As I See It: In the Land of the Panel Beaters
March 16, 2015 Victor Rozek
A somber-looking man stands in the front of the aisle facing a plane-load of passengers. His arms are crossed above his head and in each hand he holds a high-pressure spray can of poison. Overhead luggage racks are opened, and a brief announcement is made to justify what is about to happen. Two hundred seventy-two passengers descend into apprehensive silence. The man then walks up and down the aisles spraying toxic chemicals ostensibly to kill invasive pests. There are infants and seniors aboard the plane. Everyone is drenched.
Welcome to New Zealand.
It was barbaric, an uncivilized measure unworthy of a nation that is one of the most progressive on Earth. Issues of ethics aside, it was a crappy way to start our vacation.
Having said that, it was the last bad experience we had during the month we spent in New Zealand. The country amazes at every turn, absurdly rich in natural grandeur. Driving across the country is like driving through a postcard. Most of New Zealand is beautiful; the rest is spectacular. Which is why the country was swarmed by some 3 million tourists last year.
Approximately the size of Japan, New Zealand has a scant 4.5 million residents, compared to Japan’s bulging 127 million. But while a modest population keeps the country comparatively unspoiled, fewer people are available to service and manage the flow of annual visitors.
To solve that problem, the Kiwis adopted a two-pronged solution. First, they import thousands of temporary student workers from countries whose citizens are likely to be visitors. Restaurants will hire at least one German, one French, and one Asian server. Whatever your language, there’s a good chance you will be served by someone who speaks it. And you will feel at home.
Next, they developed clever tourist-centric software that makes travelling all but seamless. Just about every town larger than Beyonce’s walk-in closet, has a tourist office called i site. Each office is a part of a visitor information network staffed by “travel experts.” As is the case in any tourist information venue, the staff can recommend local attractions and map the most efficient way to reach them. But i site can also book activities, reserve lodging, and secure transportation, not only in their surrounding area, but anywhere in the country.
Say you’re driving form Wellington to Queenstown and expect to arrive in four days. You need to ferry your car from North to South Island. You’d like recommendations for what to see and do along the way; need accommodations each night; would like to try bungee jumping along the way and, after your pants dry, maybe a little kayaking on Milford Sound would be in order. All of that and more can be arranged from any i site office. Plus, they’ll throw in free maps, weather forecasts (which can change faster that ballots on Ohio’s voting machines), and mountain safety information. (We did a four-day backpacking trip on one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks, the Routeburn Track, a hut-to-hut hike that can only be secured by on-line reservations.)
But technology doesn’t just facilitate travel, it dominates it as well. During our trip, seldom did we stray from the third–and most intelligent–member of our traveling entourage: the smartphone. A device that can provide driving directions, find the cheapest gas (up to $6.40/gallon in NZ), identify places to eat, access voice, text, and social media, even locate the Southern Cross in the night sky, is a hard gadget to ignore.
But then there’s the curse of the camera.
For those of us not inclined to take thousands of picture, digital photography is good news/bad news. On the one hand, we can now take all the pictures we want at essentially no cost. And that’s the problem. One or two photos carefully taken at the visually most interesting venues are no longer enough. Ten or 20 has become the norm, and every tree, rock, road sign, and flower is fair game. As a consequence, almost every tourist is tethered to their phone. People don’t interact directly with the natural world; they spend an enormous amount of time interacting with smartphones and tablets that are interacting with the natural world. And when they’re not busy taking pictures, they’re busy looking at the pictures they’ve taken. Of course, if you take enough pictures, some of them will turn out really, really, well, which only encourages more picture taking.
Then, of course, you have to post the pictures, and check back a dozen times too see how many people like them. It’s all very addictive, and Mark Zuckerberg made a fortune on people’s need for approval. My wife has loads of “friends” on Facebook, many of whom I don’t know and have never met. Why I should care what they think about our pictures–or anything else, for that matter–is beyond me. Yet it always amazes me that three minutes after she posts something, 16 people have already seen it and formed an opinion. Life, at least a vicarious version of it, has migrated online.
And then there’s that monument to narcissism, the GoPro. Here’s Moi walking, here’s Moi sitting, here’s Moi in front of who-gives-a-damn. Jean Paul Richter once observed that: “Memory is the only paradise out of which we cannot be driven.” But who needs to make memories, when you’ve got GoPro?
Having said that, it’s certainly nice to have a visual record of where you’ve been and what you’ve done. The trick is finding the middle ground between technology as tool and technology as master. Meanwhile, the thin line between pervasive and invasive gets thinner still.
But perhaps my most salient moment with regard to technology was watching a gaggle of tourist at the Waitangi treaty grounds. The treaty, signed in 1840, codified British rule and Maori land rights, and is celebrated as the birthday of New Zealand, even though its provisions were promptly ignored leading to the slaughter of the indigenous Maori. Nonetheless, a group of Maori in native dress was performing a welcoming ritualized dance during which they slowly retreated toward the entrance of the signing hall as the tourists advanced on mass with their tablets and smartphones held high. It was such a microcosm of the historic relationship between Westerners and native peoples: technology propelling the advance of Westerners; while indigenous people retreat into peripheral relevance.
Near the end of our trip, I find myself standing in a pub next to a seated couple watching New Zealand play Australia in the Cricket World Cup. The land of panel beaters (a great Kiwi term for auto body shops), is all but quivering at the prospect of kicking a little Aussie butt. Which they did.
Cricket is a perplexing sport whose games sometimes go on for days, and a team with a 237-run lead can lose. Americans would never stand for that. Over my shoulder, I ask the couple for a rule clarification which they explain in cricket jargon that means nothing to me. Sensing my confusion the man asks: “Where are you from.” I turn toward the couple flashing my green T-shirt with OREGON printed across the chest in bright yellow letters. I smile encouragingly and say: “Guess.” The woman looks at me and blurts out, “Vancouver!”