Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Kiwi Chronicles - Chapter 2, Part 1: Landfall

This is an ongoing series covering my semester abroad in New Zealand. To catch up from the beginning, start here. Enjoy!

I'm going to prelude this chapter by saying that, within the first 24 hours of being in New Zealand, I had accomplished every single item on the 'do not do' list provided by your home campus when you go abroad. Although I came out alright, I will emphasize this by saying that, if you are going to study abroad, listen to everything your advisor says. He/she is wise and he/she knows what he/she is talking about. Do not wing it like I did...

The 4 hour plane ride from Fiji to New Zealand was the worst flight of my life. I was tired and nursing a wine hangover, courtesy of the French film guys I met our last night in Fiji. The flight was in the middle of the day and the sun managed to single out my row on the airplane. Sleep was not an option. This was my first mistake...

We landed in Auckland around 2pm and were greeted into the country by the most stringent customs checkpoint I've ever been through in my life. If you've ever seen pictures of New Zealand, you know how beautiful this country is. As it turns out, to protect this fragile environment, it is required for all travelers to be screened for 'foreign contaminants', which includes the mud on your shoes and the dirt that collects in the open pockets of your backpack. It took me half an hour to clean everything out, but I got a free shoe detail out of the deal. What can I say....I'm a glass-half-full kind of guy.

As we took the airport shuttle to the bus depot in downtown Auckland, I was finally able to ground myself and comprehend where I was. Home was 7,000 miles away. Most of my friends were in class right now, and I was navigating my way through a foreign country on the opposite side of the globe. Everyone and everything was new, and I loved it. For now.

After driving through Auckland for a bit and craning my head trying to take in everything, Emma and I arrived at the bus depot. It was at this point that I realized my second mistake: I had no idea where to go or what to do. Campus wasn't opening for another week, my hostel I was staying at for the semester wasn't expecting me till tomorrow, and I sure as hell didn't have enough money to stay in Auckland. I was also dragging a semester's worth of crap in a rolling suitcase: my third mistake.

At this point it was 4:50PM. The sun was starting to set, and the last bus to Hamilton (where my university was located) was leaving in 10 minutes. Emma went off to go sightseeing for the week...and so all alone, scared, hungover, and poor, I bought the ticket to Hamilton.

The bus arrived in Hamilton around 6:45pm, and much like the last situation I was still too scared and hungover to do anything else. I couldn't see any landmarks or sights in the twilight, so I just hailed the closest cab and prayed he knew where I was suppose to go.

God had my back on this day and thought I learned my lesson about drinking with the French, and so he sent the nicest cabbie I've ever met to come pick me up. He was a Hindu man, with a beautiful family that moved to Hamilton 2 years ago. His daughter was attending Waikato (my university), and chatted with me about the school and stuff to do in the area. He could tell I was having a kinda rough day, and so upon pulling up to Dey Street (my hostel) he knocked down the fare and pulled out a map. We sat on the curb and he pointed out the local grocery stores, the University in relation to the hostel, and how to get downtown in case I wanted to eat at the restaurants or go visit the bars. As he left, he gave me his number and told me to give him a call if I ever needed another ride. I rode the bus for the rest of my stay in Hamilton, and so I never called. To have a such a nice man help me out was a relief and restored my faith in this whole being-7000-miles-from-home situation.

I walked into the hostel just as the front desk was closing up shop, dragging a suitcase that, at this point, had broken wheels and was 5 minutes away from being chucked in the nearest garbage can. The girl at the front desk could sense my despair and stayed open 15 minutes longer to help me get my keys and pay my rent for the month...forgoing the fact that I was a day early. She was this goth girl, Ashley, who was a couple years older than me and worked at Dey Street while attending Waikato. Her and I became really good friends...probably because I was the only guy who spoke English there, but we'll cover the full extent of Dey Street and their staff another day. At the time, I was just excited to get into my room and get settled...
Now this doesn't look like the pictures in the brochure...
The thing was....I wasn't staying in a room, I was staying at a former mental institution. Even though the front desk would deny it, all the foreboding signs were there that this place wasn't always a hostel. The rooms were tiny and consisted of a bed, a desk, a locker, and a mini fridge. That's it. The room was so skinny I couldn't lie across, and the picture above was taken from the desk by the window. The halls and the walls were solid concrete and the door was solid steel. I felt pretty safe because the lock I had was something you'd find at most penitentiaries. My sole window opened just enough to get air flowing and there was no way I could sneak out. On the windowsill you can see the brackets for the re-inforced rebar that once lined the window. They could have done a better job at hiding it all...or at the very least, put it on their brochure.  "Stay at Dey Street! Not only can we offer cheap and secure accommodations, but our recreation room features padding on all the walls, floors, and roof! We also offer the clearest sattelite picture, as our dish is mounted on the former guard tower located in the quad!"

Now understand...over time, I would grow to tolerate and even kinda enjoy Dey Street. I loved the staff there, and for the most part it wasn't too bad. I had a safe place to sleep and a hot shower to look forward to in the morning. That first day, however, was so terrible that I couldn't see the silver lining. Here's my list of infractions that you shouldn't do when it's your first trip out of the country:

  1. I drank wine.
  2. I drank wine with the French.
  3. I flew hungover.
  4. I didn't have a plan for my first night in the country.
  5. I overpacked my suitcase.
  6. I didn't bring enough contingency money.
  7. I didn't pay attention to the time and improvised.
  8. I was naive enough to think that the rooms in the brochure were what my room was going to look like.
  9. I didn't do any research on New Zealand or my surrounding areas.
I was lucky that I had a string of incidents and people that allowed me to sleep safely in my bed that first night. I was also lucky that I was 7,000 miles away, because I spent that night thinking about how to get back home and escape this misery. My first night (and first week, which is the next post in this series) was not what I expected. Fortunately, being alone and out of your comfort zone in such an extreme situation forces you to adapt and take some risks. That first week was tough, but it was just the beginning of one of my greatest adventures.

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