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Down on the Farm: Mangawhai

First stop in New Zealand: The coastal town of Mangawhai, north of Auckland, on the east coast, looking out towards several islands.

We scheduled two days in a small coastal town to wear off any possible jet lag, but the New Zealand sunrise burned off both the coastal fog and the accumulated mental fog from a 13-hour flight.

My worries about driving on the left-hand side of the road also dissipated. You just have to concentrate, just like we should whenever we are behind the wheel. The biggest problem is that the blinker is on the right sight of the steering wheel. The windshield wiper is on the left. Every time I turn, I signal my intention with a noisy swipe of the wipers.

Within an hour of reaching Mangawhai, we found an empty sandy beach and watched the turquoise rollers crash on the sand and whoosh up towards our feet. Compared to the numbing winter back home, the tropical beach creates sensory overload. Sand under my bare feet. Waves washing past my porcelain-colored legs. And sunshine that warms the soul.

However, soul-warming tropical sunshine, when allowed to reach one's balding head for over two hours, can fry the pate in a hurry. The cure: one of those wide-rimmed hats with a string around the chin. The hat still stings when I pull it onto my raw head. But I wear it wherever I go. Combined with brand new oversized Sophia Loren sunglasses--the only pair I could find that fits over my prescription glasses--my nerd factor has climbed to Kim Jong-Il-like levels. However, when you are a foreigner, you are already a strange bird by virtue of talking funny.

On the second morning, a Saturday, a farmer's market materialized on the lawn of the old, wooden town hall next to our hotel. Sweet corn. Fresh tomatoes. Jellies, jams and chutneys. Wine. Sausage. Massive wheels of cheese. Fresh cut flowers. Fresh caught fish. Freshly-harvested oysters, mussels and clams. And, good small-town people.

We met Joan, 86, who sat knitting wool slippers which she sells to benefit the New Zealand Leprosy Mission.

We met hat-maker Heather, who invited us over to see her massive garden and orchard later in the day.

In friendly New Zealand, connections multiply like plankton. By the end of the afternoon, we pulled up to the kitchen table of Ron, a 92-year-old ball of fire who gave me a run-down of the difficulties that surrounded the building of a local senior housing complex.

Out came newspaper clippings. Out came bills for car registration, hospital stays and other items of interest to somebody trying to understand what daily life is like for elderly New Zealanders.

Ron, who is a picture of health, described his regimen: "My wife and I had two whiskeys before tea every night," he said, "and, of course, I smoked like a chimney."

"Tea," in New Zealand, is the evening meal. Tea, the drink, is served in the morning and afternoons, and Ron fixed us up a fine cup. But tea, the drink, is almost never served at tea, the meal.

Although Ron is healthy, he does need a hernia repaired. If he pays for it himself or with private insurance, they could cut him open tomorrow. If he wants the surgery for free, as all New Zealanders are entitled to, he will wait 4-6 months. Ron seems to think the fair trade-off is fair.

"If I want it to speed along, I'll just arrange to fall and break my arm," he said with a wink. "Then they'll have to take me!"

An endearing New Zealand trait: When the conversation winds down, Kiwis end it. Fast. No standing half-way out the door hemming and hawing.

So, this Minnesotan, acculturated to hemming, hawing and lingering, got shooed away from a conversation no fewer than five times in one day.

"You aren't here to chat about my family," Ron said sheepishly after he brought out some family pictures. "You've got things to do!"

Yes, we had things to do. We had to get to the beach before sunset. At the beach, a retired man carrying a massive fishing pole hollered, "Where are they biting, mate?" My accent made it obvious that I had no clue.

"What brings you here, mate?" he asked.

"It is twelve below zero at home!" I replied.

"Fair enough!" he said.

"Carry on!"