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New Year's Eve, Kiwi Style

Greetings from Christchurch!  No, it's not a place of worship; Christchurch is actually the largest city on New Zealand's South Island.  I've been here for several days updating my website, seeing the sights, working on my photos, replying to e-mails from readers of my website, and watching cricket – just about everything except worshipping in a Christchurch.


Because I'm in New Zealand, I had the privilege of being one of the very first persons on the planet to celebrate the New Year.  Frankly though, the televised New Year's celebration in Christchurch was pretty tame compared to the crazy celebrations in the U.S.  It was just a few guys in the TV studio yelling "Happy New Year" and then dancing with the women camera operators.  No, it wasn't quite like "Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve" from Times Square in New York City, but it was quaint and I enjoyed it.


To celebrate the New Year, I'm posting this website update today while listening to an Internet radio broadcast of the Fiesta Bowl football game between Oregon and Colorado.  The broadcast costs me $6 an hour, but it's well worth it to hear my Oregon Ducks beat up on Colorado (and to get a taste of home).  This is the first New Year's Day in recent memory when I haven't porked out in front of the tube with my hand on the clicker while trying to watch 13 bowl games at once.  Let's see, 13 games?  That would be $78 an hour here.


Along with this page, I'm including three other updates in this round, including:

These are my first entries from New Zealand, where I've been for the past two weeks.  Be sure to check out my "exciting" visit to KiwiFruit Country and my trip to White Island, the most volcanic place in New Zealand.  I can still taste the sulfuric acid on my lips.


So what's this country like?  I'll give you an idea on this page, but be sure to check out my other pages, too.  Altogether, I've posted nearly 100 photos of New Zealand on these updates.  And speaking of pictures, I recently shot my 10,000th photo of this trip, and after only six months.  They're all digital pictures, of course, so I don't have to worry about buying or developing film – just my laptop's hard drive crashing.

Fightin' the Kiwi Crowds

You can't tell it from the map above, but New Zealand is about as big as Colorado or Oregon – speaking of those two places – and has a population that's somewhere in between (about 3.8 million).  Perhaps that doesn't sound like a lot of people, but as I've learned during these past few weeks, New Zealanders emphatically embrace their summer vacations and things can get pretty crowded during this time of year.  From December 20, when schools let out, through the end of January, apparently every New Zealander goes on vacation for a week or more.  Of course, those dates also coincide with my planned visit to this country.  Lucky me!


Speaking of crowds, here's the popular Kiwi group, Crowded House.  This is their hit, Something So Strong.


I had read, while I was back in the U.S., about how crowded New Zealand can get in December and January but I figured, "Heck, there's only four million people in the whole country, so how crowded can it get?"  As I've learned, it can get REALLY crowded here, especially around Christmas.  The highways have been really packed, every campground that I've stopped at has been jammed, and getting a motel room every afternoon has become a chore.


I figured the best strategy would be to head south, since most of the Kiwi population lives in the north end of the country.  But that strategy didn't work very well because there seems to be people everywhere, not just from New Zealand but also visitors from overseas (people like me!)  I guess that makes sense because, while the weather is icky in most of Europe and America right now, New Zealand is one of the few places in the developed world that's enjoying warm and sunny weather.  I didn't really think about that several months ago when I was planning to visit here in December.  As my bald, yellow friend Homer would say, "Doh!"  So much for my image of New Zealand as a bucolic country with lots of empty roads and sleepy towns.


I fought my way south through Auckland, down to Wellington, across to the South Island, and down the coast.  I finally decided to take refuge here in a motel in Christchurch, where I've been relaxing and having a good time for the past four days.  I'm hoping that the crowds will die down a bit after New Year's Day, when I'll continue on my southward trek to seek out some solitude.  A person in my company's Auckland office told me their office was shutting down for two weeks around Christmas and New Year's.  I thought it was a figure of speech.  Nope.  A lot of businesses here completely close for a week or two around Christmas while everyone goes on vacation – or "holiday" as they call it here.

My Impressions of New Zealand

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 really 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 been to all 50 U.S. states and have visited most parts of America, but I think, in general, New Zealanders are nicer and much more polite, open and considerate than Americans anywhere – including me.


Above:  The motels in New Zealand have been a pleasant surprise.  Most are small, family-run affairs like this one in Christchurch.  This one 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.

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 "naivetι").  Just about every Kiwi I've met so far, regardless of age or gender, has been honest, cheerful, and 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 I 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.


One thing that's really surprised me 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.  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 are 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.  


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

Another big disappointment has been the camping situation here.  I was hoping to camp my way across New Zealand, but I've decided to stay in motels so far and haven't spent a single night yet in my tent under the stars.  I'm a pretty private person and one of the reasons I love camping is to reconnect with nature and to have a sense of solitude. 


The campgrounds in New Zealand are much more communal than in the U.S., however.  Camping serves as a more functional purpose in New Zealand – namely, cheap lodging – rather than to connect with nature, and I haven't yet seen anything like an American-style public campground with individual and secluded campsites, picnic tables, and a bit of solitude.  That's a serious problem for this admitted recluse.  Furthermore, because of the summer holiday, the campgrounds here have been jammed with, literally, wall-to-wall tents.  But I'm not whining – I'll just deal with it and adapt.


Another thing that will take some getting used to is the New Zealand cuisine, which I mentioned briefly in my previous entry.  No offense to any Kiwis reading this, but the food here is a lot like English cuisine and much of it has been, to my American palate, somewhere between bland and disgusting.  That includes the repulsive "mutton sausages," which I'll describe in more detail on my next page.  The food situation here is going to take some getting used to, but as I've said before, getting used to new situations is one reason I love to travel.


Overall, though, my opinion of this country is very favorable.  I really like New Zealand and New Zealanders (you can add a couple more "really"s in there).  Specifically, here's what I think about this tiny country so far, both the good and the bad:


(or What I Like Most About New Zealand)


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


Motels.  The motels in New Zealand are wonderful.  They don't have a lot of big chain motels here, like Holiday Inns or Econolodges.  Instead, New Zealand motels are mostly small (5-15 units) and family-operated, often run by middle-aged couples.  Unlike in 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., most places just want your money.


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 your first-born child.  And, 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 sand hills.  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 now, 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 sometimes do that in my head) and realize, "Hey, that's not very expensive after all."


Quirky-but-Practical Issues.  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, albeit 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 designed for pedestrians, primarily, instead of cars.  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.  There are no big-box stores like Walmart or Target here, either, which is a huge plus. 


The Accent.  The Kiwi accent is very pleasant, though I still have trouble understanding it.  It's something 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 about... (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 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.  In crude terms, rugby is something like American football, while cricket is something like baseball.  They've been showing a lot of cricket matches on TV and I'm starting to get hooked on it.  Unlike baseball, in cricket there are only two bases, there are no foul balls and the entire team bats until everyone's out, instead of alternating like in baseball.  The bowler (i.e., pitcher) runs towards the batter and then throws the ball into the dirt (on purpose, to make it harder to hit).  You can read a short 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.  I love this game.



(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 that is...


Solitude.  Even the hiking trails are busy this time of year, so it's been hard to find anyplace in New Zealand 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.  I also miss the wide-open, uncrowded roads, like in the American West.


Pickup Trucks.  In the world of trucks, single-cab pickups are the norm in the U.S., and I love my long-bed Toyota back in the States.  Therefore I decided to buy a pickup when I got over here, so that I could sleep in the back at night.  Fat chance.  In New Zealand, for some reason, there are very few single-cab pickups (or "Utes," as they call pickups here) with beds in the back long enough to sleep in.  There ARE lots of dual-cab pickups with tiny beds.  I couldn't find anything like my Toyota pickup here, so I rented a Corolla and have been staying in motels, instead.


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. 


Spicy Food.  New Zealand food is something like English food and, compared to American food, it's fairly 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.  I love trying out new foods but my experience with the New Zealand cuisine so far as been very hit-and-miss.


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.  Good on ya, mates!  Oh wait, that's Australian.




Above left:  If you visit New Zealand, be sure to bring an AC adaptor since they use a different type of plug here than many other places.  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 love the little switches on the side.

Above right:  After I figured it out, cricket has become one of my real passions here.  Cricket games are long, however, and typically last seven or eight hours.  Now you know why I haven't updated my website in a while.  I love this game!


Now, on with my update.  Since this page is getting pretty long, I've posted my update at News:  January 1, 2002 – Part 2  (Christchurch, New Zealand).  See you there!



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