk, butter, cheese, and meat. Why do they get the high prices? Their beef and lamb is of the finest quality in the world. New Zealand prides themselves in the fact that their animals are grass fed for their entire lives. Most other meat producing countries will grain feed their livestock weeks before the butcher which fattens them up allowing a higher price per pound. New Zealand meat is some of the finest I’ve ever tasted. The only problem is that other countries like Australia and the UK know this. Due to the higher demand and prices received, almost all their food and wool production gets shipped overseas. This leaves the kiwi’s with a giant hole in their pockets that only seems to get bigger. Large, steady increases in oil costs, have helped contribute to the rapidly inflating cost of living. In the 6 months of living here I’ve seen gas prices rise over a dollar per gallon. It’s true that this is the case almost with every country right now. It seems that many developed economies around the world are facing hard times and NZ is no exception by any means in seeing their dollar deflate like a hot air balloon trying to run on cold fusion.

I’ve seen both Islands. Top to bottom. I’ve put over 20,000 kilometers on my car since I’ve owned it. Pasture after beach after pasture after mountain. This country is empty and beautiful. It’s full of rolling hills, steep mountain sides and lots of pastures. I’m trying to emphasize pastures right now, not just because there are a lot of them, but because that really is what NZ is all about. With only a few cities of average sized populations, not much really leaves New Zealand other than what these pastures produce. Ultimately, that is, what I believe anyways, is what limits this country in terms of trying to stay competitive in a global market where free trade not necessarily benefit’s them. The small guys, like NZ, are forced to focus on the things they’re good at, like raising animals. They’re amazing at it. Among the best in the world. However, that’s pretty much all they got. Aside from some incredible wineries, there isn’t a lot else that they can be exporting to the global market to help boost their economy. In turn this puts NZ at the mercy of the prices they can get from the production of the labors put forth by their farmers. It’s a cycle that been happening and will continue to happen as the effects of globalization become more reality than just a word used by fancy old dudes on the television.

This ultimate conundrum continues to take hold in their labor force. I’ve noticed that as NZ becomes more expensive to live with limited diversity in job opportunities, many of the young, educated entering the work force leaves the country to seek higher paying jobs in places like Australia and the UK. So I guess another thing they export is skilled labor.

This then begs the question, why do people stay here? The famous slogan I see posted everywhere is “Buy NZ and you have it made.” I think it is more meant to motivate people to keep their money within the country but taken literally and you have another completely new meaning that I find equally valid. It’s true, if you do manage to find a good job and afford a home in this country you really do have it made. It seems to always surprise me at how chill of an existence it is here. The cities are small. The houses and communities are small, warm and friendly. Crime is hardily an issue on the scale it is elsewhere in the world. The police just spent most their time catching people speeding through the town. Just picking up a newspaper any old day of the week and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

Warm, giggly chuckle #1 : “Tui birds are starting to annoy local residents” was the first headline I remember seeing on the front page when I first picked up the NZ Herald in Wellington sometime back in December. It appears that efforts to bring back native vegetation has also brought back native birds, and those birds are starting to squawk and annoy the residents living in these restored areas. It also appears that this was big enough news to make the headline on the front page.

Warm, giggly chuckle #2 : Another recent headline I remember being shocked by, was the front page story on a bunch of kids that went mountain biking with a big group. As a horrific turn in events happened, all the poor little children were disappointed that the trail was dry and there was no mud to go through! It seems that the mud was their lifeline in not just having a good day, but a median to continue their precious existence on earth. Oh The humanity! Why couldn’t it have rained for the poor little Kiwi children?! It was horrifically shocking to me in so many ways. I’m not kidding. It’s true. (If you question this headline at all please contact Craig Smith as he was the one who told me to stay quiet while I read the article to him in line at a grocery store and tried hard not to scream and fall over in disbelief.)

With not a lot else going on in this country, it appears to me that the government likes to govern in ways that are creative and new, providing interesting avenues to use tax payers money. To a foreigner like myself, these creative, tactful methods may seem backwards, or against common logic. But to a kiwi, their government’s tactic have purpose and make perfect sense. I’ll try to articulate this with the example of what I know. What I know of New Zealand is the highway. I’ve been on almost all of them. All over NZ are numerous billboards with graphic highway car accident scenes that are almost so graphic that they cause accidents themselves. This is the governments method for cracking down on speeding. Every policeman I ever saw in this entire country would sit in their car waiting for speeders and pull them over right where the speed limit goes from 100kph to 50kph. The penalties are high apparently. However, outside of these towns, for 20,000 km’s I never saw a cop with a radar. This is what I, the foreigner, found odd. The speed limit on all highways in NZ is 100kpm. I think that’s about 62mph. It’s a great speed to travel at in nice, open, wide, straight roads. However, New Zealand is an island with numerous active volcanoes. The entire country is a mountain pass! The speed limit doesn’t change at all on the one lane madness they refer to as a road. Every road follows some valley, glacier moraine or river bed. The point is the roads here are crazy. The government also reminds you of the speed limit from time to time as you enter an insane set of turns and hairpin corners with a sign in the shape of a target saying “100kph is not a target”. To me that was like, what?! I can go 100 on this road? Its also like saying don’t push this button or you shouldn’t do this, but have fun trying. Along these stretches of roads is also where I saw the most flipped cars and guard rails with car shaped gaps in them. Why they don’t they crack down on speeding where most people seem to die is beyond me. But to Kiwi’s, it must make some kind of sense.

The only thing I can come up with, and this is just my own personal theory so take it or leave it. But I believe that New Zealand was actually settled by motorcycle enthusiasts. Sure motorcycles weren’t around when the first Europeans came in, but I think they knew something others did not. Maybe they were given some grand vision in an effort to create a perfect motorcycle utopia. A country full of paved, winding roads that go on for thousands of cop-less miles with a speed limit that will challenge even the finest of riders from around the world. Then, and this is where I think these first moto-fathers were beyond geniuses of their time, but they made towns far enough apart that after a crazy winding road, every time a town shows up, you are ready for a coffee or beer and a slower speed limit is welcomed. And since every country needs police, they just put them on the town borders where only the really oblivious can get caught. To those that dream of traveling on a 2 wheeled motorized vessel, I can think of no other place better than New Zealand. It is the ultimate in motorcycle touring. If I come back here, it will be on a motorbike. Oh yeah, did I mention it is stunningly beautiful here too?

Moving on. When I bought my car I learned of this test every car needs to go through every 6 months called the Warrant of Fitness (WOF). To every traveler vehicle, this is a nightmare. Buy your car with the most current WOF you can find. I did not. They are meticulous. It is more of a safety check, but the level of detail this test requires would probably take out half the cars on the road in the US. You really don’t see a lot of beater vehicles on the road here. This is the reason. Even if you have a spot of rust somewhere on your car, it will not pass and you cannot drive your car… legally anyways. After going though all this crazy WOF stuff and pumping even more money into my car to get it passed, I realized something about the legal system with vehicles here. They don’t test emissions. I was really scratching my head at this. They really go though all safety aspects of your car with a fine toothed comb. But not testing emissions? Apparently, they have recently passed something to start testing vehicle emissions soon. So that’s good. I guess I just found it odd because I thought that the Southern Hemisphere had the big hole in the Ozone layer. I would think the people down here would be the first to test whatever they were putting into the air. But again, there are only 4 million of them. How much damage can they really do?

On the environmental front, it appears that NZ is doing really well. It seems that resource consumption is something that many kiwi’s think about. Because it does cost so much here, I think that the conscious of conservation has become a way of life to the people that live here. Power is expensive. Most all power comes from dams. So when water levels go down or the summer’s are longer than normal, like the one they just had, power bills go up. I was a bit shocked to learn that most Kiwi house’s do not have any sort of central heating system let alone proper insulation. I know it gets cold here. But most rooms will have a space heater that you only turn on when you absolutely need it. Why heat a whole house when you spend most your time in one room? Another sort of a culture shock to me was not using dryers. For the first time in my life I hung clothes to dry. It appears that the “sun” is this free source of heat and energy used to dry clothes. Being from a fairly rainy region, I didn’t know this was possible. I kind of like it.

Water was another thing that I found to be a topic of resource conservation here. Shortages seem pretty common. I guess that makes sense being an island nation mostly comprised of farm land and surrounded by salt water. I really didn’t see a lot of major freshwater lakes or reservoirs. I found a lot of houses will actually collect their rain water for household uses. I didn’t think this sounded very sanitary. But why do I trust water from the ground out of some random well? Besides, rain water is free.

I do feel however, that water quality does need to be addressed a little more here. With so many farm and pastures that support thousands of animals, there is going to be waste. I’m not sure if I saw one stream on a farm that was fenced off from the animals. This means that all the animals can tramp through the water and leave little nutrient loading presents. This waste goes into the ground water and, more of my concern, right out into the ocean where I surf. It made for a beautiful sight, to be sitting out in the water looking at an endless beautiful beach and brilliant green rolling hills separated by valleys of streams going right into the sea. These little streams and river mouths are where the best sandbars are formed, making the best waves, hence where I spent most my time in the water. Having a little background in water quality made me think about all the biological processes going on in the water I was swimming in. I’m not entirely sure how much water gets tested out on the coast here in New Zealand, but I’m almost positive it wasn’t happening where I was surfing.

I think it’s easy for islands to have more environmental concerns than most continental nations. Their resources are really limited. I think because of market pressures, NZ was kind of forced in a way to focus all their efforts on the farms. Back when this was happening, the environment was looked at with short term value. Long term effects were not taken into consideration. In NZ, there was a double bonus. Clear the land and make money from the timber sales, then turn the cleared land into pastures to make money from farming. Almost all of New Zealand was thickly forested 150-200 years ago. This is a slightly similar story with the native Northwest forest of my home, but instead of turning the land into pastures, more trees were planted to harvest again. When you look at some of the native forest and bush-land that still covers parts of the West side of the South Island, it’s hard to fathom that both islands looked like that at one point in time.

As is true for most environments changed by man, the destruction of native habitat always seems to be followed by the introduction of invasive species. Here in New Zealand, there are many invasive species causing destruction to the native environment, but it’s the possum that gets people really riled up. Having come from somewhere in Australia, the possum threatens native vegetation and bird habitat. They really are everywhere. It’s hard to even drive a kilometer and not see one sleeping on the side or middle of the road. It’s difficult for me to really grasp this, but NZ has no native mammals. Before the first humans arrived, it was just birds and insects. There is a native lizard found here, but hardly ever seen. Birds had it so easy. It was a paradise for them. There was no predators and plenty of food. There wasn’t even any rodents. Some birds found their niche on their ground. They lost their ability to fly and ended up with beady eyes and hairy looking feathers. I am referring to the elusive kiwi bird. The national bird. The identity of a nation. One almost nobody has seen outside a zoo. It’s truly a sad story. With the introduction of rodents the kiwi bird found competition for habitat. With the introduction of cats, the kiwi became a felines version of “it’s like shooting ducks in a barrel.” There are numerous efforts to revive the kiwi bird’s population, and it appears that it is working. It is a slow progress, but there is hope for the Kiwi.

An even more sad story is that of the Moa. A large ostrich-like bird that was bigger than any bird the earth has seen. It’s eggs were the size of a human head. It could run fast but not fast enough apparently as it became an easy target and highly sought after meat by the native Maori people. On the south island in the Canterbury Plains, almost the entire region was cleared with fires set to the bush to chase the moa out. About 300 years ago, the Moa officially became extinct.

By now, I assume that most people know or at least heard of the native New Zealander’s, the Maori. If you never have, please go watch the movie “Whale Rider”. Even if you know of the Maori people, you should go watch this movie. I feel it does an amazing job at not only showing some incredible New Zealand scenery, but also sharing Maori culture. It won a bunch of awards and gained lots of respect throughout the world. Definitely worth watching.

The Maori culture is alive here in NZ. They make up something like 15% of the total population. (Although from my observations, it would appear that is a conservative figure. )The language is very much still alive as there is even a TV channel all in Maori. Most signs will have both English and Maori on them. Driving from North to South you will notice the changes in the distribution of the Maori and the Pakeha. Up North, there are so many more Maori as I felt like a minority in many places. Almost every location has some name I have trouble pronouncing. Try and mix an accent into that and I just got lots of laughs from people when asking directions. On the south island, apparently there wasn’t as big of a Maori influence and you end up with place names like Christchurch and Dunedin.

I’m not really sure what to say about the people I’ve met here in New Zealand. I’ve actually been avoiding writing this part because I am seriously at a loss of words. I had a family take me in when I needed it most... Twice! If it wasn’t for the McLaren family I would not have been able to see the New Zealand that I saw. Not only did they let me stay with them for almost a month at a time on 2 separate occasions, but they taught me about New Zealand. They shared with me their home, their culture, their history…their sailboat. They even gave me work when I couldn’t find any. I really feel forever thankful for them. The more I think about it, had it not been for them, I’m not sure I would have been able to afford to see and do everything that I did. Let alone how awesome of an experience it was to be welcomed into a home and treated like family. They were my first experience with Kiwi hospitality and they made a lasting impression.

I’m really not sure I can sum up how amazing the Kiwi people are. Kindness is an understatement, friendliness is an understatement, genuine is an understatement. There are no words I can really think of. In my experience, no matter where I went there was always nothing but smiles and people willing to help you out. Even in the surf world, where I’m accustomed to people trying to look mean and making animal noises to keep you out of the water. Here in NZ, they welcome you. With more miles of coastline than the US, and a population smaller than Washington State, there really is never a problem with overcrowding. They even made a surfing guide book that mapped out every surf spot on both islands. If this happened back home, the author would be tarred, feathered, covered in bread crumbs and left for the seagulls. But here, they welcome you. I find it so typical of the Kiwi condition to welcome people they don’t even know with open arms. I ran into it again with Judy and Mark Frasier in Raukaka. They never even met Craig and I, but when we showed up to say hi, we were offered a feast of a dinner, a place to stay and even an incredible breakfast in the morning. Just like that. Welcomed into a home and treated like family. I’m beginning to see a pattern form.

If New Zealand was the ugliest place on earth, I feel that the people alone are more than enough reason to visit. They are by far what makes New Zealand the place worth visiting. There are so many amazing places to see here. More environments to explore in 2 little concentrated islands than I know of anywhere else in the world. It’s almost overwhelming how much beauty is contained within this country. You could spend a lifetime here and never see it all. So many hidden gems waiting to be seen and shared with the world. But the real treasure of this breathtaking country lies in the people. I met so many travelers, especially on the South Island, that were so focused on seeing everything they could in a short allotted amount of time that they missed what was right in front of them. They were so overwhelmed by all the amazing beauty, solely focusing their time and money to the fjords, the glaciers, the mountains, the beaches, the valleys, the forests and the wildlife. To me I found this to be a tragic tale I saw over and over again. With over 6 billion people in this world, if you’ve ever met a kiwi, consider yourself lucky. They really are some of the most amazing people in this world. Besides, there are only 4 million of them.

1 comment:

Barbara said...

Thanks for all the wonderful comments you made about our Country. I feel you have summed us up very well. I am so glad that you enjoyed your six months here. I am going to add your link to our blog:
so that our overseas friends can hear what New Zealand is like from a visitor who took the time to explore the Country and get to know the people.