As my first full calendar year as Ambassador draws to a close, I marvel at the degree to which 2010 has been a year of accelerating momentum, constant motion, and great contrasts. I feel blessed to have been given the extraordinary opportunity both to serve my country as President Obama's personal representative and to immerse myself in societies as vibrant and rich as New Zealand and Samoa.
Geographically, I had the great fortune to travel from lush, tropical Samoa to the desolate, frigid beauty of the South Pole. In between I visited -- in some cases many times -- Waitangi, Whangerei, Auckland, Hamilton, Rotorua, Taupo, Foxton, Levin, Palmerston North, Greytown, Martinborough, Porirua, almost every nook and cranny in Greater Wellington, Christchurch, Akaroa, Queenstown, Wanaka, Arrowtown, Dunedin, Gore, Edendale, Invercargill, Bluff, Apia, Sapapali'i, Poutasi, and dozens of other Kiwi towns and Samoan villages.
I climbed a mountain on the Mainland, white-water rafted down a river up in Kapiti, cruised with Hector dolphins in the Pacific, dug foundations for new fales in Poutasi with the crew of a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, ate oysters straight from the Foveaux Strait beyond Bluff, sat with Emperor penguins on the Ross Ice Shelf, held a Kiwi (bird) in a veterinary surgery at Massey, harvested feijoa and Chinese gooseberries in the Lower Hutt, practiced my rugby kicks wherever handed a ball, cheered on both elite and special athletes, luged, hiked, surfed, and kayaked.
I dined on KFC and kabob more often than some consider kosher, took our Peace Corps volunteers out drinking, collected Toys for Tots with my Marines at the Johnsonville Mall, embarked on a successful quest to find the best Mexican restaurant in New Zealand, waded into the 7's in Wellington dressed as Tom Jones, and vigorously defended the honor of my favorite brew -- Speights -- against the local Heineken-sipping posheratti.
Interpersonally, I started my first fortnight in Aotearoa a year ago by visiting my new neighbors at Waiwhetu Marae, inviting leaders of the Wellington LGBT community to my office to discuss current events, and taking a dozen Victoria Wellington University students to the Thistle Pub for three hours of drinks and debate. Just this past week, before leaving town for a brief Christmas holiday, I visited a Wellington mosque and met with a group of young women entrepreneurs.
In the intervening 12 months I had the great privilege of speaking personally with thousands of Kiwis and Samoans of all ethnic, socio-economic, religious, and political stripes; participating in more than 2,400 meetings; touring farms, factories, research facilities, and wineries across the countries; and engaging at length with students, professors, and administrators at all eight universities in New Zealand and the two universities in Samoa.
Emotionally, the year brought exhilarating highs…such as the exuberant celebration of diversity in our Independence Day receptions, and the visit of our inspiring Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. I was buoyed by the great warmth, openness, and hospitality of the many Kiwis and Samoans whom I have met on my travels, and I was deeply grateful for the way in which Dr. McWaine and I were so quickly, graciously, and sincerely welcomed into our new home. I was blessed to have formed many more true friendships than I would have expected, being here in a clearly transitory posting.
Also, though, there were deep lows…such as the mine disaster in Greymouth and the loss of servicemen in Afghanistan. I know that this Christmas will be a difficult one for those who lost loved ones or were otherwise touched by these tragedies. You remain in our thoughts and prayers.
Substantively, 2010 brought unprecedented levels of engagement and creativity as the U.S./New Zealand bilateral relationship deepened and expanded across the board. The Embassy launched an ambitious whole-of-society outreach program; refocused its resources on priorities such as youth, education, and science; launched a score of new projects; significantly increased the number of Kiwis and Samoans sent back to the U.S. on exchange and visitor programs; supported important steps forward in security and trade relations; and laid a roadmap for continued momentum in the Wellington Declaration.
We hosted more official visitors from America than ever before, including Secretary Clinton, several Assistant Secretaries, a Supreme Court Justice, civil rights experts, climate change specialists, librarians, poets, musicians, international policy strategists, the head of the National Science Foundation, Secretary of the Navy, Special Representative to Muslim Communities, head of the National Council on Competitiveness, and dozens of scientists, trade specialists, and security experts.
So … it has been a very busy, open, engaged, inclusive, diverse, palms-up, hands-extended kind of year. Among all that activity, a couple of highlights particularly stand out:
First, we brought more than 50 students from our various university-based American Ambassador Advisors groups to Wellington in October for our first-ever Connecting Young Leaders Conference. The agenda was quintessentially American, in that it was designed to feature diverse speakers and divergent opinions. The weekend as a whole exemplified what we at the Embassy hope to accomplish -- bring dynamic open minds together, stimulate discussion, examine different opinions and perspectives, find common ground, seed new networks, and lay a foundation for mutual respect and understanding.
Second, we took time to celebrate Thanksgiving in the traditional American way. My visiting mother-in-law, other relatives, my Embassy colleagues, Dr. McWaine, and I served a full Thanksgiving meal to approximately 200 homeless and under-privileged persons at the Downtown Community Ministry in Wellington. Dr. McWaine and I then hosted at our Residence a bevy of Fulbright Scholars, the Fulbright NZ board, and our Embassy Marines to an authentic down-South Thanksgiving dinner that included turkey, stuffing, yams, red velvet cake, pecan pie, homemade ice cream, and the famous McWaine monkey bread, among a dozen other dishes.
Amidst all the hustle, bustle, and business of daily life…amidst the piffle that sometimes piles up like dust bunnies under the bed…it is important to pause to consider what really matters. To ponder the values that give life meaning and that cement friends together through good times and bad. To give thanks for the blessings that we enjoy. And to share those blessings with others.
So today, taking my own advice, I stepped briefly out of the swirling cloud to ponder where we at the Embassy stand as 2010 hurtles to a close. Based on that meditation, I can make two assertions without fear of contradiction: The year that we are leaving behind has been an extraordinarily exciting, inclusive, mutually rewarding, and productive adventure, and I intend to ensure that 2011 is even more exciting, inclusive, mutually rewarding, and productive.
Dr. McWaine and I wish you and your families a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Eid Mubarak, Happy Kwanzaa, and Healthy, Joyous, and Peaceful New Year.
Editor's Note: This entry was excerpted from Ambassador Huebner's blog, which you can read here.