In Which We Go Antipodal

At the close of every election cycle you can hear people on the losing side lamenting, “I’m going to move to Canada.” Hardly anyone ever does, though. In any given year since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, no more than 11,000 Americans left the United States for Canada for political reasons. Since George H.W. Bush’s presidency, the numbers of Americans moving to Canada has remained relatively stable except after Republican presidents are elected when the number of people leaving for the north spikes and after Democrats are elected, those numbers drop. Go figure.

I like Canada well enough, but I always told myself that if I ever expatriated after an election, it would be for somewhere warm and wild. So when things went south in American life after the 2016 presidential elections, we decided to move to New Zealand, about as far from American as you could possibly get.

Many of my friends in America, when they found out that I was going to New Zealand for the year and subsequently learned that I would not be teaching, let alone working at all, would ask me with grave concern, “What are you going to do?” The first couple of times I was asked this, I was a bit taken aback. “What am I going to do?” I’d ask myself, “Wander along the beach all day with one of those metal detectors and then retire to the pub to watch rugby with the lads?”

Behind their queries, of course, is a deep-seated American fear of being idle, of having nothing to do, of being unproductive and useless. Don’t get me wrong . . . this part of America is deeply seared into my conscious as well, hence, my initial fears about being unmoored from my profession for a year. Over time, though, I’ve become increasingly comfortable with the prospect of having nothing to do for the year and I suspect that if I am blessed to live deep into old age then this year off will have something to do with my longevity. And in the space of the week that I’ve been here in New Zealand, I’m actually feeling really, really great about not working for the year. So, friends, don’t worry about me. I am fine. There’s plenty here to keep me busy for a lifetime.

New Zealand is about as far as you can get away from the US and still be in the known world. We are in the New Zealand Time Zone (NZST) which is 12 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time and 18 hours ahead of Denver.  That means that when you travel here you lose an entire day. We left San Francisco airport at 10 pm on 31 July and we landed in Auckland at 5 am on 2 August, so we never saw 1 August. In fact, it’s nearly antipodal (on the direct opposite side of the world) to our home in Denver. If you tunneled from our home in northwest Denver you would pop out on in the middle of the Indian Ocean halfway between Durban, South Africa and Perth, Australia. Our home in Ohope Beach, New Zealand is antipodal to a spot somewhere between Madrid and Granada.

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We live on the North Island between Coromandel and Hicks Bay in a place called Whakatane/Ohope Beach

I never sleep on planes so on the flight to Auckland I watched movies—Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (it is still so good!), a surfing movie about a 30-something American woman who solo surfs the south island of New Zealand in winter, a documentary about the Fjordlands region of the south island, another about an active volcano just 30 miles from our home in Ohope and some animated renditions of the life of the Maori gods.

My favorite Maori story is the Maori creation story, which seems like a combination of the Oedipus myth and Plato’s myth of the Cave. Papatuanuku is the earth goddess and Ranginui is the sky father. They are locked in a centuries-long love embrace that balances the world. Conflict arises, though, when the 70 sons of the couple, who are harbored in Papatuanuku’s womb, become restless. The sons are all strong and capable. In fact, they are all gods whose talents, more or less, are going to waste inside their mother’s womb. Still, they are warm and safe in their mother’s womb, but a few of them manage to get out for a brief time. Outside in the world, they are cold and vulnerable, but they are enchanted by the beauty of the world so they return to Papatuanuku’s womb and relate their experiences in the world to their brothers. This creates a kind of civil war amongst the brothers. Some wish to stay in Papatuanuk’s womb and others wish to leave and take their talents into the world. A few of the sons suggest killing their parents in order to separate them but they finally, happily, settle on pushing them apart. This proves to be no small task but, finally, Tane, the god of forests and trees, manages to get between his parents and use his strong legs to push the lovers apart. Ranguini floats skyward where he commands the heavens and Papatuanuku holds the domain of the earth. It’s a bittersweet story—lovers violently separated by their offspring, no less, but then the emergence of the earth and humans role in it.

I walked off the plane in Auckland, images of the Maori gods thundering in my head, and we trundled to baggage claim where we collected our bags—six oversized duffle bags and four backpacks—which amounted to over 300 pounds of luggage. We heaved the bags off the baggage carousel, piled them onto two trolley carts and trudged over to Customs where we stood in a long, sleepy line.

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All bags and family members accounted for at SFO

After we passed through Customs (Sujata was pulled aside because the agents saw her stethoscope and mistook her for a veterinarian), we secured our rental car, SIM cards for our phones a delicious hot cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, threw all the luggage into the rental car and started the four-hour journey to Ohope. I was so tired I could hardly talk, but Sujata, who can sleep on planes, was able to hold it together long enough to get us to Ohope safely.

The north and south islands of New Zealand are about a quarter the size of the state of California although 40 million people live in California and only 4 million people inhabit New Zealand. On any other day the four-hour drive from Auckland would be pleasant. Auckland, a vibrant harbor town on the northwest coast of the north island, is home to nearly half of New Zealand’s four million inhabitants. Heading southeast out of Auckland, the country opens up into wide valley floors, low-slung mountain ranges and every so often, a solitary mountain, the Maori term is puke. The mountain ranges of the American West are imperious and demanding compared to the gentle, inviting mountain ranges of New Zealand’s north island. In the American West, it seems like the gods had a massive war and, in a fit, scattered rocks and boulders all over the countryside. The mountain ranges of New Zealand, by contrast, are gentle and inviting. It appears to me as if Tane, the Maori god of trees and forests, arranged sundry items in long lines across the islands and then laid a blanket of grass and forests over the top to cover them up.

As we drove across the wide valley floors and over the mountain ranges, making our way to the Bay of Plenty, I began to realize that there are at least thirty shades of green in New Zealand—there’s the sharp, bright, almost chartreuse fern leaves, the shady, green-black conifers at the top of the mountain ranges, the olive green Powhutukawa trees along the coasts and just about every other shade of green in between.

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Vista view of Ohope Beach

When I first got to our house in Ohope Beach, I stood on the deck and looked out across the Pacific Ocean. Off to my left at about eleven o’clock is White Island, an active volcano, that sits about 30 miles off the Ohope shore. Off to my right is the eastern peninsula of the Bay of Plenty and at the tip of that peninsula is the wonderfully-named, Cape Runaway. If I look back over to my left I’m looking at one of the most important spots in Maori history on this island. It’s the pa where the Maori leader, Toi, established a Maori stronghold in the late nineteenth century and from our house you can walk up the mountainside and then down into drop-dead gorgeous protected beaches on your way to the neighboring town of Whakatane (where Sujata’s hospital and Atticus’ school are).

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The just outside our house

Some of my favorite shore birds, Oyster catchers, are beloved denizens of Ohope Beach. I love to watch them in the morning and the evening, pecking the sand after the ebb tide, and I love the sounds the oyster catchers make in the morning and in the evening when they are collecting their dinners. They are skittish birds so when they see a human, they put down their beaks and run together down the shore line, screeching and squeaking all along the way.

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Ohope Bay sunset

The residents of Whakatane and Ohope are complaining vociferously about the weather, but I’m sitting comfortably on our deck before sunrise and I’m just wearing a hat and a hoodie. If this is winter, I’m all right with it.

I’d say that our first week here went swimmingly. In the space of week, we managed to:

  1. Enroll the kids in school

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2. Buy a car

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3. Rent a house

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4. Find Colorado beer (although it’s 12 Kiwi dollars a can!)

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We’ve got surfing lessons tomorrow and then, (gasp!) Sujata goes back to work on Monday after a year of leisure. More on that as it transpires.

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