Jen and I are just back from a two-week trip to New Zealand, with a couple of days in Hawaii on the way home. We met in Wellington, spent a day exploring, then took the ferry to the south island and drove for ten days. You can see lots of pictures in my Facebook album.
Basically, the whole place is beautiful. Mountains, coast line, waterfalls, rainbows, neat farms, fields of sheep and cattle, tidy towns with interesting shops, good restaurants…there is nothing about this country that sucks. We had great meals, found lovely wines and beers, met gracious and friendly people everywhere. After starting in Wellington on the north island, we took the ferry and our rental car down to the south island, and traveled to Nelson, Golden Bay, Greymouth, the glaciers, through Mount Aspiring National Park, the lakes at Wanaka, to Cardrona and Queenstown. There was a full day trip to Doubtful Sound in the huge Fiordland National Park, and a day of play on the mountain by Queenstown on six great zip lines.
We drove out east to Dunedin, a rather classic town with Georgian architecture, stopped in Oamaru to see more cool buildings, an old seaport with stone warehouses, converted into a collection of nice shops including a steampunk museum, and one of the coolest book shops I’ve ever visited, then north to Christchurch. After flying back to Auckland, we heading home, goofing off for two days of tourist fun in Waikiki. Below are the old Savoy Hotel in Dunedin, the bookstore and shops in Oamaru, and the view from the top of Diamond Head in Waikiki (THAT was a serious hike in the heat!)
So yes, it was a great vacation, one I’ve wanted to take for decades. And I find myself deeply changed by this little journey, I find my viewpoint on many things in America quite different. Some of my shift is due to presidential primary election drama, with the scary prospect of Donald Trump getting elected. (The Kiwis often asked us if our country was losing it’s collective mind.) But my internal change is really about New Zealand, what is so remarkable and different about life there.
- There are no sirens, even in the bigger cities. It’s just quiet. Oh, the town of Takaka has a volunteer fire department, so something like a tidal wave siren goes off once or twice a day, to call the volunteers to a road accident or kitchen fire or something. But the ambience does not include police or fire sirens. Huge difference.
- Gasoline prices were uniform throughout the country, NZ$1.73/liter, with diesel at NZ$0.98. All the diesel vehicles seemed clean; there were no clouds of smoke from buses or trucks that I saw.
- 100 kph is the speed limit (62 mph) on most roads, which are almost all well-built 2-lane highways.
- Drivers are good, respectful and safe. In 1200 miles of travel, we did not see one road accident, and only saw about five police cars.
- There is no litter along the roads.
- There are no billboards.
- There are no pot holes.
- There are no planes flying overhead, unless you happen to be near one of the three major airports.
- The peak income tax rate is lower.
Really, a most delightful thing is that almost everyone is middle-class. We saw no one homeless, no one particularly rich — although there are some expensive homes here and there, and the occasional Jaguar or Audi on the road. Nearly everyone seemed cheerfully employed, with a positive outlook on life. There is very good public health care, great education, great roads and infrastructure. The top income tax rate is 33%, more than 6 points lower than federal income tax in the US. And there is no state income tax.
It’s not perfect, of course. For example, Queenstown is so flooded by tourists that there are almost no apartments or houses available for the folks that work in the shops there. We chatted with one of our zipline guides, who has to share a bedroom in a rented house because living space is so hard to find. Even though the food was very good and reasonably priced everywhere we went, we did notice a shortage of greenery with our meals, lots of meat (and great fish!), not much fruit. But that may be cultural preference.
It’s quite amazing how much healthier the society is when the government does not spend 54% of revenue on the military. I did not experience any class distinctions or prejudice — though I’m sure some exist — and there are Māori place names and protected sites everywhere. The Wellington Museum has a huge Māori exhibit, both very educational and respectful. Māori art and tattoos are everywhere. I chatted for an hour with a fellow who emigrated from Fiji when he was young, and now makes a fine living near Auckland, lives in a house near the coast with his wife and two daughters, and any way I can see it, is successful and happy. I talked with a restaurant owner from the Cook Islands, again, happily married with family, running a successful Indian restaurant in Dunedin. The Oamaru bookstore owner is from Texas, and has never looked back after becoming a Kiwi.
I’m deeply questioning my life in North America. New Zealand seems so civilized compared to life here. Work/life balance is just a given, kids are well-behaved and well-educated, different cultures intermingle freely, and people are just cheerful, dammit. The biggest current issue the country is confronting seems to be choosing a new flag.
I want to live more like they do. I want to live in a society that cares for their people, and spends government funds wisely. So much of the rest of the world, Canada, most of Europe, Australia and New Zealand and parts of South America, seem to do this better than we do; when do I give up on my native land and move?