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Back to New Zealand — South Island in Winter

What is globalization’s role in shaping modern New Zealand society?

September 27, 2003

What is globalization's role in shaping modern New Zealand society?

Christchurch at night. The thermometer drops ever so slightly below freezing. Gleeful panic breaks out in New Zealand's media. For days on end, public radio stations go on about the "atrocious weather." Weather announcers are having the time of their lives.

Thankfully, the island has changed little since the 1980s. Yet, headlines suggest that modern life is encroaching on the Victorian composure:

Unique informality seems to reign in upper government echelons. Official spokespersons cite ministers on a first-name basis: "Marion was briefed about genetically-modified maize found in a pizza parlor…" Not to be outdone, the Prime Minister calls a critical TV journalist "that little creep."

Much controversy surrounds New Zealand's proposed flatulence tax, to be levied on sheep and other farm animals in order to reduce their greenhouse emissions. Angry farmers are campaigning vigorously against the "fart tax."

Houses of prostitution became legal — and created challenges of their own:
"The Nelson City Council reacted with impressive speed to the Prostitution Reform Act… a brothel now fits within the definition of a commercial activity. What confounds council members is the fact that there are brothels quietly operating, but they don't know where they are. One councilor asked: 'How do we find them — in the Yellow Pages?'"

Restaurants have improved greatly during the last 20 years. A move in the opposite direction had been hard to imagine. Yet, the idea that people wish to eat out well remains somewhat exotic.

A New Zealand guide for good food (a slim book) is dedicated to "foodies," clearly considered to be eccentrics like matchbox collectors — or ham radio operators.

The world's southernmost Starbucks opened up in Invercargill's city center, a town which attests to dour 19th century affluence. Is Starbucks competing with Waxy O'Shea's Irish Pub? A poster by the door claims that "Hooker does it Better" (a reference, it seems, to a real estate agency).

Looking out on the town's Eastern Cemetery, the Ascot Hotel is not a cheerful place. Before breakfast, workmen are walking the ill-lit corridors glumly lugging deer heads and pelts. An exhibit, "300 Steward Island Deer," expected perhaps to cheer guests up, is to open that week.

South Island's scenery is enchanting, but getting from one site to another often seems endless — from Christchurch to the foot of Mount Cook, one goes up and down mountain ranges and across windswept plateaus to Dunedin.

Alternatively, one may be getting lost in pouring rain on gravel along the Southern Scenic Road to Invercargill.

Distances on maps or road signs are wholly misleading. Years ago, New Zealand switched to the metric system, a ruse designed to humor foreign tourists. In fact, trips take so long because maps and road signs were never actually converted to kilometers.

The word "kilometers" was merely substituted for "miles" — and so every destination is farther by half than one expects.

Steward Island in winter is a magical refuge from the "real world." Viewed from the air, tree tops look like giant broccoli. Only 2% of the island is private property, the rest is a nature preserve.

The fuchsia trek turns off a street, an instant portal to another planet. Oban, the capital (population 300), feels like a bustling metropolis. The new planet's air is cool, its moist scents are bracing. Beneath the airy canopy, silence is punctuated only by birds chirping — or the surf washing up nearby.

Threading their way among dense undergrowth, "trampers" brush against hanging brown and purple beards amidst shiny magnolia-like leaves and bark of many colors and patterns. Young shoots of lance wood fan out thin helicopter blades. Nearby, their elders' trunks shoot up 30 feet and more.

Giant ferns are rising left and right of the soggy trail, a multitude of plants all around. Suddenly, a shaft of sunlight illuminates more depth of foliage — one feels part of a giant heavenly salad.

Four hundred million years ago, a tiny plant developed the world's first vascular system. This living fossil, a tiny light-green tendril, survives on Steward Island.

Sea-birds abound. Giant mollymawks — plebeian cousins of the royal albatross — land splashing feet forward like water-skiers in the wake of small fishing boats. Tiny blue penguins hurry underwater, surfacing for air every 15 feet, then diving again.

Curious baby seals sit atop boulders, peering at the rowing boat under mother's watchful eye. Joker, an amiable cross of husky and golden lab, performs his daily guard duty.

Trying hard to keep his balance, he stares at the boat's wake — and suddenly barks furiously. Long before we see the faint underwater outline, Joker spotted the sea lion who lives near the harbor's entrance.

On to Sydney, Australia: Back to the "real world?"

At a nearby restaurant table, an earnest German tourist tries to impress his Australian lady companion. He leaps up in mid-dish, whips out a camera, blinds the woman, sits down again. Pointing at an aboriginal wall hanging, he declares: "That is quintessential Nietzsche." Then he draws closer to her — and asks: "Do you know Muesli?"