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.