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Wednesday, April 02, 2003

New Zealand Report



Randal picked me up from the airport yesterday and we had lunch, wandered Venice Beach, played on the ropes and rings and other adult-scale toys they have there. On the stroll back we happened upon a girl dancing beautifully with a large hula hoop on the beach, so we sat and watched her for a while with the ocean waves and clouds tumbling behind her. Reichart* and Troy* joined us for dinner, then back to Reichart*'s for an exciting night of laundry, computer administrivia, and sleeeep. Woke up at 1:30pm today (oops). Guess I've still got that pesky time zone thing to deal with.

Presently downloading 350 pics from my camera. I'll post some with notes once I figure out how to efficiently cull and index them.

As for general impressions:

Overall, New Zealand is more like the U.S. than anywhere else I've been in the world, despite being one of the further places from it. It feels like a blend of England and the US, with a few anachronisms thrown in (most notably some subtle cultural similarities to the American 1950's).

By and large, a day in New Zealand feels like a mellow day in the US--one of those days where you don't happen to witness any fights or arguments, your waiter happens to be nice, nobody honks their horns, or rushes you, or scowls at you for making them wait at the crosswalk, or hits you up for spare change, or tries to sell you anything you don't want, or blasts rap music at you from their ghetto blaster. If these were little farm towns, this would be no surprise, but even the bigger cities are this way, like someone took San Francisco and just turned the volume down.

For better or for worse, New Zealand is the U.S. on Prozac. Aside from their pathological sinks, abundance of sheep, and the ubiquitous Fish and Chips, New Zealand is best differentiated from the U.S. by what it lacks: Angst, Arrogance, and Ambition. And Vegetables.

As for random tidbits:

New Zealand's reputation for being overrun with sheep is somewhat inflated. The north island in particular, especially the north end of it, has far more cows than sheep, and no more of either than you'd see in any comparably rural area of the U.S.. However, the south island holds true to the reputation, with the resulting nation-wide ratio of sheep to people being 10:1.

Likewise, their reputation for having mostly slow, narrow, winding roads is also exaggerated. While there are sections here and there that twist through the mountains, the roads in general are quite good, and the speed limit throughout most of the country is 100km/h (even on the twisty parts as long as you can keep your car on the road). From what I'd read, I was picturing something like the roads in Maui, which are in truth much much worse.

More myths: gasoline isn't terribly expensive there (relative to here). At NZ$1.05/liter, it's just a tad over US$2/gallon, which is what I was paying in California before I left. And conversely, food isn't half the cost (though maybe it was a year ago when the exchange rates were better), though it's definitely cheaper.

Climate-wise, I'd expected it to be somewhat cold, particularly in the south, but in fact it was hotter than San Diego at the same (equivalent) time of year almost everywhere in the country. One of the warmest places was right on the water on the west coast of the south island, where one would expect it to be like Seattle or maybe the Oregon coast but instead is apparently fairly warm and humid all year 'round, presumably due to the particular ocean currents. Likewise, it essentially did not rain the entire time I was there--though this was apparently my particular luck as more than once I heard news of heavy rains and even flooding in places I'd already been.

The air is clean over all, but only because it's an island and the breeze carries the smog away. They have no emissions controls that I am aware of, and it's a regular occurrence to get stuck behind a bus, truck, or sometimes car billowing thick clouds of caustic black smoke that can leave you feeling pickled in petrol by the end of a long drive. A small tangentially related nit: the registration and safety slips for a car must be placed in clear plastic envelopes stuck to the inside of the front window(!), which is rather an eyesore particularly when driving.

As for the sinks: A typical New Zealand sink is small, sometimes wide but usually quite narrow to the wall, and has a separate spout for hot and cold at opposite sides of the sink, each set back so far you can't get your hands under them without hitting the sink bowl. In principle, these sinks are designed to be plugged, filled with warm water, and... who knows what. But of course everyone just turns on the cold water and congeals the soap to their hands while banging their knuckles on the back of the sink, or turns on the hot water and tries to wash their hands in that brief window between cold and scalding--while banging their knuckles on the back of the sink. If this were just here or there, it wouldn't be noteworthy, but it proved the rule almost without exception over the entire country. Once in the restroom of an Indian restaurant I was excited to see a temperature-mixing faucet, only to discover there was no hot water hooked up to it. Many a time did I hear a traveler comment that whoever is responsible for New Zealand's sinks needs to have their head examined. Thankfully, their showers do no share the same design.

On a functionally related note, like the Europeans the Kiwis do not rinse their dishes. They fill a sink with soapy water, scrub their dishes in it, and transfer them to the drying rack, suds and all. This oddly correlates with the design of the sinks. In one hostel where the host had made dinner for the lot of us and we were cleaning up afterward in a group effort, I slipped up and offered to rinse the dishes and someone immediately said "you must be from America". One of the few times anyone guessed my origins correctly.

Returning to the plumbing theme, their toilets flush strangely and I don't mean the water spins the opposite way: they don't have siphoning toilets which empty the bowl completely with that characteristic slup-slup sound at the end of a flush, but instead the bowls just feed straight back, and the water just rushes through like a river hopefully (but often not) sufficiently diluting the contents. This requires a huge amount of water, and as a result most are outfitted with two buttons on the top depending on the quality of flush you want.

Yeah, this is what happens when you send an INTP to a foreign country: they come back telling you about the engineering of the toilets.

Following the food chain back around, I was surprised by the relative lack of fish on most menus. Even "seafood" oriented restaurants typically offered more shell fish than fish fish; though by the end I did find my share of great fish dishes. The lamb was indeed good and plentiful, as was the beef. The chicken was in general unremarkable but no worse than here. Indian food seems popular everywhere in the country, but is really only good in Auckland with the rest having a certain Chef Boyardee quality about it. Likewise, the Thai in Auckland was pretty good, but elsewhere was mostly indistinguishable from Chinese (though occasionally good as such). In general the food was not too remarkable, though I got the impression from what little sampling I did that their equivalents of fast food (fish and chips, meat pies, etc..) are notably superior to American fast food. I did encounter a number of exceptional (and affordable) restaurants scattered about the country, though, and will probably mention them in my notes to come.

Incidentally, one doesn't tip in New Zealand, and the listed price includes tax, so when it says $9, it means $9. A number of friends here expressed a concern that service would suck without tipping, but on the whole I got much better and genuinely friendlier service everywhere in NZ than I do here. One point that was a bit unclear at first is that in NZ they don't bring you the bill--you get up when you're done, and go pay at the register. But if you ask them for the bill, they'll happily bring it to your table, so at first it just seemed like they were really non-attentive when it came to flagging them down for the check. It took a bit of observation (it's not as obvious as one would think) to discern the protocol with enough confidence that it didn't feel rude to get up and walk to the register. But that's how it works, and there was always someone there in a jiffy ready to ring me up, typically glancing back to see which table was empty in order to pull up the right bill, and occasionally in the smaller places just asking me what I ordered and tallying it from scratch right on the spot.

The grocery stores seemed well stocked with dairy, meats, shell fish, and sometimes fish, but their vegetable selection, nation-wide, typically amounted to the same half dozen (seasonal?) staples: corn, broccoli, silver-beet (looks similar to swiss chard), leeks, kumaras (sweet potatoes), tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage. Some had a few green beans, squash, other miscellaneous things, but overall the selection was pretty thin, and remarkably consistent from store to store, whether a little mom-and-pop shop or a super chain. It took me a couple of days to find any fresh ginger, and even then it looked pretty soggy. The day I left, we did stumble upon a more ethnic suburb of Auckland (Onehunga) that had a number of fresh-fish shops and also grocers with a slightly wider array of greens such as bok choy and whatnot, so I suspect the stuff is around once you know where to look.

During the month, I drove about 4000 miles, down the east coast of both islands, and up the west. Not counting airfare, costs averaged about US$50/day, including accommodations, food, gas, ferries, and the rental car (during the second half when I was sharing the car costs with Kalistrya*). And that was eating out most meals, and staying in hostel double rooms often with made beds and sometimes even private baths ("en suite"). Renting a place, cooking at home, and not driving 4000 miles a month, I imagine one could cut costs to half that or less...

Anyway, that's it for random overview and tidbits. More to come. Heading off now to meet Reichart* for dinner. Mexican food! Minor withdrawls.

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Simon Funk / simonfunk@gmail.com