Monday, December 14, 2009

A zeal for New Zealand

Greetings from Christchurch, New Zealand, the "Gateway to Antarctica," and the only city I know of that boasts three "CH"'s in its name.

New Zealand is the opposite of Australia: while Aus is tropical and dry, NZ is cold and rainy.

"Tropical and dry" may sound like a contradiction, so I'll describe Australia like this: beaches are to Australia what temples are to India. There are countless numbers of them. Australia is, effectively, a giant beach, with sand and desert in the interior and rainforest dotting the coastline. We've been to countless rainforests and beaches across Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Cambodia, and one of the strangest things about being in Australia is seeing this same tropical climate in a white, first-world country.

Australia's reputation as a tropical leader, its endless sunshine, its infinite beaches, combined with the thinning of the ozone over its skies, results in -- according to Lonely Planet -- a stunning 1 in 2 Australians developing skin cancer. As you drive down the streets in any Australian city, you'll see the same pattern of businesses: a McDonalds, a grocery store, a skin cancer clinic, another McDonalds, another grocery store, another skin cancer clinic, then a pub, then another skin clinic.

The Sydney, Australia preschool that my three-year-old niece attends asks parents to slather sunblock on their kids before they leave the house in the morning; then the teachers slather even more sunblock on the kids before they're allowed to go outside and play. The children all stand in a line as the teachers kneel in front of each kid, applying sunblock to their little legs and arms. Once outside, they're strictly held to the "no hat, no play" policy. And they can't wear just any hat: it has to have cloth coming down that shields the ears and neck from direct sun exposure.

New Zealand, on the other hand, has only 300 deaths from skin cancer a year, and its skies are commonly covered with rain clouds. One particularly beautiful section of the south island, Milford Sound, gets an average of 20 feet (6 meters) of rainfall each year. And though Christchurch students are home for the southern hemisphere's summer break, everyone is still wearing fleece jackets.

In short, I've traded palm trees for pine trees.

But the beauty of those pine trees cannot be described -- imagine deep green, forested hills rising up from clear blue lakes. Imagine vivid bursts of flowers -- brilliant reds, oranges, pinks, yellows, plums, creams -- catching your eye with each turn of the head. New Zealand's reputation for natural beauty is well-deserved.

It's reputation is so strong, in fact, that the number of international tourists who visit annually is 62 percent of its population. This country of 4 million sees 2.5 million visitors a year.

But the same reasons that draw visitors to NZ -- it's remote wilderness, its rugged beauty, its national heroes like Sir Edmund Hillary, its culturally progressive attitudes towards environmentalism -- are the same qualities that give some of the locals island fever.

After all, imagine being stuck on a remote island of 4 million for your entire life.

That's how my cousins' two sons, age 16 and 20, feel. Both have grown up in Christchurch, a "big city" of 400,000, and when I ask if they like it, they reply with a shrug. "It's pretty small," the 20-year-old tells me. "A couple of nightclubs. That's all."

His room is decorated with posters of 50 Cent and Eminem, artists who rarely if ever give concerts in his country. In one corner, he has a Lakers jersey hanging up, and he tells me a highlight of his trip to the U.S. two years ago was getting to sit in a massive professional sports arena and watch a live, internationally-televised game between two major-name teams.

I notice as we drive through downtown Christchurch that the performing arts center has only one musical playing (and its an old show, Anything Goes, not a new release like Wicked or Spamalot or Avenue Q). The city's well-reputed library is smaller than the one at my university, and charges $5 if you want to check out a new release bestseller.

I understand now what I wouldn't have understood 4 years ago, when I was in the threshold of my outdoor-enthusiam: beautiful landscapes can only entertain you for so long. Colorado is great not just because it has the Rocky Mountains, but because it has the combination of Rockies AND concerts, restaurants, galleries, nightlife, libraries, performance venues, and street art. And despite all this vibrant city life, I'm still itching because it feels too small, because it lacks a strong publishing industry and financial district and ethnic enclaves and waterfront.

But no place has it all. That's why we travel.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Family Reunion Down Under

Yikes! It's been more than a month since I've put up a blog posting ... a far cry from the beginning of my trip, when I was intent on posting 1-2 times each week. But in the Frequent Posting Era, I was excited about the adventure. Now travel is just a regular way of life. Familiarity makes people grow blase about anything, even experiencing the unfamiliar.

I've concluded the section of the trip in which I was traveling with two Germans from Darwin, Australia to Sydney, Australia, a distance of 4,000 kilometers -- equivalent to driving from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh.

That's a LONG distance to spend on the road with anyone, much less with strangers who spoke varying degrees of English. In total, our road trip with these two Germans lasted nearly two months. We 4-Wheel-Drove through sand dunes, went to remote beaches, snorkeled over crystal-clear waters, gazed over vast cliffs, blah blah blah. We also spent at least three hours each morning cooking hash browns and drinking endless cups of tea.

In that time, they asked us a lot of questions about the English language, and those questions gave me some sharp insight into how tough it is to master -- not just communicate, but really, truly MASTER -- another language.

Theresa, a 25-year-old gereontology graduate, asked basic questions, like the definition of "inevitable," "bruise" and "callous". She was confused about the double meanings for "shallow" -- it makes sense in a pool, she said, but what do you mean that a person is not 'deep'? And what's the difference between 'done' and 'finished'?

Ollie, a 20-year-old who just finished a year of compulsory national service, lived in the U.S. from age 0 to 5, and asked relatively more complex questions, including my personal favorite: "What's the difference between 'carbohydrate' and 'hydrocarbon'"?

After I said goodbye to the Germans in Sydney, the Family Reunion Down Under officially began. I headed to the home of my sister Aruna and her husband and two kids. My parents flew in a couple days later, and within 48 hours, we had a troupe of cousins coming over for dinner. This time, as the only non-Nepali speaker in the group, I'm the one who's struggling with the mastery of language. Though I understand Nepalese very well, there are still times when I interrupt a conversation to ask the definition of an odd word here or there -- such as today, when I cut in to ask them to translate a word that turned out to mean "refreshing." Meanwhile, my sister's 3-year-old daughter, Shraya, needs the opposite -- the other day we were speaking to her in English and she (ironically) got stuck on the word "stick," needing it translated into Nepali. (How do you say "ironically" in Nepali, anyway?)

I didn't expect to give a second thought to language skills now that I'm in an English-speaking nation for the first time in more than a year, but Australia is English-speaking at work only. In their home life, Australians hold a wide berth of native tongues. The nation is incredibly diverse, thanks to the millions of Chinese, Indians, Nepalese, Malays, Sinhalese, Javanese, Balinese, Papua New Guineans, etc., who recognize this nation as the nearest First-World country and, accordingly, do everything in their power to move here. I looked at a photo of Shraya in her preschool class, and, I swear, there was only one white girl in the picture. The other thirty-ish kids all seemed to be East Asian or South Asian. (Ah yes, and the German girl asked what "-ish" means.)

The Outback is a different story -- the diversity there is mainly Aborigional. In the big cities you see evidence of Aborigional culture primarily in art and music, but in the Outback, particularly in Northern Territory and Western Australia, we saw Aborigional people everywhere -- in grocery stores, at petrol stations, at parks and beaches. Their culture has changed -- while some are still wearing white body paint and hunting bush goannas , others are listing to hip-hop and eating McDonalds. Yet they seem to be a strong and insular community; I don't see many examples of blended or interracial families.

Of course, my family hasn't blended either -- though we're scattered around the world, marriage has kept our bloodlines 100 percent Nepali, at least for the moment. And after a week of Family Reunion Down Under, Sydney-Style, visiting cousins and their spouses and kids from both Mom and Dad's side, it's time to take this show overseas once again. Tomorrow my parents and I fly to New Zealand to continue Family Reunion Down Under, the Christchurch Chapter.