Thursday, October 31, 2013

New Zealand: it's almost like us

What is New Zealand like? People ask.

What it's like is this: You look up at a tree expecting it to be a cedar, but it isn't.

You talk to someone from the neighborhood. You expect an American. He isn't. He's clearly got the same English roots. Maybe he's Canadian. Something not unfamiliar. But not an American.

You talk to someone from around the corner. You expect a Mexican or a Yaqui or someone familiar. She isn't. She's Maori. She may be other things too, but she's Maori. Definitely not Mexican. Saying 'hasta' gets blank stares.

But there are refried beans on the store shelves. $5 for a small can. That's NZ$5, and some change. No dried beans in sight.

Everyone is friendly. Calm. Patient. At least with us.

Traffic is very orderly here in Feilding. We thought it was crazy in the Wellington suburbs, but maybe it was just lack of experience.

It's not just the driving on the left with the driver on the right. That is fairly easy to adapt to. And it's not even the lack of stop signs and stop lights and huge numbers of yields and traffic circles. Those things have their own logic.

No, what is the greatest challenge in driving a car here - after the $8-$9 a gallon gas - is the location of the blinker, the directional signal. It's switched places with the windshield wipers.

It goes without saying that the steering wheel is on the right, and the gear shift is on the left. These things are there and we get used to using them as they are positioned here in New Zealand.

We just don't adapt as easily to the turn signal. Windows have been wiped hundreds of extra times since we got here.

Wellington has hills like Seattle; Feilding has flats. It's easier here in Feilding.

In Wellington, you enter a traffic circle as long as no one is approaching from your right with whom you might interact. In other words if you are out of the way soon enough so as not to interfere with someone zooming around the circle and approaching from the right, you can go. Start blinking that you want to get off just after the next to last exit. You can blink right right up until you blink left if you want.

In Wellington it is not unusual to have 6 entrances to a traffic circle, and two lanes around the circle. If you are in the outer lane you might find yourself exiting with the lane. If you are in the inner lane you might find you can't exit. But you can pull over to the left lane and then exit. Maybe the next time around.

In Wellington, it's unusual for anyone (except a visitor from the US) to stop at a yield to check out the traffic. It is more likely that one would speed up.

In Feilding on the other hand we have seen people wait to enter just in case we might choose to enter, just because we're to their right - on a side street to their right. This is very nice behavior. (I don't think they can tell we're Americans likely to be erratic in traffic - I think they're just nice. Or else the whole town is onto us.)

In Feilding it is more common to have 4 entrances to a traffic circle and only one of them occupied. It is also unusual here to have a double lane going around a traffic circle.

As far as we have been able to tell, there is no way to practice the special New Zealand combination of driving on the left from the right side of the car and entering and exiting multiple traffic circles. You have to do what we are doing: do it.

We do it because we need to get places by car. One of us (not me) drives, the other (me) cringes. I feel as though I am about to be crashed into a car parked on the far left. My depth perception is never great and I could swear (do swear) daily that we are about to collide with whatever is over to my side of the road.

Why do I not do the driving, then? I usually do at home, so why not here? It's because of the windshield wiper thing. While I'm circling clockwise, being courteous to those to my right, remembering where to exit the circle, and contemplating when to switch from signaling right (onto the circle) to signaling left (out of the circle), the windshield wipers end up on. I can't explain it.

There should be software put out by the New Zealand tourist organization for potential visa-holders, where we could clock the necessary hours and pass the necessary tests to be kiwi-worthy. Otherwise it's just a lot of chaos down here. Like America, almost. But not exactly.

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