My earliest memory of Aotearoa/New Zealand is tied to an old yellow milk powder tin with a picture of a red cow on it. In retrospect, I am not sure if it was produced in New Zealand and the tin by then held sugar, not milk powder. Somehow, though, the memory of that tin in Apu’s (Mizo affectionate for grandfather) house in Shillong is strongly linked to my earliest thoughts of NZ. A little strange, then, to be writing this in the middle of dairy country in Hamilton, New Zealand!
Over the years, there were often reminders of NZ. I remember Apu saying once, over dinner, that if there were one place he would like to visit, it was NZ. Then there was the (old) news of how the French government had bombed the Greenpeace ship, The Rainbow Warrior, in Auckland harbour. Then came the filming of The Lord of the Rings. There was also the matter of how bungy jumping had been popularised by New Zealand; rugby and the Haka; the beautiful Maori facial tattoos and a gift of a paua shell ring I got from a dear friend. It seems like this country has always lived under my skin!
Deepthi wasn’t so easy to convince, though. She thought it was too far to go study or live. Till, that is, she saw a programme that spoke of how New Zealand had banned all nuclear vessels from its territorial waters. Since the US would not declare which of its ships and subs were nuclear powered or armed, that effectively meant all of the US fleet was banned from NZ territorial waters. This nuclear-free status of New Zealand is now part of legislation. The spunk of this little country converted Deepthi, and we finally started the research that would bring us here.
We were greeted at Auckland airport by well trained sniffer dogs and their polite but firm handlers who ran through the baggage looking for organic matter. As an island nation, NZ is very protective of its ecology, and are very particular that all food and other organic matter be declared, and sometimes destroyed. Even muddy shoes could bring in exotic species of plants that could decimate native populations. Failing to declare even a pack of spices is treated as a serious crime.
A two hour drive through rolling green country and we were in Hamilton. We quickly changed and bathed and hit town, only to get a shock-the town was deserted! This was just about six in the evening, but all the shops were closed, even the two malls we found! We found, later, that most shops and offices close by five or half past. People have their friends and family to get back to! Considering sunset that day was around half past nine, this left us with quite a lot of time to wander! I have slowly gotten used to how few people there actually are in NZ. A 2009 estimate has NZ total population at 4 million. Compare that to Hyderabad’s 8 million!
It’s been three months now, and I think I am finally ready to start writing about this place. I have always found it hard to form an impression of a place when speeding through it, and hope to write and think about this intriguing country at a slower pace than a travelogue. May the spirits of Ibn Battuta and Huen Tsang keep me going!