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]


  1. Well documented, Belzy. Reading through the passages I, too, relived those horrible feelings in the pit of my stomach as you made your way to, literally, the other side of the world. But somewhere between our shared exhaustion, the loss of internet, and GrandDad's sage words that four months would be a long time for me not to sleep, I wrapped all of my feelings up into the resolve to totally trust that you would find your way. And you did. Bravo! Love the plane shots, btw. And while it is normal to find the similarities of those things you know with those you do not, I am looking forward to when you realize this is all new and approach it with wide open eyes and heart. Loving you, Mom

  2. Belzy-
    You seemed surprised by your strength but those who love you are not......remember to take deep breaths and enjoy!
    Aunt Sharon

  3. You are tough as nails, dear Elly. Sending love and more strength for the days ahead.

    Your JoeyAnne

  4. Tears welled as I read your words of fear, yet I found a grin upon my face. The grin was because I knew that I would eventually reach the words of relief and excitement. I have no doubt you will make the most out of this experience. I bet you weren't expecting an Earth Quake though, hope you had no residual side effects. Be well and safe Elly.

    Love you, Beth

  5. Hey Elly, Stacey here, I have been talking to your mum. I hope the earthquake didn't affect you too much, I am sure you will get to see some of the strength and community we En Zeders have, and I hope you get the chance to join in! I also hope you don't merely "survive" your experience in NZ. Remember it is different, but that is why you are here! Embrace it. I first moved overseas from a tiny town in rural NZ when I was 23. I went to France, I didn't speak the language and boy, they were different! I took it all one step at a time, cried, laughed, got frustrated, stressed, and realised at the end that this is what it is all about. So welcome to New Zealand. It is a wonderful country, we are wonderful people, we enjoy life, take things slowly and don't stress too much. I hope you enjoy it and learn loads, I am looking forward to reading about your experiences ox

  6. @Everyone - Thanks for the support and love - hugs and love back! I promise to be safe and have the time of my life :)
    @Stacy - Thank you so much for the advice! Mom forwarded me your list of things to do, and I’ve looked into them all! It’s nice to know I’m not alone in the transitional emotions - and I’m thankful everyday that I went somewhere English-speaking. I appreciate the welcome, and though it’s only been a few days, I already know that I couldn’t have picked a better place to be :)