Sunday, December 23, 2007

EnZed Revisited

'Tis the season of other demands, so today I say:

Merry Christmas to all
Readers, and y'all
Who've stopped by chance:
Enjoy the fanc-
Iful mixture of stuff.
Stay safe. Now... enough
Of me for a while;
Come back soon, and smile.

((Before we move on from New Zealand (see the previous post), I decided to offer my mid-visit journal observations, betting that things are still pretty much the same 20 years later. After all, looking around our own backyard, especially in this time of anti-immigrant paranoia, we know that nations sadly don't change radically even when they need too...))

March 19

"Why are Aussies like kiwi fruit?... They're rough on the outside, green on the inside, and too many of 'em give you the shits..." (joke transcribed from the bathroom wall of a tearoom in Murchison, en route to Greymouth).

More of the same excellent scenery, excessive sheep, farm towns and friendly folk. Is New Zealand boring or just peaceful? I can't decide. ((Twenty years later, I vote for the latter.)) So here are some accumulated observations, in no particular order:

These islands seem not to have been occupied at all until circa 1400 A.D. when waves of Polynesians sailed in from... somewhere, arguments still raging as to whether Peru or Hawaii or Asia. But these proto-Maoris settled right in and held firm through various European explorations. Then the Brits came and claimed the islands and signed treaties. Today the total population nudges three million in people, but six times that in farm animals, especially sheep--all 19 varieties, ones to eat and ones to shear, and all you ever see are sheep butts aloft and wooly heads down nibbling the grass: perpetual eating machines. (The old Army phrase about "assholes and elbows" almost applies.)

Something like 80% of EnZed's income is agricultural, and U.S. or French boycotts can hurt them quickly; they "farm" sheep and deer as they do tobacco and kiwi fruit. And the farmers are a real political force, unlike ours at home who sadly seem like voices leftover from another era, with only their congressmen willing to listen. Well, you can get tasty lamb and delicious ice cream hereabouts, but the cheeses are a disappointment. And with all the fresh fruit grown, the juices sold (except fresh-squeezed orange) all taste like sugar-water blends.

Kiwis eat so much animal fat and drink so much beer that the nation suffers from both weight and heart problems--even though, I swear, 99% of the population hikes, sails, swims, plays rugby or tennis or whatever. They are exercise crazy--the men regularly wearing shorts to work even--especially fond of their "tracks" (hiking trails), which New Zealanders recite by name as though chanting holy mantras: "Heaphy Track, Milford Track, Abel Tasman, The Routeburn..." And all the tourists go right along, taking the hikes, naming the huts they stayed at, bragging about ghastly weather. (Everyone stares at me aghast for only tromping the beaches and cities--so far, that is; I'll be in the woods soon too.) But these same outdoorsy youths ride the buses and hitch in cars and even hike the tracks ignoring their surroundings, talking only to each other or plugged in to their omnipresent Walkman decks. Yes, rock music rules the woods as well as the streets.

Meanwhile, South Island highways, the main-road links back and forth across this land of mountains and valleys, stand empty for minutes at a time. (Debate goes on: is hitching good here or not? Some have no trouble; others wait literally days for a ride.) But the distance bus drivers seem to be culture heroes--sort of the bards of the tribe, keeping oral history alive with their stories, tossing newspapers out at 40 m.p.h., grabbing mailbags from fences without coming to a complete stop. I keep imagining farm kids standing at the side of the road dreaming of driving a bus when they grow up...

The drivers talk history, local color, flirt with the women, argue with the men--and like almost all Kiwis, speaking in an accent that alters English vowel sounds shamelessly: "Yiss, thet's riiight, tuh dullers. Theah we ah." Greymouth becomes "Grehmith," just as Rotorua was "Rotarah." And it's not just the whites; Maoris are equally guilty, or inventive, depending on one's view. But the old Maori pronunciations and the language itself are dying out; the response seems to be that of the local wit who named his house in pseudo-Maori: "Wai Wurri?"

Yet racial tension is building too as the government lets in more and more Pacific Islanders, who have trouble adjusting to city life, who run up the welfare rolls, who battle the Maoris--youth gangs, that is--and so on. New Zealand's world-class rugby team, nicknamed the "All-Blacks," has none. Melanesian Fijians are about as "Black" as New Zealand will accept.

What else? Oh, the vegetation. The greenery comes in a dozen distinct shades, plus grey tones and numerous browns. Forests and ordinary "bush" are a treat, fascinating mixtures of pines and palms, tree ferns and succulents, poplars viewed as weeds and Kauri gum trees held sacred--with so much sap dripping that the amber-like, dried-up or fossilized gum clumps are collected, cut and polished as gemstones.

Finally, one of the most beautiful things I've found on either island is the painting on a building wall seen as one heads south from Nelson. Painted to seem a giant window, it looks out on a gorgeous mountain and lake/sea scape with cumulus clouds strung out above. Called "Ao Tea Roa" (for the original Maori name for New Zealand, "Land of the Long White Cloud"), the painting inveigles and teases, because there are clouds and shadows of clouds inside with the viewer as well, like a Magritte painting or some trompe l'oeil trick, I guess. But it shines and glistens and opens new vistas into and on New Zealand...

March 20

Greymouth was a nothing sort of town; Hokitika, further south, interesting as the source of New Zealand jade, called "greenstone," which one finds carved in traditional tiki charms on sale everywhere. (Think Kon-tiki book, and tiki bars.)

Here at Franz Josef Glacier the rain is pouring down. But with the hostel about to close for the day, I must brave the hiking trails regardless...


11 p.m. The facts are these: I tramped for five hours in rain and overcast. Missed one trail switchback (didn't see the fallen "Blocked Path" sign), so I wasted a half hour clambering high up and skulking low down along a high-cliff riverbank looking for the non-trail. Also, because I wore a hat to keep the drops from splattering my bald pate, I cleverly clonked into branches instead. But I hiked! I did see rain and rain forest and, yes, the blue-white glacier. (I just wish living in Washington State didn't dilute the novelty and beauty of New Zealand's scenic wonders.)

Then I returned to the hostel long enough to claim my pack, and set out to hitch the mere 24 kilometers to the next glacier. Well, three hours later I was still standing there, wet clothes steaming in the sun, slapping at the pesky stinging flies. The squat little rental car that finally stopped and opened a door for me looked a doubtful proposition, but inside were Bob and Esther, Yanks--I mean Rebels--from Georgia, him entering medical residency, her a nurse, both of them witty, generous, and animated. We rode for four hours gabbing, singing, reciting poetry, sharing food, all the way to Wanaka, two-thirds of the way down to Queenstown, tourist central for the southern part of the island.

This thought: it's the remarkable joy of meeting people like Esther and Bob, having a great afternoon after a drippy morning, that makes all this rambling worthwhile. Every day is a surprise, and likely an adventure in some small way.

((Looking back from 2007, I would only add that most of the charming people I met and even became friends with on that long trip were natives of the host countries, or tourists from lands other than the U.S. That particular rainy day my unexpected benefactors just happened to be Americans. Also, I had a grand time all around New Zealand (six weeks) and would recommend a trip Down Under, there and on to Australia, to anyone. Get out there!))

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