Reflection: New Zealand and Expectations / by Heather

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I don’t think there was a place in the world I wanted to go to more than New Zealand. It had captured my imagination and entranced me through documentaries, pictures, and movies. I had spent countless hours researching and taking notes about it because I was once thinking about moving there. I read guidebooks, immigration books, and hundreds of websites, threads, and blogs about it. I hadn’t even thought about going to New Zealand this past January….I was in the midst of planning another trip to Europe with some savings I had and thought NZ would be too expensive and inaccessible to visit. But as I was planning the European trip, I realized that since I had the money now, NZ was where I would want to go above all.

I remember once I had actually decided I was going to go, it felt like having a crush on some boy.  My heart would beat faster at the thought of it and I would just say to myself…New Zealand….New Zealand…and smile. That alone was worth the airline ticket I bought in peak summer season. This would be an important trip because it would help me figure out if moving to New Zealand was something that I really wanted to do, and if so, would trigger the long and challenging process of immigrating there. Nothing could compare to my excitement of seeing this country that was so significant to me.

So how do I reconcile the fact that honestly, when I look at the trip as a whole, New Zealand underwhelmed me?

It’s an odd thing to say; "New Zealand? Oh, it was pretty good." Not amazing. Didn’t take my breath away. In fact, it feels almost sacrilegious and I hesitate to put it out there for fear of a public stoning of some sort. I don’t think I’ve read one blog that has said that the country was less than astounding (though did get more of a reality check from some forums). But it’s the truth for me, and as I discovered on the road, for a few other travelers. And at the risk of offending or causing defensive outrage over what is a beautiful land, I do want to emphasize that this was my personal impression and the beauty of travel is that it’s not just about where you go, but the context in which you venture out and the experiences you are already bringing with you. Let’s just say you’re always carrying more baggage than your suitcase.

So what didn’t impress me about New Zealand? I think ultimately, it comes down to the country not matching my expectations.  I always like to preach about how important it is not to have many expectations when visiting a new country. That way, you are open to what it has to offer and can accept and appreciate the reality of it without being plagued by mental comparisons. In the past, I have never really had expectations for the countries I went to, even well-worn cities like Paris and Rome. Often, when I was living in Europe, I would pick a country at random and then go for it, doing nothing more than some quick preliminary research. I wouldn’t know what to expect, so my mind was a clean slate. But for New Zealand, I found it was almost impossible not to have certain expectations. I think that the much of the media and advertising I encountered before I left and while I was there had a lot of responsibility for creating a magnificently hyped image of what I should expect. It seems that when you read or watch something about New Zealand, it is touted as the best of the best when it comes to natural beauty. ‘God’s Country,’ they call it. I think the Lonely Planet guidebook, whose gorgeous cover you will see peeking out of almost every backpacker’s bag, uses the words ‘spectacular’ and ‘stunning’ for half the attractions it recommends.

One of the things that I discovered when I got to NZ is that the country has tourism on the brain. It seemed that almost everywhere there are facilities and advertised attractions for international visitors and all of your possible adventuring needs are pandered to, as long as you have enough money. It makes sense when tourism accounts for 10% of NZ’s GDP and is the nation’s largest export industry (figures from 2010). I’m not blaming the country for making full use of a willing market…I’m just lamenting the fact that every path felt so well beaten. Every tiny town you passed through had horse-trekking, or river-rafting, or scenic flights. Most of the billboards on the highways promoted nearby tourist activities or reminded international tourists which side of the road the drive on. I found that to get a ‘real,’ adrenaline-packed New Zealand vacation, you would need hundreds of dollars to enjoy many of the main attractions. I admit that the best thing I did there was the most expensive- a five hour, $200 tour of the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Absolutely amazing and worth every penny, but I couldn’t shake the impression that almost everywhere I went, perhaps I might be missing out on the “best” things because I didn’t have the money to spend on them. I’ve never quite had that feeling before in other countries, particularly ones with old cities in which I could spend days wandering around for free and feel like I had experienced the soul of each one.

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Which maybe was what struck me as missing….a deep sense of history and culture to the place. It’s true that I do love the Old World feel of cobblestone beneath my feet and stone buildings around me that have stood for hundreds of years. I knew that New Zealand wouldn’t have that, but I was expecting a different kind of culture and history to come through. Even in the States, with its young history, there are many places I have been across the country where the past seems to seep out of the ground- the histories and traditions of both immigrants and the native people. But in New Zealand, I could not feel it. None of the major cities stood out to me and many of them felt very Americanized, with modern, often bland architecture. I went to both the Auckland Memorial Museum and Te Papa, the country’s best and biggest museums, and learned all about how the nation and its people have formed, but never really got a sense of it outside those two buildings.

Before my trip, I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by Kiwi history, but I was very excited to get to know Maori culture. However, I found the presentation of the Maori people and their society one of the most disappointing things about my trip. Yes, there is Maori written alongside English everywhere, there are Maori statues and figurines everywhere, and there are historical and cultural Maori pit stops everywhere. But it was all so commercialized and touristy, it completely put me off. You could not go into a single tourist shop without seeing a Maori god rendered in cheap plastic or a postcard of a Maori man with face tattoos, wide eyes, and his tongue sticking out (a traditional Maori expression of intimidation).

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In the prestigious Auckland Museum, they had a beautiful exhibit of Maori artifacts, including an entire meeting house that you could go inside. And yet, as I was wandering around, admiring everything they had, several men in fur loincloths, carrying spears, came out and starting posing for pictures (tongues stuck out as far as possible). I don’t know if the actors were Maori or not, but it was publicity for the haka show they were performing later in the museum (in a private room, for $35 a person).  At world-renown Te Papa, I read in one of their exhibits that the Maori people do not like it when their gods and tikis are imaged onto goods like t-shirts and bags for souvenir shops. And yet, in the museum store, there they were…tiki bags, tiki wallets, tiki passport holders, tiki shot glasses, and so on. It all really bothered me. I understand that New Zealand is in no way the only country where the native people are marginalized, stereotyped, and taken advantaged of for profit, but considering how much the nation touts itself for trying to support Maori culture, I was disappointed in the way it was ‘supported.’

I didn’t go to a single Maori haka, or any of the many villages set up for tourists to see what ‘real Maori life’ is like. I realized the only way I would actually get to know Maori culture in the present would be to talk to the few Maori people I saw around the cities. I remember one man in Akoura, who was sitting outside a liquor store, smoking a cigarette. He was dressed in regular clothes, looked a bit grungy, and had a full face tattoo. I would have loved to talk to him or take his portrait, but my shyness and notion that the last thing he probably wanted was to be approached by a curious tourist, prevented me. The brevity of my trip and quick pace of my travel definitely inhibited my ability to really understand present-day Maori culture. However, I did feel a little connection with Maori past when I found a deserted trail (not in the guidebook) that led to a historical pa’ (Maori village) stronghold on top of a hill. The path went through both native jungle and cultivated pasture before leading to the site that was marked only with a simple sign explaining the layout of the pa’ as it would have been. No ruins. No actors. Nothing for sale. Just me and an overgrown hill where a people used to live. It was my favourite exposure to Maori past that I had in New Zealand.

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So with the Maori presentation as it was, I turned to the other NZ aspect I anticipated the most- the scenery. Now I know this is something the country is most proud of, so I will tread lightly here. It is a beautiful country, in many different ways. I will just say the landscape was the thing that surprised me the most. With all the majestic marketing and images that are shown of New Zealand (and the way it is talked about), I expected to find around every corner a photographer’s fantasy. I imagined it to be this raw, rugged wilderness. And yet what struck me was how…cultivated…New Zealand is.  I know they say NZ has a lot of sheep (10 for every 1 person), but you don’t really think about where they put them all (and the cows too). The vast majority of the country is pasture. At Te Papa, I read about how when the Maori came, they farmed and destroyed a large part of the country and when the Europeans arrived, they took care of the rest (as they do). Only a very tiny part of NZ is native growth anymore and the picturesque spots that do still have it are generally swarming with tour buses.

I talked with other travelers about this, including an Irishman who had been living there for a year and half. He said that he too was surprised and had expected “less fences” and more of a raw wilderness like that in Ireland or Scotland. When I got to Queenstown, I was emailed by another Couchsurfer who had been in the country for several months, asking if Queenstown was truly something to look forward to, as she had yet to see any “breath-taking scenery.” This is not to say that pastures are not beautiful (think Shire green in some places) or that places like Ireland and Scotland don’t have fences and cows of their own, but to me, I just was not blown away by most of what I saw. Queenstown, Milford Sound, and the tiny, coastal town of Kaikoura were the only spots that really lived up to my expectation of magnificent beauty. Many of the other spots recommended by all the guidebooks, locals, and brochures were attractive, to be sure, but did just not stun me or my travel partner, Jim. In fact, much of the driving through the South Island incredibly reminded me of Southern Californa with its rolling brown hills, cows, and telephone poles. But I when mentioned this to a group of backpackers at a hostel, they looked at me like I was an inane, ego-centric American. That was a first.

There were plenty of people I met that definitely thought NZ was spectacular and stunning, so I’m not saying that it’s everyone who goes there will be disappointed…just that to me and a few others, it felt over-hyped. Could it be that I’m spoiled by all the amazing places I have already been to in my short years? Perhaps. But I know that there are many more-seasoned travelers who are blown away by the landscape. It’s all so subjective. For me, it honestly comes down to a feeling, a ‘vibe’ of the place, if you allow me to get all New-Age for a second. I have just been to many other places that have touched me deeper, for whatever reasons. Another possibility is that maybe I missed some of the truly amazing places? That’s a chance too, as especially in the North Island, I was tied to bus routes. But I did make it to all the major cities, almost all the major scenic landmarks (with the exception of the Franz Jospeh Glacier), and even a few off-the-beaten-road spots. You think with all of that, if NZ was going to amaze me, it would have.

Ultimately, New Zealand is just too well-manicured as a tourist destination. I think that on the whole, this made it a bit bland. It is beautiful, yes, and there are fun things to do, for sure, but for me, there was no challenge. No culture shock, no struggles with other people or nature (with the exception of Wharariki Beach), nothing sincerely scary to overcome. Everything is laid out for the foreign visitor. I think the biggest cultural difference I had to get over was between me and Jim, when he’d mutter out something in his mumbly English accent, and I would stare blankly at him for a while, then say that I can’t understand a word he utters, and he would tell me that he speaks the Queen’s English for crying out loud, and I should learn it.

But, with all this said (and I know I said a lot…), I absolutely do not regret my trip to New Zealand. Travel, for me, is about exploration and that means exploring everything…the good, the bad, and the bland. My trip wasn’t what I expected, but then again, travel well done often upends many expectations anyway. I am so happy to have seen the country and grateful for the perspective it gave me, as well as simply the opportunity to be abroad after so long stateside. I am glad for friends I made, the chance to see things I would have never seen otherwise, the opportunity to cross an entire country with little planning, and the beauty I did find there. Thank you, New Zealand.

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