“You headed to the Land of the Kiwis, huh mate?”
By my pack, plus the proximity to my gate, he knew I was bound for somewhere. And he was right; I was heading to the land down under. “Yes sir,” I replied.
“I hope you packed warm, because right now it’s as cold as a mother in law’s kiss.”
"Well, luckily I layered," I said with a smile and a reassuring nod.
With a backpack and small duffle, I was prepared for my three-week trek to New Zealand and Australia. Accompanied by my sister and two of our good friends, we were ready to explore and soak in as much as we could over the next 17 days.
A little background on the Kiwis:
New Zealand has only 4.4 million residents. In a tongue and cheek manner, an older gentleman in the airport told us, "You know, there are more people eating breakfast on the lower east side of Manhattan than there are in this country." Auckland's nickname is the 'City of Sails.' It sits on the edge of the Hauraki Gulf and is dominated by ports. It's impossible to look along the water without seeing cranes, ships, and freights full of cargo. The water is a major source of not only business, but also tourism.
Auckland, which was the capital before that title was given to Wellington, reminded me a lot of the states- specifically Seattle. The weather, proximity to water, volcanoes, Skytower shaped like the Space Needle, and the love for coffee was all there. New Zealanders have awesome accents, and they drive on the opposite side of the road, but the language, music, and clothing styles didn’t differ much from ours. Unfortunately, I couldn’t escape hearing Justin Beiber or Selena Gomez, and for that I was sad. On the same note, Subways, McDonalds, Burger Kings, Starbucks, Pita Pit, all had multiple establishments throughout the city. America’s influence was everywhere, yet the land of Kiwis shined and showed it’s authentic and true self.
The one aspect that I appreciated most about Auckland was how the aboriginal culture was still an enormous part of the current New Zealand culture. The Maori people are indigenous to New Zealand and their heritage is still evident and visible throughout the city of Auckland. Yes, the British royally screwed the Maoris when they invaded New Zealand in 1863, and this fact doesn't seem forgotten, but it was commendable to see Auckland celebrating and keeping the culture of the Maori people alive and represented. (I would value this more as I went to Australia and witnessed the anger and animosity the aboriginals harbor towards the British.)
While visiting, Auckland was celebrating what was called 'Matariki.' The word literally means ‘eyes of God,’ and it is a cluster of stars that signifies Te Tau Hou, which is the Maori New Year. All along the waterfront Auckland set up the Matariki Trail, with several stops that promoted reconnecting and appreciating the land, sea, and sky.
I’ve been on countless water trails throughout cities that tell you about the history and significance of their pier, port, or harbor; yet, this was quite different. This waterfront trail promotes mindfulness and appreciation for everything Mother Nature has to offer. It does so by celebrating a culture that is deep-rooted in the country.
Unlike the United States, where we celebrate the New Year for one evening, Matariki is a month long festival. To get a better feel for the culture, we spent part of our Saturday evening at the Te Ara Rama Matariki Light Trail. The trail, which has over 250,000 lights, is a family tradition celebrated each year.
Although I wasn’t sure what was being said, the energy shared between the performers and crowd was evident and the festival had a familial vibe to it. Groups of men and women performed multiple sets consisting of songs and dances that evening, and their songs reminded me of what you see and hear on Hawaii. (After a quick Google search I realized they are both a part of the Polynesian heritage.)
Aside from culture, Auckland is a city booming with business. In fact, the city is growing at a rapid pace. Construction- lots of it- can be found as you wander around the business district.
With this growth, there seems to be a divide between the current residents. The New Zealand Herald pointed this out, as did one of my Uber drivers. (The fact that Uber is so popular here only reinforced my feeling that I was in an American city.) The divide amongst the residents resides largely around cost of housing, and where the city is planning on expanding its major port. However, a lack of physics and math teachers has all residents concerned. This is the price of growth, and as most nations know, animosity between residents is unfortunately not all that uncommon.
In a little less than 100 hours in Auckland, I got a good grasp of the Land of the Kiwis. I was glad to have spent the first leg of the trip in New Zealand and explored what Auckland had to offer. The scenery was stunning and full of color and the people were extremely friendly and down to earth. I will always remember Auckland fondly, especially since they recognized the sins of their ancestors and brought their community members together to celebrate all the wonders that Mother Nature has blessed us with.