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Down on the Farm: Gone down under

After fifteen years of loyalty to Arizona, this winter brings a new warm weather destination: New Zealand.

By going to New Zealand in February, you don't just escape to warmth, you escape to a new season. February in the Southern hemisphere is the equivalent of August in the northern half of the globe.

Yes, the sweet corn is ripening in New Zealand-- as are the early apples and any number of other fruits and vegetables that thrive in New Zealand's many micro-climates.

For me, the draw of New Zealand goes beyond the warm weather and inverted seasons. Twenty-five years ago, I spent three months in the country as a twenty-two-year-old student teacher. Although I was supposed to teach for the entire three months, my supervising teacher was more eager that I see their beautiful country than that I learn to teach.

We worked out an arrangement. I taught for a little while, long enough so the supervisor could attest to my basic competence. Then, with the full blessing and encouragement of the administration, I hit the road to hitch-hike up and down the two beautiful and varied islands that make up New Zealand.

There was one complication: A professor from the States was to come and observe me teach. The timing of the supervisory visit was to be a surprise.

But since the poor man had no idea how to handle New Zealand, he called ahead. That gave away the dates of his arrival, which gave me plenty of time to skedaddle back to the school.

When the day of my observation arrived, the school administrators found me the best-behaved section of students in the school. The teacher handed me a ready-made lesson plan and I got up front and taught a class of students I had never seen before. The professor from the States watched intently. He was no dummy. He sensed something was funny.

"Your interactions with the students lacked a certain spontaneity," he said afterward. "Everything seemed quite scripted."

Darn right the class was scripted. I read from notes not my own and the students were instructed to only ask questions which had been agreed upon ahead of time. Although the professor gave me a passing mark, I had to agree to work on this problem of stiffness.

My New Zealand supervisor and I agreed upon a solution: As soon as the good professor disappeared down the ramp onto the plane that would take him back to the States, I hit the road for another month of hitch-hiking. The stiffness disappeared immediately.

To describe the beauty of New Zealand would take volumes. In short, the place is enchanted.

In the Bay of Plenty, I stayed on a kiwi fruit farm within yards of an ocean beach. On the West Coast, I stayed in a hostel near the base of a glacier which sometimes pushes against sub-tropical growth. In Taurunga, I stayed in a rustic, candle-lit cabin with a survivalist couple and their six-week old baby.

Over the course of my stay, I turned down more invitations than I was able to accept. Kiwi hospitality amazed me.

While hitch-hiking, a woman pulled over and gestured for me to get in the back seat of her compact car. That wouldn't have been so unusual if her two babies weren't strapped in back there as well.

After a short ride of ten minutes, our paths diverged. I got out, but had to wait a while for her to write down her address on a scrap of paper.

"We won't be home when you come back through, but the key is under the mat and the refrigerator is always full!" Time didn't allow me to accept her hospitality, but it sure made an impression.

Twenty-five years is a long time. Perhaps in that time, things have changed in New Zealand. In that time, I have changed, too.

For one thing, I have rented a car. No hitch-hiking. I am too old, and who knows if it is still safe to thumb a ride.

And no calling the scribbled phone number of friends of friends of friends I have never met asking if I can sleep on their couch for the night. Those days are over.

But I hope this trip finds that the magic of New Zealand's scenery and the hospitality of its inhabitants remain intact.

Who knows, maybe I'll work some stiffness out of my 47-year-old bones.