Not that the pot hasn’t been getting stirred in Horse Land – and I’ll get to that in a bit – but last week I did start a top ten list that begs to be completed. I’m still struck by how this two island country in the South Pacific can simultaneously feel so different and yet so familiar. Culturally it feels a bit like Europe – well, Britain to be more precise, with its wrenches that are spanners, trucks that are lorries and bell peppers that are capsicums – and we are driving on the left, after all. The disheartening plenitude of Subways, KFC and Golden Arches, and generously proportioned washing machines unfailingly remind me of home. And yet, there is a sense of the untamed that I wouldn’t dare to compare to their great rival across the ‘ditch’, Australia. Many kiwi men favour full beards, sometimes to an extreme. I saw a young ZZ Top in a campsite the other day. There is a classlessness (I’m talking about class divisions, not white trashiness) to the society, and much less evidence of a gap between those at the top of the economic food chain and those lower down. The only really snazzy houses I’ve seen were in the Marlborough wine country (like Napa but cheaper!), and I would put the average car’s age at around 10 years. Yesterday we visited a wonderful thermal hotspring in a town called Hanmer Springs. I have never seen such a broad cross section of a population soaking up the same good waters: everyone from sheep farmers to holidaying urbanites. It’s all kind of Utopian, really.
Here are five more of my top ten reasons NZL is the next best destination – that is, as long as not too many people read this and head south to crowd the place, demanding their Starbucks and automatic transmissions.
6. It seems more expensive than it is, which makes it ultimately cheaper – because the NZL dollar is worth only about 75 cents, there is the opposite effect to traveling in, say, Europe. When I come back from Euro Land, a look at my Visa bill causes me to nearly swallow my tongue. That set of Escadron bell boots that were ‘only’ 40 Euros were actually $65. That ‘cheap’ accommodation in Belgium was in fact well over $100 a night. When a bottle of wine costs NZL $18, I think ‘kind of pricey’, because in CAD that price would be a bit of a splurge – but the bottle of wine is actually only around $14 CAD. I’m fully looking forward to a Visa bill where all the amounts will be LOWER than the figure on the price tag.
7. You can almost imagine the earth as virginal, unpolluted and unharmed – almost. Let’s be honest – Kiwis are not really that innocent. They just have more room for fewer people, which spreads the pollution more thinly. There are clear cut forests and I haven’t seen a single Prius yet (though I also haven’t seen a Hummer). But this place is clean clean clean, apart from the ubiquitous faint odour of farm animal dung. There is also a much higher apparent awareness of environmental impact in the population. I saw my first ‘no smoking’ campsite last week. I don’t think it was enforceable – and no one prevented Jan from sucking on his suicide sticks – but there were signs saying that the campsite was proud of its clean air, so please don’t smoke. It’s almost impossible to buy eggs that aren’t free range. Everything tastes as though it came from the organic section of a grocery store, even though it didn’t. Yes, being in NZL tempts one to fantasize about a planet that hasn’t yet been raped and pillaged to the point of no return.
8. Golfing not fishing – lots of my friends are avid golfers, so nothing personal guys. Even though half the country looks like a golf course, with rolling green as far as the eye can see in all directions, people are more apt to head out with rod in hand than a set of clubs on a Saturday morning. Why do I think that’s cool? I guess because fishing creates a link to nature, whereas a golf course creates a sense of harnessing nature. I’d rather commune with fishes than little white balls, though I suppose golf has one thing over fishing – gossip. I should start scanning the local tabloids for stories of a betrayed wife beating her philandering champion fisherman husband with a dead swordfish, then using the fish to free him from the car he smashed into a fire hydrant.
9. The bird watching rocks – once I got over my initial disappointment that half the birds I was seeing and identifying were either deliberately introduced by Europeans (sparrows, blackbirds etc) or are the descendants of escaped cage birds (cockatoos and budgees), I became an avid bird nerd here. The thing about NZL birds is that they are so satisfying to see and identify. Either they are big and weird looking like the Weka and Pukeko (haven’t seen a Kiwi yet – they only come out at night), or they have incredibly melodious songs, like the Bell Bird.
10. A peripatetic enophile’s version of Heaven – wondering what the hell I’m talking about? Well, if you like to combine hiking around (or tramping, as they say here) with drinking wine, NZL is the place for you. In my limited experience you should stick to white wine, and I have a strong leaning toward Sauvignon Blanc over any other varietals for the Kiwi soil, but that’s partly because I don’t like oakiness in my white wine. Jan says the chardonnays are lovely too. Whenever I want to walk off some of those alcoholic calories, I can head off in just about any direction. A ‘private property’ sign here is more likely to have a message asking you to close the gate behind you than to keep out. Am I still in love with NZL two weeks into my holiday? More than ever.
Much as I would love to ignore the soap opera that is taking place back home and just have another glass of Allan Scott Gewurtztraminer, I feel compelled to continue my efforts to incite even a passing interest in what is going on between EC and the provinces. If you, like the rider who was quoted in the Globe and Mail, just want to enjoy your horse, then you won’t be interested in the linked article below. But you should be interested. The Canadian Problem is named Apathy. If you don’t get even involved enough to stay up to speed, then you will have no business complaining.
I made a tongue-in-cheek comment in an article last year about Akaash’s experience with countries in armed conflict being a good skill set for his new job as EC’s CEO. I didn’t really think it would turn out to be quite so prophetic a remark. Next week is Christmas and I’m sure you all have lots of shopping and baking and decorating to do that will keep you from too many idle hours on the internet. I will be doing none of the above, but I’ll be back with some post-Christmas thoughts after Boxing Day, which they still celebrate down here. Happy Holidays, whatever and wherever they are for you.