First Impressions

Wanting to write something down about my first impressions of being here in Tauranga, New Zealand. I guess I’ll turn off the television, which on one of the only four available channels here in this flat, is airing the college New Zealand netball finals . . .

When you write down first impressions about a place, you have to remember that they are—well—first impressions. You could be completely wrong about stuff. Things might not be that way at all. But in any case, here are my thoughts.

The people here are friendly and just plain nice. I don’t know what it is, but the Kiwis here are all just a pleasure to deal with and it makes everything easy and relaxed. They’re funny and light-hearted. They seem content. And it isn’t put on. It’s not like people trying to be nice or kind or helpful. That’s just the way they are. Sure some people are busy, or rushed going about their business. People have problems and worries like everywhere else. But on the whole, on that bell-shaped curve that represents a population, most people here just seem—I hesitate to use the word—happy. Content and happy.

Things are generally done or organized in a practical, common-sense easy way without complication. You get the sense that everyone would frown upon or there would be a general uprising if things were made too complicated for no reason. We bought Rebecca a used car, brought the dealer a check from the bank and were given the keys and drove off. All the tags, titles, inspections done. No endless paperwork. Two signatures.

And there isn’t that frenetic energy that even a relatively small city like Colorado Springs has back in the US. People use cellphones but from what I’ve seen so far people aren’t walking around in that trance-like zombie state glued to their phones. Technology seems to be still a tool and not an all-consuming obsession. I don’t get the sense that people are out to get things, or get ahead whatever that means. And they aren’t caught up with celebrity. They are just living their lives.

People do have far less here than in the United States but don’t seem to miss it or lack it. To be fair, maybe they’ve never had some things and so don’t know to miss them or want them. Many of the accommodations or just day-to-day items one uses would be considered substandard by American standards or even primitive. But the funny thing is that after a few days here, Rebecca and I don’t seem to miss or now even need many of the things and services which complicated our lives back in the States.

At the same time, we do have less here, living in our little hovel. It is like once we were kings and queens but then through a series of events we lost everything, and now we have next to nothing. We remember our times in the palace, but alas, it is no more and now we must survive like commoners.

At the same time, lots of things are a bit harder, take more time, and are a bit more expensive to get accomplished. Already I can see hours filled with handling things that would be nothing back in the US.

Things are not as modern as they are in the United States—houses, buildings, stores, roads, bridges. In some places, it looks like nothing new has been built since around 1970.

There are shops. People own and work in the shops. In some places it is more like what I imagine living in a village would be like. People know me, recognize me, remember me already. It’s nice.

It’s green here. There are lots of plants and strange trees I’ve never seen before, in fact, which don’t exist anywhere but here. There is no trash on the streets. Everything is clean and well-kept. It feels safe. The weather so far has been glorious. And this is winter; it feels like autumn back when I was growing up in Virginia.

Everything is more expensive. Everything is $2 or $3 more than it would be back home. Well, actually lots of things are $20 or $50 more. Food is much more expensive here; I have study the prices more before I buy something and probably won’t eat as much here.

Once several years ago back in the States, Rebecca saw her cousin Leslie, who she hadn’t seen for several years.

“You look great,” Rebecca remarked, “you’re so skinny,” she added continuing the compliment.

“You’d be skinny too,” Leslie snapped back, “if you didn’t have money for food.”

That could be us after a few months here.

But there is no sales tax here (the tax is already built in) and no tipping when you eat out which helps some.

Some things aren’t more expensive. Rebecca’s full coverage car insurance costs $27/month with a $300 deductible (called excess here). She’s apparently covered for 20 million dollars.

“So she could smash into a Lamborghini dealership and destroy all the cars in the showroom and still be covered,” I asked the insurance agent at the bank.

“Yep, that’s right,” Briana, who was wearing a crazy modern business suit with the buttons down the side, replied. She didn’t point out that the scenario however would be very unlikely to occur with Rebecca driving a 2005 1300 cc Honda Jazz with 91,000 kilometers on it, a tiny car which Rebecca terms her “clown car”. If she drove fast enough she just maybe might be able to make a dent in the Lamborghini showroom window. But in which case she would also be covered.

At the hospital, Rebecca says people complain that if you are brought into the hospital by ambulance and it turns out it wasn’t a true emergency, you will be billed $80. They’re appalled. In the US, you can’t glance sideways at an ambulance without being billed at least $1000, and you will be harassed until your final days until they get that money.

I’ve made mistakes. Mostly little ones. My first day I was looking at the wrong spot for the prices on the shelf at the supermarket when I bought some items, and paid fifty dollars for some coffee, hot sauce and a few other things. Parking downtown, I bought a parking ticket for one hour (I could stay parked until 1:07 PM) but immediately decided I probably needed two hours to be safe. So I put in coins for another hour and now I had a parking ticket that said I could stay parked until 1:08 PM. Again at the supermarket, I bought a can of tomato sauce to make spaghetti. When I served it, Rebecca said, “This tastes like Ketchup on pasta.” It did and it was. “Well, apparently tomato sauce means Ketchup and it comes in a can,” I answered. Stuff like that.


Another parking story. I pulled up in front of a car dealer to look for a car to buy. I had to parallel park. Now growing up in Washington, D.C., I have always considered myself a master of parallel parking. I could deftly glide a car into the tightest spot in the midst of busiest traffic before the heel of the ever-present cab driver’s hand could even make the slightest move toward the horn. But here in front of the dealership I was parking on the left side of the road but with the steering wheel on the right. My car was a tiny rental car and the space was large enough. Of course at that very moment, several car mechanics had to emerge from the shop to take a break and watch. I lined myself up and glided back immediately bouncing off the curb, then proceeded to do that thing were you back up and go forward about a hundred times, and the tires eventually get wedged against the curb so that you can’t go forward or back. After several minutes I ended up with the car at a screwy angle, several feet away from the curb, and only inches from the car in front of me but with several feet behind me to the next car. I got out and walked away not looking at the mechanics.

Driving. Yes, they drive on the left, and the steering wheel is on the right which leads to all sorts of mischief and excitement. Before we left for New Zealand I asked the mailman at home in the US if I could borrow his truck with right-hand drive and practice. He did not seem amused. The mail was serious business. He just looked at me then handed me a stack of junk mail and bills and drove off.

I had already driven on the left before during our one month visit to New Zealand before and thankfully had broken the habit of approaching my parked car every time from the passenger side and then having to pretend I was checking something before going around to the real driving side. Same with the habit of turning on my windshield wipers every time I wanted to signal a turn. Having studied Eastern religions for a period of my life, I was well aware of the power of mantras, those seemingly magic words you repeat to yourself over and over, which over time hopefully culminate in spiritual insight. For driving, I follow the car in front of me or when alone on a road, I repeat the mantra “keep left, keep left, keep left.”

It’s not a terribly big city but everyone here drives so fast and with such assurance and confidence! I guess that’s because they have lived here their whole life, Paul. But for now I have my landmarks. I turn at a particular corner every time. I stay in this lane and not that lane. I can get some places by making only left turns, but often end up back from where I started. If I miss one of my turns and keep going, I’m not sure what would happen. For me, like some past explorer, there are huge sections of the map in which I have not yet dared to venture and know not what lies there. And that first day driving alone, seeing signs that say Hamilton and Auckland—they might as well say Singapore or Kuala Lumpur— and being afraid if I’m not careful I’ll be whisked hundreds of kilometers off to the other side of the island somewhere and won’t be able to get back.

At stop signs and intersections, I look in every direction: right, left, up, down, sideways. Cars can be coming from anywhere.



Then there are the roundabouts which I am rapidly getting the hang of. I have been honked at once and the guy slowed down and glared at me. Tough guy. See how he would do in Denver or Washington, D.C. traffic. But as I told Rebecca, if you are forced to drive through seventeen trillion roundabouts everyday, you can’t help but begin to get used to them. There is one particularly vicious multi-lane roundabout however, which is complicated by a series of traffic lights and lane changes scattered throughout the circle.  It is like an advanced level in a video game.

Typical small roundabout.

Typical small roundabout.

Actually I grew up outside Washington D.C. which has a number of similar roundabouts except they are called ‘circles’. Miss a turn or a lane change in one of those and your brief foray into politics would be over. You’d end in Maryland or crossing a bridge over the Potomac back into Virginia.

But these New Zealand roundabouts, and this one in particular, remain complicated for me by this dastardly habit everyone has here of persisting in driving on the left side of the road.

Also there is an expressway, a divided highway with two lanes in both directions. You’re driving down it thinking, “Okay, finally I can relax, I’ll just stay in the far left lane (the slow lane) and cruise.” But no, suddenly the four lane highway becomes a roundabout, a giant roundabout with multiple lanes leaving from all quadrants. Once you navigate the roundabout, it once again becomes a highway again. It would be as if you were driving down I-25, the Interstate back in Colorado, and suddenly there was a roundabout right in the middle of it (maybe something our dear friend, Yolanda, with the highway department back there is considering).

Rebecca is better after a month here. She says there are only two streets you have to remember, Cameron and Devonport, and she’s right. And if you get lost, just follow the signs to the City Centre and then you can find your way home. Right again. Rebecca has actually driven all the way to Otumoetai! She’s like some kind of hero in my mind.

And my first night alone driving home at night, how glad I was to see that weird store with the flags above it (I could have hugged it!) that has become a familiar landmark coming home from my forays.


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