Friday, January 14, 2011

Landscape shock?

There’s something vaguely disquieting about calling life in New Zealand different enough to warrant a so-called “culture shock”. After all, the official language is English, and although it sounds different to the American ear, it’s extremely easy to make oneself understood. People live in apartments and family houses and work in jobs recognizable across the first world. The pervasive nature of U.S. popular culture extends to this side of the world in many forms, including TV programs (Mythbusters, My Wife and Kids), fast food establishments (McDonald’s, KFC), and even the presence of the superstore (in lieu of WalMart there is “the warehouse”). The apples in the grocery store come from the United States, as do, ironically, the green kiwi fruits. Despite the local preference for driving on the left-hand side of the road, the usual traffic rules all apply, and familiar highway infrastructure connects cities that would comfortably fit in anywhere in the developed world.

Hamilton Gardens
There are a few signs here and there that give pause for a chuckle: I’ve encountered “The Whopping Carrot”, an organic foodstore, “Missing Leg Backpackers”, an establishment at the foot of a mountain craggy enough to have stolen a few legs, and even “Pooman, City Drains, Ltd.”, for all your drainage requirements.

What strikes me most about being here is the variety of truly stunning landscape and environment which is contained in a land barely the size of Colorado. No New Zealander lives above a three hour drive from an ocean. (You can’t say that in Colorado…) In two weeks, I’ve managed to visit beaches of fine white sands and coarse black sands, and several in between. I’ve climbed part way up a volcano, visited an ecological preserve of subtropical forest, and traversed a large agricultural plain, all in the space of a week and a half. And I wasn’t even really trying. It’s all enough to take your breath away.

Mt. Taranaki
In the U.S., we are used to packing up into a minivan, SUV, or possibly even still a station wagon, and taking several days to arrive at a destination. Here, they walk. For days. There are nine designated “Great Walks” in New Zealand, and most residents I've met have completed at least one. Walking and bicycling, which can remain dominant forms of transportation in first world urban areas, here still pervade smaller towns and countryside, where cycling lanes and “share the road” signs are regularly installed. When you walk, scenery doesn’t race by, and the views become more than postcard images but living landscapes in which clouds, trees, birds, grass, and insects move. I’ve been trained to notice landscape, but
Ocean Beach
here it doesn’t take any effort at all to see it. Everyone here, residents included, sees and appreciates it, too. 

Saturday, January 1, 2011


I always forget that traveling to someplace exciting means actually having to travel to someplace exciting, and that bit isn’t really exciting at all. I’ve arrived at my first night’s accommodation in Auckland, New Zealand a sweaty, dirty, exhausted mess, roughly 46 hours after I left my home in Tiffin, Ohio. I’ve navigated airports in Columbus, Denver, Los Angeles, Sydney, and Auckland, and I’m so tired I’ve forgotten what it feels like to be not tired. I probably would have even forgotten my own name if it weren’t so conveniently typed out for me on my passport, boarding passes, and credit card.

Airports are remarkably similar the world over. There are check-in counters. There are luggage carts and security checks. There are terminals and gates, cranky babies, long lines in the women’s bathroom, and plenty of ways to part you from your money. Anecdotally I can add that airport food has gotten better, drinking fountains scarcer, and security checks more plentiful. Airports are always great places to go for a walk (particularly if you are facing a 6 hour layover). In addition to window shopping and people watching, it’s great exercise—and if you happen to fall in with a group that is late for the boarding call, you can do a little jogging. There are actually treadmills of a sort, too, but they call them moving walkways and it’s generally frowned upon if you’re using them the wrong direction when the airport is busy.

Airplanes, too, are predictable quantities, particularly if you’re flying economy class. There’s not much foot room. It’s hard to find enough space in overhead bins. Flight attendants explain in detail how to fasten your seat belt (insert the metal tab into the buckle and tighten by pulling on the strap…) Someone at some point is going to jostle your elbow. And there are still cranky babies. Getting up and walking the aisles doesn’t make a flight go any faster although it does help circulation to your feet. If you’re lucky both the in-flight entertainment and the food are free.

Having passed through multitudes of airports and airplanes, here I am, sitting in my hotel room, just outside of the airport with barely a thought to rattle around in my weary brain. I’m listening to chirping birds and the soft swish of sheer curtains as they are ruffled by a breeze, but compared to constant airport chatter and airplane engine noise, the peace and calm are amazing. The trees and shrubs are unfamiliar but the sky is a fading blue with a few fluffy white clouds. There are flowers blooming because, yes, outside it is summer. I think to myself, I’m here. I’m in New Zealand. And exhaustion just doesn’t seem to matter.