A Year In New Zealand – Reflections Of An Unplanned Year In The Same Country

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

A month turned into a year…

This week officially marked one year that I’ve been living in New Zealand. I thought I’d be here for a few weeks but I guess fate had other plans. Here are some reflections on the past year and what I’ve learned about New Zealand.

Arriving into a rainbow in Christchurch one year ago.

Copyright, 2021. Heather Markel.

It was a surreal experience, planning to travel the whole world in 2020, and ending up in Rotorua when the pandemic was declared, and having to pivot my plans. I headed up to Kerikeri in March, 2020, thinking it would be for a single week, while this Covid thing “blew over.” At the end of that week, New Zealand went into lockdown. I had to decide whether to pay $5,000 and fly home immediately, or stay put. Since New York City was the epicenter, I figured I should stay put, assuming that would be for 3 – 4 months, tops. That became 9 months in Kerikeri, and I started traveling around New Zealand again mid-December, at the peak of summer.

I have to admit, I feel it’s a huge accomplishment to have stayed in another country, for an entire year, without the need of a job or a husband! I mean, who ever thought that would happen as a result of Covid? Certainly not me, but boy do I feel lucky. My last extension was about to expire, and, once again, the government will be extending our visas. It’s both humbling, and bittersweet, because I wonder how much longer will it be before I can safely return to see my friends and family, without having to worry about potentially getting Covid? In the meantime, here are some reflections about New Zealand life and culture.

Maori legends are fascinating, and possibly coming true

I have loved getting immersed in some of the Maori legends while here. Recently, I saw the long white cloud (in New Plymouth on Mt Taranaki) for which New Zealand gets its name, Aotearoa. I fully understood, after seeing it, and it’s brother, near Wanganui, how legends of these brothers came to be. Another legend I’ve just heard again this week, is that New Zealand will lead the way, by example, of how nations should act for the good of mankind in the future. As Covid unfolds, it’s eery how New Zealand is emerging as a beautiful leader in compassion, integrity and a definite role model for other nations to follow. A place where the good of the people is prioritized over the economy. (And, ironically, this choice has led their economy to do exceptionally well. In other words, keeping your people safe and healthy first, does not mean the end of your economy!)

Second-hand shopping is cool

Back home, we look down on second-hand stores. At least, that’s my impression. You donate to them, but you don’t shop in them unless you can’t afford new clothes. I don’t think the “looking down” is intentional, it’s just that I grew up understanding that second-hand stores are not for people that have enough money to shop in retail stores. So, it was a bit of a shock coming to New Zealand and finding out how cool it is to shop second-hand. Everybody does it, and, in fact, it’s as if something is wrong with you if you don’t shop in them. Just today, I got a “new” shirt for about $2.50 and it looks like it was never worn. Apparently all the tourists donate their clothes, so Kiwis look forward to brands they wouldn’t otherwise be able to find!

It’s best to drink a large-size coffee

Flat whites are divine in New Zealand. After Colombia and South Africa, I’d say New Zealand is number three in best coffee I’ve tasted on my travels. The thing is, a regular size coffee costs $4.50 and a large costs $5.00. They do the same thing at Tank, the amazingly delicious smoothie store – it’s about 50 cents difference to “super size” your order, except it’s good for you. So, I feel encouraged to drink a lot of coffee while I’m here. 🙂

All Kiwis I meet think I should stay here forever

During my stay here, as a “Covid refugee”, everyone I meet thinks New Zealand is the best place on earth and that I should stay here, forever. Never mind the immigration issues, they just love their country and make me feel welcomed in it.

There’s a “thing” about Aucklanders

Maybe because it’s New Zealand’s largest city, and closer to a financial center than anyplace else in the country, it seems like everyone else looks down on Aucklanders. In face, they have a not-very-nice nickname; J.A.F.A.s At first, I thought these were sandals, like “Jandals”. Nope, they’re not. It stands for “Just Another F-ing Aucklander.” It’s used in good fun, but I have heard some deragatory remarks about them during the time of Covid.

People naturally go out of their way for you

With few exceptions, I have been bowled over by the helpfulness of people in shops and service-based businesses. Just the other day I went to the AA (it’s the auto shop, like the American AAA but here, AA does not stand for Alcoholics Anonymous, confusing!) to see if I could sort out my expired license (I couldn’t.) The woman came around the desk and into the shop to help me with the proper form, and when she realized I didn’t have the required secondary ID, stayed 10 minutes with me trying to think of all the possible options I could use and give me a helpful phone number. Just when I’m ready to give up, I’ve found, repeatedly, others trying to be super helpful.

The Maori culture and New Zealand’s efforts with them is inspiring

I still have so much to learn, but I find the Maori fascinating. Their tattoos, their faces that tell stories of generations of travel, their traditions. Just recently I learned that a film I absolutely loved, “Whale Rider” is based on a Maori legend! In fact, looking at the images from the film, I now see the costumes, the tattoos, everything is Maori, and I had no clue when I watched the film. Throughout New Zealand, cities have Maori names, and I’m trying to learn their pronunciation and respect that, and others do too. For example, Tauranga; it looks like “Tauw-ron-ga” but, in fact, should be pronounced “Toe-ron-ga”. There are many wrongs that have been done to the Maori people, and the government is actively trying to make amends. There is still resentment and anger, and that, also, has to be worked through, but, as an American, looking in on the huge racism problem we have, I find the efforts here inspiring. In all the talk about racism and talk about land being taken from indigenous people, I feel like Native Americans don’t get enough attention. I’m heading on a tangent, but suffice to say, there are layers and layers of depth to the Maori culture, and, also, to how New Zealand is trying to treat them with respect and make things right. There are also Maori gangs, something I didn’t know before coming here. That’s another layer. So much to learn.

I was recently in Gisborne and found it further inspiring that a monument of Captain Cook tells the horrid tale of how he and his men came to Gisborne for supplies. A misunderstanding they had of Maori reaction to them, caused Cook to kill 8 Maori men, among them a gardener who had the highest position in his community. The story is told, and there are monuments in memory of the men that were killed. I wonder how it would look in other countries, if they told the untold stories in their monuments.

We’re all on the same team

I’ve been part of a “team of 5 million.” I can’t imagine this concept in today’s America. Maybe not in most countries in fact. Here, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister, has, for the past year, called on support from our “team of 5 million” to combat Covid. While the lack of abundant medical infrastructure is one part of the sense of urgency to keep the virus out, here, the success could not have happened if all or at least most, of the citizens complied with the rules. We go into lockdown for 3 cases of community spread, and we do it with pride. (Or, most of us do.) It is that constant drive to keep one another safe that is at the root of this country’s success. 

Like everyone, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I do know that I have been incredibly blessed to be in this country, especially during the pandemic. When the borders open, I know many of you will want to come. You’ll find open arms, hospitality, and beautiful rolling mountains and blue-green seas awaiting your arrival.

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