A Deeper Understanding of New Zealand Culture – Six Months In Kerikeri

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

It’s hard to believe it’s been 6 months since my decision to stay in New Zealand instead of returning to the US.

I’ve been stuck in New Zealand just over six months. Stuck no longer seems like the right word. I’m not sure how to describe it. Marooned, perhaps? Lucky to be here. This is the longest I have been in one country, or one place, in three years. As time has ticked by, I’ve gotten more and more involved in the local community of Kerikeri. And, I’ve been learning more about the culture and people of New Zealand. Here are some of the deeper parts of the culture I’ve gotten to experience after being here so long.

Just over six months since I landed in this rainbow.

Copyright, 2020. Heather Markel.

Volunteering At The “Op Shop”

One of my joys is shopping in the local Op Shop. It’s what they call a second-hand store here, and there are several in Kerikeri. Thanks to them, I got flannel pajamas for the freezing winter nights for $4 (about $2.50 USD). I just satiated my need for new fitness apparel and a couple of pairs of pants for spring and summer, for $9.50 with my Op Shop discount (about $6 USD)! What I really love, however, is helping the customers. Watching different sorts of people come in is fascinating, and how they respond when I ask them to sign in for contact tracing (yes, there are a few that find this insulting.) On a poignant level, I learned that the Maori women who just bought 12 doormats for 50 cents each, will likely be using them to cover the dirt that is the floor of their home.

If you get to Kerikeri, explore the St John’s Op Shop where I’m volunteering, or the local Hospice Shop.

The Maori People

The longer I’m here, the more I’m trying to seek out Maori people to learn their stories. With so many different tribes, there are many stories. They don’t write them down. My favorite staff member at the local butcher shop, Churchills, has been a Maori boy. He’s about 23. I know this because he told me his age, and his entire family situation. Dana of Rongoa Magic at the Packhouse Market makes wonderful natural balms to cure all sorts of ailments. There’s Kawakawa balm  which works as an antiseptic (and makes a great tea for stomach ailments!), Kumarahou balm is an anti-inflammatory, and Calendula balm is an anti-fungal. She even gave me a sample of something made from a poisonous plant (so I have to make sure to wash my hands after using it) that works wonders for the arthritis in my knees.

The other side of Maori culture, however, is that many are poor. I’m about to start volunteering for Bald Angels which helps Maori families. (If you would be so kind to make a donation to this great cause, I’d so appreciate it!) I learned that I won’t be able to go meet with the kids, or families one-on-one, because after I leave, I will become just another disappointment to them. I learned many live in the type of aluminum-sided housing I saw in squatter camps and townships in Cape Town, South Africa. (To clarify, not ALL Maori people live this way, but I think even one family having to live this way is one family too many.) The dirt of the earth is the floor, as I mentioned above. There’s one room for an entire family. There usually isn’t a bathroom, or a shower. A teenager will often find a partner, start a family, and then make another small house. Because, the baby, and that house, will be the only thing that will be theirs. Then they’ll have more kids, and repeat the cycle. Unfortunately, this leads many Maori children to experience depression which can lead to suicide. I’m so happy there’s an organization here trying to shift their lives. I was touched and impressed when the founder of Bald Angels reminded us that when we try to teach someone that a way of eating, or a way of life, is “better” that it’s better “to us” and perhaps not to them. We need to hold this awareness when we speak to one another.

I’ll be working on the Angel Bears project. It’s a wonderful way to both raise money and create comfort for Maori families. Some of the bears are sold in shops and generate revenue for Bald Angels and their services. But many of them are actually distributed to emergency services organizations. They hand the bears out to kids to comfort them.

Maori statue

Everyone Loves Fitness

I feel like I’ve gained the “Pandemic fifteen” and have been on an exercise kick to drop the weight. I take Latin Fit dance classes twice a week with Luz, from Peru, who runs Latin Fit Kerikeri. (If you watch the videos of me even trying to mimic Luz, at all, please don’t laugh too hard. Or, if you do, just leave your pants button open or you’ll bust it laughing so hard.) It’s with a group of lovely ladies (sometimes a random guy or two). It’s been my exercise solace while here. 

Latin Fit dance class in Kerikeri

This past week, I did a new member one-week class pass at Aligned Movement which has seriously put my body on the right path. Whenever I look around me, outside, there’s always someone running, hiking, or walking. New Zealanders don’t sit at home on the couch – they’re out there taking advantage of nature. I guess all this fitness is paying off, since I was recently offered $200 to have sex with a guy. He’s from another country, and it was 10 in the morning, and, to be fair, he did first ask to be my boyfriend, date me, follow me around New Zealand, and feed me. I guess, since I declined all these options, he went for directness. I’ve also learned that prostitution is legal in New Zealand, and you have to pay tax to the government.

Latin Fit Kerikeri

True Kiwis Go Barefoot

I’ve mentioned this before – but the barefoot culture fascinates me. It starts with the kids who walk all over town, the supermarket, and outside with no shoes. A new Kiwi friend, James, told me he thinks this leads to thicker skin on the feet as an adult, so they walk as comfortably with no shoes as anyone does with shoes. I’m seriously thinking of giving it a try, or, if I can find a cheap pair of those shoes that look like feet, trying them out. The connection to earth is compelling.

The Stone Store near my cottage. Copyright 2020, Heather Markel.

There’s A Backpacker Cycle

Every year, a group of people come to Kerikeri on a working holiday visa. They work for a while, then they travel. That’s how I met Lea who worked at Café Zest in town. She joined me at Latin Fit, then invited people from her hostel, which is how I met her friend Marylou. They were great fun, and now they’ve left to travel around. Luz said it’s the same every year – they fall in love with the backpackers and then they leave.

There’s A Huge International Community

For a small town, Kerikeri has a lot of foreigners. I’ve met a few South Africans, and there’s a huge Latina population. I’ve met people from Uruguay, Venezuela, Argentina and more. The local high school welcomes international students, so I’ve met some from Brazil, Colombia and Germany. I have friends now from Scotland and England so, really, it’s like an international party in a small town. And, there’s the seasonal kiwifruit pickers from islands like Vanuatu and Tonga. I love being surrounded by so much culture. Since I can’t travel right now, it’s as if all the countries I want to go to have traveled to me. 🙂

Fish ‘n Chips Is A Staple Food

This is a staple of the culture. There’s a fish-n-chips shop in pretty much every town. I’ve been meaning to try Calypso Takeaway, here in Kerikeri, which I’ve heard is great. Just trying to drop a few more pounds first.

How To Eat Kiwifruit

As I mentioned in a previous post, the word “kiwi” can be vastly misused, and if you want an amusing take, watch this video. Coming from America where I only knew about the green kiwifruit, I have been delighted to eat gold and red kiwifruit. But, I have also learned HOW TO EAT a kiwifruit. See, in America, we peel them, then slice them. I have always found this a lot of work, and a pain in the ass, and it’s messy work to peel them because they tend to be pretty juicy. So, I rarely eat them unless someone else has done all the work and tossed them into a fruit salad. Well, in New Zealand, you just cut them in half, get a spoon, and dig in! It’s delightful and not so messy! This may be one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned, so far, in New Zealand.

The Coffee Is Excellent

If you’ve followed my globe trapsing at all, you may have noticed I talk about coffee, a lot. Colombia and South Africa top my list, and Argentina is at the bottom, sorry! (They have yerba mate though!) I’ve been delighted at how good the coffee is in New Zealand. When I have it out, the flat white is fabulous. The other day, at Fishbone Café, I had a small one, and they accidentally made two of them, so they gave me both. (They only charged me for one!) I was a wee bit jittery, but it was delicious. When I make coffee at home with my coffee plunger, I use my new favorite – ground Colombian coffee sold at the Sunday farmer’s market right in town.

Stone Store Kerikeri

The Stone Store. Copyright 2020, Heather Markel.

I’m Becoming “Known”

I think what’s really touched me is the feeling that I’m part of a community, not just a stranger or visitor. A friend from Latin Fit dance class saw me walking back from town this week and honked at me from her car. Another friend drove by and pulled over so we could chat by the side of the road.  A new couple came to stay next door to me for three nights this week. It turned out they were visiting their daughter, and she’s in my Latin Fit dance class. Someone new is coming to stay in two weeks, and I’ve been told they “know of me.” I mean, wow, complete strangers know of me!

The People Here Are Generally Some Of The Kindest And Most Generous I’ve Ever Met

The Stone Store finally opened a couple months back. It’s a delightful store with an old-American general store feel. I wanted a deck of their beautiful playing cards with New Zealand birds on them. They were out of stock each time I popped in. On the third or fourth visit, they felt so badly they didn’t have it in stock yet, they gave me the sample deck. Kiwis are super nice. Beyond that, pretty much every person I pass on the street, ever, greets me with a smile and a hello, and sometimes, if we’re walking the same way, a snippet of a conversation. Also, all throughout the pandemic, if anyone, anywhere, ever, is short on change to pay a store, they have always said, “No worries. Bring it back when you can.”

I recently ordered a Sup Cup to be a better traveler and waste less cups. The company is based in Kerikeri, though I don’t think they have a public showroom, or, at least not within walking distance of my place. So, I placed an order online one Sunday. Monday afternoon, there was a shout out my front door. It was a woman from Sup Cup! She thought it would be a waste of time and postage to mail it, being that it would get sent South before going to me, so she thought she’d try to figure out where I live, and deliver it! Wow.

Sup Cup NZ

When the government here changed their advisory on face masks, I couldn’t find any in stores, so decided to make my own. But, I don’t have a sewing machine. Happily there’s a crafts shop in town, All You Needle, and they’ve let me use theirs! And, what other government in the world would grant a second auto-visa extension to people stranded during the pandemic? That means I will have been granted one year without any normal visas and paperwork. Really, this has been a beautiful six months, despite the circumstances. To answer your other question – no, this experience has not made me want to give up nomadic life. I am very much looking forward to getting back out into the world!

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