Ok, let's wrap this up, since I've been back for well over a week now!
First, a few more pix:
A lot of my "freaky clouds" photos didn't come out well, but I like this one:
The hotel room view at Mt.Cook:
Yes, these are icebergs:
The thing I'd love to post photos of is my friend Wanda's flat, but that would be too much of an invasion of privacy. As I mentioned last time, part of the reason I've visited New Zealand twice now is that I have friends who live there. One of them is Wanda, who was featured in this post about her purchase of a $150 belt. Wanda has gone through some financial ups and downs over the last few years. She's an artist, and not an overwhelmingly successful one, so her ups are never all that up, but for a long time, she did have a stable day job 4 days a week and managed to save some money. Then she decided to move back to the small town in New Zealand where she's from, after many years of living in other countries.
As an aside on that, I'll just note that New Zealanders are really big on their O.E.-- overseas experience. I don't know what percentage of the population has lived and worked abroad at some point in their lives, but I think it must be huge, much larger than the percentage of Americans who have even taken a vacation in another country. And when you figure that the currency and comparative cost of living has often made it really expensive for kiwis to come to the UK, Europe, America, etc., it's even more impressive.
Anyway, to get back to Wanda, thanks to her, and her brother, who is also a friend of mine, I've had a chance to see more of how people live in NZ. Through them and other friends of theirs, I've stayed in private homes in Auckland, Napier, and the town in the South Island where they're from. I'd name it, but it's too small a world down there and I'd be afraid someone could identify them even from what little I'm writing here!
In general, all the people I've stayed with have been pretty middle-class. As far as I can judge, I think their situations would be comparable to people I know in the States. And in many ways, they live very much the way people I know here do, which isn't surprising. But in other ways, things are a bit different. They definitely tend to drive smaller cars, due to higher gas prices I'm sure. And in other ways, they just don't seem to have as much STUFF, or as much emphasis on brands and materialism. Some of this may be more about the individuals themselves, and about my perspective as someone who spends way too much time in New York City, where you sometimes discover you've just walked through a fashion photo shoot without realizing it, because everyone just kind of blended in. But I do think there is some part of it that has to do with a certain national attitude.
In the case of Wanda herself, as I got to know her, I learned to stop being surprised at her ability to live in dire conditions just because they were cheap. One of her homes that I visited was a tiny room in a house full of alcoholic middle-aged men, where the bathrooms and kitchen were shared. Then she moved to a much nicer flat that had been recently built-- it was lovely in many ways, but the only closet in the whole place was not a real closet but rather this strange thing known as an "airing cupboard." As I said to Wanda, "let me get this straight-- in order to dry your damp clothes, you fold them and put them on the shelf in a closet??" Mystifying. She has one again now in New Zealand-- and that segues into another general observation I have: people there seem much more inclined to hang their laundry in the yard to dry it, even if they own a dryer.
At Wanda's current flat, the washer and dryer are in a sort of shed outside the actual house. At first I thought that meant that Wanda didn't have to pay for the electricity to run them, but it turns out that each flat has a numbered outlet, and the tenants are expected to plug the machines into the right one whenever they're doing laundry. This may sound a little old fashioned, but it's actually one of the more modern features of the house.
The place was built in the 1920s or 30s, I think, and when I walked in, I almost felt like I was in a time warp. It was once probably a kind of Arts and Crafts-style bungalow, and a lot of the original woodwork has been preserved. The kitchen has a nice fireplace, and a built-in china cupboard. The bathroom was obviously an afterthought, built onto the outside of the house at some point, with only a shower stall. The kitchen stove and fridge probably date to the 70s. No dishwasher, needless to say. Then there's Wanda's living room, which is also her bedroom. And here the timewarp impression really struck me, as there's another lovely fireplace, and all her furniture is 2nd hand or stuff she's found on the street-- if you took a black and white photo, you'd have to look closely to see anything that would put you anywhere near the 21st century. Wanda also has another large room, but she mainly uses it for storage. Why? Because it's another room added on to the outside of the original house, and it has no fireplace. And no fireplace means no heat.
When Wanda told me her apartment was unheated, I couldn't believe it. The South Island of NZ has real winters, it's not like it's tropical. But apparently it's quite common for homes there to have no central heating. Wanda has an electric heater, but she doesn't like to use it much because it's so expensive. She also has a portable gas heater, but doesn't like that much either. So she mainly uses the two fireplaces for heat. Her brother helps her out by bringing her wood scraps from construction sites, and she also collects pine cones to burn. And then she buys coal. Lumps of coal! I didn't even know you could just buy coal nowadays-- I thought it was only for industrial uses, and frowned on even for that, given how bad it is for the environment. This really seemed weird-- and to anyone out there who doesn't understand my reaction, it's not just me. I told someone else this story, and when I mentioned the coal, she said "you mean like for a barbecue?" No, not charcoal briquettes! We're talking coal, real coal, anthracite, the other black gold, not to mention black lung...
Most people in NZ probably don't use an open hearth as their main source of heat. Wanda's brother, who I'll call Bud, is more typical in using a modern woodstove, which is rigged up to a duct that is supposed to push warm air into other parts of the house. But even with that, he has to put a space heater in the kids' room sometimes. Bud works in construction and said that he thinks New Zealand is "behind the rest of the world" in terms of heating technology. (Bud has also done his O.E. and worked in other countries for a few years.) But both he and Wanda also believe that there is a certain pride in being rugged and just "getting on with it" that makes kiwis less concerned about details like room temperature. Wanda "gets on with it" by wearing several layers of clothes, including gloves and a ski mask, to bed on the coldest nights of the year.
Over dinner one night, we also talked about lifestyles in general. New Zealand has also had a big real estate boom, and people are over-borrowing, though not to the extent they are here. Interest rates are much higher in NZ-- I saw a CD advertised with a rate of over 9% for a pretty short term. Houses tend to be much smaller-- that is changing but their new McMansions are still smaller than ours. Wanda and Bud are my age and a little older, and they agreed that the expected standard of living is evolving quite a bit in recent years. Until fairly recently, the New Zealand dream for families like theirs, they said, was to buy a house and a car, and maybe have a bach somewhere. A bach is a house for weekends and vacations-- traditionally it might have been not much more than a small, rustic cabin, without indoor plumbing or electricity, but now people are building more and more elaborate ones. And now, the car is more often an SUV, and the next thing you have to get is a motorboat.
Wanda sees Bud as being a bit caught up in this himself-- he has a house, just upgraded to a new SUV, and bought a camper that stays by a lake all summer as the family's weekend retreat. So far his only boat is a kayak. Meanwhile Wanda is struggling to get work and keeps watching the value of her savings erode as NZ's currency strengthens, since she left some money in an overseas account, thinking its value would go up rather than down. She has gotten a small government grant for her art, but it's not enough to live on. And she doesn't have too many other options, as most of the jobs in her area are agricultural or in things like meat-packing plants. If she moved to Auckland or Wellington, she might have more opportunties for arts-related jobs, or anything else that would use her office skills as opposed to manual labor-- but the cost of living is much higher there, so she's a bit stuck.
Anyway, that is my long meditation on other lives, other places. You've probably learned more about my background and prejudices than you have about New Zealand, though I really don't mean to sound like a snooty New Yorker who thinks other countries are primitive, and I swear I'm not Zsa Zsa Gabor doing Green Acres! In many ways, New Zealand feels more like the US than any other country I've been to except Canada, and I could happily live there if it wasn't so far away from everything else that is important to me.
In closing, one last money fact about New Zealand: don't forget the departure fee when you leave! At the airport, you have to pay NZ$25 before you're allowed to leave the country. Last time I was there, I'm pretty sure you had to pay in cash, as I seem to remember being really annoyed that I had to take out more cash, after so carefully planning to minimize what I'd have leftover. But now they have a lot of little credit card machines where you can pay the fee, as long as you have a PIN for your credit card. I find that departure fee so ironic-- it's as if leaving is this highly desireable thing that they make you pay for... but all I wanted to do was stay...
Total cost of my trip (at least the parts I personally paid for):
Transportation (to and from airport and taxes/fees/seat upgrade on frequent flier free ticket. Does not include car and gas): $264
Meals, gifts and miscellaneous: $519 (I didn't keep close track of my cash spending, so I don't have a more detailed breakdown.)
Memories, of course, priceless.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Ok, let's wrap this up, since I've been back for well over a week now!