Monday, April 03, 2006

Culture Shock: New Zealand

We flew 12 1/2 hours way, way south from Bangkok to Auckland on a fine Airbus outfitted with on-demand tv and plenty of American movies we never saw before leaving in December (yes!), alighting in a land where we looked like most of the natives and talked the language. WHOA...culture shock!

Quickly getting in the groove of looking, talking and feeling "normal", we rented a car and remembered what it was like to drive again. On the "wrong" side of the road sure, but hey -- it's all relative these days. The left hand is wrong in India, the right hand of the road is wrong in Thailand but not Cambodia or Laos, and we now know to look left and right, up and down, when crossing the street so it's all good.

As Andy wound our little Toyota Starlet in its manual transmission glory through our first round-a-bout, we rolled down the windows and started to take in the landscape around us. Breathing deep, we smelled nothing but fresh air, and breathed deep again to make sure we weren't dreaming. No pollution! No foreign smells and spices -- just air, fresh and clean and cool. Madness.

And the landscape...wow! New Zealand seems to be one of those places where all you've heard and seen is actually true -- and even better in person. The water is impossibly blue and it crashes into a pristine land of green pastures and jaggedy, rock mountains populated by sheep, cows and charming people who speak a funny, mixed-up-vowels version of the Queen's English. They take tea, love rugby and rarely honk their horns. It's deathly quiet to us and there are so few people on the streets of New Zealand we wonder if we're in the wrong place even when we're right on track.

Our panoramic palette changed dramatically on that plane ride from Asia to New Zealand too, and we're now embedded in a unique spectrum of green, blue, black and white. Gone are the ubiquitous gold temples and orange monk's robes, disappeared is that uninviting brown sludge river water and forgotten is the deep red of spicy curries and hibiscus tea. Trees, ferns, grass and flora native only to New Zealand blankets the nation in tones that rival any jungle; the water is nothing short of insane in its clarity and teal-blue-green color. Black pops out everywhere because it's the color of craggy mountain silhouettes shadowed from sun and the uniforms of New Zealand's rabidly beloved "All Blacks" national rugby team, and white represents the wool of sheep, the sails of boats and the puffy clouds that float above us in the sky but never mar a beautiful day.

Andy and I keep looking around us and then at each other in wonder. Where did we land? Is this all real? Then we visited the ATM, of course, and it was all too real because the prices here are NOT that of Asia. A bit "ix-peen-seeve" as the locals might say. If there's such a thing as fiscal shock, then I guess we're experiencing that too here in New Zealand. $36 US for a room in a hostel without a bathroom? Gulp. Oh well...the "trip of a lifetime" mantra recitation begins.

Besides, there's awesome local wine on every menu, in every grocery store--with real, fixed price tags--and we kicked off our first night in Auckland with an outrageously jammy Pinot from Waipara and savored every sip. This was NOT Beer Lao! And, there's REAL cheese on this pizza. YES!

Plus, the opportunities for new adventures....kayaking, surfing, bungy jumping, sledging, caving, jet boating, tramping...what?!? Directions for it all in English, no less! Adrenaline craziness with nary a cerebral, historical pursuit. Most excellent! Honestly, after 3 months in Asia, we're ready for this kind of culture shock and can't wait to experience it all.

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