After less than one week in New Zealand, I can definitively say that this country deserves all the hype it gets not only for the physical beauty of the country, but also for the friendliness of the people. I’m a master of building things up to the point where reality can never meet my expectations, but this is one time where my expectations were blown out of the water across the board. All the stories people told me, all the pictures I looked at, and all the things I read failed to even come close to how incredible everything here has been thus far.
First, let me address the nearly 20 hours of flying. While not one of my favorite lifetime experiences, the reward at the end of the airtime is well worth it. I also would recommend that anyone else who goes books their flight from Chicago or Tampa or wherever you are as one continuous flight. It takes away any worries of trying to grab your luggage and haul it to the next gate. Even if that is a bit more expensive, you can’t really put a price on peace of mind.
Once we arrived in Auckland, clearing customs was a breeze and everyone was very friendly. Most people employed in US airports are quite hostile, so that was a nice change, though I imagine if someone were trying to smuggle in plants or fruit or drugs that they would have quite a different opinion. The country of New Zealand as a whole is incredibly committed to maintaining the integrity of their beautiful landscape and any violation of that is taken very seriously.
After retrieving luggage and going through security one more time, the incredible IFSA-Butler staff greeted us. I was so impressed by their knowledge, their kindness, and willingness to put up with interrogations from students about their country and the University of Otago. We took a bus from the airport to the YMCA Shakespear park lodge. I was 99% certain that I would pass out in the bus, but luckily Andrew, one of the IFSA-Butler crew, told us entertaining trivia and stories along the way. For instance, did you know that the U2 song “One Tree Hill” was written about a place in New Zealand? I have seen U2 in concert several times and thought I knew quite a bit about them but this was completely new information to me.
Once we arrived at the park, the YMCA and IFSA leaders lost no time in ensuring we stayed conscious. After a quick briefing, they fed us and then we took a quick “wander” around the park. Another aspect of New Zealand that is in no way exaggerated: there is, in fact, sheep everywhere. I do not in any way doubt that there are more of them than there are people. I am also probably one of the only people who becomes homesick at the sight of sheep. At home, I have a Border Collie and just this past year started taking her for herding lessons. So now, all the sheep make me wish I could have her here. Jazz might like New Zealand even better than me.
After the hike, we went kayaking around the bay. The ocean in New Zealand is brighter than anywhere I have ever been; it truly is blue rather than the kind of green-grey that proliferates in Florida. We paddled out to another beach and climbed a few rocks that were on the beach before jumping into the ocean and swimming around for a bit. Apparently, there were a couple of giant stingrays joining in on the festivities but I did not see them.
Following the kayaking, we ate dinner and then most of us were ready for bed. I think I was one of the earliest ones to sleep; I gave up the fight against jet lag and was asleep by about 8:30 p.m. However, I would recommend that future travelers try to fight it out a bit longer than that as I also woke up at 5:00 AM and had nothing to do until 8 AM and those extra hours awake made me drag a bit on the second day.
The second day was, if possible, even more exciting than the first. We played a New Zealand trivia game and then, with our same teams, played ROGAINE, which is basically a type of scavenger hunt. I must apologize to my teammates; I have a strange love of clambering through the denser parts of the brush which kind of slowed things down a bit. However, I was adequately punished for that with the number of scratches and burs I acquired on my legs during that adventure. It was lots of fun though and it alerted me to the fact that those New Zealand hills have the capability to whip me into shape better than any treadmill or elliptical ever could.
Next, we had our choice of many different and equally interesting activities. Among those were archery, mountain biking, sailing, rock climbing, and kayaking. I chose to do archery and rock climbing because I had never done archery before and though I did a lot of rock climbing in high school, there had not been an opportunity for it in a few years. My family and friends will be glad to know that I did not shoot anyone in the face with the archery (though I did turn around with a loaded bow to talk to someone behind me…a big no no…) and my aim wasn’t entirely awful.
We then had our long-anticipated rugby lesson and game. I chose to be a spectator for that (I can only embarrass myself so many times in one day…) but I wanted to learn the rules since it is so huge here in New Zealand. It’s a cool game and I think I would prefer it to football but my hand-eye coordination is not that which would enable me to ever play it very well.
Following rugby, we had an early dinner before our briefing for the Marae visit the following day. I should probably mention something before I get much further: at the YMCA Shakespear lodge, you eat like a hobbit. First breakfast, second breakfast, luncheon, afternoon tea, and supper (or, as it’s actually called, breakfast, morning tea or “kai”, lunch, afternoon tea or “kai”, and then dinner. You never go hungry, but I am afraid it spoiled me for being a poor college student in Dunedin. However, we were so active and jet-lagged for much of the time that we may not have gotten through it as well without all the sustenance. And ALL the food was incredible. I wish we could have taken their chef with us back to Dunedin.
Our briefing for our visit to the Maori marae taught us the proper etiquette for the visit as well as a general idea of what would occur the next day. We were also taught two songs to sing while there, and also how to introduce ourselves in Maori. The language is very beautiful, but the vowels are pronounced quite differently than they are in English and I found it helpful to like the pronunciations as more like to Spanish.
The following day, we said our good-byes to the wonderful YMCA staff before heading out to the Marae. On the way, we stopped in the Auckland mall to buy cell phones. I think about 90% of us ended up owning the same phone so we can hope no one mixes theirs up.
Once at the Marae, we were privileged enough to be inducted into their tribe through a traditional ceremony. It was beautiful and quite moving to be given the chance to see something that not many people are able to. After that, we had some more tea (I think I have drank more tea since being in New Zealand than I have during the rest of my life combined), before we were granted a tour of the Te Hana Marae and told about their plans for future renovations. Learning the story of Te Hana was quite an inspiration. These people took their home, which was essentially a slum, and built it up to something beautiful and unique that anyone who is in New Zealand should visit if they can.
Next, we were granted a tour of their recreated village. It looks very real, and is kind of frightening at times when they re-enact the traditional hakas. I would not go to war with them. However, it was a really amazing opportunity and continued to show off the work of all the people at Te Hana as plans to create their center began less than ten years ago. This Marae visit was something really special and unique and I am so grateful for having been given the opportunity to see and experience what I did.
Following our visit, we had a brief visit to the very interesting Auckland War Museum before heading back to the Auckland airport so we could make the flight to Dunedin. There, we had some surprisingly sad good-byes to most of the IFSA-Butler coordinators. Only one, Leila, would be flying down with us to manage and issues and lead the trips we will be taking during the semester. The entire staff was so wonderful the entire time and none of us were happy to leave them behind.
However, Dunedin has not disappointed. The city itself is gorgeous, if significantly chillier than Auckland. It doesn’t quite feel like summer here; I would place it more along the lines of late fall. However, that is still warmer than Chicago, so I am not complaining. I must note, however, that my friends Lisa Muhs and Sarah Robertson who came here before were in no way exaggerating about how cold it gets indoors. I was freezing last night and it’s not even winter yet. Lots of blankets and hot water bottles will be in my future.
Anyway, that about sums up my orientation and first peek at Dunedin. I’ve already met some incredible people, and I look forward to sharing more stories with you as time goes on. Kia ora!