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Richer and Better Looking?

by Pamela Blalock

My latest theory is that kiwis believe in reincarnation, and that in each successive life you come back richer and better looking, if not necessarily smarter. This theory helps me deal with the daily perils of kiwi life as a pedestrian and cyclist. I now understand why they don't seem to fear death, as they speed along the twisty winding roads, overtaking on blind corners and before the crest of a hill, and treat pedestrian crossings like many Americans treat yellow traffic lights! It's OK, because in the next life you come back richer and better looking.

So if you've been reading the diary for a while now, you've definitely come to realise that our experience here hasn't been entirely positive! But I am coping better now that I no longer feel singled out. So if I am out cycling and am run down by a high speed motorist passing on a blind corner, he's actually doing me a favour!

We also recently met a couple, who like ourselves, moved here from the States, and have found the greener pastures not so green. Like us, they filled a container with their belongings and moved the whole kit and caboodle around the world. Like us, they have been perplexed by some of the cultural differences, as well as some unexpected similarities - like the strong kiwi car culture. And on a reassuring note, unlike us, they had been here before their big move. Many of our friends expressed surprise when we decided to move here without a prior visit, and I know many are thinking now that a visit would have deterred us from the move. I'm not so sure, since like the transition from dating to marriage exposes all sorts of unforeseen realities of day to day life, there were many things we would not learn until we made the actual move.

One of these things was regarding jobs. Before coming here, we knew that salaries would be lower, but it's really hard to get a feel for exactly how low until you actually get into the job market. The software industry in the States pays quite well. There, most professional fields pay substantially more than the hourly rate of working retail. Obviously I've only got direct experience in Nelson, where salaries are reputedly even lower than other parts of the country ($18,000 nation-wide versus $17,000 in Nelson), and high tech jobs are few and far between, but when I do see salaries in job ads elsewhere, they are still quite low. And this is just looking at straight numbers, not even converting back to American dollars. Here professionals and tradespeople only make fractionally more than retail and seasonal workers. When you then compare the salaries to the costs of goods, it is amazing that anyone can afford anything. It seems that running ones own business is the only way to actually make a reasonable living. And that means long hours and hands-on involvement - not to mention acceptance by the locals...

A friend stateside recently sent me an article from the LA Times which claimed the cost of living here was 40% lower. This article was talking about how Californians are being targeted for immigration to New Zealand, and had interviews with many wealthy Americans who had moved to New Zealand and were taking advantage of the lifestyle opportunities and supposedly lower cost of living here. Well at the risk of driving our house price down by discouraging immigration, I'll have to disagree with the 40% lower figure, and dare I suggest that it is actually more expensive to live here. I'm sure that figure is totally based on housing. Of course with the fall of the US dollar in the last year, this has changed a lot, but if you sell a house that you bought before the boom in California with it's seriously inflated prices, you can certainly come here and buy a house, most likely with cash, especially at last year's exchange rates and housing prices. But in the last year housing prices have skyrocketed, the exchange rate has turned rather unfavourable for Americans, and a building boom here has increased labour and materials costs. I will grant that land with sea and mountain views is a bargain relative to many other places in the world, but kiwis have recently gained an appreciation for land with a view, and those bargains are rapidly becoming a thing of the past as well. But the big thing that is left out of the 40% lower claim is what you get for your money is not quite the same. Again, if you've been reading the diary all along, you are well aware of our house nightmare. Many kiwi houses are built as if this is a tropical climate. Sure Nelson is lovely. We have phenomenal sunshine, and warm sunny winter days, but cold crisp winter nights. And insulation and double glazing would go a long way toward making houses a bit more comfortable. Building codes were only recently introduced, and most houses built prior to that have little or no insulation. Even modern houses built to standards have minimal insulation, and good luck with finding double glazed windows, even in modern homes. If you build from scratch and want double glazed wood frame windows, you'll have to import them. Aluminium ones and PVC ones may be found locally, but it will still be a hard-to-find premium price item. But it isn't just Nelson with it's mild climate. Housing is quite similar throughout the country where the climate can be severe. (I will add that the value of our house in Nelson today is more in converted dollars that we paid for our (larger, insulated, superior quality) house in Massachusetts 8 years ago, and by the time we sell close to what we sold that house for a bit over a year ago!)

But once you've bought the (possibly less expensive) house, you still have to eat and pay utilities. And these things are actually quite expensive. As a small island country, the economy of scale means that many locally produced things will be more expensive than in a larger place. Granted, milk is heavily subsidised in the US, but I've been quite surprised that milk is comparatively expensive here. Milk and petrol costs the same per unit, a bit over a dollar per litre. It's hard to compare home heating costs here, since the lack of insulation and different climate somewhat invalidate the comparisons, but our gas and electric bills here in the winter were quite high (and similar in number to our highest bills in Massachusetts, where our house was 3 times bigger (and had insulation and double glazing), and the temps were substantially lower). Fresh fruit and vegetables are priced quite reasonably. But packaged foods tend to come in at the same prices world-wide. Imported electronics are about 50% more dear here, and there seems to be a six month lag in the latest technology. And of course, some things just aren't available here, so you pay a premium for shipping from the States, and then of course add on the 12% GST. So I have to take issue with the 40% lower figure.

Between low wages and the costs of goods, (earning a) living here is a lesson in frugality. If you retire here from the States with a good nest egg, you may not notice the pinch. But I honestly wouldn't suggest coming here without a substantial amount of money earned elsewhere - and with a bit more favourable exchange rate than the current one.

A few examples of prices - all in kiwi dollars... The local Nelson newspaper is 80 cents. A stamp to send a letter across town is 40 cents. If you send something across the country and want it to go fast, it is 80 cents, and to send a letter to the US is $2. We are paying $120 for phone and DSL Internet access with a 1000 megabyte limit. Beyond that it is 20 cents a megabyte. A 250 gram bag of fresh coffee beans is $11. A 250 gram can of Illy ground coffee is $16. A 750 g box of cereal is $6. A 1 kg. container of Yoghurt is $5. A 1 litre jug of OJ is $4. One of our local supermarkets has online shopping if you want to check other figures. The prices are the same as going into the store, but there is a $12 delivery charge. Of course, we simply walk down and buy our supplies. We do get our milk delivered in reusable glass bottles. This is cool! Shortly after arriving here I noticed folks putting out milk bottles. I was frustrated that there seemed to be no plastic recycling, and was tired out throwing out plastic milk bottles, along with all the other potentially recyclable plastic rubbish, so I was thrilled to find both delivery and the reuse of glass bottles.

I did learn that the next town over would recycle plastic, so we bought a 40 litre rubbish bin for collecting plastic and once every few months, when we were planning to drive there for another reason anyway, we'd haul the recycling down to their recycle centre. Which brings me to another one of our disturbing letdowns. New Zealand has a reputation as a clean green place to be. Part of the reason it isn't in bad shape is the low population. Recycling is just coming into existence here. Our town has just in the last few months introduced kerbside recycling, and despite the fact that you have to pay per bag of rubbish, and recycling is free, so far only about 30% of residents are taking advantage. We've also noticed a disturbing trend of finding rubished dumped roadside over a cliff at some scenic lookouts! So rather than pay $1 per bag to dispose of it, they spend $1 per litre in fuel to drive it up a mountain!

Then there is the air pollution. I mentioned the lack of insulation above, but didn't add that most homes are heated with wood here - open fires and wood stoves. The air pollution in the winter is horrendous, especially in the valleys where it gets trapped by surrounding hills. Typically only the main living room is heated, although electric and portable LP gas heaters are used for other rooms. When we bought our house, it had no heat whatsoever - apparently former owners had always used portable space heaters, or lots of thick wooly sweaters. We installed a flued free-standing gas fireplace - a nice clean burning low emission device - that doesn't pump smoke particles down into the valley below. This was not an inexpensive thing to do, but for us was the most appealing and we felt more responsible.

Finally, there is the car culture. Sometime in the not too distant past, import duties were dropped for cars. There are no longer any cars manufactured here. As a result the price dropped dramatically. Second-hand Japanese imports are inexpensive and common, and many households now have more vehicles than licensed drivers. There is also the whole boy-racer phenomenon, which sad to say is not restricted to boys (as in young or male). Souped up cars with exhausts that go vroooom - psssst go whizzing through town at outrageous speed. If walking on a footpath or crosswalk, one must be quilt vigilant to look over your shoulder or listen for the oncoming vehicle. In our tiny town, packs of 60 or more boy-racers (or hoons as they are also known) may converge on a quiet road to do burnouts (on diesel fuel illegally siphoned from forestry vehicles) or drag races. Unfortunately when the police attempt to do something about it, their efforts are counteracted by incredibly lenient judges, one of whom recently wiped out $50,000 in fines for a 20 year old girl - so she could get a fresh start in life. While some locals were outraged, others sided with the judge that young people need a fresh start, and seem quite willing to "let boys be boys".

Speaking of the criminal justice system... Recently a step father was found guilty of murdering his step child. Prior to this conviction he had racked up 88 other convictions for drugs and other violent crimes. Yes eighty-eight. Whatever about 3 strikes in California, one might expect that someone with 88 convictions might not actually be free. It was also reported that this fellow was out on bail for 3 other recent violent crime charges. I might have expected bail to be revoked if one committed another crime while on bail, but apparently I'm not quite the liberal I claim to be. Incidentally, it does seem quite dangerous to be a step child here in New Zealand, as you are more likely to be a victim than a Catholic alter-boy in the States.

I mentioned in the last diary that I'd finally found a job. It was to be a 6 month contract. The company was using 20 year old technology, and keeping it active by going to an open source version of the compiler, since at some point a 20 year old compiler would just not be supported anymore. My task was to write some contributions to this open source code to run a text based DOS user interface on windows, still looking and working exactly like it did 20 years ago. Fortunately it only took me about 5 weeks!

When we first moved, it was to be a permanent one. Then we decided to go with a 5 year plan, and at some point that got scaled back to two years. We have found many things here that we love, like the scenery, and the weather (in Nelson at least), and the fact that espresso can be found everywhere - well everywhere other services can be found. We've made some great friends. But we've found many things are not quite as we'd hoped, like the road cycling and the cycling culture in general. I kept hoping that with time, we'd either find more of what we love, or we'd learn to love what we'd found. But as time wore on, it became quite obvious that in this case, time just wasn't going to help. Maybe if we'd been able to find real jobs that paid a living wage and had good vacation, so we could travel to areas with nice road cycling, it would be different. But even with that, we'd still be frustrated by the lack of nice day to day riding. So as indicated in the last diary we have to decided to go home. And we have decided to do it soon - like May 2004. Once we'd made that decision, I had a tough time going to a job that I didn't enjoy, and that frustrated me on an hourly basis. So I worked really hard to finish the project and got it done even faster than I originally thought. Now we can spend our remaining time here playing and exploring before we re-enter the rat race back home.

The timing was great. I finished up just before John's mom and sister came to visit.


a whole year