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. 

No comments: