We were in the Iris Hut on our second night of the 37 mile Kepler Track, one of the Great Walks in New Zealand. After backpacking over truly spectacular scenery that day including along an exposed ridge above timberline, all the trampers (as the hikers and backpackers are called over there) were gathered in the kitchen area of the large hut where we would be sleeping that night. At 7 PM the ranger, an ebullient stocky man, arrived to give us an introductory speech.
Perhaps to grab our attention, he started off by telling us that there were kiwis, the national bird of New Zealand, in the surrounding forest and that were even “eeeegs” nearby.
I turned to my wife, Rebecca, and whispered, “What are eeeegs?”
“I don’t know. Keep listening,” she mumbled.
The ranger continued, “The Kiwis lay their eeeegs in their nesting burrow.”
“Eggs,” I informed Rebecca. “He means eggs.”
But he was just getting started. And what next occurred had as much as to do with us moving to New Zealand as perhaps anything else.
“So, where are you all from?” the ranger continued.
“Anyone here from Europe?” A few hands went up.
“Germany?” A group of trampers nodded.
“We always have people from Germany. Very popular. How about Israel?”
A strange second choice, I thought, but he went on to explain that Germany and Israel were the top two places people came from.
He continued down the list of countries and continents: Asia, China, Japan, Pacific Islands, Italy, Israel (second most common), Hong Kong, Kuala Lampur, South America, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Norway, Finland, France, United Kingdom. Even Russia and Lichtenstein – no, I’m not sure he mentioned those but he could have. Everyone else in the group had raised their hands except for us.
Finally, almost as an afterthought. No, that was it. It was an afterthought, he said, “Anyone here from North America?”
Rebecca and I beamed at each other. It was our turn.
“Anyone here from Canada?”
Canada? Our neighbor to the north. One comedian had compared Canada to the attic in your house. It’s somewhere up above you but you’re not really sure what is in it. Later a Kiwi would explain to me that the quasi-rivalry between New Zealand and Austrailia was like the one between the United States and Canada. I said it wasn’t.
“See, we don’t really think about Canada,” I said, “Ever.”
In our brains, both Rebecca and I had been thinking for the past five minutes, “Hey, Mr. Ranger, how about the old US, the big dog, you know, the ‘U S of A’.”
But no, until then finally, almost as the show was winding down, whether on purpose but I suspect not, he said, “The United States.”
We raised our hands. I had always thought of the United States as the greatest country in the world and perhaps still do. Like a center around which the world somehow revolved, although this was discounted and threatened every day in the news. But it was certainly readily apparent that everyone didn’t kivetch over our every step. Tycho Brahe was about to discover that the United States wasn’t the center of the Solar System.
Actually the ranger was right. New Zealand has 2.6 million visitors a year. Only a mere 7% are from the United States.
So why did we decide to move to New Zealand. In a word, because we were bored to death with our current lives. I could see myself hanging around Colorado Springs, buying and fixing up houses – that’s what I was doing now – making money, even maybe lots of money but didn’t care. Rebecca has worked as a nurse in the emergency department in one of the busiest hospitals in the entire country for more than twenty years. She’s bored too. We wanted an adventure. We wanted to do something.
The thought of seeing the same roads, going to the same stores, for my wife seeing the same patients in the hospital which could be clone sisters and brothers, uncles and aunts, grandfathers and grandmothers of the ones she had been seeing for the last bazillion years, that thought was more oppressive and frightening than any thought of going to a new place.
Well, why not move someplace in the United States. After all, Money magazine publishes a list of the ten best places to live in the country, healthy places free of crime with good schools and low unemployment. What’s not to like? Why not one of those? Because they are all the same. They are all America. And God bless this country and we love it but it is all the same where ever you go. Homogenized. The same McDonald’s, Starbucks and Wal-Marts.
And the people are all the same. Oh, sure, there are liberals and conservatives but they all just parrot the talking heads that flood their particular political channel.
Anywhere you go in America. Oh, I know if you go to this town or that town or get far enough off the interstate, things are sometimes different. But more often than not, it’s the same wherever you go.
And also, it can’t be denied, we have seen or I have seen the decline of America. An internal decline in morals and manners.
What was first shocking, raw or refreshingly assertive has now become painfully commonplace and obnoxious.
Like an internal cancer eating away at this country, spreading, metastasizing.
The assumption that Americans are proud, hard-working, independent free people didn’t mesh with what we saw around us and in the news. More often than not, Americans were fat (meaning obese), lazy, entitled and stupid.
On our month visit to New Zealand, we liked the people. Albeit, you only see a handful of people but the ones we saw, we liked. New Zealand had a certain amount of sanity, of common sense. Heck, maybe being on the other side of the world, it was already right side up and hadn’t turned upside down like we had.
On another occasion in New Zealand, a bus driver asked us where we were from. When we told him we were from the United States, he seemed to consider it for a few seconds and then said, “Oh yeah, let’s see, I think we got a couple fellas around here from there.”
He thought for a moment and then mentioned some guy’s name. When I didn’t immediately respond, he paused for a second then added as if to clarify further, “from Montana?” And then looked at me curiously as if I might know him.
On yet another occasion, when someone asked Rebecca which state she was from in the United States, she beamed and proudly boasted that she was from Colorado.
“I’m sorry, luv” the gentleman apologized, “Never heard of it.”
Actually, the combined area of both the North and South Islands of New Zealand equal that of the state of Colorado.
We picked New Zealand because we liked it on our visit there. The people were friendly and sane. No one cursed. There wasn’t trash all over the place. English was spoken – well, sort of. And it was spectacularly beautiful.
You know, check out what’s going on in the Southern Hemisphere having pretty much exhausted things here in our own hemisphere.
Like Thoreau going for a year to a hut on Walden Pond, we would go for a year or more to a house on the Tasman Sea…