Bob's travel journal
Please send feedback on these entries to Bob , not to Tom.
Bob's travel journal
New Zealand (North Island)
First, another aside: thanks to the hundreds -- a little over two hundred,
actually -- of you who emailed kind words after the Sydney post, actually
overwhelming the madding Real Americans crowd, whose typo-ridden
name-calling became funnier by the day when contrasted to your thoughtful,
often educational, letters. This did my heart tremendous good, and shortly
after my return, I intend to write back to everyone who left the ALL CAPS
key alone. Thank you very much.
Second, many of you have suggested
I should expand these entries into a book. Heck, yeah, great idea, I'd
love to. These are only a fraction of my notes, and there are pictures
you'd have to see to believe (some of which I intend to post when I get
home). Baboons. Rental cars. Baboons surrounding rental cars. And so
on. So, um, any publishers lurking out there, or anybody who knows someone
who might be interested... say howdy.
Third, while I've been tempted
lately to emigrate to safer and saner places -- one of which I'm writing
about below -- one thing this trip has taught me is the profound extent to
which America's actions and culture truly do permeate the world -- and the
degree to which the rest of this world (or at least the fraction I've seen
on four continents) is distressed at the prospect, especially given the
deceitful lunatics currently hijacking, endangering, and looting the
country at will.
Fortunately, America, this strapping problem child
among nations, is still a country I know well, where I can still (for now)
vote and speak my mind and do what I can to stop this madness. And so I
think, then, that my place is back in the States, working and writing and
screaming until my lungs fall out.
I'll be home shortly, and the
screaming etc. should commence shortly thereafter. What I want, I realize,
isn't really to live in Sydney, necessarily -- it's to see more of America,
my home, become just as sane, clean, and liveable.
long as I'm not back quite yet...
New Zealand: Middle Earth,
Middle Class, Middle America
Before this trip, I confess I
had Australia and New Zealand mentally blurred together, and thus, I now
realize, half-expected to deplane in Auckland as if I'd simply taken an
extended subway from Sydney.
That notion didn't even last through
the Sydney airport.
The moment you board an Air New Zealand jet, you
enter complete immersion in Tolkien mythology, since the in-flight
magazine, video programs, and (often) even the plane's exterior design are
well and truly consumed by the company's surely-profitable determination to
be the "Airline To Middle Earth."
Every headrest on every seat bears
a Lord Of The Rings logo, and if you decide to escape by closing your eyes
and listening to audio, you're likely to stumble across an
embarrassed-sounding Ian McKellen pimping for the airline; I can only
assume that the paycheck they handed him was better-composed than the text
he had to read.
(This surely vexes me more than it would you, since
Ian McKellen a) is my favorite actor, in whom I wish to lose as little
respect as possible, and b) often looks quite remarkably like my own
departed father, which may have something to do with a), but which in any
case can be either uplifting or goddamn terrifying, depending on whether
Ian's playing a Nazi again.)
The hobbitfest continues, off and on,
wherever you bop around New Zealand, where portraits of Frodo, Gandalf, the
Gollum et al currently adorn everything from the sides of giant
buildings to the nation's postage stamps. The Te Papa Museum, New
Zealand's Smithsonian, recently completely an exhibition of LOTR detritus
that was the most popular in the nation's history, and which is now touring
the world. And so LOTR-related tourism has become a lucrative industry,
responsible for a constant flow of visitors, some of whom seem to grip both
disposable cash and reality with equal looseness.
you try making polite conversation with two middle-aged Kiwis in a
Wellington nightclub, almost misty-eyed that the Te Papa exhibit had long
since moved on, especially since they had worked so carefully on their elf
costumes -- which they were still in the habit of wearing. I was assured
these get-ups were carefully authentic, which, I conclude, extended right
down to the something-died-before-the-dawn-of-history aroma, which reached
back through the mists of time so convincingly I could barely swallow my
beer. If that sounds unkind, it's not -- in fact, it's giving them the
benefit of the doubt.)
New Zealand's broadcast media, too, seem as
constantly proud of and obsessed by Peter Jackson's movie trilogy as...
well, the only comparison that comes to mind is the American media's proud
trumpeting of the invasion of Iraq: great footage, breathless tales of
primal conflict, the thinnest pretense of objectivity. The major
difference is that on only one of the film sets, the torn and bleeding
bodies eventually all got up, cleaned off, and had something to eat. Not
on the other. (This isn't something enough people in the White House seem
I'm not knocking all the Kiwi pride here, nor Peter
Jackson's films. Geez, no, the movies are an amazing accomplishment --
adapting intricate tales with Rain Man attention to detail while still
conveying their essential story bits on a level that makes six-year-olds
feel like adults and vice versa. Holy crap, that's amazing. More so in
that Jackson made all three films at once, and more beyond in that the
facilities to accomplish this were essentially high-wired and spitballed
into existence on the other side of the planet from Hollywood. Which, then
again, is probably only the reason all this cinematic brilliance could
What you're seeing from me is more a reaction to the
dizzying saturation. I didn't come here to visit Middle Earth; I came here
to visit New Zealand, its people, its history and culture... but pretty
soon, hell, even I gave in, climbing and tramping a damp hillside above
Wellington just to follow a trail of spray-painted runes (Angerthas dwarf
runes, if you're curious, not the elvish Tengwar -- see, I'm a dork pretty
often myslef, too; I just don't consciously pursue it as a tenable
lifestyle choice) to the spot where they shot the bit in the first movie
where the four hobbits cower under a tree while the dark baddie on
horseback loomed so evil that even the worms came out of the
And sure enough, my feet braced against rocks and stumps on
steep and slippery hillside, my body scratched by hostile foliage and
bitten by medieval-torture insects, I found it... yes, there it is, yes...
I see it now... a tree.
Peer pressure sucks.
to New Zealand. If that's possible.
By now I'm used to my
assumptions about places turning out to be wildly inaccurate. (Heck,
that's half the fun.) But my imagined
similarity between Australia and New Zealand turned out at first to seem
spot on: not only are New Zealand's dialect, currency, and national flag
almost identical to Australia's, but so are large and important chunks of
culture. You see the same glorious lack of ostentation, the same pride in
the environment, and the same emphasis on middle-class (as opposed to
Just for fun, climb any of Auckland's high
points (and there are plenty -- big volcanic jobs, actually, since New
Zealand only exists because two giant plates in the planet's crust are
going kaWHUMP with great, slow force, pushing up a large jaggedy bit above
the waterline upon which tiny people can scramble and gallop) and look
around for the rich and poor parts of town.
This is a simple
exercise in America; to find the rich, just look for green patches (because
the rich areas are usually near any remaining parks) and then scan to the
nearby giant houses spottable from great distance. To find poor people,
usually, find the least-green area, which is usually filled with small
brownish squares in which people are penned during non-working hours. You
know the drill.
In Auckland, however, you see middle-class homes...
bits of green... and more middle-class homes... bits of green... and
shopping areas... bits of green... and more middle-class homes. Some are
surely nicer than others, and obviously there must be plenty I didn't see,
but damn. I looked and looked.
Also, there are ballparks, a big
giant SkyTower that is at least as much a demonstration of national penis
envy as any sort of functional building (and yes, I took its entire length,
and in an elevator no less), and -- most of all -- water.
has not one, but two -- count 'em -- bays, sitting as it does on an narrow
stretch winding Panama-like between them. Beaches are everywhere. One of
them, Muriwai, is considered no big deal by the locals, but is perhaps the
nicest I've ever
seen -- a mile and a half wide swath of silky black volcanic sand facing
the sunset, undisturbed by development thus spectacularly clean. (This
will be useful when Gandalf goes surfing in the Jerry Bruckheimer
And, remember, this beach is no big deal here. Up the road
a piece is a place called Ninety-Mile Beach. Which is exactly what you
think it is.
Ahhhh. (Assuming you're wearing sunscreen; see
The similarity to Australia continues politically as well.
A national ad campaign currently sums up the nation's environmental
attitude summed up as "four million careful owners." Pick up the
Dominion Post, the largest paper in New Zealand's capital, and find
the Bush cabinet described as "religious fanatics prepared to resort to
extreme force in the imposition of their narrow views on the rest of the
planet." Talk with anyone on the street -- anyone, it seems -- about
recent U.S. demands regarding visas, fingerprinting, and even not waiting
in line for the loo on the plane -- and you'll quickly discover just how
completely the world's post-9-11 goodwill has been obliterated.
don't know how to convey the depth of public disdain for Bush down here.
It's casual; it's assumed; it's like being against poverty, ignorance,
intestinal worms, or potato blight.
And while I have yet to see even
a hint of anti-Americanism directed at myself -- most folks everywhere seem
to understand intuitively that I am not my government, a consideration I
suspect the people of Iraq might have appreciated from us -- this next is
A recent study published in the Sunday
Star-Times asked Australians and New Zealanders which country they
would like to visit, but would not, because they consider it too dangerous.
Here are the results:
1. United States (14%)
3. Indonesia (11%)
4. Israel (7%)
I kid you not; I can't find a link online, but I've got a hard
copy of the paper in my bag. All in all, 28% of New Zealanders want to
visit America. Fully half of them won't.
The Aussie numbers are
almost identical. America is consciously avoided in numbers down here
exceeding even countries in open internal armed conflict.
I was spun
around by those numbers myself. Looking again at the phrasing of the
question, you'd think America's number is obviously amped by the large
number of people who want to visit in the first place.
But the poll
also asked which countries Kiwis wanted to visit, safety aside. The whole
civilized world shows up at the top of that list -- the UK, Canada, Italy,
France, etc. The U.S. is the only industrialized country on the
entire considered-too-dangerous list.
Think about it... half the
people down here who want to see the U.S. think it's too dangerous to be
worth an actual visit.
Why? Not exactly hard to
thanks to the steady stream of orange alerts, not to mention our rate of
violent crime, obsession with firearms (widely seen as ludicrous), and lack
of national health care that might help a visitor taken ill. Also, seven
percent of those polled in both countries wouldn't visit the US simply on
ethical and political grounds, and another seven percent would not visit
the US because they believed there was too much corruption.
what we look like here, folks. And it fits with what I hear from talking
with people in cafes and on buses and whatnot.
And a few minutes ago
the whole Middle Earth image seemed like a silly thing.
trade in a second.
But lest you get the idea that I'm just
glorifying New Zealand as heaven on Earth... nope. Nothing's that easy,
dammit. (And now I want to go back to Sydney and see how much I
For one, I miss the ozone layer.
The sun here
feels like a finely-edged weapon against your skin. New Zealand is, in
fact, the melanoma capital of Earth, thanks to clean air, the sun's
proximity during summer (closer here than in the northern hemisphere, they
tell me; I'm not sure how that works, but whatever, it sure feels like it),
and the world's widespread ozone-destroying CFC use. (Australia was pretty
bad, too, incidentally.) According to the locals I spoke to, part of the
reason the green hillsides are so rapturously vivid here is simply that
more photons throughout the spectrum of light -- including the
skin-sizzling UV range -- is boinking off the foliage and into your
So merely going outside without slathering
nuclear-winter-grade sunblock on in thick white layers -- most mornings I
feel like Tom Sawyer doing a backyard fence -- is an epidermal bungee jump,
hoping this isn't the day the rope snaps, your cells get zapped, and two
years later you hit the pavement and get cancer.
And even so, I'm
gradually watching my forearms dapple and freckle into reddened arm pizza.
I haven't seen this many developing dark spots since Dick Cheney's
It wasn't always this way. Just today, I overheard a 50ish
shopkeeper reminiscing about her childhood, when "the sun was just
different" and people could go outside unbasted without fear. I've heard
the same from everyone I've asked -- so far, about a dozen people over the
age of 40 have sadly agreed.
I saw in the news the other day that
global warming is gonna kill a million species in fifty-odd years if we
don't pull our shit together pronto. And friends, I believe it. I
am walking every day under a sky that human activity has made quite
palpably more dangerous. Just from my own nerve endings, I am certain that
the sun is zapping immobile (thus defenseless) plant species with historic
levels of UV, with consequences our science hasn't even begun to
When you realize that small algaes and other tiny green bits
with a lot of surface area for their size and no defenses are the very
foundation of the planet's food chain, that last is gonna worry you a whole
Maybe you'll even worry enough to read up on it and someday
soon we'll all teach our politicians (and ourselves) that it's not nice to
kill the world.
At least they're working on it here. New Zealand is blessed with not only
an active and successful Green Party, but an electoral system that doesn't
instantly neutralize political change through arcane winner-take-all rules.
Of course, being a small island nation highly dependent on peace and trade
for its existence probably helps, too.
Speaking of peace and
trade... New Zealand has a strange insecurity about its close, peaceful
relationship with Australia, one often compared to Canada's sense of itself
in comparison with the U.S.: a mix of envy, kinship, resentment, shared
history, and a struggle to maintain an identity. You hear Kiwis mocking
Aussies all the time here; I never heard a Kiwi mentioned once in
Speaking of which, I hadn't been able to distinguish the
Kiwi and Aussie accents until one of these mockfests broke out. It won't
be nearly as funny in print, but hearing a bunch of guys in a bar who
normally describe a meal as "fush un chups" start getting all superior by
saying "feesh en cheeps" tells you just how petty parochial pride can
(Not saying anyone's accent is better, including my own; just
amused that anyone could think any accent is.)
But the more I hang
out in New Zealand, the more the Canada/America comparison seems to pale.
In some ways, good and bad, large bits of New Zealand feels quite
remarkably like rural America.
First, there's the visual aspect.
Rolling hills like western Iowa lead to rainy volcanic regions like chunks
of Oregon. A winding road with cattle looks almost exactly like the way to
my Grandpa's house in western Virginia, and the midsize town of Hamilton
could be Akron, Ohio, if it wasn't for the Mississippi-style riverboat in
the water below. It's like the prettiest bits of rural America, exacto-ed
out, pureed, and presented as a highlight show.
But there's also a
familiar racial tension, with idiot anger directed at a darker-skinned
minority -- in this case, the Maori people, who got and keep getting a
fairly raw deal from the colonists and their heirs. ("Moari Go Home"
shouted one men's room graffito, nicely combining an inability to spell
with stunning historical ignorance. Amusing, but a combination sadly
familiar to anyone who has ever received email from the public in large
The relationship doesn't seem nearly as bad as the one
American whites and blacks are still trying to sort out, hundreds of years
later than one might hope, and not remotely as horrific as the
genocide/denial/ignorance relationship comprising most of America's
dealings with its native peoples. In New Zealand, Maori culture is also a
national point of pride, some Maoris themselves still maintain a decent
chunk of their traditions (while others, often of more mixed descent,
choose to assimilate to varying degrees), and the Te Papa quite pointedly
has a large exhibit on precisely how the major original English/Maori treaty
was rigged to slyly get the Maoris to sign over shit they didn't think
they were signing over.
Imagine for a moment the Smithsonian doing a
large display of "How We Fucked The Indians" and you'll get the vibe. (Of
course, they couldn't even bother with historical accuracy on the necessity
of atomic freakin' bombs.)
Also reminiscent of rural America: talk
radio, at least when driving cross-country, is largely built on a mixture
of Christian mythology, inflammatory intolerance masquerading as
"conservatism," and obvious flim-flam.
I've heard an incredible
number of advertisements here for some sort of mattress thing with magnets
in it that's supposed to eliminate everything from back pain to malaise to
weapons of mass destruction, all by "increasing your body's circulation."
Really? How, exactly, does a static magnetic field increase the
circulation of any closed system?
Is the education level really that
bad? Shit, just get a shaman to chant the jinkies out, while you're at
it... And then the same damn hosts continue on with equally-informed views
on politics, history, and economics.
Feels way too much like home
all of a sudden.
So does the evening news, which (and I really don't
remember seeing this in Australia -- I looked; but did I just miss it?) was
filled with more of the too-familiar: gang violence, schools closing for
budgetary reasons, new street drugs for teens and surveillance tools for
But then again...
Reading the morning paper, I was
actually getting a little depressed one fine Auckland morning. So I
decided to take a bus to a part of town I hadn't seen, just for the fresh
visual input, which often gets me going again. And walking around, I
realized it wasn't quite as clean as Sydney, but it was still cleaner than
most cities. On my way to the bus, a bunch of goth-clad teenagers were
walking the other way. Instead of the expected sullen grunt, they all said
brightly. And finally, when I got the bus near the beginning of the line,
I discovered I didn't have change. The driver told me not to worry about
it -- trusting me to pay extra on the way back.
When I got back to
the hotel, that very same newspaper delivered more bad news -- but this
time, the figure put things it a little more perspective. To wit,
concerning New Zealand's terrible (to hear them tell it) growth-induced
Holiday Death Toll:
In the whole country.
accounting for a small population, that's still pretty
Problems always look big in isolation. New Zealand is
The problems here really aren't so big; the
natural beauty of the place, and the kindness of the people, certainly
I just hope the hobbits are wearing sunscreen.