CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Marg Wrack wandered around the shady grounds of the Capitol a week ago.
The native of New Zealand has grown accustomed to massive waterfalls, spectacular scenery and exotic wildlife.
But New Zealand lacks one furry creature that scampered around the Capitol grounds -- the common American squirrel. According to Wrack, there are no squirrels, deer or snakes in New Zealand.
It is those small differences between New Zealand and America that fascinate Wrack.
She has spent the last few weeks touring the Mountain State on a visit organized by Friendship Force -- a nonprofit organization that aims to promote international friendship through homestay exchanges.
Her group included retired auto mechanics, farmers, government employees, land surveyors and bankers from Whangarei, New Zealand.
Since they came to West Virginia, the tourists have visited a Putnam County winery, explored the Charleston Farmer's Market and traveled to the New River Gorge. They also joined the throngs of visitors who flocked to the Capitol grounds for the Sesquicentennial celebration two weeks ago.
On June 28, the tourists sat on folding chairs at the state Culture Center to discuss thoughts on West Virginia, New Zealand and international friendship.
Peter Geange, a retired banker, said that New Zealand often appears small when compared to the congested streets and towering skyscrapers of America.
Brian Currie, a former land surveyor, agreed.
"Everything is big in America," he said.
He pointed to the massive system of American waterways and lochs and exclaimed over a mammoth coal barge that he had seen drifting down the Kanawha River several days before.
Even the water flushing clockwise through toilets interested the tourists. They are accustomed to water swirling counterclockwise in the Southern Hemisphere.
According to Sandra Willis, West Virginian history fascinated the travelers as well.
Geange noted that American history is much older than the history of New Zealand. British settlers first colonized New Zealand in 1840.
But the visitors also identified several parallels between America and New Zealand.
Currie said that both New Zealanders and West Virginians are "resilient and resourceful." Several of the tourists were actually descended from American settlers.
Glenys Currie, for example, can trace her ancestors to the Mayflower. They emigrated from the United States around 1850 -- only about a dozen years before West Virginia became a state, she noted.
She also planned to visit Plymouth to see where her ancestors landed.
West Virginian scenery also occasionally resembles New Zealand.
Brian Currie mistook some West Virginian "bush" for New Zealand. He noted that New Zealand, like West Virginia, has coal mines sprinkled throughout the countryside.
These similarities prompted many of the travelers to reconsider widespread opinions on American culture.
According to Brian Currie, New Zealanders often develop unfavorable ideas about Americans based on criticism from world news.
But the trip has prompted these tourists to develop a more sympathetic image of America.
"You're friendly, loveable people," he said.
The New Zealanders agreed that they have only encountered sociable and welcoming Americans -- particularly the members of Charleston Friendship Force who hosted them.
Founded in 1979, the Charleston chapter of Friendship Force has 37 members. It was among the first chapters chartered nationwide.
Since 1977, the organization has honed a network of 300 clubs spread over more than 50 countries.
Charleston members have traveled to many of those countries. In fact, they arranged trips to New Zealand in 2009 and 2011. They've maintained friendships with Friendship Force members from New Zealand since then.
Those friendships are a central goal of the Friendship Force.
Wayne Smith, a Charleston native and founder of Friendship Force, created the organization because he hoped participants would form friendships overseas, Brian Currie said.
The organization now encourages members to act as ambassadors and spread mutual understanding among cultures.
"A world of friends is a world of peace," Geange said. Reach Laura Reston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5112.