Friday, February 2, 2018

Thoughts on returning from New Zealand

Almost the only flag I noticed on my trip--tucked modestly in the corner of a garden near Christchurch. Notice--it's torn.
                                        Some things are better said than pictured.

Note: I returned from New Zealand five days ago, and some thoughts (as I watch my nation come increasingly in thrall to a nasty demagogue and a strange conjunction of religious bigotry, the underwriting of a vast oligarchical moneyed class joined somehow at the hip with Russia) I looked back longingly and tried to figure out what delighted me so much about my trip there. Having spent a month and a half, more or less, in N.Z. over the past year and a half makes me an expert, don't you think? Taking that into consideration (along with a grain of salt) here are some takeaways for me.

Of course, I am enthralled by the wet West coast with all those tree ferns, totaras and other fantastic plants. The pastoral paddocks and cities of the Canterbury, Marlborough and Otago plains are where most of my friends live and are a hotbed of all manner of activity (farming, gardening, industrial and commercial development and above all seismic!). But the MacKenzie highlands and the Cromwell to Alexandra south central dry lands are where I left the biggest chunks of my heart. It felt like home. I even liked Queenstown--which everyone had warned me against. Oh yes, I finally spent a week or so on North Island: you South Islanders are really mean: it's a languorous land, all bays and harbors. palm trees and tree ferns. Wellington and Auckland are pretty stunning as big cities go. We spent most of the time in the Northlands, and when I looked on a map and saw how tiny a piece of North Island that was, I was horrified. So there is a vast stretch between Wellington and Auckland I still don't know (and something tells me it's pretty cool). It is shocking to me that my beloved state of Colorado is 104,185 mi², New Zealand supposedly only 103,483 mi²: New Zealand felt ten times bigger to me than my native state: they've been crafty in how they've configured their country! (BTW, Colorado's population is 5.541 million people (up from about 2 million in 1960 while New Zealand has 4.693 million (2016)--up from little more than 2 million in 1960. I'm not much of a statistics buff, but those are some that seem to rattle around my head*... Those statistics don't just rattle, they rankle.

What prompted this blog was a post I made to my cousin Gregory Papantonakis--a professor of Philosophy in Texas. Among his many philosophical interests, social justice and minorities is an arena where he has achieved international recognition. I felt compelled to write him about my recent trip. I felt what I wrote maybe deserved to be preserved on my blog as well as buried in Facebook.

Primo: have you ever been to New Zealand? I wish you could get a fellowship there--you'd love it. Aside from the enormous natural beauty, aside from the undeniable charm and wisdom of the people, aside from their incredibly intelligent governance, the country has what I regard as a sort of "key" to societal harmony: the impact of the Maori's on the natural world when they landed on the islands 800 years ago was huge: they burned vast stretches of the country and made many large birds (several species of moas) extinct. Europeans only colonized intensively AFTER a treaty was signed at Waitangi in 1840 after which time many of the terms of that treaty were effectively abrogated, and they had an even vaster impact on the natural environment than the Maori, felling a vast percentage of the ancient vegetation--much of it was forest enormous conifers unique to the island (that are very slow to regenerate) and replacing it with vast grassland paddocks for sheep and cattle, farming and huge tracts of American pine and Douglas fir plantation. A dozen nasty animal pests were introduced (beginning with the rat with the Maoris) which have decimated the remnant native avifauna. A vast suite of mostly Eurasian (and a few African) weeds have supplanted much of the ruderal, and even wild vegetation at lower elevations primarily. What is significant is that the ecological disaster that resulted has made ecology an EVERY DAY conversation among Kiwis (as they like to call themselves). They don't just talk, they're have made enormous strides to preserve the fairly extensive pristine areas left, and they're exploring huge potential measures for restoring even larger tracts to pre-settlement state. 

SIMULTANEOUSLY they are pursuing (and seemingly have a national consensus) on empowering the Maori language, culture and traditions. Non-Maori Kiwis use a vast number of Maori place names, names for birds and plants, and although there is still a  well of past injustices to the native people, the Government has apologized for the abrogation of treaty terms and is constantly providing recompense--monetary and otherwise--to the minority native population. Maori motifs are everywhere, and I saw a surprising amount of tattoos on what appeared to be European Kiwis that resembled Maori tattoos. The sports teams performing the haka are perhaps the most conspicuous adoption of Maori culture, but I believe there are other even more meaningful ways the two cultures are achieving a sort of harmony. What impresses me about this atonement is that it appears to be deliberate, conscious and progressive. And I'm sure there's an internal backlash and grumbling on both sides--but it's not come center stage and atavism has not prevailed as it has at home.

 I noticed three traits among the Kiwis I've gotten to know:

1) there seems to be an enormous prosperity that does not manifest itself as crass materialism so much as elegant material culture: the standard of living is very high there--and it's not just the money they make. Average Kiwi income is $49,000 while Colorado is $54,740. I suspect that when you factor in Health Care (New Zealand has National Healthcare), and the interesting fact that a Kiwi would pay 15% effective taxes at the while a Coloradoan would be paying 25% at the wages quoted above quickly skews things in New Zealand's favor.  And let's not even begin talking about our comparative deficits...

2) Kiwis are not in your face about their good qualities: they don't wave flags (I rarely saw one) or rub your face in their truly superior governance or their day to day sound living. They seem to have a a sort of utterly unpretentious way of being and relating that smacks horribly of just plain decency and integrity (a word that should be banned from use in most of the rest of the world). New Zealand had fewer than ten gun deaths a year in 16 of the last 20 years. Colorado had 56 homicides in 2016--most of these gun related. These do NOT include Police homicides: in December of 2017 there were seven police shootings that resulted in six deaths in the course of one month. There were 29 police shootings in New Zealand in the last 65 years, not all of which resulted in death. Gun violence in New Zealand is statistically trivial compared to America or Colorado.

3) Finally, they seem to have maintained the balance between political parties and differing points of view that has disappeared utterly in America. Kiwis have a sense of humor and can be wickedly funny--but the rancor and bitterness that is so evident on social media in America and even on bumper stickers is just not there.  When the new young woman Prime Minister announced she was pregnant (mind you--she's not even married) she was applauded by the opposition. That's probably a good note to end this on.

But first, I should summarize that the "key" that the Kiwis offer (and few nations follow) is to create atonement between minority and majority ethnicities, between political parties and most of all between  the cultural landscape of cities, farms, ranches and plantations and the landscape the predates humanity. There is a conscious attempt on the part of people and the government to achieve consensus in all three spheres--and the result is a state that appears to be winning--unlike so many of us who are feeling like losers on so many levels.

*All numbers derived from Google a few minutes ago: they must be right, right?

At this point I realize that the only people who will have probably read this far are Kiwis--and all I can say to you is keep your country on that sane track. Do as England did and get rid of Faux News--that's the principal conveyor of right wing poison in America. And raise your taxes on the upper income levels a LOT! Before they pollute your republic as they have ours.


  1. Your comments on NZ are accurate indeed Panayoti! After experiencing NZ for a month I too feel the Kiwi's are honestly committed to working on their issues, from the highest levels of government right down to the local grassroot levels - it's refreshing to see citizens involved daily with their issues, unlike our country. How I miss the Otari Native Botanic Garden, I hope you made it to this gem of North Island!

  2. After spending a wonderful five months providing pastoral care to 18 truly delightful CSU students, I can only say to you Panayoti that it is all true. Our time in NZed was life changing for my family and myself. We left Colorado last January for the start of our adventure expecting to see the unique glory of NZed that we knew from the movies. However, what delighted us the most were the people that we met. We chose to travel the country via small local hotels, hostels and backpackers, and Air BnB. What we found was a country full of proud, humble, respectful, and fun people. Staying with a Maori family that could trace their lineage to their canoe was an absolute delight. Sitting on the sofa in a family home watching the All Blacks was something you can not experience in a hotel.

    All in all, Debra and I were sad to leave NZed and return to Colorado. Note that I did not say return home. We will return to NZed soon and regularly. New Zealand has been seared into our hearts.

    1. Thank you both for your heartfelt comments: not that New Zealand needs any more tourists! But I suspect they'll always welcome anyone and appreciate those, like ourselves, who look beyond the souvenir shops and conventional tourist traps. I had a magical few hours at Otari, Teaist: I got so many pictures that turned out well there that I dread trying a blog. It would just be too long! But perhaps you've nudged me along that path.

    2. Oh Panayoti! PLEASE post images of Otari - Wilton's Bush, in my view the best public botanic garden in New Zealand. Anyone who loves plants would appreciate seeing your images.

  3. This just confirms everything I ever believed about New Zealand. My husband and I plan on spending as long as possible there when we retire. No less than 2 months, but ideally 6 months or more. (If possible.) Just knowing that a culture/government exists like that, somewhere on this planet, gives me hope about humanity that has been sorely lacking lately.

  4. I am not a Kiwi but I read the whole thing! I have friends from NZ though. Wishing them well through this rainy weather.

  5. I read to the end, and commend you for putting our experience into eloquent words. All true.

  6. I'm so happy to see that idyllic places (and people) still exist on this planet. It saddens me that my country (America) has devolved into what it is now.


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