I turn 29 today. It’s my last birthday in my 20s. One year closer to responsible adulthood (hah!). This is the first birthday I have spent in another country. Interestingly, I have two new friends with the same DOB. First is my new flatmate, Sam. Like 90% of the English folks I have met on this trip, Sam hails from the Manchester area. I have met so many cool people from Manchester. They all talk like Daphne from Frasier. I really need to go there someday. Sam moved into the cabin a couple of weeks ago and keeps himself busy doing construction on one of several hotels going up in Queenstown. He turns 22 today. I remember my 22nd birthday, a huge letdown after the mayhem of my 21st. No one even bought me a drink. Buttheads.
My other birthday mate is Leon, one of my coworkers at Brazz. Leon is from Holland and is very, very tall. The Dutch are statistically the tallest nationality on Earth, and all the proof you need is to see Leon and his Beneluxian friends hanging out together. They are giants. My theory is that they have to be tall in order to survive the inevitable bursting of the dikes. I am very proud of that last sentence. Leon and I were both born in 1978. We did some figuring, and we’re pretty sure that I was born about two hours before him. Thus, I have God-given power over him despite both his occupational seniority and my own diminutive stature. New Zealand has become a more interesting place to live over the last few weeks. The major news of late was the elimination of the All Blacks from the Rugby World Cup by the hated French. This was a major blow to the national psyche, and the Kiwis were so pissed off and disappointed that reports of domestic abuse rose substantially in the days following their defeat. Sound a little crazy? Allow me to put this in perspective. Sports fans outside of North America are a different breed. Sure, in America we have loyalty to our teams and our cities and we get all wrapped up in it and it’s all well and good. We have our own sports and aside from an occasional game with a Canadian team, we don’t pay attention to any athletics outside our homeland. We kind of pretend to care about international events when the Olympics are on, but with no Godless Commies left as major threats the Olympics just aren’t as much fun as they used to be. We are perfectly content with our baseball, football, basketball and hockey. But for folks from pretty much every other nation on Earth however, sport is war. They all play football (don’t call it soccer) and quite a few play rugby, and some play cricket… for some reason. If you are a player for a national team, there is a chance that you’ll be going up against a team with players whom you may recently have met on an actual battlefield. Your grandma might have been thrown into the gas chamber by your opponent’s grandpa. Centuries of ethnic and national rivalries are played out. Lose, and you could face disgracing your nation, color and/or creed. Also, there is a chance that a team from a third world country could defeat the most powerful nations on the planet. So yeah, the Rugby World Cup is a big deal around here.
And just how enthusiastic are All Blacks fans? Here’s a snapshot. In New Zealand, there is no baseball, hockey, basketball or football as we know it in America. Imagine all the passion that Americans have for those sports, roll it into a single sport and a single team. Add to that the patriotic pride that we’d assign to an Olympic dream team. Then toss in the nationalistic fervor that other countries give their football (soccer) teams. Top it up by having what’s considered to be the best team in the world, one that is capable, favored, and expected to triumph over nations of greater political and economic standing. Factor in that fans are more than willing to wake up at 4 AM on a weekday to watch a game being played in Europe. There are only 4 million people in New Zealand, so players can’t just blend into the crowd. Everyone knows everything about every player. Lose, and players can’t just get traded out to Denver and live peacefully. They are more or less stuck where they are. So, if you’re an All Black, you don’t want to lose.
But lose they did. To France. I asked some French people if they care about rugby. Being French, they say they don’t (even though they are hosting the World Cup) which makes the defeat all the more painful for the Kiwis. Queenstown was dead silent in the hours after the game. The headlines the next day reminded me of the Challenger explosion (if not quite 9/11). It was a national tragedy and a hallowed symbol of Kiwi supremacy had been toppled. Reporters wondered how it would effect the economy, a legitimate concern in a small country where the players’ faces are plastered on every conceivable piece of merchandising and $50 million in tax dollars had gone into support for the team. Everyone (aside from visiting Australians) was bummed out for a few days. A couple of weeks on, they seem to have recovered and are trying to decide which country to support in Sunday’s final game – their old masters, the English, or their colonial brothers, the South Africans, a team with whom they hold a prickly relationship.
It’s all been fascinating to watch, and I have to work during the final at 8AM Sunday morning. We are already taking reservations. I can’t wait for it all to be over. Also, I am trying to convince my boss to play the World Series games when they come on in the following week (hopefully with a victorious Red Sox!), but it’s a tough sell to any non-American. I reminded him that there are tons of Americans in town and that baseball games are very long in comparison to rugby, which means more time for the purchasing of beer and ribs. We shall see.
In other local news, we had a series of earthquakes a few days ago. The first hit at about 1:30 AM. Measuring 6.7 on the Richter scale with an epicenter about off the coast of Milford Sound, it certainly shook up the cabin. It lasted several seconds and woke me up, but didn’t throw me into a panic. Nothing collapsed or fell, so there was no damage. There were aftershocks at 3:00 AM and again at 10:30 AM. The 10:30 AM one was interesting. I was at work. Glasses started rattling and everyone just stopped what they were doing and stood completely still. There was no major damage, but it probably would have been smart of me to move away from the gas-fueled fireplace and giant plate glass window. These are my first earthquakes, people. The whole stand-in-a-doorway-or-jump-under-a-table instinct hasn’t been drilled into me just yet, so cut me some slack for my poor reaction time. I wasn’t nearly as freaked out by the whole thing as I thought I would be. Compared to jumping out of a plane, it lacked a certain urgency.
Around the same time as the quakes, the New Zealand government moved in on a bunch of suspected “terrorist camps,” mostly in remote areas of the North Island. Several people were arrested and weapons seized. Those arrested included members of all sorts of groups, ranging from Maori sovereignty advocates to environmental activists to wannabe anarchists. Supposedly, these people were getting paramilitary training and stockpiling weapons (or parts of weapons, and reportedly, not many) for various purposes. This has stirred up lots of tension, particularly in Maori communities. Civil liberty advocates are crying afoul. Declarations of racism are being shouted. The reports are all rather vague, and not many details have been divulged. There are rumors that one particular Maori group (and there are many) was planning an IRA-style uprising on their very remote home territory. Most people say the whole thing has been blown out of proportion and the busts were politically motivated to influence an upcoming vote in parliament. I don’t know. Territorial law is a very hot issue in New Zealand, dating back to the Treaty of Waitangi, which struck the settlement deal between the British and certain (but not all) Maori tribes back in the 19th century. Parts of the treaty are still strongly disputed. While the Maori have fared much better than most colonized peoples, there are definitely social and economic inequalities with their White countrymen. It will be interesting to see how this situation plays out. And no, I don’t feel like I am in any danger. I’m more afraid of another earthquake than of some half-assed uprising in the rainforests of the North Island.
Back to the living situation. New flatmate Sam moved in two weeks ago to replace Theo, the weirdo from the Philippines. Theo got fired from his job at the local paper and took off to his family’s place in Christchurch. On his last night at home, he got completely wasted and threw up on the bathroom floor, losing his dentures in the process. He left the cabin toothless and hungover, but was nice enough to clean up the mess and leave a week’s rent. I can’t say that I’ll miss him much.
My friends back home are sending me constant reminders of my impending 10-year high school reunion. Sorry, guys, but I don’t think I’ll make it. My current plan is to save up for the next few months and then head over to Australia. I am in the process of extending my visa here, which required me to get a medical exam and chest x-ray. Roughly a week’s pay gone, but it will be worth it.