Sunday, November 7, 2010

Goodbye, New Zealand.

Well, I guess this is it? I'm beginning my (very long) journey home tomorrow. I cannot believe how fast this semester has gone. A few days after my Wellington trip, I began studying for my two finals (in Monetary and Macroeconomics, and Environmental and Natural Resource Economics). I prepared extensively for both of them (as you'd be able to tell by looking at my self-made, 50+ page study guide), so hopefully my grades will reflect that.

During my study break, two notable occasions passed. I "celebrated" my 21st birthday on October 26 with two Hell personal cheese pizza's (Hell is to New Zealand as Pizza Hut is to the United States) and a mini Lord of the Rings marathon. That day, someone wished me a "Happy Birthday" in Maori (Harihuritau kia koe) and an English student named Genevieve sang me the Happy Birthday song. However, no alcohol was consumed that night, at least not by me. Halloween also passed during my study break.

My final week at Waikato was a busy one. I saved all my laundry/packing/room cleaning until after my finals, so I had just two days to get everything done. Sadly, I also had to say goodbye to (and hug) a lot of people. My Kiwi friend and bloc mate Josh and I jokingly made plans to meet up in Vegas in 20 years. Because New Zealand is so far away, it's unlikely that I will see most of my fellow students again (apart from the Americans).
I can honestly say that decision to study abroad was one of the best I've ever made (if not the best). Because Juniata doesn't offer many Economics courses, I needed to go abroad to broaden my background in the subject. I learned a lot from both Economics courses I took while at Waikato. Environmental and Natural Resource Economics was particularly thought-provoking, and I might even pursue a career in the field. A stronger Economics background is only one thing I've gained from studying abroad. In the long run, I think I will benefit more from the experience of traveling on my own. Before this trip, I worried about taking a train to Pittsburgh by myself. Over the past four months, I've grown more confident in my abilities- including the ability to ask for help when I need it.

Waikato has a large international student population, and for many of my American friends here, this semester marked the first time they've lived with students of different nationalities. Because Juniata does a great job of attracting international students (especially for a small, rural liberal arts college), this was a welcomed bit of home for me.
Currently, I'm relaxing at a hotel in Manukau, the location of the Auckland airport. Since my check-out time is 10:00 am tomorrow morning, and my flight to San Francisco doesn't leave until after 7:00 pm, I'll be waiting at the airport tomorrow for more than eight hours. Four hours after my 12 hour flight from Auckland to San Francisco, I will fly to Philadelphia. If everything goes according to plan, I'll arrive in Philadelphia around 11:30 pm. I wouldn't recommend trying to figure out how one can leave New Zealand at 7:00 pm and arrive in Pennsylvania by midnight- It will just make your head hurt. It's been an amazing semester, and I'm truly going to miss New Zealand's beautiful scenery and welcoming, laid-back atmosphere.

Haere ra, Aotearoa. Ka kite ano akuanei!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A weekend in windy Welly

On Sunday, October 17th, all my dreams came true. That might be a bit of an overstatement, but some of them certainly did! This past weekend I took a 9-hour bus ride, solo, from Hamilton to Wellington, New Zealand's capital city. Why would I put myself through this, you may ask? Because there was no way I was going to leave New Zealand without going on a proper Lord of the Rings film tour! The verdict? Absolutely worth it! Of course, there were a few bumps along the way.

When I arrived in Wellington on Saturday evening, I wandered around for a bit looking for my hostel. After getting blown over by gale force winds (they call it "Windy Welly" for a reason), I decided it would be a good idea to ask for directions. Luckily, Downtown Backpackers was right across the street from the Wellington Transport Center.

That night I shared a room with a middle-aged couple from Australia. They were very nice, but both were loud snorers. At 8 am the next morning, I was picked up for my LOTR tour. Due to some unusual circumstances involving a cruise ship in the city, I was the only person on my tour. Although it was a bit awkward at first, it turned out to be really nice because I had more control over where we went than I would have otherwise. My 50 year old guide was the epitome of everything that is Kiwi. Prior to this winter, he was living in his bus (he now rents a room at Downtown Backpackers), and he likes to attend Shabam dance classes on the weekends :) After beginning the tour on Mt. Victoria where they filmed the scene in which Frodo and the other hobbits encounter the Ringwraith after leaving the Shire, we went to the Weta Workshop in 'Wellywood.' Here, I took pictures with Gollum and Uruk-hai Lurtz, as well as with a replica of one of the guns from District 9. There were a lot of cool things in the gift shop, but I didn't purchase anything because it was all really expensive. Before leaving Wellywood, my guide showed me a soundstage with a green screen where certain scenes from LOTR and Avatar were filmed.

Next, we left Wellington for the Hutt Valley. We stopped at a location along the Hutt River where closeups for the River Anduin scenes in Fellowship of the Ring were filmed. Next, we went to Kaitoke Regional Park. While I checked out one of the small walking paths, my guide organized a snack next to the river. He fed pieces of chocolate to 3 water eels- 2 of which he had previously named Charlie and Gollum- while I ate a blueberry muffin. Then, we visited the section of the park where the Rivendell scenes were filmed. Although none of the set remains, it was still a very cool experience. Part of the tour involved posing for pictures with a cape, elf ears, and a replica of Frodo's sword Sting, in the same spot where Orlando Bloom posed for promotional photos for the first movie. Although I was supposed to look like an elf, I was definitely all hobbit!

Our next (and final) stop was Harcourt Park, which was used to depict the Gardens of Isengard in the films. The flowers were so beautiful. In fact, the park was more scenic when I visited than when they were filming, because everything was in bloom.

During the afternoon, I went on Wellington city and coastline tour. Although it did not live up to the LOTR tour, I was able to briefly visit some iconic Wellington locations like the Beehive, the Parliament House, and the Lady Norwood Rose Garden. I also got to experience a Wellington cable car ride. Some homes in Wellington actually have their own personal cable cars so residents don't have to walk up flights of steps to reach their porches (the terrain is extremely steep). To my surprise, we stopped at the Weta Workshop on this tour too. I had been regretting not buying something during my first visit all day, so I was very glad I got a second chance to make some purchases. One of my splurges was a LOTR filming locations book. Did I forget to mention that it was raining practically the entire day? At the end of this tour, the sun finally came out, and I was able to get some great shots on top of Mt. Victoria.

That night, I became sick again. I felt a bit better by the time my new roommates for the night showed up- 2 Kiwi guys my age- but after eating breakfast the next morning, I "relapsed." I missed my 7:45 am bus back to Hamilton. I thought I might have to spend another day in Wellington, but luckily I was able to book a ride home through another company for 9:00 am. I got through that 9-hour bus ride and made it back to Waikato in one piece. It was not exactly the way I wanted to end my journey, but - again - it was well worth the pain. Moral of the story: in the midst of your study abroad adventures, drink plenty of water!

Down (up?) by the bay

Two weekends ago, my friend Vicki and I took a tour out of Auckland to New Zealand's Bay of Islands region. We caught a bus from Hamilton into the city on the morning of Friday the 8th, and met up with Kiwiana Tours around 3 pm. Everyone else in our group was from the Auckland language school (including Julia, our guide Cillian's assistant), so we were really the only ones in the group who could speak English fluently. Besides us, there were ten others on the tour: two friends from Japan and South Korea, a couple from Brazil, and six students from Switzerland. The first day mostly involved traveling from Auckland to Paihia, our picturesque home for the weekend. However, we did make some short stops along the way. One of them was the Hundertwasser public toilets in Kawakawa. Who knew that an ornate restroom could double as a tourist attraction? We also briefly visited an 800 year old Kauri tree. This species of tree is one of the most ancient in the world. Harvesting of Kauri wood and gum used to be a very profitable industry in New Zealand, but the practice is now illegal because it has led to widespread deforestation. However, timber from buried Kauri trees is still used to make products. It's amazing how the Earth can preserve something so perfectly for 50,000 years. It is hypothesized that many centuries ago in the Northland region of New Zealand, an earthquake in the Pacific Ocean triggered a tsunami that buried the ancient Kauri forests.

In Paihia we stayed in a cute little hostel called the Peppertree Lodge. Vicki and I shared a room with two of the Swiss girls. My only complaint is that our ensuite bathroom didn't have any soap. Note to any prospective travelers out there: If you plan to stay in hostels, bring soap!

The next morning, we woke up early to go on a day tour. When we left Paihia, it was dreary and rainy, but luckily the sun came out as we headed north. Northland definitely rivals the South Island when it comes to beautiful scenery. It was absolutely breathtaking. That day, we visited Gumdiggers Park and stopped at a beautiful east coast beach where I touched the Pacific Ocean for the first time. After enjoying a picnic lunch at Taputaputa Bay, we drove to the most northern part of New Zealand- Cape Reinga. Here, we took a short walk to the Cape Reinga Lighthouse, and saw the point where the Pacific Ocean meets the Tasman Sea. Although you might think that this division wouldn't be obvious, it turns out that the two bodies of water violently crash into each other, and because of that can be distinguished from each other.
Next, we made our way to Ninety Mile Beach (which is actually 60 miles long). Here, we had the opportunity to sandboard down a massive sand dune. I was a bit apprehensive at first. The sand dune was very steep and the plastic snow sleds we were given didn't look particularly sturdy. However, I figured that I should give it a shot, because I knew I would regret not trying it later. After making it to the top of the sand dune (which was an accomplishment in itself), I watched Vicki go down. Things went well for most of her trip- until she tried to stop herself too soon. When her foot caught the sand, she tumbled head over heels down the remainder of the sand dune! Needless to say, her mishap did nothing for my confidence level. It took me quite a while to build up the courage to go down, but when I saw everyone getting back on the bus to leave, I knew it was 'now or never.' One guy who was waiting at the top actually volunteered to switch sleds with me beforehand- mine was cracked in more than one place. I took him up on his offer, boarded my sled, and took the plunge. Things went perfectly! I couldn't believe it, as I'm not the most athletic person (but I guess sandboarding doesn't really count as a sport?) In the end, I was really happy I 'gave it a go'- how very Kiwi of me! After our sandboarding adventure, we finished up our tour with a scenic busride along Ninety Mile Beach.

Day two in Paihia included a boat cruise to Piercy Island, otherwise known as "The Hole in the Rock," and the idyllic Otehei Bay. After the cruise, we spent the rest of the afternoon in Russell, New Zealand's first capital city. Here, I enjoyed some chicken 'n' chips while Vicki and Joanna, the Korean girl on our tour, took a short walk. We made it back to Auckland by 8 pm. As soon as we got off the tour bus, things started to go downhill. As we began walking to the hostel in the city where we planned to spend the night, I noticed that I had left one of my bags (which held my passport, credit card and camera among other important things) on the bus. Vicki called one of her friends from Waikato and asked her to look up the number for the tour company for me. I got a hold of Cillian just in time- he was about to get on the highway when he got my call. After I got my bag back, we resumed our walk to Nomads Fat Camel Hostel. Since it was still early when we checked in to our room, we decided to go sit in a Starbucks for a few hours. As I began drinking my hot chocolate, I started to feel very sick. I'm still not sure why, but I'm guessing it was a combination of what I had eaten earlier that day and slight dehydration. I did not have a good night and still felt sick when I woke up the next morning. Somehow, I pulled myself together in time to make our 7:25 am bus back to Hamilton- and make it to my 10 am economics class! Although the ending of our trip was a bit rocky, I'm still glad that I went. The good memories definitely outweigh the bad ones.

Monday, October 4, 2010

There and back again

Suzanne and I chose to fly Aerolineas Argentinas from Sydney to Auckland because it was the least costly option. Apparently others had the same idea we did because there were three other American students from the University of Waikato and my AustraLearn group on our flight. It was an unusual experience for me because in-flight directions were given in Spanish before English and everything else on the plane was labeled in this fashion. Suzanne had trouble boarding due to a mix-up with her boarding pass, and the language barrier between her and the flight attendants complicated things. Earlier that day, she had been stopped in security for accidentally carrying a butter knife in her bag, so things weren't exactly going well for her. Fortunately, we both arrived in Auckland safely and on time.

After going through the usual immigration- baggage claim- customs process in Auckland, we re-checked our bags and collected our boarding passes for our Air New Zealand flight to Rotorua. The plane for this flight was a 19-seater Beechcraft 1900D. It was an incredibly bumpy ride, and there were definitely a few points during the trip when I started to pray. If we weren't in New Zealand, I would have been more concerned about the level of security- or lack thereof- on this flight. We didn't go through security at all in Auckland, and there was no barrier between the pilots and the passengers on the flight. If we looked up the aisle, we were able to see the pilots flying the plane!

It was freezing when we got to Rotorua (or maybe it just felt that way after 5 days in Sydney?). Have I mentioned that Rotorua smells like sulfur due to geothermal activity? It takes some getting used to. After picking up our bags, we had to wait over an hour for our shuttle driver to take us to our hostel, Blarney's Backpackers. We were put in a four person room with two young guys. One of them was actually a classmate of Suzanne's from the University of Otago. The next morning, we woke up early to go off-roading. While we were preparing to leave our hostel, Suzanne's boyfriend from the United States texted her about the earthquake in Christchurch. We were on the North Island by this point in our journey, and thus nowhere near any of the damage. Off-roading was very fun, because Suzanne got to drive our vehicle (with me in the passenger's seat). At one point, we drove down a nearly vertical incline!

Later that day, we went Zorbing, which involves rolling down a hill in an inflated globe that is partially filled with warm water. The temperature was nice within the globe, but we were absolutely freezing before and after the ride, because it was no more than 50 degrees outside. Although you can Zorb in other countries, the activity was invented in Rotorua. Suzanne and I shared one globe, and we had a blast. That night, we ate at a Japanese restaurant. I had been craving Asian food for awhile, and this was one of the only Asian restaurants that was still open at 7:00 in Rotorua. Shops and restaurants tend to close early in the smaller New Zealand locales like Rotorua, especially during the off-season. The next morning, we left Rotorua on the same bus. I got off in Hamilton, while Suzanne continued to the Auckland Airport. I was back in my room here at the University of Waikato by 10:30 am. Suzanne was not so lucky. Her flight to Dunedin was canceled during her stopover in Christchurch- not due to the earthquake, but because the door of her plane wouldn't close. She eventually got a ride back with a group of businessmen.
And so, our epic journey came to an end. Although there were a few bumps along the way (no pun intended), it was a success. I enjoyed our time on the South Island, and it was nice to return to Rotorua one last time, considering it was my home for much of my first week here. I'm glad we went to Sydney- it's great city with tons of character- but I prefer the relative calm and beauty of New Zealand. When we were flying into Auckland, it felt like I was coming home. I have a few more trips planned around the North Island before I return to the United States next month, but the end of my time here is fast approaching. It's a sad thought.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

"I come from a land down under..."

Although the flight from Christchurch to Sydney on August 29th took 4 hours, we arrived by 8 am due to the 2-hour time difference between Australia and New Zealand. There was significant airplane traffic at the Sydney Airport when we landed, so we waited a long time to deplane. I had slept for at least half of the flight and hadn't fully woken up yet when we landed. After proceeding through immigration and picking up our bags, we got in line to go through customs. Both Suzanne and I had our bags searched. The customs officer swore that I had a box of cereal in my suitcase (I didn't), and Suzanne was scolded for carrying spreadable cheese and a box of granola bars that we had purchased in Dunedin. Neither item was confiscated, but the cheese was labeled as a biohazard. After making it through customs, we paid for a taxi from the airport to our hostel, Sydney Harbour YHA. It is the only hostel located in The Rocks, the main tourist section of Sydney. It was incredibly upscale for a hostel, and was built around an archaeological dig site. You can read about the history of the site and view part of its previous structure in its foyer. Suzanne and I stayed in a 6-person female dorm, but most days we only had 2-3 roommates. The room was very clean, and it had its own shower. During our first evening in Australia, we visited the Sydney Observatory. Afterward, we relaxed on Observatory Hill, which offered great views of the city. This soon became my favorite spot in Sydney.The next next, we went on a boutique wine tour in the Hunter Valley. Although I'm not a big fan of wine, the day was very fun. There were only five other women in our tour group, and our guide Rowan was very friendly and knowledgeable. Lunch was included in the tour, and after we ate we had some time to check out a bunch of fun shops, including a British "lolly" shop, a chocolate shop, and a shop that sold only cheese and various types of olive oil. I didn't end up buying any wine, but I did pick up a postcard and a Christmas gift for Ali. By the end of the day we had visited four boutiques and were quite ready to return to Sydney.On Tuesday, Suzanne and I went on a second day tour. Stops included the Featherdale Wildlife park outside of Sydney, the Blue Mountains, the small township of Leura, and the site of the 2000 Olympic Games. At the Featherdale Wildlife park, we hung out with a bunch of kangaroos (and emus!) and took pictures with a koala. It was very fun, and I wish we could have stayed longer. Soon after leaving the park, we stopped briefly for a boomerang throwing lesson (I failed miserably). In the Blue Mountains we enjoyed a 2-course country club lunch, rode the Katoomba Scenic Railway (which is said to be the steepest cable-driven funicular railway in the world), took a short walk through the rain forest, and admired the Three Sisters rock formation in the Jamison Valley. We also had the opportunity to feed wild king parrots. At the end of the day, we took a ferry from Homebush Bay back to the city. Although it wasn't one of Sydney's famous river cruises, it was still an enjoyable trip, and I got some great pictures of Sydney Harbour at sunset. That night, we decided to be adventurous and ordered crocodile and kangaroo meat at dinner. The crocodile was surprisingly delicious (its taste was very similar to chicken chicken), but I wasn't a fan of the kangaroo (which reminded me of steak).

We didn't have tours schedule for our final 2 days in Sydney, so we just played it by ear. On Wednesday, we went to the Sydney Sky Tower where we participated in a "Skywalk." We got to wear funny-looking suits and walk around the top of the tower. Later, we took a jet boat ride in Sydney Harbour. That night, Suzanne climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Thursday (our last day in Sydney) was full of wildlife. We visited Oceanworld in Manly Harbour and Sydney Wildlife World and the Sydney Aquarium in Darling Harbour. Our main motivation behind visiting these places was to use up vouchers that we had purchased as part of a package deal at the beginning of the week, but I'm glad we did. At the aquarium we took a $5 boat ride that allowed us to see the shark tank from above the surface of the water instead of through the glass of the exhibit, which was quite cool.
It was a good day and the perfect end to our adventure in Sydney.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Hello, South Island!

Kia ora again, everyone! Well, it's been over three weeks since the end of my spring break adventure, and I still feel that I had one of the best experiences of my life. It was incredible, and I'm so very grateful that everything worked out- Coordinating bus rides, flights, hostel reservations, airport transfers, and activities for our trip was certainly not the easiest task, but somehow Suzanne and I managed to do so. Now let's get to it...

I woke up early on the morning of Tuesday the 24th to catch a bus to the airport in Auckland. I had stayed up very late the night before, so needless to say I was exhausted. Once I got to the airport, I checked my bag and grabbed some lunch before passing through security. Although New Zealand is only the size of the US state of Colorado, my flight to Dunedin had a stopover in Christchurch. In the process of boarding my first flight, I was swiftly moved to the back of the plane. Apparently, the passenger that was assigned to the seat beside me was carrying an "endangered bird species" with him. The situation was a little strange, but my new seat was located in an empty row and had a better view than my original seat did. I arrived in Dunedin around 7:30 pm, and after a 20 minute shuttle ride, I reached Suzanne's flat.

The next few days were very chilly. The South Island is cold- not East Coast winter cold, but cold compared to the North Island- and Suzanne's flat had very little heat. Therefore, I spent two days parked in front of her space heater. Apart from the less than ideal temperature, I enjoyed my time there immensely. Suzanne's three roommates were incredibly friendly, and due to their rotating dinner schedule I got to enjoy a home-cooked meal each night I was there (stir-fry the first night, lasagna the second). It made me wish that I had decided to flat at Waikato. Living in a catered dorm has been nice, but it has also been more of the same after living in a dorm at Juniata for two years. While in Dunedin, I went to one of Suzanne's drama classes at the University of Otago. She and her classmates have to put on a children's production that addresses a controversial topic. The plot of their play involves a father leaving his wife and kids for a man. It kind of reminded me of the Susan/Carol storyline on Friends, except much less comedic.

On Thursday the 26th, we took a bus from Dunedin to Queenstown. The trip lasted around 5 hours. The route was very scenic, and I acted like a complete tourist the entire time.

In Queentown we stayed at a hostel called "Pinewood Lodge" and slept in a room with 4 other girls from China. When we moved our stuff into the room at 6 pm, the light was off and they were all sleeping. That night Suzanne and I walked into town and ate dinner at Winnie's pizza bar. I didn't want to risk upsetting my lactose-intolerant stomach, so I ordered a cranberry and brie chicken burger with a side order of "chips" (a.k.a. French fries) instead of pizza. It was practically the size of my head, but I ate the entire thing, and it was delicious. Afterward, we went to see a movie (Inception) and then headed back to Pinewood Lodge to get some sleep before our early start the next morning.

The Mitre Peak tour bus to Milford Sound picked us up a little after 6:30 am. Although it took four hours to get there, the "getting there" was quite enjoyable due to the many scenic stops we made along the way, including the town of Te Anau, Mirror Lake and The Chasm, where we had the opportunity to take a small bush walk. Milford Sound itself was gorgeous and the mountains in the surrounding Fiordland looked like something out of Lord of the Rings. Fun fact: Milford Sound is not actually a "sound" (a narrow inlet carved by the ocean) but a "fiord" (a narrow inlet carved by glacial activity). Although it was a long day- it was nearly 8:00 when we returned to Queenstown- it was definitely worth the time and money spent!
We caught a bus to Christchurch early the next morning, and the trip took 8 hours. Time didn't move quite as fast as it did during our first bus ride to Queenstown, but the scenery was just as beautiful. One of our rest stops was next to the beautiful Lake Tekapo, which offered some great photo opportunities. We had planned to stay at a hostel in Christchurch, but when we made it to the city we decided (I decided) that it would be a better idea to save money and stay at the Christchurch International Airport for the night instead. It wasn't one of my most brilliant moments, but everything worked out. We arrived at 7:00 pm and spent the night on the airport floor. Suzanne had her laptop and I had my iPod for entertainment, and we ate cold cans of Campbell's Soup for dinner.

We caught our JetStar plane to Sydney a little past 6:00 am the next morning. Both of us tried to sleep on the plane with varying degrees of success. We arrived in Australia safely though, and that's really all matters.

Monday, August 23, 2010

"Spring" break is here!

Yep, you've read correctly. It's the end of August and my two week spring break started today. I went to a rugby game in Auckland at the beginning of the month, which was a lot of fun, but quite rainy. Since coming to New Zealand, I've been to Auckland three times, and it has rained at some point during each visit. One of my goals before going home is to see the city on a sunny day. Warmer weather is on its way (or so I've been told), so it's definitely a possibly.
I'm half way through the semester (When did that happen?)! I'm flying to the South Island tomorrow and to Australia on the 29th with Suzanne, a friend from Juniata who is also studying abroad in New Zealand (at the University of Otago in Dunedin). In total, I'll be gone for 12 day. See you then!