At the age of 26 (2000) I was fortunate enough to go to New Zealand. It was a pit stop on my way to Antarctica where I was helping out with a research project run out of my department at the University of Wyoming to study the stratosphere through balloon launches. The US Antarctic program launches out of Christchurch, NZ and so I got to spend a day there on the way in, and a spent a week in NZ on the way out.
People say Canadians are friendly, but I have to say this Canadian was humbled by the kindness of the Kiwis. The closest base to the American base of McMurdo is a Kiwi base. Every Thursday night the Kiwi base opened theirs to the Americans and it was a few mile trip to go down there to hangout with them in their adorable English style pub on the base, in which the snooker table took up most of the space. After a couple of visits I got to know some of the Kiwis on the base. It was a small base and it was the winter season so they were just at a bare bones crew of 17. When they heard I knew how to make Indian food their eyes lit up as they missed good food badly and said they had all the spices and some onions that were about to turn if they didn’t get used right away and would I mind terribly if I cooked them all some curry. It was an easy sell for me because they were wonderful people and so me and my colleagues came down on another night, and I cooked dinner and we had a wonderful time.
When I came back to New Zealand I spent a couple days in Christchurch and then went on a hike in their wonderful national park system on the north part of the South Island. I was not an experienced backpacker and on the first day of the hike, my sleeping bag fell off my backpack without me noticing and by the time I did it was too far to go back and get it. It was still only spring there and I made it through with just my quilted fleece during the night, but I certainly didn’t sleep well. So you don’t have to bring a tent, they have these huts along the way of these hikes you can sleep in. My sleeping bag was returned to the first hut. When I made it to the hut I was planning on staying in for the night, the lady who was operating the hut said she received word by radio that my sleeping bag had been found. I told her there was no real way for me to get it. I was hiking through to another town and then taking a bus back to Christchurch. I simply expected the sleeping bag as an item I wouldn’t get back. But the lady there arranged so that the bus I took back to Christchurch would meet a bus leaving from the town close to the first hut at a shared stop by the two buses. And sure enough it happened. I was shocked. The fact that they would make the effort like this to return a sleeping bag that I foolishly lost was amazing to me.
As I wandered around Christchurch one day looking for lunch I found this little restaurant. It wasn’t really during lunchtime and the place was empty. A little Maori woman ran the shop. We chatted for a bit. She thought for some reason I was a Mormon missionary. I told her why I had come from the U.S. and I decided to order a burger from her menu. She was so exciting to make an American an burger and she eagerly awaited my reaction when I ate it. Other that having meat between a bun it really wasn’t like any burger I had eaten. It was far better. Given that she really wanted to replicate an American burger, I don’t think my compliments of it being better than an American burger really assuaged her, but I could she beamed a broad smile knowing that she brought a smile to my face.
When I left New Zealand I had to take a flight from Christchurch to Auckland. As I walked towards my gate from the check-in counter, I was surprised to find myself suddenly at the gate without having passed through security. This made me very nervous, and I walked up to a counter and said, “I think I might have taken a wrong turn and walked into an area that I shouldn’t because I’m at the gate and I never went through security.” The woman just smiled in their easy, friendly manner and said “Oh, don’t worry, there’s no security for domestic flights. I remember just thinking to myself, ‘Where am I? This country is amazing.’
New Zealand is gorgeous. Rolling green hills, beautiful beaches, lush forests, snow-capped mountains. I remember seeing snow capped mountains right next to the ocean as a breathtaking sight, one I hope you all get a chance to see if you haven’t. The people are incredibly warm and laid back. They are thrill seekers. They invented bungee jumping. They have a ridiculous amount of sheep. I really wanted to move there. I still do. It’s the only place I have visited where I just knew in an instant that I could be happy there.
Waking up this morning to the news of the atrocity there was as heartbreaking as anything I could read. It is the kind of pain you might feel when something that you held is beautiful has been defiled by a vandal. I sit here, not knowing if that beauty will be restored, or whether this incident will forever change that wonderful country I fell in love with. One could argue that I wasn’t there long enough to really know that country, but I would disagree. At least to the point, where I can say with certainty, that this incident does not define them.
Yet I find that I am not surprised. If there is one thing this modern age has taught us is that these dark seams run through all societies. We live in a world that has extremism. The reason such men do these things is the same for all such extremist. They are driven by the furthest limits of anger, fear, and despair. The ideology they say they are fighting for is the exact same as the ideology they say they hate. Just different costumes. If they succeed at all, it is only because most humans are not like them, and that is important to remember. I write this letter to you New Zealand to remind you to not let this incident shatter your national identity. Be who you are, just do it better. This is a time for introspection, but from the ashes of this horrible incident show the world how your kindness is the spirit that defines you. Certainly introspection is warranted here, but remember the power of love and unity to combat hate. For today and for the near future there are families who are grieving. Grieve with them. Regardless of skin color or religion, they grieve as humans. They have lost, children, spouses, parents, friends…there is more that makes you alike than makes you different. Let all hearts be as one New Zealand.