Stan Voit: New Zealand here I come ... maybe one day

May. 13, 2013 @ 12:05 AM

During my eight days in the Grand Canyon, cut off from the outside world, I did what folks don’t usually do these days: talk to other people, making real conversation. Instead of watching TV, reading a book or playing a video game, everyone on the trip passed the time at night engaging the others.

That’s how I came to be something of an expert on New Zealand. My favorite strangers on the trip were three brothers (one of the wives also went) from New Zealand, a land I knew little about. They all were or are in the dairy farm business. They raise hundreds of cows — one has 500 on his farm — and sell powdered milk, mostly to China.

They appear to be very wealthy, since they mentioned trips they have made all over the world. Besides, since dairy cows have to be milked twice a day, they could hardly leave the farm as often as they do unless they had a staff to keep things going.

New Zealand is an island country of around 4 million people, some 1,200 miles from Australia. It has a free-based economy, with fishing and farming its primary economic engines. It is a mecca for people who enjoy hiking, mountain climbing and fishing. Yet because it is so remote — more than 14 hours away from us by air — it is a tough tourist ticket to sell. Australia is the destination for many who head that way.

My friends the O’Sullivans are third-generation dairy farmers. They also are as knowledgeable about the affairs of the United States — and most of the rest of the world — as anyone you’ll find in this country. Because New Zealand doesn’t make much news of its own, its media are filled with news from other countries.

That’s the opposite of American media, where if cable news starts to delve too much into international news, eyes glaze over and viewers will switch to a “Beverly Hillbillies” rerun before attempting to understand or appreciate news from around the world.

My new friends like and respect the United States, but fear it is slipping in dominance and power to China. Barnes, Kevin and Denis can discuss foreign currency, exchange rates and trade like a University of Tennessee economics professor. I can’t. My conversations with them made me sense the vulnerability the U.S. has in the face of a world where power is shifting and knowledge is part of that power.

Of course, New Zealand is not Shangri-La. It is considered one of the most secular nations on earth. One in three persons has no religious affiliation. There are far fewer guns per capita than in this country — no surprise — because of the existing laws. Registration is not required, but the police carry out what amounts to registration for all but “A Category” firearms. Firearms in any other category require a “permit to procure” before they are transferred.

The O’Sullivans say if they wanted a gun they’d have a bureaucratic minefield to traverse, but they say they don’t really need one because gun crimes are so rare. Besides, Barnes said, if he needed a gun to chase away a critter from the farm he’d just go next door and borrow his neighbor’s.

Also, the government can be intrusive. For example, just last week the country’s Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages released a list of 77 banned baby names. Can you imagine such a list being enforced in America? What would our celebrities do for names?

The O’Sullivans repeatedly invited Bonnie and me for a visit. They want us to see their farm and travel the country, seeing the beauty that is New Zealand.

We enjoyed each other’s company. They got a kick out of me good-naturedly ragging on their country — I asked if they get to see our moon over there and if they have color TV yet — and I appreciated their sense of humor and their grasp of international politics.

They are a close family. One of the brothers was diagnosed with Parkinson’s about two years ago, and all three are traveling together to destinations he wants to enjoy before his illness prevents that.

I hope one day we can make it to New Zealand to see them. In the meantime we can email each other. Assuming the country has electricity. ...

— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. His column appears each Sunday. He can be reached at 428-0748, ext. 217, or e-mail to svoit@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @stanvoit.