Bob's travel journal

Bob's travel journal

Please send feedback on these entries to Bob , not to Tom.

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.

Meanwhile, as 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.

(Snarky? Fine, 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 to understand.)

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 possibly occur.

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 ground.

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.

So. Back 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 upper-class) wealth.

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.

Auckland 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 remake.)

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 below.)

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.

I 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 fairly mind-blowing.

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%)
2. Iraq (13%)
3. Indonesia (11%)
4. Israel (7%)

and so on.

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 guess, 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.

That's 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.

Shit, I'd 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 overlooked...)

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 unsuspecting retinas.

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 soul.

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 study.

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 lot.

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 Australia.

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 be.

(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 number.)

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 police.

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 hello, quite 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 traffic:

Holiday Death Toll: Twelve.

In the whole country.

OK, even accounting for a small population, that's still pretty livable.

Problems always look big in isolation. New Zealand is certainly isolated.

The problems here really aren't so big; the natural beauty of the place, and the kindness of the people, certainly are.

I just hope the hobbits are wearing sunscreen.