The View from 14,000 Kilometres

More than three weeks have passed since I last posted to this blog. I know what you’re thinking. No, I wasn’t in jail!

I was enjoying a much-awaited holiday in New Zealand and Australia. As I usually do when I go on holiday outside of the country, I made a clean break and maintained minimal contact with home, including a strict ban on visiting online news sites.

For example, having departed Winnipeg on the day of the NDP leadership convention, I only learned the identity of Manitoba’s new premier six days later while checking my personal e-mail at an Internet cafe in Wellington, N.Z.

One of the things I love about travelling is that by learning about other peoples’ communities and societies, you learn a bit more about your own.

A few things I learned:

1. The rest of the world gives little thought to Canada, and that’s a good thing. I heard a saying once to the effect that every human being wears an invisible sign around his or her neck that says, “Make me feel important”. As a result, many humans want to think that their nation is important, too.

During more than two weeks on the ground in New Zealand and Australia, I made an effort to watch the news every day, usually on New Zealand’s One network or on Australia’s Sky News cable channel. During that time, there was only one news item about Canada — a brief report on Sky News, lasting about 15 seconds or so, about the Olympic flame arriving in Canada.

This lack of coverage of what’s happening in Canada is pleasing, and not just because bad news is more newsworthy than good news. Travelling Down Under and elsewhere in the world over the past few years, I’ve come away with the impression that much of the outside world sees Canada as a benign presence in the world — a big, scenic country where people speak with American-like accents and don’t seem to experience much trouble except when the “daft” Quebec separatists stir things up. Since familiarity often breeds contempt in international relations, there’s no harm in leaving these vaguely pleasant perceptions of Canada undisturbed.

2. Get people living downtown and revitalization will follow. Some years ago, Wellington, New Zealand was concerned about the declining state of the city’s downtown area. Did they create more parking spaces to compete with the suburban shopping centres? Nope.

Instead, they encouraged the conversion of empty and under-used downtown buildings to residential use. As more and more Wellingtonians moved into these spaces, new shops and cafes opened to serve this growing residential population. Today, Wellington has an attractive and bustling downtown core.

3. Closing a downtown street to traffic can be good for business. Years ago, part of Wellington’s Cuba Street was closed for maintenance. When the closure was announced, many of the retailers along Cuba Street feared that they would lose business. They were stunned when sales actually improved during the closure. Wellingtonians loved the wide-open space that the closure had made available to them, and appreciated the lack of traffic. It quickly became a more bustling street without traffic than it had been with it.

Today, Cuba Street Mall is permanently closed to traffic, with the retailers’ blessing.

Cuba Street Mall, Wellington, N.Z.No, Burger King hasn’t arrived in Havana: The Cuba Street Mall in Wellington, N.Z.

4. It’s about time Winnipeg got an airport-to-downtown shuttle service. I visited three major cities during my visit: Wellington and Christchurch in New Zealand, and Melbourne in Australia. In all three cities, private fixed-rate shuttle services competed with taxicabs for airport-to-downtown traffic. These shuttle services invariably offered both good value for money and courteous service.

5. Distant hills always look greener. Winnipeggers might envy other cities for their lower crime rates, nicer downtowns and higher incomes, but there are now a few people in Melbourne, Australia who envy us. Invited to a longtime Australian friend’s home for a little dinner party, I was peppered with questions about life in Winnipeg. They were amazed to hear that there were homes available in Winnipeg for less than $200,000 (compared to an average price of about $400,000 in metro Melbourne), that a litre of milk cost less than $2 (compared to $3+ there), and that 15 kilometres would be considered a ‘long’ commute (imagine an uninterrupted urban mass stretching all the way from Selkirk to Steinbach, and anything within the Perimeter being an ‘inner city’ neighbourhood, and you’ll get an idea of Melbourne’s sprawl).

And a few other things I learned, not necessarily related to Winnipeg or Canada:

6. To tell a Kiwi from an Aussie, listen for the “e” and the “i”. Just as many Australians and New Zealanders have difficulty telling a Canadian accent from an upper midwestern American one, many of us have difficulty distinguishing Aussies from Kiwis. It’s a useful skill to have, however. Australians and New Zealanders have a long-standing but good-natured rivalry with one another, so New Zealanders appreciate not being mistaken for Australians.* One of the easiest ways to identify a Kiwi is to listen for the “e” that sounds like an “i” (in Kiwispeak, “ten” becomes tin and “pen” becomes pin), and the “i” with an “ee” sound (where “six” becomes seeks).

7. Never send children to get your food for you. On a crowded Interislander ferry linking New Zealand’s North and South islands, a young lad had just bought some french fries from the onboard cafe and was excitedly returning to his seat with his deep-fried snack. Running along, he accidentally spilled some of the fries on the carpet in a high-traffic corridor. I watched in horror as he simply scooped up the errant fries, tossed them back in the container, and continued merrily on his way. Blecch!

8. Wash your backpack before travelling internationally. I wasn’t the least bit concerned when I was selected for secondary screening at Australian Customs on arrival in Melbourne. It’s a fact of life anytime that you clear Customs that there’s a small chance it’ll be your lucky day (as the customs officer put it) and you’ll be selected for inspection. I always assume that I’ll be among the ones chosen. With nearly five years having elapsed since my last “lucky day”, I figured I was overdue anyway.

What seemed like a routine process was turned into a nasty surprise when I learned that my backpack had tested positive for minute traces of cocaine, even though the sniffer dog had shown no interest in me at the baggage claim and the fact that I have never used illicit drugs and never even seen cocaine anywhere except on television and in photographs. After answering a few frank questions from the unfailingly polite customs officer, having other items tested for contamination (negative, I’m happy to say) and my personal effects x-rayed and looked over, I was cleared to enter Australia.

After helping me repack and giving me directions on how to catch the Skybus shuttle service into Melbourne, the customs officer told me that such contaminations are not entirely unusual.

“Cocaine residue is very adhesive,” he explained. “It sticks to everything that comes into contact with it.”

“If a new bank machine is installed, once 20 people have used it it will test positive for cocaine.”

I still have no idea where the contamination came from. I use my backpack as a gym bag, and there have been rumours (likely true) that drug dealers are operating out of the locker room. Or perhaps it came from one or more of the dozens of library books that are carried in my backpack every year. Or maybe it was a false alarm caused by that 80% pure cocoa chocolate bar I had in my backpack a few weeks earlier (a possibility that only occured to me days later).

Nevertheless, I’ll be washing my backpack at least twice in the days before travelling internationally from now on (the last washing being at the closest possible hour to departure). I’d recommend that others do the same — or even use an upcoming trip as a good excuse to buy a brand-new backpack.

It’s good to be home again.

* – Which reminds me of the following exchange between a New Zealander doing a comedy act/magic show in Christchurch, N.Z. and an Australian tourist watching him from behind. Turning around, the performer bellowed to the tourist, “You’re from Australia, aren’t you?” Tourist: “Yeah — how did you know?” Performer: “Because you’re looking at my bloody arse!” For good measure, Australians have their fair share of equally crude ‘Kiwi jokes’, many of them containing references to sheep. Involving me in his act, the street performer joked about Canada being “Little America on top”. Other nationalities suffered the same or worse treatment.
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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

2 Responses to The View from 14,000 Kilometres

  1. Mike says:

    Great post, thanks for all the little observations, the tip on distinguishing kiwi’s especially useful. That is so weird about your backpack, i’ve heard the story about all money containing cocaine and even water supplies like the Thames river but not backpacks!

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    Thanks, Mike! Yes, I thought the backpack incident was weird as well, not to mention a nasty shock.

    Fortunately this happened in a country that is a stable democracy under the rule of law, with a decent record on human rights. I shudder to think how things would have played out in some of the not-so-well-run countries.

    In fact, there was a story in the news there about an Australian who could be facing a prison sentence in a Middle East jail just for dropping the f-bomb (see link below).

    Travelers to Australia: Wash your backpacks out with soap and warm water.

    Travelers to the Middle East: Wash your mouths out with soap and warm water.

    http://www.usatoday.com/travel/flights/item.aspx?type=blog&ak=620000432.blog

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