Friday, 13 March 2015

In praise of New Zealand’s people

New Zealand has such a legendary reputation as a country of unsurpassed natural beauty that I don’t see much point in repeating what you already know. That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t add my voice to the chorus and confess that I too have been utterly transfixed with wonder every single day that I’ve been here.

But meeting with and talking to the people who live here -- even in the fleeting, momentary interactions that a tourist has with locals -- has made an even more profound impression on me.

It is not my intention to boast when I say I have visited dozens of countries, I merely wish to underline that I have a solid base of comparison; my mother used to work as a diplomat, so I got dragged around all over the world during my younger years, and there was much less glamour about it than one might imagine. And while travel agents would have one believe that the people of every country in the world are exceedingly friendly toward visitors, this is not altogether consistent with my own experiences.

To be sure, the people of some nations are much kinder and more hospitable than others, but it is more than simply friendliness that moves me so deeply about New Zealanders in general and people with Māori heritage in particular.

The more sinister issues of alcoholism and gang hostilities that exist in this country were brought to global attention with considerable impact through the book and film Once Were Warriors, as well as its sequels, and I have no illusions that these aspects of New Zealand life are a troubling and persistent problem here. But until I sit down with some ‘average’ Kiwis and interview them rigorously, I have no way of knowing for certain how representative this depiction is.

While it would be dishonest to pretend such unpalatable realities do not exist, it would be even more unfair to view the majority of kind, forthcoming and incredibly welcoming people that I’ve met through the prism of the violent and unhappy picture that Mr Duff has painted.

I am consistently struck by a remarkable sense of stability, peace and harmony when I talk to people here. There is a friendliness and positivity about them that suggests a thoughtful respect for others, in stark contrast with the rapacious self-interest that typifies many inhabitants of my own country.

Just as one of many examples I could share with you: in a small-town pub* on a Friday night -- where there was much drinking and merriment going on -- even the most fearsome-looking and muscular gentlemen were the very personification of courtesy and friendliness. Everywhere I turn, there are countless little signs that the locals take pride in themselves, their culture and their surroundings, while also being considerate of others and taking responsibility for their own actions.

I am startled whenever I see graffiti here, because it is such a rarity compared to the default level of vandalism I’m used to. And I have not seen a single piece of litter thrown out mindlessly, anywhere, on the streets of any town or city I’ve been to -- the sole exception being a surf beach carpark which was visibly overrun with travellers.

The calmness and warmth that characterises the people of New Zealand resonates deeply with me, and reminds me of the idea that those who are happy have an instinctive compulsion to share their happiness with others. I’m sure a few of the people I’ve talked to were feeling a bit melancholy or annoyed, but they sucked it up and made the effort to smile as soon as they were greeted with a cheerful “Kia Ora!”

Such nobility is simultaneously humbling and inspirational, and above all it motivates me to follow the example that has been set and also be the best person I can.

*Special mention goes to the Muster Bar in Te Kuiti, where we were welcomed like royalty, enjoyed live music, received the finest personal service and were treated to a veritable banquet -- even though it was plain to see that we were just a bunch of dumb tourists.

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