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I love New Zealand.

I don't love it in the same way I love America; America's like my mother. You're supposed to love your mother and you do, even if you sometimes get exasperated with one another. New Zealand's like an old crush, a girl with whom you might have had a summer romance, or simply fleetingly glimpsed across some unbroachable divide. Something that might have been, or may yet be. Potential uncontaminated by much experience.

So I don't really know New Zealand. She's just my fantasy country.

My experience there was brief--10 days, 25 years ago. But I think about her all the time. There's not been a week when we didn't entertain the possibility of returning.

New Zealand is beautiful in every sense of that freighted word. We were met at the Auckland airport in the predawn by a young woman who brought us our rental car, a right-hand drive compact that had been upgraded from the stick shift we specified to an automatic transmission before she understood what hadn't dawned on us: Shifting with one's left hand while driving on the opposite side of the road is a pretty big ask.

Within three hours we were walking around Whangarei Falls. By the afternoon were we marveling at Tane Mahuta (Lord of the Forest), the largest known kauri tree in the world, 165 feet tall with a girth of more than 45 feet and estimated to be more than 2,000 years old. (An anecdote revealing of the New Zealand character: In 2013, when a drought threatened the tree, engineers diverted a nearby stream to save it, not the first time they'd taken extraordinary measures to preserve and protect it. In fact, it was rediscovered by engineers building the major highway through the rainforest. They went around it, which seems to be the standard operating procedure for highway engineers in New Zealand. That's why it can take two hours to cover what, on a map, looks like 40 miles.)

That evening, we pulled into a motor court in Kerikeri, piled our belonging into one of the open rooms and went off to find the manager. We weren't immediately successful so we amused ourselves in the motel's game room, playing ping pong and shooting pool until he showed up.

Later in the week, in a beautiful East Coast town called Napier--noted for its art deco architecture; most of the town was rebuilt in the 1930s after it was leveled in the Hawke's Bay earthquake--we bought a bottle of wine at a supermarket-sized liquor store called Robbie Burns. When we got back to the room, I realized that my fumbling with the colorful money had confused everyone and I'd been overcharged. It wasn't a big deal but since we were going out for dinner, I thought we'd swing by the store on our way, just to see. A block or two away, we could see that the store had closed, but as we walked by it the clerk stepped from the shadows, holding out my change.

"I hoped you'd come back," he said.

And that's how it went, the whole trip. It was difficult to believe the sweetness of the people we met. We walked into a winery, found the gift shop unattended, and prowled around on our own for a while until the owner, a Canadian expatriate, showed up to give us a private tour.

It is tempting to say that traveling there was like traveling back in time, but I doubt our good old days were ever so gentle. While obviously New Zealand has its problems--some arising from its colonial history and a historical embrace of white supremacy (the "White New Zealand" policy adopted in 1899)--it felt safer and kinder than any place I've ever been.

. . .

Terrorism does not arise from a vacuum. Narratives of grievance are constructed and sold, consumed by people who for whatever reason feel themselves justified in their extremism. You never pick up a gun because you're a coward or because you are possessed of some sick pathology that makes you crave bloodletting. You pick up a gun to defend something or because you feel lit by some holy fire. We always justify ourselves to ourselves.

I don't know anything about this Australian guy who killed those people in those mosques. I haven't read his stupid "manifesto." What has stuck in my mind is his description of himself as "just a regular white man" from "a working class, low-income family . . . who decided to take a stand to ensure a future for my people."

There's nothing regular about this guy, except his rhetoric.

It's the same old tired loser stuff we hear all the time, if you're not willfully ignorant of how some people seek to obtain and consolidate power.

. . .

There aren't many places in the world further from Arkansas than New Zealand.

(The Internet tells me that the most distant in the world from Little Rock is Perth, Australia, while the true antipode of Little Rock would be in the Indian Ocean about midway between Australia and Africa. There's a reason "antipodean" is used by us Northern Hemisphere types in reference to Aussies and Kiwis.)

New Zealand is a long way from anywhere. It's more than 1,000 miles across the Tasman Sea from the coast of Australia (there are no ferries between the countries). To fly from Canberra to Wellington generally takes 61/2 hours and requires changing planes.

Despite its remoteness, Auckland is more ethnically diverse than Los Angeles, London and New York.

Still, almost all of that population is there legally; in July 2017, the government estimated there were only about 10,000 people who had technically overstayed their visas. The country receives about 1,500 refugees every year. And it's not that easy to immigrate there; a points system for "skilled migrants" sets certain business and financial criteria. If you've got a police record you needn't apply. Most would-be immigrants hire professional "visa consultants" to work with the bureaucracy.

There are people who might view this isolation as a big advantage for New Zealand; after all, you don't need to build a wall when you're surrounded by thousands of miles of open sea.

But nothing can keep the bad thoughts out.

------------v------------

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

Editorial on 03/19/2019

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: Souring New Zealand

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