Weary Pilgrim in Kiwi-Land, Pt. 1 and 2
New Zealand is an island nation, actually made up of two large islands, situated just to the right of Australia. The two islands run north-south for about 950 miles, and the 4 !/2 million people are mostly in the north of the north island. I’m on the South Island, where there appear to be about three or four hundred people. All smiling. Specifically, I’m in Christchurch, New Zealand. This town has been hit by a series of earthquakes, starting over a year ago, and continuing, with arbitrary lapses, up till a few weeks ago. I know you’re all looking forward to my next installment, which hopefully will not be submitted by my executor. About half of it looks like downtown Des Moines – tidy, chock-a-block with retail outlets, condos, restaurants, and the like. The rest of it is rubbles and dreams. There is a fascinating city-centre known affectionately as the Container Mall. A year or two ago it was known as the Cashel Mall ( nobody knows who Cashel is – or was). Today it is a small walking district in the heart of the city made up of gaily painted cargo containers bearing small, bustling retail outlets. Throughout the rest of the city center are portable wire fence compounds, inside of which are the remains of the city’s once proud retail and office buildings. And cranes. Lots and lots of cranes. It looks like the center of Berlin in late 1945, when the Marshal Plan was kicking in – there used to be a thriving city here, and before too long there will be again – the difference between Berlin and Christchurch being the indigenous population. They exhibit not a hint of suffering or malnourishment. Life here is good, it’s just been put on hold while the town fathers and leading industrialists figure out a plan of rebuilding that can withstand the next century of occasional seismic hiccups. I wandered into a small office building to ask for directions, and an incredibly affable real estate agent explained the current dilemma in lovely Kiwi shorthand. The earthquakes here occurred only a few kilometers below the surface, achieving a velocity not normally found in other damaging quakes. Instead of causing the buildings to sway, the quakes basically ‘slapped’ the bottom of the buildings, with such speed as to cause them to lift into the air, sometimes slapping them again before they could settle. The devastation is such that most buildings are simply uninhabitable forever. And earthquake insurance is about as easy to get as front row seats to The Book of Mormon. So the city is making do with the gaily painted containers, and a quiet confidence that this is still the greatest place to live in the world. I’m tempted to try and explain the complete and eternal friendliness of everybody I meet. The funny thing is, this seems to be a constant theme in my travels over the last few years. When I flew to Manila in 2009, I found it to be a horrible, oppressive, squalid, humid excuse for a habitable city. And yet I had to conclude that the people that lived there were wonderful, ever cheerful, ever helpful. I just couldn’t figure out how to get ten million of them on the plane with me when I left. My recent trip to Spain was a lot more joyful, due in no small part to the friendliness of those I met. Ditto the folks in Montreal. And Ireland. And so on. My point is, why don’t we start assuming that people everywhere will be friendly? Why is it always worth mentioning? Why, in short , is it a constant surprise? I remember talking recently to a friend who had just returned from Vietnam – he simply loved the people there, and couldn’t get over how friendly they were to Americans. Mind you, I remember a decade or so during my formative years when every newscast featured footage of us trying to bomb them into the stone-age. I recently spent a week in the company of a dozen Germans, and they were welcoming and surprisingly good-natured when I tried to pretend I could ride a motorcycle as well as them ( I couldn’t). Bear in mind, my Dad, who is a pretty gentle soul, spent a year or so with an M-1 chasing their fathers through France. So, okay, sometimes our surprise at the friendliness of other nations is understandable. But my point is, well, pretty much EVERYBODY is nice to us. ( Probably not true in sections of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and certain training camps in Yemen, but, hey, give it time. ) What’s going on here? Is it possible the Ugly American is turning into a swan? Or is human nature simply given to forgiveness and a secret yearning for the Rodney King Plea – Why can’t we just get along? I don’t know, but mean people seem to be in pretty short supply in most parts of the world we can easily reach. Day 2 and 3 were spent in the Canterbury highlands, which are really the foothills of the Southern Alps. No kidding, they have real Alps here. In the company of fishing guide named Phil ( they all have names like Bob and Tom here – frankly, it’s a little unsettling this far from home ) walking up a couple of rivers. Not only are the rivers and the guiding closely regulated, the fish themselves have undergone a rigorous course in TTY – Tease The Yankee. You can see them, you can fish right to them, they’ll even chomp on your fly, but there must have been something really good on the Fish Network, because they were all in a hurry to get home. Like all good guides, Phil was a font of information about the country itself. Here are a couple of curiosities about New Zealand: -years ago they imported possums to farm for their fur. Except for a small trade in possum fur/merino wool gloves, the possum fur is no longer held in high regard. So rather than destroy the possums, they let them go. Now the wilds are overrun with possums. New Zealand prides itself in its vast beech forests, but the possums consider beech shoots a delicacy, so they’re slowly deforesting these vast tracts. The current solution is to poison the possums. Wholesale. This in a country that is rigid about ecological management ( the nation is rabidly anti-nuclear, and there are not even coal-fired power plants ) Imagine the dilemma. Imagine dead possums all over the place. Weird. - one of the reasons the possums proliferated so much is that there are no predators. No snakes, no coyotes, no foxes, no bears, no furry woodlawn creatures with teeth. New Zealand was the last place in the world to be inhabited with people. When they got here there were only birds and bugs, no mammals and almost no reptiles. This is also why so many of their birds are flightless – they simply had nothing to fly away from. -There are no handguns allowed anywhere in public. Period. If you want to, you can shoot one at a pistol range, but it has to live at the pistol range. Consequently, violent crime is just about non-existent. -A large amount of the population is given to extreme sports. All over the South Island there are signs for mountain biking and rock climbing. They even have a sport called friction climbing, which is basically a Spiderman competition up steep mountains. Without the Computer-graphic special effects. They actually carry mattresses up the mountains to cushion their inevitable falls in the first stage of the climb. I didn’t ask about the later stages. One of the main tourist attractions is Bungee jumping – it was invented here, and they pride themselves on the dearth of fatal accidents. Kind of like they way we feel about baked beans and Fenway Park. It is possible these people are crazy. - all the fields are planted with windbreaks, large poplars and evergreens that are trimmed down into giant square hedges to allow the sun to hit the plants. Over time the prevailing winds bend the rows over about 10 degrees. The whole countryside looks like a drunken topiary. On day four I played a round of golf off the road leading up to the Alps – it’s very odd playing golf in the pleasant noon-day sun looking up at a snow field several hundred yards ( okay, they call them meters ) overhead. It turned into a very weird game because friends of mine kept texting me the play-by-play of the Baltimore/Pats game – I would hit a shot, curse, look at my phone, curse, hit a shot, curse, look at my…well, you get the idea. The Pats made out better than I did, by the way. A few words on driving a car over here: For the first 40 or 50 times you get in the car, you realize some joker put the steering wheel on the wrong side. So you get out, walk around and get in the other side. This is supposed to help you drive on the left. It doesn’t. Fortunately, most of the people can take a joke. What’s really confusing, is, every time you try and signal a turn, the damned windshield wipers come on. They measure distance in kilometers, too, which is really no big deal. A kilometer is just a mile that’s been on a really strict diet. Basically you just drive so the speedometer says 100 – it’s really cool, because you’re sure you’re getting away with something all the time. They have one-lane bridges all over the place – apparently they are very cost-conscious, or else someone had a sale on really narrow bridges, and they bought a ton of them. The entire population is really very patient. Somehow by the end of the fourth day I managed to get the car back to Mr. Hertz without any fire, accident, or theft. The next morning I picked up my shiny red BMW bike and, assuming I can remember to look right at intersections, will report in on where that leads me. Weary Pilgrim, i Kiwi-Land, Part 2 - Down Under and Over to the Right Christchurch, Te Anau, Queenstown, Punakaiki, Wellington, Napier, Aukland: these were all waypoints on the GPS I forgot to bring. Flying through the countryside at what for Kiwis is warp-speed, I could barely glance at the map on my tank bag as the valleys, mountains, and towns flashed by. It didn’t matter that much, truth be told, as each place was as wonderful as the last – tourists are their main import, and no wonder. New Zealand is to the Lord of the Rings as New Jersey was to Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets – each is a place fashioned for a film set. The countryside itself is folded in little drama pieces – even the lowest hills are almost too steep to climb – the creeks in the center of the valleys actually flow down what look like creases in a sheet of paper. And the people, sculpted by their very land, are happy to rise to the occasion. Or fall, as the case may be. Remember, this is a place where the natives tie rubber bands to their ankles and jump off bridges to RELAX. Case in point for Kiwi’s craziness: the skid-biters. During the first part of the last century, the deer imported for the pleasure of the New Zealand Sportsmen began to get out of hand. Due to the absence of any predators, before anyone could say ’Bambi’, there were way too many deer running throughout the island forests. So in the 1950’s the country authorized the wholesale slaughter of deer, and a new profession of hardy New Zealanders took to the highlands in large numbers and proceeded to shoot deer from any place, height, or object, like helicopters. Having a whole lot of venison on hand very suddenly, they looked around for a ready market and found, just to their north, the continent of Asia, which was suddenly very happy to buy venison by the gross ton. Not surprisingly, the ‘deerkillers’ ( their word, not mine – I always defer to a friend of mine named John Sayles whose term for this is Bambi-cide ) became so efficient they started running out of deer to shoot. What to do? The obvious answer, having created this huge market for venison, was to continue it by ‘farming’ deer, i.e., raise deer on large wild habitats, exactly the way we ranch cattle. But how to get the wild deer in the forest onto the farms? Simply put, they started jumping off helicopter skids onto the backs of running deer and hog-tying them on the spot, then lifting them up, up, and away with the very same helicopter, straight to the nearest deer-farm. In the following year 80 of these ‘skid-biters’ died doing this unbelievable stunt, so some wag invented a net-gun, whereby the skid-biter would shoot a net over the deer, and THEN jump down and a wrestle it to the ground. I am not making this up – I watched a movie about this, and could detect no flim-flamming in the footage. Bear in mind, by this time I had been in the country for a week, and had turned down the opportunity to bungee-jump several times ( my lumbago was acting up, or perhaps it was my common sense. No, I’m pretty sure it was my lumbago ), watched a few people fall off motorcycles, and generally gotten used to the whole New Zealand-jump-out-of-anything-high-up frame of mind. Anyway, the whole deer-farming thing is going splendidly, thank you very much. A few notes on foreign travel: The temperature is measured in centigrades. Also known by its nickname, Celsius. There are two ways to compute its equivalent in Fahrenheit. The first is, multiply the centigrade number by 9/5, then add 32. No calculator? Getting a headache? Then how about this: 0 is freezing, 10 is cold, 20 is just fine, and 30 is hot. Works for me. There won’t be a quiz, because I don’t like ‘em either. They don’t have pennies. But they do have one and two dollar coins. You may not remember, but we have one dollar coins, too. But for some reason, we keep sticking them in our drawers, and they disappear from circulation. Their cash currency ( New Zealand dollars, worth about 95 cents on our dollar ) comes in slightly different sizes, so the bigger the currency, the bigger the bill. Once you get used to rounding up every cash transaction to the nearest dollar or dime, you really don’t miss the penny thing. Honestly, this kind of practicality is pretty attractive. Thank God they keep jumping out of things, or I might want to stick around. They also have an emerging problem that strikes me as a little sad – despite their obvious addiction to exercise and the Great Outdoors, they are experiencing a sudden rise in obesity. They’re not quite sure how to explain this, but one culprit that gets singled out is filling stations. There is no pay-at-the-pump option in the country. Once you fill up, you have to go into the office to pay, the reason being they believe the economy is helped by people making impulse purchases of fast snacks while they’re paying for their gas. A word to the wise: use that debit card at the pump. Oh yes, their literacy rate is, get this, 99%. As is their courtesy rate. Actually it’s 100%. You will simply not meet a mean person in the land. I’m pretty sure they all went to New York City and became Giants fans. Things that worry them: The weather ( worst, grayest, chilliest summer ever ); The economy ( some things are universal ); Whether or not they will repeat their rugby championship ( the All-Blacks, their national team, won the World Cup on their home soil this last year, and they may never stop talking about it ); Actually that’s pretty much it – these people aren’t given to complaining very much. Two noteworthy things happened to me the last two days I was there: first, I lost my wallet. I discovered this aboard a ferry carrying me and the bike across the channel to Wellington – from the ship I immediately called a couple of cafes I had stopped in earlier for coffee. On the second one, the owner cheerfully announced they had found it, and would be happy to send it to my next hotel. It was waiting when I arrived, and no, there wasn’t a dime missing, even though they paid about 15 dollars to send it overnight. In case my mother reads, yes, I sent them a thank-you note and some bucks ( American ). Secondly, on the last day of riding, I was stopped for speeding, doing 111 in a 100 zone ( remember, we’re talking kilometers here ) – this before I could get to my wallet, and when I was just about out of cash to pay the fine. I had been told at the outset of the trip that speeding can be selectively enforced, and that you sometimes have to pay the fine on the spot. I stood there by the side of the road, imagining the next several years crawling by in some county clink, while the rest of the world played “Whatever happened to Mason?” But the nice policeman and I talked it over for a while – turned out he owns a motorcycle too. On top of which, like most of the rest of the country, he could take a joke. Ten minutes later, I was on my way. No fine, no foul. No kidding. What a country. So, I’m home, and yes, I missed Marblehead. We need to get some of those people over here so we can show them what I missed.