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New Mexico: No One Told Me It Was Like This

July 7, 2012

A life expectancy of 45. Domestic abuse and alcoholism. A remote village that struggles to attract tourism. A beautiful church with murals that took 30 years to paint slowly being savaged by rising waters and a lack of funding. This is what the Zuni people were sentenced to. Their reservation is isolated in the rugged desert of New Mexico, almost touching the border of Arizona. Due to their location they’re a people largely untouched by Western influence, but they don’t attract tourism like the Apache or Navajo – I’m the second tourist to put a pin in New Zealand on the visitor centre’s map. But while the Zuni people don’t often leave their land and culture, their jewellery does. Zuni craftsmen and women are renowned for the silver work, and their intricate necklaces, rings and fetishes can be found across the USA. Almost three-quarters of Zuni people make their money from some form of art, but far too many of them live below the poverty line. Despite their harsh circumstances, they’re a warm, shy people who do their best to welcome the few tourists that do make the trip. The only place to stay in the village is the Halona Inn, a cozy B&B that serves up a fantastic breakfast, (the Zuni people make excellent banana bread). We only stay one night, but it was a memorable experience.

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With its magnificent church, hundreds of artists and Spanish buildings, Santa Fe feels how I imagine Europe to be. But stacks of Mexican food and some rather interesting characters remind us where we are. John is a man in his 60s shooting a film with Johnny Depp in Santa Fe. He chats to us about actors and Rachel Hunter before he asks us whether we left New Zealand because it’s socialist. We’re befuddled, but smile and figure we missed the joke until he asks us whether brain surgeons get paid the same amount as construction workers. Then we click. He really thinks New Zealand is socialist. But before I can assure him we’re a centre-left democracy just like the USA is, and suggest that perhaps it is the old East Germany he was thinking of, he’s off on a tangent about his five guns and his disdain for the president. We’ve gone from movie talk to an uncomfortable political conversation very quickly, and we’re relieved when he moves on.

It’s a different scene down the south of New Mexico, but no less beautiful. White Sands National Monument and Carlsbad Caverns offer some of the most unusual sights within just hours of each other. White Sands is a sprawling desert of gypsum, and while its heat takes away slightly from its beauty, it turns out great in photos. The caverns are a wonder of nature where time stops and the scenery lies unchanged for decades. Stalactites hang perilously from the cave ceiling what if just one dropped? But they won’t, they’ve been forming for centuries already. At dusk we watch Mexican Freetail bats swarm out of the cave to hunt. They snake and bob into the still air of Carlsbad while we watch, hypnotised. But there’s a sad story behind the bats. White Nose Syndrome has wiped out many hibernating bats, (the Mexican Freetail bats are so far unharmed), and its etiology and cure are unknown. If this disease is allowed to continue to spread and kill, we could be without bats in just a decade. It is believed the white fungus that grows on the nose of infected hibernating bats itches and wakes them. They then leave the cave to feed, only to find it is still winter and no insects are around. The bats return to the cave but with repeated awakenings their energy levels deplete and they eventually starve to death. Scientists are working hard for a cure and we give $5 towards the cause through the ‘adopt a bat’ program. I encourage you to do the same here. We name our bat Bruce and leave the Caverns thinking it might just be the highlight of our trip so far.

“Take me to your leader,” says the man behind the tennis ball with a mouth cut out and UFO face drawn on. We can only be in one place in New Mexico and that is, of course, Roswell. It’s the UFO festival and the town is immersing itself in full-on small town weirdness. From an alien costume contest and UFO parade to toothless 30-somethings selling lemonade, Roswell is everything we hoped for but smaller. It’s possibly been hit hard by the recession, but the people still delight in the best of American oddness and welcome visitors with open arms. Lord knows what would have become of the place had the 1947 crash and supposed cover-up never happened, but Roswell has been milking it for all it’s worth for over half a century and aren’t looking to stop anytime soon. And neither should they – it’s all a lot of fun.

*The title of this post was inspired by the words of artist Georgie O’Keeffe when she laid eyes on New Mexico

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