Everywhere and Nowhere I’ve Known

When everything is brand new and different, I tend to compare the newness with something familiar.  I do this involuntarily, but steadily and constantly.  I suppose it’s how one might get her bearings.  Because New Zealand is such a distinct land and because it is so far away, it is hard to get or even give an accurate description of what it’s like. 
But I’ll come back to that in a minute. 
It took two full days from Rome to get here.  In those two full days I slept very little and witnessed two sunrises: one in Dubai’s bustling, burka-filled airport at 5:55 am in and another in Brisbane’s quiet transit lounge, legs elevated on a long leather couch at 6am the following day.  It had been today for two days.  Two tomorrows in one day. 
When we arrived at the Auckland airport and got off the plane at 1:30pm, the only people in the terminal were those from our flight.  And even though it was afternoon, it could have been dawn—it was that kind of quiet; the kind that solitude provides, the kind that feels sacred. 
We walked for a quite a ways through an empty airport over patterned carpet, under polished wooden ceilings arriving upon an elaborate wooden Maori welcome carving that reminded me a bit of Bali or the Native American totem poles, full of bug-eyed faces and stuck-out tongues.  The otherwise empty airport would have been a stark contrast to how Captain Cook found it upon his arrival.  They say that when he first arrived in New Zealand, the sound of the cackling birds in the bush was deafening.  Back then, the untouched island was teeming with raucous, vivacious birds and even now, as I type this from inside a window of closed windows, I hear birds outside chirping, cawing and gargling even in the rain.  So it makes sense that our airport welcome was accompanied by sound.  We were greeted by pre-recorded birds, breezes and surf as we walked along a huge collage of photographs on the wall; all the places and things to do while in New Zealand.  Like surfing, hiking through lush forests and mountains; all places that seem impossible to access to most of us, but places that make up an entire reality here.  Quiet at first, then alive with nature on the loudspeaker, New Zealand spoke for herself.
When we arrived at the duty free shops with all of the other passengers from our flight, the store clerks were in position.  “Kia Ora!” they greeted us in Maori.  By the way they all stood there, giving us their full attention, it made me think they had long-awaited our very arrival and by the looks of the empty airport, it seemed they did.  They weren’t only welcoming us, they were looking us over, curiously.   
Our bags were at the luggage carousel before we made it through the line-free, friendly passport control gates.  Most of the passengers–Aussies or kiwis returning home–zipped right through the electronic passport control lines.  Fancy computers did all the work—a high-tech person-less port entry.  
 The stern young woman questioned us thoroughly about food—everything must be declared here, even if its prepackaged and unopened as New Zealand’s plants and wildlife is extremely vulnerable to pests or germs accidentally brought in from Europe, Asia and America.  (It’s why their national bird, the wingless, flightless Kiwi is nearly extinct; killed off by imported rodents.  Before the arrival of the rat, ferret and dog—species brought in from overseas—it had no predators.)  I’ve heard of more than one tourist being fined for over $100 NZ for accidentally bringing a banana in their backpack.  All in all, amazingly, it took us less than fifteen minutes to de-board our plane, go through passport control, pick up our bags and go through customs before we walked out those sliding glass doors and into this new, strange world. 
The minute we were out of the airport and on the road, making our way to our first stop, Rotorua, I kept likening the landscape to places I know.  Only each time I’d think, that hillside looks like Seattle’s surrounding neighborhoods, we’d go a mile further down the road and suddenly we weren’t in Seattle at all but Colorado.  Somewhere near Boulder or Steamboat Springs, a place where mountains were visible in the near distance, casting their anonymous shadows creating folds of the hills, starkly stained halves.  I’d marvel a bit then look out at the other side of the two-laned highway and see tall, scraggly pines reminding me of Gulfport, Mississippi of all places.   I’d settle into a new description just in time for the road to curve.  We’d round a bend and I’d sigh at the sight of rolling fields of curly lettuce where sheep were tucking themselves into pockets of comfy soft green vegetation.  I was quickly and often reminded: this is New Zealand—nothing at all like Washington or Colorado or Mississippi.    
Here, dairy is big business.  Because it’s one of their main exports, cows are everywhere; a sight I love.  Up close in yards, near people’s front doorstep keeping the grass low—just like the sheep that are allowed to graze between the grapevines on fancy vineyards and on public golf courses.  Like the cows, sheep are another big deal—shorn for wool and slaughtered for dinner.  Just yesterday I was walking along the sidewalk of the beautiful, pristine neighborhood of Havelock North in front of the stately green, well-groomed lawn of the private boys’ school when a run-down old truck drove by with six sheep standing in the back.  Here, everywhere is rural.  Even neighborhoods, which keeps it interesting and entertaining.  New Zealand is like that—it’s funny.  It hits you straight between the eyes as strange but familiar—strangely familiar and just pleasantly odd.  In many ways its landscape reflects its people and viceversa: here we are, this is us, kia ora—welcome—pleased to meet you. 
On the drive from Auckland airport to Rotorua we pass the town of Matamata and come across Hobbitton—apparently the place where the hobbits in Lord of the Rings are from.  Tours are available of the sets and the countryside (just beyond the small smattering of houses) does indeed look exactly like the movie.  My thought of hobbits is short-lived because just beyond the main intersection, a roundabout—boom–we’re in Kentucky, I swear, driving past split-rail fences that keep high-dollar stud horses from clearing the fence and heading into Hobbitton.  Each pasture has a beautiful home, some you can see right inside—no curtains.  Farmers here want to see their land, I am told.  And that’s the thing I think is most striking about New Zealand—there is no separation from nature.  From other things, perhaps, yes.  But not from nature—even fences are made of giant hedges so that nature itself becomes the separator. 
We pass a big river and just a small wire fence separates it from the highway.  I say how it seems so accessible, as if I could just go hop in if I wanted; simple and easy.  It was just there; no brush to make my way through, no steep embankment to stumble down, no signs saying I can’t.  “You probably could, too, if you wanted.  No one would stop you.”  The thought gave me a new concept of freedom. 
We pass interesting rock formations, jutting up out of nowhere, a hedge in the distance two stories high acts as a wall.  The landscape here is an ever-changing companion, dynamic and inspiring, anxiously awaiting interaction.   The color of a brown field, along with the wire fence (even though it’s barbless) conjures familiar feelings of home in Texas but I look across the street and see trees.  Big tall fluffy ones—Gum trees, or Eucalyptus trees they are sometimes called, the ones that Koala bears live in—not at all like Texas.  We drive on, through a forest and I see my first silver fern.  They look like palm trees that are missing a few fronds in the middle, a fourth-grade boy’s butt-cut hairdo.  We drive and drive and in those hours I think of Washington State, the majestic and green Olympic peninsula; Austin’s small, vintage eclectic homes; Miami for the palm trees in peoples’ yards.  I think of Jackson Hole, Wyoming for its quaint, isolated but darling town, a small seed rooted in fertile dramatic landscape. I think of the back roads that lead to Port Townsend from Seattle for all the farmland, the milk cows, the mountains and the pine trees.  I see the grassy fields grazed upon by beastly fuzzy cattle and I think of Assisi’s Mount Subasio. 
Washington, Colorado, Texas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Florida, Wyoming, Italy.  New Zealand looks like both everywhere I’ve been and no where I know at once.  It looks as foreign as it does familiar, as strange as if I’ve both seen it a million times before and never at all.  It feels like I am going home, like I am returning—to a place I’ve never quite been, both everywhere and no where I’ve ever known.    
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