Monday, February 28, 2011

Rugby and Rails, Flowers and Trails

Ah! The past almost-week has gone by so very, very quickly.  I was forewarned this was going to happen, and now I’m afraid that it is only going to get worse as time goes by.  Even in those moments when I’m missing home and family the most, I’m still so happy that I followed through on my decision to study here in New Zealand.  A quick glance at the mountains is enough to make the sadness dissipate.. for a little while at least.

I tired to use the last few days before school begun as wisely as possible.  First, I (and many other international students) took a ride on the Taieri Gorge Railway, a historic tourist train run completely by volunteers. It took us from Dunedin to a tiny little town called Middlemarch, with the Taieri River Gorge in between.  It was my first trip out of Dunedin, and I finally got to see some scenery that brought hobbits and elves to mind.

[Dunedin Railway Station]

[Countryside right outside of Dunedin - complete with sheep]

[Bar @ Middlemarch - note the year-round Santa]

[A cute little bank that doesn’t seem to quite live up to its name]

[Grocott’s Community Organic Garden @ Middlemarch]

[A new friend asked me to snap a picture of her, so I asked for one in return.  Everyone else was already on the train, gawking at the goofy Americans who were completely ignoring the urgent train whistle and calls of the conductor...]

[Taieri River Gorge]


The next few days involved some exploring around the Dunedin area.  I went back to the Botanic Gardens with some flatmates (a quick two minute walk from our house), and we walked a few of the many trails, visited the Aviary, and then stopped for tea at the Croque-O-Dile Cafe located in the center of the Gardens.

[Leith River trickling through the Gardens]

[My first Sequoia trees!]

[View of Dunedin from behind the South African gardens]

[Eucalyptus Tree and my flatmate Elizabeth]

[Beautiful flower (maybe an orchid??) found along the trails]

[The Kaka Bird - one of the many species found in the Garden’s Aviary. We saw anything from hummingbird-sized finches to giant talking parrots to fat, cooing doves.]

On Friday night I joined a couple of friends at my very first rugby game ever, the Otago Highlanders vs. the Hamilton Chiefs.  While very fast-paced and violent, the players were very cordial and often helped their opponents up off of the ground.  It was amazing to watch players being thrown up in the air or being smashed into the ground, and when a player was hurt too badly to get up (which astoundingly did not happen too often), the medics would jump right into the playing field, no time-out necessary.  Afterwards, we got to share high-fives with the team members, an opportunity hard to turn down no matter how smelly they were.

[Streaker being escorted off field - sorry for the lack of censorship, but he didn’t really seem to mind sharing...]

[Blue = Highlanders, Black = Chiefs]

[Student crowed - many sporting their flashy Speights beer jumpsuits]

Saturday was spent walking around town, and on Sunday I joined the Otago University Tramping Club for their first hike of the school year.  We hiked up to the Organ Pipes, a beautiful volcanic formation on Mt. Holmes right outside of Dunedin, trekked up Mount Cargill, and then enjoyed a BBQ in the Bethunes Gully.  The hike description had been a bit misleading; not only did we start off at a near-running pace up a very steep, muddy slope, but we also had to pull ourselves up the rock faces of the Organ Pipes, forcing ourselves not to look down the entire time.  The view was definitely worth it - even when I had to slide back down the Organ Pipes on my backside.

[View from top of Organ Pipes]



[Example of Organ Pipe structure.  Apparently the lava flowed and cooled so slowly that it was able to form perfect, vertical rectangles.]

[Organ Pipes that are no longer standing... made for great walking]

[Despite all odds, I was able to make it both up AND down those rocks with minimal scrapes and bruises]

[View of Dunedin from Mt. Cargill]


[Mt. Cargill]

[Walk to Bethunes Gully]

Now the vacation time is over, and today I sat through my first lectures.  It was a little weird being in a classroom again (especially ones so unfamiliar), but at the same time it was comforting.  As much as I have enjoyed my lazy time, today was a reminder of the real reason I came - to be a student.  I am only taking four classes (as opposed to my usual seven), including an Introduction to Food Science (complete with cooking lab!), The Environmental History of New Zealand, Transformations in Developing Nations, and Understanding Environmental Issues.  The three I sat through today were pretty exciting (or as exciting as syllabus day can be) and I look forward to my fourth class tomorrow.  The courses are structured much differently here than at home, with less assigned readings and a lot more weight placed on final exams, so it will take some adjusting.  But even though I’m at a much bigger university than I’m used to, the classes were not too large, and the professors reached out to us, offering any kind of help we may need as we settle in.  First day nerves were gone quickly and were replaced instead by jitters of anticipation.  School will just become part of the adventure :)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Learning to Love Dunedin

First off, I would like to thank everyone for their care and concern regarding the earthquake that took place in the Christchurch area yesterday.  I am about five driving hours from Christchurch so I am perfectly safe, but I appreciate all of the thoughts that were sent my way.  I was sitting in our living room when I thought I felt the couch vibrating, as if the clothes washer in the next room had gone into overdrive and was now shaking the whole flat’s floor.  My flatmate from California informed me that I had just experienced my first earthquake, and to be honest, I was a little bit excited.  

It wasn’t until hours later when we were visiting the Dunedin Public Library that we realized just how horrible that little vibration had been.  People were crowded closely around a small television set, grimly watching as a teary-eyed reporter tried to shout over the noise from a nearby burning building.  The images showed emergency personnel desperately trying to evacuate those who were trapped inside.

As we stood for a moment of silence at our international orientation meeting this morning, I realized how much of an outsider I was.  This awful event was bringing New Zealanders together from all over the country, and while I can sympathize with the situation and also shed tears over the fallen buildings and lives lost, it’s just not the same.  I wondered if this is how international visitors in the U.S. felt during Hurricane Katrina or even 9/11.  Any human being can understand and participate in the waves of shock and sadness that follow such devastating events - but as a foreigner, there’s still a sense of detachment.  It’s like attending the funeral of a friend of a friend.  You can offer condolences and hugs, but mostly you just stand in the back and watch sadly as those who really knew the deceased mourn and lean on each other for support.

My heart goes out to those affected by the earthquakes of the past six months, and I was glad to learn that the University of Otago will be offering support and relief services to refugees and those on campus who knew someone in the Christchurch area.

On a much lighter note, I have also attached several pictures from my adventures around Dunedin during the past few days.  My flatmates and I have slowly been locating the necessary things - like the grocery and thrift stores.  It’s amazing that I can find just about everything I need within a twenty-minute walking radius - as opposed to the thirty-minute driving radius I have at home.  It’s been a joy learning my way around and I’m glad to get my bearings before the culture shock sets in too heavy :)

[Ducks in the Botanical Gardens - a small reminder of home]

[Fresh strawberries that I found at the Farmer’s Market (YUM) and eggs from the grocery store - which they don’t refrigerate.  Odd]

[Path through the Botanical Gardens which I take to get to the nearest grocery store - sorry for the sideways view]

[Also Botanical Gardens - specifically the rose garden]

[Botanical Gardens]

[The Monkey Bar - officially the first nightclub I’ve ever visited.  Of course it was in a church...]

[My UniFlat on Leith St. which I share with my five flatmates]

[The pretty path I take to campus, just a three minute walk away]

More to come!  Once I get them off of my friend’s camera, that is...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Kia Ora, New Zealand!

Big sigh - I survived the long trip AND the first 48 hours in a foreign country.  Though I received many assurances that everything was going to be okay, nothing was more comforting than actually going through the experience and then living to tell the tale.  And yes, despite a few weak moments, it was all just fine.

When Mom and I first arrived at the Philly airport on Wednesday morning, we were distressed (but not all too surprised) to find there was not an Air New Zealand kiosk eagerly awaiting to print my boarding passes.  This, combined with the fact that neither of us had managed a wink of sleep the night before, made for a slightly more stressful morning than either of us had hoped.  Thanks to the help of a US Airways employee and our own adrenaline, I finally found myself standing at the security checkpoint entrance around 5:30 am.  A teary goodbye, and then I was off!

Neither of my excruciatingly long flights were actually as bad as previously expected.  Due to my lack of sleep I was unconscious for the majority of the time and a Stieg Larsson novel got me through the rest.  I had a grand eight-hour layover in San Francisco, during which I ran outside for 30 seconds so I could finally say I’ve been.  I also spent some time visiting with a stranger on her way to Beijing.  By the end of our conversation, she had offered me not only some advice for dealing with ‘weirdies,’ but also $100 in NZ dollars.  Angel or crazy woman?  Either way, I was grateful.

A thirteen-hour flight, two airline meals, and several crying babies later, and I was finally in New Zealand! I landed in Auckland around 6:00 am and made my way through customs.  After a quick inspection of my hiking boots, I was through and ready for my second eight-hour layover.  My first international shock came when I realized there was no free Wi-Fi in the airport and therefore had no way of letting my parents know I was still alive.  I took a few deep breaths and found a public computer, listened to the American music blaring over the intercom, and ate some chicken ‘McBites’ to pass the anxious moments until my flight to Dunedin.  (Of course my first meal in NZ was McDonalds and the first song I heard was by Lady Gaga.)  And just when I thought I was going to scream if I had to spend another second sitting in an uncomfortable airport chair, we began to board the plane.

The flight from Auckland to Dunedin was outstandingly beautiful.  It had been dark when we arrived, so  this was my first aerial view of NZ.  The blue Pacific coast, the rolling green mountains, and the large stretches of open fields reminded me of summertime PA slash the Rockies slash Never Neverland.  So many elements were slightly familiar, but completely new at the same time.  It was the same after we landed, too.  If one didn’t look too closely, you could completely forget that you were now standing in a foreign country.  But then you realize that you don’t recognize any of the tree or plant species around you, the hills are capped white not due to snow, but sheep, and that everyone’s driving on the wrong side of the road, and then it hits you - hard.

My taxi driver took me and some other international students I had met along the way to pick up our keys, and then he dropped us at our respective flats.  It was hard leaving the other students that I had only known for a couple hours - they were the last remnant of my journey.  After that, it all became unbearably real.  My flat appeared to be empty, dirtier than I expected, and without any working internet.  I dragged my suitcases inside and stared helplessly around the living room.  I tried calling my parents on a NZ phone lent to me by a friend who was here last semester, and was able to talk for just a few moments before it ran out of pre-paid minutes and went dead.  The panic was quickly growing.

Thank goodness I finally found a flatmate who had been quietly working in his room.  He showed me how to hack the neighbors’ internet, and I was finally able to reach people who knew and loved me - and that’s when I lost it and started crying.  I only sobbed harder when that internet disappeared, too, and I was all alone again.  I had been warned that my first few moments in NZ might be hard - but it was impossible to understand just how hard until I had to live through it.  I finally got myself under enough control to spend an evening talking with two of my flatmates and their friends, but my anxiety got the best of me and, despite my utter exhaustion, I was unable to sleep.  I met my next flatmate at 5:00 am in our kitchen, a sweet girl who talked me down from near hysteria and promised to show me around the next day.

Saturday was a blur.  Thanks to the help of my international flatmates, I visited the farmer’s market and a grocery store, (so I could finally eat), ‘topped-up’ my phone with minutes so I could contact my new friends, and found the way from my flat to campus.  They also made sure someone came over to fix the internet so I could finally have a consistent conversation with family back home.  They took me out again later to visit my first club and bar, and when I laid in bed by the end of the day (completely sober, I may add), I finally felt calm for the first time in three days.

Those first few moments at my flat were some of the worst I have ever experienced in my life.  Nothing could have prepared me for that feeling of complete helplessness.  Looking back at it two days later, I still shiver a little bit.  Though I feel much, much better and I can’t wait to see/experience more of Dunedin and NZ every day, I’m far from settled. Today was spent catching up on rest and researching classes online and tomorrow will be a crazy mess of scheduling, registering and other administrative fun.  And then I will have to deal with the next day, and the next, until I finally head home.  But I no longer feel scared or helpless.  Thanks to the kindness of others and some inner strength that I had no idea I possessed, I made it here and have survived my first few days in New Zealand.  And now I know I will survive the rest, too.

[First view of South Island, take one]

[First view of South Island, take two]

[Arrival at the University]

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Hello All!

As promised, here it is!  My New Zealand travel blog.  Just in case you weren’t informed via the Engle News Network (aka Mom/Cyndy), I will be spending the second semester of my junior year at the University of Otago in Dunedin, NZ.  I’ve had my eye on NZ since high school, and as my college studies led me down the paths of sustainable agriculture and waste management, the decision for my study abroad became more and more clear.  I’ll be taking classes in environmental and food sciences - in between the visits to the beaches, mountains, lakes, and cities, of course.

[Just in case you didn’t already have NZ’s map memorized...]

I leave tomorrow morning from the Philly airport, make a not-so-quick stop in San Francisco, and then I’ll be in Dunedin by 11 pm Thursday night (EST).  As of yet, I’m still in denial that I will soon be halfway around the world... but I guess the 3 a.m. alarm tomorrow morning will serve as a harsh reality check.

Stay tuned to read about the new people, places and PENGUINS that I will be meeting/visiting in the next four months!

Love to all,

(Oh, and you may be wondering about the blog title.  Before he conquered the “L” sound, my big-little brother Nick used to call me “Ewee.”  My parents found the play on words a little too coincidental... And so my blog was christened.)