Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Half a World Away

Today I was trading notes with a friend who spent some time in New Zealand. Before ever we left, he and I had talked a little about his time there, spent exclusively on the South Island. Interested though I was back then, it was an entirely different conversation this second time. Once again, being there makes all the difference. The abstract concept that I had mentally filed and labelled 'New Zealand' a year ago has been erased, and in its place are memories of a real country.

I never did find the time in South America to come back to the topic of New Zealand on this blog, so I hope you'll indulge me in a little reverie and soapboxing now.

Two images come immediately to mind when I think back on our time in NZ - especially on the South Island - that were constants in an otherwise ever-changing landscape. Firstly, the braided river systems. Wide stretches of rockstrewn flatlands through which trickled a few inches of water. Every time we drove over a bridge, we saw another one. The second, was the permanent company of birds of prey which hovered over every road we travelled like an Unholy Spirit. Both of these images bring me back immediately to the sensation of motoring though thousands of kilometers of breath-taking New Zealand beauty, and I once again experience the sense of mission and common purpose that seemed to travel with us during those weeks and months.

I'm happy to say, once more, that nostalgia plays no part in these memories, because nostalgia suggests some element of regret. And we regret nothing about NZ - not even saying goodbye when the time came. We had an unforgettable time there, made some new friends (I will email Dee - I really will!), and in 12 weeks we got to almost every angle of those amazing islands. We got, if I can be so mercenary, what we came for.

That said, I can't pretend to really understand New Zealand in any profound way, because I didn't get to understand any New Zealanders very well. They are a welcoming, hospitable people who nevertheless retain a degree of reserve that differentiates them from Australians. This is emphatically not a criticism, just an observation from somebody who has acquired the Irish habit of assuming everybody wants to be his best friend. 'Reserve', to an Irishman, is something one does to a hotel room.

It could be that the difference between Australians and New Zealanders (and in a very tenuous way the difference between the treatment meted out to the Aboriginals and the Maori) can be partly explained by the kind of people who travelled from these islands to those ones, around 150 years ago, to populate the new colony. If Australia was the dumping ground for the criminal class, New Zealand was the Ark that would carry those who wished to leave the iniquities of Britain and found a new Better Britain in the south seas. Christchurch, for example, was founded by an association presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury and whose advertising...

(taken from here)

...sought diligent labourers who could be vouched for by their local clergy. It was altogether a different way of making up the numbers than the policies that were been pursued in Australia. And this goes some way towards explaining why the percentage of Irish in New Zealand has always been much lower in New Zealand than in Australia, English and Scottish being the two dominant colonising cultures. Many generations have come and gone of course, and gold rushes in particular must have changed the composition of the population, but I feel that something of that original conservative and religious character remains around the South Island in general and Christchurch in particular (remember those absurdly long school uniform skirts!?).

But here's the kicker: I suspect that it was because of that streak of religious conservatism that New Zealand established practices that today would be considered the work of liberals. New Zealand was famously the first country in the world (yes, the whole world) to give women the vote. It was also the first, as far as I know, to set up something like social security. It was, in short, a great big open-air social experiment, and Kiwis knew it and were proud of it. They were driven not by a modern radical spirit, but out of a modern application of widely-shared christian values. That coin's other face showed itself too, for example in a relatively late acceptance of legalized homosexuality (1986) - seven years before Ireland, it should be noted, but still tardily at odds with NZ trail-blazing in other matters.

And of course I can't help but wonder whether this deliberately worthy approach to social mores, informed as it was by christian charity, might not have shielded the Maori from some of the worst excesses seen in Tasmania and mainland Australia. Don't get me wrong - the Maori had it bad and for a while it looked like they and their culture wouldn't last. But since 1867 New Zealand provided for Maori representation in parliament. It was only four seats to be sure, a sop with little political power, but it was four more than in any Australian colony, and these crumbs were enough to feed the political ambitions of certain sections of the Maori community, Apirana Ngata perhaps the most famous of these, his bust on prominent display in the foyer of the House of Parliament in Wellington. Mere gestures like those four seats, even if made cynically and in a paternalistic spirit, are made in any case because there is public support for the ideals that they feign. And once institutionalized, they can grow in significance over generations until they finally become what they first only pretended to be.

Today in New Zealand Maori culture is strong. There are problems for sure, but the situation is incomparable to that of the Australian Aboriginal. Anne, whom we met at a Wellington Bookcrosser meeting, told me that Maori in Australia (and there are many) find communicating with Aboriginals there to be as hard as talking with Martians. Some Maori idealists of Anne's acquaintance returned from missions in the Oz outback bitter and even racist.

As I suggested in an earlier blog entry, the Maori themselves were certainly better prepared for Europe's arrival, thanks to their agriculture and all that it led to in terms of social structures and complexity. This social and cultural similarity with Europeans meant that in times of war the Maori were able to fight back and in times of peace there was a great deal of intermarriage. But it was the nature of those who came to settle their lands too, which had an influence on the fate of the Maori, cushioning what might have been a mortal blow.


Back in Europe now, and trying to cushion the blow of returning to normal life (a term I can't take seriously), we can't help but look for signs of change and growth in ourselves but especially our kids. Yesterday, Sara demonstrated her new ability to pick things out on our globe here at home. She found all the countries we had been to with relative ease, immediated heading south of the equator, and generally showing a certain ease with the planet that she simply didn't have before we left. Letizia told her to put one index finger on New Zealand and the other on Ireland. Wow! She couldn't get over how far away these two points were from each other - they couldn't possibly be further. It's half a world away. And yet for as long as those braided rivers continue to trickle through my thoughts, and the birds of prey haunt my memory, it will always feel very, very near.

Now, before I disappear up my own artistry, here's a demonstration of how NOT to perform the haka, which I made to the collective embarassment of my family and the combined ridicule of three tables of Japanese tourists in a Rotorua hotel:

Em - that's me on the right, in case you weren't sure.

1 comment:

Duncan said...

You could have at least taken your top off ! I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to smile and laugh either :)