On Exchange: First impressions of New Zealand

[I]’ve been in Auckland, New Zealand for almost two weeks now. Living there for the first few days didn’t quite feel real. I started my application for Ryerson’s exchange program in December 2012. It was a long process once I got accepted. There was several months of planning and 30 hours in transit to get to the other side of the world. The 25 C weather was an exciting change from the -25 C and mountains of snow at home just north of Bowmanville, Ont. But for those first few days, I felt as though I was going through the motions of what I had to do — similar to how I check homework assignments off the “to-do” list on my iPhone.

Packing for five months in only one 50-pound suitcase was quite the challenge and took many days of thought and trial runs. I’m still not entirely convinced the 49.6 pounds I settled on is everything I’ll need or want while I’m in Auckland. But much like deadlines in journalism – the program I’m enrolled in at Ryerson – you learn quickly to do the best you can with what you have. Packing: check.

The flight from Toronto to Los Angeles was of no real excitement. In all honesty it only added to my disillusionment since I have taken that flight multiple times to visit my grandparents who live in Palm Springs. Board first of three flights: check.

After a layover of nearly seven hours in L.A., I was prepped for an 11-hour flight to Nadi, Fiji. Never having taken such a long, overnight flight before, I was quite surprised at how nice and large the plane was. It was divided into three large “classes” with rows of eight seats. There was TVs on the back of the seats that had a remote control — a TV remote on one side and a Nintendo-64-like controller for games on the opposite. Dinner was a choice between beef or chicken and breakfast was an Egg McMuffin. Flight to Fiji: check.

Upon arriving in Fiji, I realized that my wheelchair and brand-new red suitcase had been left in L.A. Lost or forgotten luggage is understandable to me. There are thousands of similar suitcases moving on and off airplanes through international airports each day. But in my case, I expected that more care would be taken with a necessary item like a wheelchair since there are usually few of them and are often crucial to a person’s mobility. Luckily, I mostly walk with canes and had kept them the plane with me and both my wheelchair and suitcase were delivered to my apartment the following afternoon.

As annoying as losing my things was, it was a lot easier to get around the airport. With only my backpack and camera I didn’t have to try and juggle my backpack, camera, and canes while pushing my wheelchair — that being said, I did have help, but it was nice not to need it. Board flight and arrive in Auckland — on Mon. Feb. 17: check and check.

My first impression of New Zealand was that the people were quite friendly. The first Kiwis (the nickname for people of New Zealand) I came into contact with worked at baggage service. This opinion was reinforced upon arriving at the Auckland University of Technology student apartments as I was greeted by RA’s with a colloquial, “How are you going?” Since I was moving into residence a week early, not all rooms had been checked and cleaned. When we entered my apartment to find that the previous tenant had left it in a smelly disaster — food, dishes, clothes and shoes all over the furniture, and soap, razors and toothbrushes left in the dirty bathroom — they were horrified and insisted that I move into an apartment upstairs until this one could be “sussed out.” As a result, my four roommates — from Canada, the US and France — and I have floor to ceiling windows with one of the best views of Auckland City and harbour.
The past two weeks have mostly been about getting use to new surroundings.

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I was thrilled on my first night to find a little corner store across from my residence that sells Fruit Loops and Nestea. As excited as I was to be in a new place, finding a couple pieces of home put me at ease.
The end of summer weather is warm, but thanks to proximity to the ocean, it often alternates between sunny, cloudy, windy, and rainy multiple times throughout each day. Sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 is an absolute must here, as I unfortunately learned at beautiful Mission Bay beach last week. The sun is a lot stronger here than at home. Now I carry roll-on sunscreen in my purse. Although I have yet to see it rain hard, I have been warned that a New Zealand winter consists of rain and temperatures as low as 5 C, similar to a Canadian spring.

New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road. I’ve had to adjust to vehicles making left turns. The numerous steep Auckland hills will send all of us international students home in shape. I walk up or down a hill to get to class, the shops, or the restaurants and banks on Queen Street, which is a major destination here.

Since I can’t drive, public transportation has always been my friend. I was very excited to learn that the bus fare here depends on how far you’re going — 50 cents to the boutiques and tattoo parlours on K’Road, $3.40 to Mission Bay or the Auckland Zoo, and $5 to see the man selling used books out of his house by Great North Road in suburbia. The driver will actually give you change on the spot! Gone are the days of scouring the earth for exactly $3.

But even with all the differences, at its core Auckland is not all that different than Toronto. The Sky Tower is really just a shorter version of the CN Tower that you can also jump off as well as walk around the edge — something I plan to do in the near future, likely between classes. There is still a Starbucks and Subway sandwich shop on every corner. And the students, both from AUT and the University of Auckland, still study and party harder. The friends I’ve made from North America often find ourselves forgetting that we are, in fact, on the other side of the world.