Breathe a huge sigh of relief: we’re through the snivelly bits. No one’s more glad than I am, and yes, I know I just described dehydrating myself egregiously over someone I had known for roughly three days. Preposterous? Yup. Inexplicable? Check. Nevertheless, the stern admonishments, bracing talks, and persuasive logic I subjected myself to during the long plane ride from Auckland didn’t diminish the intrigue and affection I’d developed for Gar. Happily, there’s nothing like the hassle of dealing with LAX to clear one’s mind with a fresh breath of indignant fury and murderous frustration.

Going via the long, taxi fume-choked sidewalk (the only current route between the eight terminals) from the relative calm of Qantas international economy to the melee of Continental’s check-in for my flight to Houston was like stepping from a Swiss train station into a Haitian bus terminal. One harried attendant was attempting to serve at least 150 would-be users of the automated check in—many of whom seemed never to have seen, much less effectively used, a touch screen before—since the lines to deal with human agents would have stretched halfway to the moon. It was a riot of shoving, shouting humanity: I would not have been surprised to see chickens being waved about by the legs or a goat on a rope.

After not being presented with an on-screen option to check luggage during my long-awaited kiosk session, the attendant informed me I’d have to pay $150 to get my bag on the plane. I protested, explaining that I was on the second leg of my round-trip journey, and I was well within the international luggage parameters of codeshare partner Qantas. “Well, where’s your luggage tag?” the woman queried me. I had conscientiously removed the LA-marked barcode before getting to the luggage drop area, knowing that extraneous tags can be an easy way to send your belongings where they may never be heard from again, certainly not until they’d been well-rifled through and cherry-picked by acquisitive baggage handlers. “I took it off: it said LA on it, and I’m going to MCO,” I explained. “Well, they should have put the tag on for MCO in the first place,” she huffed. “There’s nothing I can do.” “Can I talk to a manager?” I asked. “You’ll have to go back to the United counter and wait again,” she directed me. More codeshare nonsense, requiring me to retrace my steps back through the exhaust fog to the United terminal and attempt to flag down an available human to assist me. After explaining the situation two more times to sour-faced employees, a gate agent reluctantly produced the coveted tag for me, but informed me the bag should have had an MCO tag on it leaving Auckland. “But – you have to reclaim your bags in LA for customs,” I pointed out. “Yes, but they’re supposed to put the ultimate destination on there, and recheck them for you before you leave the customs area,” he informed me. Well, fine – I’d know that for the next time I verified that the proper destination was printed on there (also a necessary precaution, be ye warned: leaving Paris last August, the agent initially tagged my bag to Miami, not MCO… I was, at least, returning home and wouldn’t have been left without clothes and toothbrush, but still).

The rest of my return passed uneventfully, and James was even on time to collect me from the Orlando airport. It was vastly reassuring to see his familiar face approaching through the crowd, and I hugged him long and hard, feeling a complicated mix of deep relief at being home and twinges of sadness at the official end of my grand adventure down-underer. I’ve written before about how alien it felt to be back in my deserted house, driving on the wrong sides of the road in frantic globs of city traffic, and the difficulty reacclimating to daily life as a normal member of society, colored particularly by pining for the Kiwi left behind… Reentry was hard, especially in the chilly brown Florida winter I’d returned to and my meat locker-temperatured house, and my first and last thoughts of the day were always of Gar, 8000 miles away. The ache of missing him was assuaged somewhat by our active email correspondence, discussing all sorts of issues and opinions and getting to know him a little bit better with an assist from technology. Plus I was happy to see he appeared to miss me too.

Don’t panic: we’re not sliding back into emotional mushiness. I’d actually like to pause here to recount an assortment of random observations about New Zealand that I noted at the time but wasn’t really able to squeeze in any other descriptions of my adventures.

1. There’s a lot of barefootedness. Like Japan and Hawaii, it’s relatively common to leave your shoes at the door when entering a residence, and moreover, Kiwis aren’t too fussed about needing shoes in public, either. To American eyes, which typically only see bare feet on the craziest of homeless folks and possibly during a fast stop at a beach-side kwickie-mart, it’s seriously bizarre to see shoeless people in the gas station, supermarket, even small barefoot children led by the hand by their doting parents down sidewalks of a village’s main shopping street. The internal germophobe shouts in alarm at seeing this, as does the mental safety patrol, because of observation two, which is….

2. Although we’re given the impression the average Kiwi is seriously tree-huggy, there’s a decent amount of littering, particularly when it comes to left-behind evidence of drinking; to wit, there’s a lot of broken beer bottle glass. It often surprised me that I’d trek into some pristine place—for example, an hour and half along the Kepler Track to the back side of Lake Manapouri—only to discover that some individual who’d also been motivated to hike in this far to come check out the amazing natural beauty had then left their empties behind in a heap of trash. It didn’t make any sense: they drank all the beer! It was lighter than when they’d brought it in – why not take the containers back out? I ended up being a do-gooder a lot of the time and cramming my exterior pack pockets with sun-faded bottled and cans, rattling and clanking through my return walk, but at least leaving the place better than I’d found it.

3. Kiwis abbreviate everything. Mushies, truckies, Welly… I had to ask what these mushies were that came with my steak sammich, envisioning something like a hush puppy but perhaps soggier, before I was informed they were [*ahem* quite obviously, now that I thought about it] mushrooms. But truckies? Cuddly little, er, truck drivers? This is actually on billboards over there, exhorting said truckies to run through a periodic series of safety checks (lights, brakes, etc.) This can lead to some confusion for the poor American already constantly striving to decoct the accent, convert the ‘f’ pronunciation to ‘Wh’ place names [a Maori thing], and correlate Kiwi slang to familiar English words, only to be confronted with an abbreviation that prompts rifling through the mental Rolodex for possible locations and terms that might fit the affectionate familiar form being used.

4. Stop signs are really rare; I only saw a handful my entire time in the country. Instead, nearly every intersection has a ‘give way’ sign, and since they’re driving in a country with a pretty small population, Kiwis aren’t generally all that used to stopping. This prompted moments of near cardiac arrest when I’d be hurtling along at 100kph and some car would come whipping down a perpendicular road, slamming their brakes on a quarter of the way into my lane when they realized someone was, in fact, there to give way to. I never got t-boned, but came within a whisker’s-breadth many, many times. It pays to be wary.

5. Suicidal birds. I’m not entirely sure what species they are, but there are birds that will stubbornly refuse to move off their prized pieces of road carrion just because you happen to think you want to drive through the dinner lane. Similarly, there is a separate type of bird that likes to dive at the front of your speeding car, I am guessing to have a death-defying nibble on insects disrupted by vehicle air displacement or bugs attracted by shining headlights. Critters there don’t seem to have the healthy natural terror of moving vehicles that they do here in the States, and you’ll find yourself braking or swerving a lot to avoid obliterating them. I even couldn’t help trying to avoid the many opossums on the roadway at night either, particularly the mom with three clinging babies I narrowly missed when driving at midnight near the Waitomo Caves, although I know they do terrible damage to the environment and there’s an active poison program in place to try to reduce their numbers (leading to the occasional whiffy backwoods trails scented with decomposing victims). They look distinctly different than our North American possums, and fur products are sold in various incarnations in tourist shops: possum-fur nipple warmers, anyone? (Really, it’s a thing, I swear.)

a Kiwi opossum.

6. They don’t sell beer in gas stations. Kiwis think it’s preposterous that we do, tantamount to encouraging drinking and driving (“One free tall-boy with every fill-up!”). You need to go to an actual liquor store or supermarket to buy beer and wine. Gas stations also close surprisingly early (along with practically everything else: don’t be surprised if you get shuffled out of a pub at 8 on a slow night). I had to be careful to stop and fill up before 7 pm in rural areas, even if I was only squeezing in a handful of liters to be sure I wouldn’t get stuck waiting for opening hours to continue on to my eventual destination. They do have automated stations with no attendant, but those operate only with the use of chipped EFTPOS cards, which I did not have.

7. Sin taxes are devilishly high. A six pack of beer is $15, and twelve will set you back $25. Cigarettes are easily $15 per pack and include amusingly gruesome surgical images of blackened lungs and clogged arteries on the reverse side, with warnings in both English and Maori about the dangers of smoking. (I have amassed an entertaining collection of these, courtesy of Gar).

8. They don’t need no stinkin’ probable cause. You can be pulled over by the cops, often at routine traffic stops, especially at holidays but any old time will do, and they have that breathalyzer in your face the second your window is down. Very serious about drunk driving, they are. It helps here to have a van you can sleep in should you find yourself imbibing one too many to put you over the legal limit.

9. Internet access is a shocking pain in the ass for a first-world country. Kiwis are charged fees according to their data use, which leads to curmudgeonly hoarding by hotels (“Here’s your ten MB allowance for the day – that’ll be $10, please”) and a lack of public WiFi. Even some of the coffee shops that do offer it will only give you a certain data amount or time limit for each cup of coffee purchased; no all day Starbucks loitering here. It’s also incredibly slow to upload data. One traveler I ran into complained that even the gas stations on their recent trip to [er, Colombia, I think it was] offered WiFi, and yet they had to fight tooth and nail in New Zealand to keep up their travel website – and they’d decided to just wait to upload all their video until they returned home.

10. Kiwis don’t exactly actively dislike us, but they’re not fans of Americans either. Now, this is both a good and bad thing. For the tourist, the oft-repeated tales of “smiling, welcoming Kiwis” are, in my opinion, highly overblown; on a general basis, I’ve found the supposedly antipathetic French to be far friendlier. The Kiwis in the hospitality industry I encountered were nearly always suffering from a clear case of foreigner burnout, and their attitude was indifferent at best (of course, I’d be pissy too if tourists were forever clogging up all the narrow roads with motorhomes driven at intolerably slow speeds and pooping in my recreation areas).

Obviously there are some major exceptions: my biker-family Christmas invite, my wonderful Auckland B&B host Tony who stayed up half the night with me explaining the election results and various political parties over chilled glasses of Nelson wine, the sweet lady at the BP who offered me one of the left-behind gas caps as a replacement when I discovered I’d accidentally abandoned mine during a prior attempted fill-up. Just don’t expect anyone to delightedly exclaim, “Oh, an American!!” although both here and in Europe, as I’d found the prior summer, we did somewhat redeem ourselves in international opinion after replacing the universally reviled younger Bush with Obama.

On the plus side, this little country has some serious nadgers and does NOT take any shit from America – they refuse to kowtow to our 800 pound gorilla country, even when we wave around threats of cutting off favorable trade agreements for totally unrelated instances of not acquiescing to our demands. They have steadfastly stuck to their nuclear-free zone policies for decades despite grousing from our armed services that we’re not about to disclose which of our carriers and submarines are powered by nuclear technology or have such weapons aboard, and in a current court case, NZ recently told the States in no uncertain terms to stick it where the sun shineth not: no, they were not about to extradite their nationals based on claims but no supplied evidence of piracy law violations, thank you very much, especially ones that didn’t actually break any NZ statutes.

And did you know that, after France authorized the covert sinking of a Greenpeace ship in Auckland harbor (which had intended to protest a nuclear test on a Polynesian island), the U.S. refused to back up the New Zealand government’s rightful bristling against its sovereignty? (The operatives did try to finagle it so no one was killed in the sinking, but they failed.) I mean, this would have been against the French, no less! You’d think we’d support them on principle alone, let alone in what essentially amounted to an act of war against an ally. Imagine if a foreign country had the effrontery to blow up a ship safely parked in, say, San Francisco. We’d have the big guns out tout de suite and expect uniform international condemnation against the perpetrator. NZ essentially said, “Screw you guys” to the U.S. and U.K. when we failed to back them up.

11. Kiwis can be downright prickly and aggressive. Sure, there’s a strong British flavor to the country – all the tea and cottagey, rose-filled gardens – but it’s like working class England meets the wild west (sans firearms). A lot of the nice middle-aged ladies I ran into avidly read trashy celeb gossip magazines and collect dolls and doilies (yes, we should adjust here for the possible propensity of those running B&Bs to more doily-prone than the general population), but quite a few of the thickly-girthed, furry Kiwi men had an edgy feel of barely restrained anger, as if teetering on the brink of starting a pub brawl or soccer riot. I saw a good number of shouting matches and offended street arguments, along the lines of a Joe Pesci-esque “Oi! Can’t you see I’m walking here?” [insert appropriate Kiwi accent, of course]. Gareth told me about the man who returned to the supermarket checkout line after his 8 year old daughter had told Gar, with his few items, to go ahead since her dad still wasn’t back, and was rammed with a shopping cart, challenged to a fight, and loudly accused of shoving in front of the little girl by the instantly belligerent dad. An American couple blogging their way through the country on bikes had an incident in Wellington with an aggressive driver who got pissed that, after nearly hitting his wife, the cyclist husband rather understandably flipped the driver off. The driver stopped his car, leaped out and knocked the husband over, punching him and knocking him to the ground repeatedly before speeding away through a red light… in response to which the local head of the cycling association regretfully reported, “Unfortunately, this kind of aggression is not rare in New Zealand.”  Now, in no way do I want to paint a picture of uniformly hostile natives because that’s absolutely not accurate either, but my ‘gut instinct’, upon which I rely heavily when traveling, often beeped with a little warning of tension in the air – not necessarily at me, but near me – more so than any place I’ve visited so far.

12. Everything you’ve heard about how stunning the country is: yep, that’s absolutely, unequivocally true. Pretty much every single day I was there I was riding a pleasant high of blissful absorption in the amazing landscapes. All tourist literature will cite the term godzone to describe New Zealand, an abbreviation [ha!] of ‘God’s Own Country,’ and aside from any quibbling about the existence of higher beings, this is utterly accurate. Looking around in perpetual awe, I often felt that a worthy creation myth would be that, after practicing on every other location, some supreme architect of the world had taken the best bits of the prior work portfolio, made each facet bigger and grander than the original incarnations, and patched them all together here (simultaneously conveniently accounting for the country’s relative geologic youth). It was fairy-tale imagery and environmental archetypes from a Jungian collective unconscious made real: the most mountainy mountains, the most foresty forests, thundering rivers and falls, crystalline lakes and streams. For a person happier seeing cows than crowds, more soothed and inspired by nature than humanity in all its fumbling forms, it’s just about as close to perfection as can be imagined. If only the beer was cheaper…