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My Impressions of New Zealand

(Reprint from News: January 1, 2002)

January 2, 2002


I've been in the beautiful country of New Zealand for two weeks now.  Overall, I like New Zealand but my opinion about the country is a bit mixed.  What has impressed me the most so far are the people here -- Kiwis are pretty darn terrific.  By the way, that's "Kiwis" as in native New Zealanders, not as in the birds (though I'm sure the birds are terrific too).  I've visited most parts of the U.S. and I think that New Zealanders are, in general, nicer and much more polite than Americans -- myself included.  


I've found most Kiwis to be a lot more "civilized" than Americans and they treat people with a lot of courtesy (jaded Americans might say "naiveté").  Just about every Kiwi I've met so far, regardless of age or gender, has been honest, cheerful, and very helpful.  People in the U.S. had told me how nice Kiwis were, but it didn't really sink in until I got over here.  At first, and being a typical American, I was a bit suspicious of their friendliness but now accept that it's just how most New Zealanders are.  If the contrast is so striking for me, I wonder what Kiwis must think about Americans when they come to the U.S.?  Or what I'll think about Americans when I return.


2-0333_Academy_Motel.jpg (34793 bytes)

Left:  The motels in New Zealand have been a pleasant surprise.  Most are small, family-run affairs like this one in Christchurch that costs only US$38 a night, about half as much as it would cost in the U.S.  Note the full kitchen with dinnerware and separate bedroom.


One of the big surprises is how much Kiwis know about what's going on in America.  People here seem to know where Oregon is (I've stopped explaining that it's on the west coast of America).  There's a New Zealand version of CNN here that broadcasts a lot of news about America, especially about the U.S. economy.  And American TV shows are quite popular here, such as "Friends," "Home Improvement," "Ed" and yes, even "Monday Night Football," though I'm not sure what Kiwis make of Dennis Miller.  Anyway, now I know why people here can understand me and my American accent.   Don't misunderstand, though, because most Kiwis are glad they're Kiwis and not Americans, and most New Zealanders seem to be very proud of their small country.


Those are some positive experiences and impressions that I've had here.  Unfortunately, I've also had some less-than-positive experiences.  The biggest problem is that, due to my poor planning, I managed to arrive here in mid-December just as the summer holiday season was starting up.  Because of that, things in general have been pretty crazy as I mentioned earlier.  


Another disappointment is the camping situation here.  I was hoping to camp my way across New Zealand but I've had to stay in motels so far, and haven't spent a single night yet in my tent under the stars.  The campgrounds in New Zealand are much more communal and I haven't seen anything like an American-style public campground yet, with individual campsites, picnic tables, and a bit of solitude.  Furthermore, because of the summer holiday, the campgrounds here have been jammed literally with wall-to-wall tents.  Fortunately, the motels here are really nice -- still, though, it's not camping.  On the positive side, though, campgrounds in New Zealand, while having fewer amenities than campgrounds in the U.S., are much less expensive.  I don't want to impose my attitude about what camping should be onto the Kiwi culture -- it's been a bit of a surprise, that's all.


Another thing that will take getting used to is New Zealand cuisine.  It's a lot like English cuisine and much of the food I've bought in grocery stores so far has been -- to my Americanized palate -- somewhere between bland and disgusting, including the repulsive "mutton sausages," which I'll describe in more detail on my next page.  The food situation here is definitely going to take some getting used to, but, for better or worse, that's one reason I like to travel.


Overall, though, my opinion of this country is pretty darn positive.  Here's a list of the positives and the negatives of this country based on my experience here.


Positives (or What I Like Most About New Zealand)


People.  Most New Zealanders are incredibly nice.  In general, they're kinder and more civilized than Americans.  They're how Americans used to be maybe 30 or 40 years ago, before the U.S. became so loud, pushy and "in-your-face."

Motels.  The motels in New Zealand are wonderful.  They don't have a lot of large-sized chain motels here, like Holiday Inns or Best Westerns.  Instead, New Zealand motels are mostly small (5-15 units) and family-operated, often run by middle-aged couples.  Unlike the U.S., most of the motels here are "self-contained," with full kitchen, refrigerator, and dinnerware, which is a real treat.  The owners take a lot of pride in their establishments, much more so than in the U.S., and they are truly concerned that you enjoy your stay.  In the U.S., they just want your money. 

A few other differences:  many proprietors here insist that you inspect the room before taking it, most motels have laundry facilities (often free), and you pay when you check out  -- in the U.S., you don't get the key until you hand over a credit card, drivers license, birth certificate and first-born child.  And, perhaps it's a bit quirky, but when you get a room for the night here, the desk clerk will give you a small bottle of milk for your tea.

Scenic Diversity.  I've always thought that the U.S. is the most scenically-diverse country in the world, and perhaps it is.  However, in the two weeks that I've been in New Zealand, I've seen places here that have reminded me of almost every state in the U.S.  Within a few hours, I've driven through areas similar to Hawaii, Alaska, the Maine coast, Florida, southern California, the northern California wine country, the Oregon coast, the Washington forests, and even the Nebraska sandhills.  It's as if all the scenery in the U.S. has been scrunched down into an area the size of Oregon.

The Weak NZ Dollar.  Last year, the New Zealand dollar was worth about 50 American cents.  Today, it's worth about 40 cents and it continues to fall.  Consequently, food and lodging is very cheap, about 30% to 50% less than in the U.S., while most imported goods, including cars and gasoline, cost about the same as in the U.S.  Every time I see a price, I first gasp, but then I multiply it by 0.4 (having spent many years in college, I can do that in my head -- usually) and realize, "Hey, that's not very expensive after all."

Quirky-but-Practical Items.  Each AC outlet in New Zealand has a little toggle switch next to it that you can flip on or off.  Cute -- I like it.  And many toilets have two flush buttons that provide you with either a mini-flush or a maxi-flush.  Americans are much more egalitarian -- if a bit less practical -- with one flush serving all purposes.

Small Towns.  I love the layout of the small towns in New Zealand because they're pedestrian-oriented, not car-oriented.  They're compact with most businesses located adjacent to each other on one or two long blocks.  Towns here aren't spread out like they are in the car-crazy U.S. and strip development, which is so common in the U.S., is negligible here.  No Wal-Marts here either, which is a plus. 

The Accent.  The Kiwi accent is very pleasant, though I still have trouble figuring it out.  It sounds like the English accent except they convert the short "e" to a long "e."  For instance, "best" is pronounced "beast," "check" is pronounced "cheek," and "west" is pronounced "weest."  So if you head out weest, you beast have some traveler's cheeks.  Most distracting, of course, is that when they say "seeks" they mean "sex."  Dang, now I know what that cute woman in Hastings was asking me... (har, har).

Driving on the Left Side.  At first, I was a little nervous about driving on the left side of the road but I've gotten comfortable with it, and in a surprisingly short time.  In fact, now when I watch American movies on TV I think how odd it looks to drive on the right side of the road.

Roundabouts.  There are lots of roundabouts (traffic circles) in New Zealand, instead of four-way stops or signalized intersections.  Roundabouts take some getting used to but they make a lot of sense.  Just remember to yield to traffic entering from the right and to all traffic in the roundabout.  And remember to exit at the right place, like I sometimes forget, or you'll have to go around another time or two, like I sometimes do.

Cricket.  Rugby is the big sport in New Zealand, but it's cricket season now.  They've been showing a lot of cricket on TV and I'm starting to get hooked on it.  Cricket is something like baseball except there are only two bases and no foul balls and the entire team bats until everyone's out, instead of alternating like in baseball.  The bowler (i.e., pitcher) runs for what seems like a quarter-mile, then throws the ball into the dirt (and on purpose, to make it harder to hit).  You can read an entire novel before a batsman is retired, and it's not unusual to hear the announcer say that a team is leading by "only" 342 runs.


Negatives (or What I Miss Most About the U.S.)


Family and Friends.  This goes without saying and it's what I've missed most during my trip, though I have met a lot of nice people here.

American-style Campgrounds.  I really miss the campgrounds found in U.S. National Parks, State Parks, and National Forests with their designated sites and picnic tables at each site.  Being a person who enjoys solitude in the outdoors, I haven't warmed up yet to the "communal camping" philosophy of New Zealand with wall-to-wall tents.  Related to this is...

Solitude Even the hiking trails are busy this time of year, so it's been hard to find anyplace in NZ that has a semblance of solitude.  I can always find places that are peaceful and quiet in the U.S., even during the summer, but hopefully things here will improve.

Pickup Trucks.  In the world of trucks, single-cab pickups are the norm in the U.S., so I decided to buy one when I got over here.  Fat chance.  In New Zealand, for some reason, there are very few single-cab pickups (or "Utes," as they call pickups here).  There ARE lots of dual-cab pickups with a tiny bed, although that doesn't help me.  I like my single-cab Toyota truck because I can drive in it by day and sleep in the bed at night.  I couldn't find anything like it here, so I rented a Corolla and have been staying in motels.

History.  Being a history buff, I've been disappointed with the relative lack of interesting historical sites, signs, and attractions here.  I don't know if that's because there isn't much history here compared to the U.S. or if it's just not documented well.

Wide-open, Uncrowded Roads Because I'm visiting during the summer holiday season, most of the roads here have been pretty packed. 

Spicy Food.  New Zealand food is something like English food and, compared to American food, it's pretty bland and spiceless.  I really miss Doritos, salsa, chili, and bratwurst (though not all at once).  And forget about relish -- the stores here sell a dozen kinds of relish including tomato relish (huh?) and corn relish (huh???), but not pickle relish.  Go figure.

Dollar Bills Instead of dollar bills, New Zealand uses one- and two-dollar coins which are a hassle to deal with.  They end up all over the car floor after traveling each day and all over the bedroom floor at night.  Now I know why dollar coins have never caught on in the U.S.  On the positive side, New Zealand has abolished pennies which is something I wish the U.S. would do.


Even though I've had a few bad experiences here, my overall opinion of New Zealand is pretty positive.  More than anything though, I've really been impressed with how courteous the New Zealand people have been.  I wish Americans (myself included) were more like Kiwis.  I'm definitely going to come back here some day... just not in December or January.


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Above left:  If you visit New Zealand, be sure to get an AC adaptor since they use a different type of plug here.  If you have something more than a laptop or shaver, you also might need to get a converter to change the 240V power here to 120V.  I like the little switches on the side.

Above center:  One of my biggest disappointments in New Zealand, though, has been the camping situation.  Most campgrounds are privately-owned (which I don't like in New Zealand any more than in the U.S.) and they've been pretty jammed.  The relatively few public campgrounds, like this one, are communal and have also been jammed.  On the positive side, though, they're pretty cheap -- typically costing only a few dollars a night.

Above right:  Cricket is becoming one of my real passions here.  Cricket games are long, though, typically lasting 7 or 8 hours.  Now you know why I haven't updated my website in a while.


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