The Sahara

Reading about the Sahara desert growing up, I always felt like there was a disconnect. It seemed unfathomable, that such a place could exist on Earth. I felt as though I were reading about Mars or some other far off place, perhaps it was all just a fairytale, certainly not fact. The desert just didn’t fit into my (limited) perception of the world.

I read about it in many of my books, enthralled with the details of this foreign landscape. However, it never made my bucket list. Not because I didn’t want to go, but because it just seemed so unrealistic. New Zealand was a pipe dream; this was just flat out impossible.

That is until I found myself at age twenty, knee deep in a sand dune grinning at the sheer impracticality of the situation.

It was incredible.

I suppose, however, that I should start at the beginning. We left Rabat at 6:30 a.m. Friday morning and began our 12-hour trek to the desert, stopping off several times to take in the scenery.

I never really put a lot of thought into how the desert starts—I guess I just pictured a clean divide, a clear border in which the sand began and the green stopped. This would, like many of my preconceptions, prove false.

As we drove, the rolling countryside of green hills and fertile farmland slowly began to bleed into stretches of dirt and sand. Trees still dotted the landscape, but rather than grass, dirt sat at their roots. As we progressed, the trees became more and more scarce until they abruptly gave way to massive mountaintops.

The most notable feature of the desert, in my albeit brief experience, is its paradoxical nature. It is simultaneously flat and mountainous—large stretches of impossibly level earth give way to massive mountaintops that dominate the landscape for miles. The dunes also put a wrench in the flatness of the desert, with the flat earth leading up right to the edge of a massive expanse of sand stacked improbably high, with seemingly no end in sight. It’s astonishing.

The first thing about the desert that you notice, however, isn’t the landscape: it’s the heat. Now, I know that seems obvious, but the heat is different then anything I had experienced before. This was an all-encompassing heat, the kind that presses down on you, enveloping, suffocating. Even the shade seemed ill equipped to fend off the intensity of the African sun.

On Saturday morning, we kicked off our actual “desert experience” after a night of fun and games, by taking jeeps off-road to the edge of the dunes. I really enjoyed this, the hot air buffeting my face as we whipped through the dirt and rock.

When we reached the edge, a feeling of uneasiness crept down my spine—the silence of the desert is unnerving. It’s not the stuff of movies in which a buzzard squawks overhead and a tumbleweed is blown across the landscape. It is completely and utterly silent. There are no birds. No rustling leaves. No wind. Complete silence.

It’s not a peaceful silence, like the type on a mountaintop where the wind quietly shakes the trees. It’s an uncomfortable one, one you can’t escape. The kind that gives merit to the ever-popular idiom “deafening silence”.

Following the trip to the dunes, we drove to another town where we listened to traditional Gmaoua music, dancing and laughing in a partially underground dirt building to escape the sun. It was fun to laugh and dance and listen to the strumming of a gambri (a long stringed instrument) and the beat of the drums.

We had a break after that, in which we swam and enjoyed the hotel we arrived at earlier in the day. The heat reached a peak of 107, the pool offering the only escape from the sweltering sun. That is, until the storm kicked up.

It started with a slight rain, one that we laughed at and discussed the rarity of. Those droplets, however, turned into a downpour, but still we enjoyed the improbability of it. Then the sand came. Tiny grains bit into skin and blinded us, seemingly inescapable. We ran to take shelter, but still watched eagerly from our windows, enthralled and terrifies by this new phenomenon.

The thrill quickly wore off as the dust settled and the dunes remained blanketed in swirling grey chaos, delaying our plans for a sunset ride into the desert via camel. We waited for half an hour before finally getting the go ahead and beginning our trek out.

I had been looking forward to this moment since applying to this program back in November and I don’t think the grin that appeared on my face has ever been larger. The camel ride was fantastic and actually going out and into the dunes was just astonishing. The sheer vastness of the desert stole the air right from my lungs. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We climbed a large dune after about a 45-minute ride, leaving our camels at the base. The sand swallowed my legs as I raced up the side, pulling me down with each step. Again, the concept that such a large quantity of such small, insignificant particles could not only exist, but create such wonders was incomprehensible. Watching the sun slowly sink beneath these enormous structures seemed only to seal this idea.

That’s not necessarily saying that it was easy-going. Bear in mind that a sandstorm had just ripped through the desert, leaving the wind with quite a bit of gusto and what felt a bit like spite as it continued its attempts to topple me from the dune. Sand was everywhere, it coated my eyebrows, my eyelashes—every inch of my body had a firm layer overtop of it.

Still, the experience was phenomenal and two days later I’m still struggling to believe that it actually happened. The aforementioned grin still creeps onto my face as I think of how it felt to stand on top of that dune, and I think it just might stay that way for a while.


A leap of faith

There’s a moment, when you’re on a plane, just before you take off, where the world seems to pause. It happens just as the wheels leave the tarmac, when you’re pressed against your seat, moving at an unfathomable speed and that pit forms in the bottom of your stomach. The plane leaps into the air and just for that moment it seems as though the world reconsiders itself—it reconsiders this massive object, with hundreds of souls aboard, its displacement in the universe and how to respond. The plane is suspended in the air, willing itself forward and praying that the air around it catches it and propels it toward its destination. That pause, it happens every time.

But just for a moment.

Sitting in the Frankfurt Airport, staring down an 8-hour layover, that moment of uncertainty in the air seemed more poignant than usual. This flight was hard on me I must confess, having a cold on an 8-hour flight is an experience I truly wish upon nobody. I exited the flight on another continent, unable to hear aside from an atrocious ringing in my ears and the growling of my stomach (the in-flight meal was a choice between chicken and pasta, God help me I couldn’t tell the difference).

Having been awake for more than 27 hours, I stretched out across a few seats in the terminal, a few rows away from my group, looped the straps of my bags into my arms, and fell asleep.

I awoke an hour later to a very lively Chinese couple laughing and taking a photo of me (I’m pretty sure I caught the phrase ‘American’ thrown around a few times).

Not exactly the glamorous start I was anticipating.

The thing about that moment on the plane, however, is that every time I’ve been aboard (knock on wood), that plane has caught itself and continued pushing forward. Even thought the odds seem insurmountable, a giant metal beast that has no business defying the laws of gravity taking to the air with ease, it happens.

So despite these low moments, where I do confess some malaise crept into my excited demeanor, I found a grin firmly affixed to my face as we were given a brief tour of the city this morning. A 5-hour jaunt in a hotel gave me some much needed and well-used rest time and so I set out with a much more positive outlook and a sprig in my step.

The city was beautiful, with paintings and carvings painstakingly done by hand shown on the most prominent of buildings. The weather was warm but not too hot, with a nice sea breeze kicking up from the coast. With blue skies and such beautiful sights, the place felt a bit like paradise.

Paradise, however, can be overwhelming and certainly the medina qualifies as that. People swarm in and out of makeshift stalls and the crowd is a constantly moving, thickly populated mess. Its easy to become carried away or cut off, which is intimidating.

With this though comes an air of excitement at the constant activity. Fortunately for my group, another trip consisting of 28 other Americans from all around the country have been here for the last semester, and one of them happens to share a residence with me and another girl in our group. Thus, I found myself on an unofficial tour of Rabat with tips and tricks to help us grow more accustomed. We met 5 other students who are studying with the same organization as us and we caught up with them after to grab juice at a local place.

The juice was incredible and the company enjoyable, it’s nice to have some friendly (English-speaking) faces around. The language barrier is proving to be a challenge as the Moroccan dialect varies immensely from the Arabic I have spent the last two years learning. French and a combination of French and dialect seem to be the languages of choice and unfortunately for me I find myself lacking knowledge of either.

I’m confident it’s something that can be overcome, however, and I have been informed my Arabic skills are to be put to the test by an adviser at the center we study at. The challenges presented by this trip honestly just make me more excited. Communicating with my host family is the current objective, but thus far we’ve been able to get by. The food here is exquisite and the mint tea is everything that was promised. Tomorrow we start our first lesson and I can’t wait to actually learn some of the history of this incredible place. In the meantime, it’s about 9:30 p.m. here and I am anxiously awaiting the opportunity to try some of that aforementioned food for dinnertime, as dinner is later here to accommodate evening prayer. If it’s anything like lunch, I’m in for a treat just as if the rest of this trip is anything like today, I’m incredibly fortunate. This leap of faith has proven true thus far and the world has un-paused for what I hope will be an awesome experience.

And we’re off… Again.

I grew up in a little white house with black shutters and a red door. Situated in the middle of the street, the most notable thing about said house, at least in my opinion, was the gangly oak tree that sat smack dab in the middle. The tree was young and tall, awkwardly tilting slightly to the left. As a child, the tree was my boundary, the line my mom drew in the sand. I constantly wanted to be outside and the rule was to never go past that oak tree.

I love testing boundaries, and that precedent was set when I was a child. I would sit level with that tree and poke my toes further and further forward into the grass. I would lay longwise and dig my feet into the soil around the tree, stretching myself as far as I could go—trying to see how far I could get while still technically staying within those limits.

I tell this story to show that I’ve always loved pushing things to the limit. Whether it be my personal boundaries, physical limitations, or my mother’s patience. Now, at twenty I’ll be testing all three as I sit at the Port of Columbus Airport preparing to depart on my month long journey through Morocco.

A year ago I had never really left the country, embarking on my first trip abroad to New Zealand. For those who followed this (now criminally neglected) blog, you know that it was the time of my life. I have the same expectations for this trip and hopefully they’re met to the same extent.

For those asking “why Morocco?” the answer is simple and at the same time not—at the surface, I’m an Arabic minor and can knock out a few requirements by doing this. More truthfully, the answer is slightly more complex. I have two years of my undergraduate degree left and quite frankly I don’t want to waste it. I am fortunate enough to go to a university with practically unlimited opportunities and to squander that would be more than wasteful, it’d be idiotic. Morocco isn’t a place that you can just hop on a plane and go gallivant through for a few days. I mean, you can, but you wouldn’t get very far. This experience is one that I wouldn’t have outside of the university and I want to take advantage of it.

In terms of the actual trip, this one is quite a bit different than the last go-round. I have a lot more in-country travel—heading to a multitude of cities while being based in Rabat, the capital city. We travel to other notable ones such as Casablanca (the movie geek in me is screaming ‘Play it again Sam, for old times’ sake’) and Chaouen—the blue city, where all the buildings are painted blue in Jewish tradition to remind them of God’s presence. I’ll stay with a homestay again, but this time with another Ohio State student travelling with us. I’m excited for this particular aspect as I think that getting to converse (maybe in Arabic, depending on how atrocious my accent is) with people from such a unique culture offers a really phenomenal opportunity. The most exciting part of the trip, in my opinion, comes toward the end, where we will take camels out into the dunes and camp in the Sahara desert.

I would type more, but I’m so excited I think my head might explode.

Morocco is known for their mint tea—allegedly the best in the world. Tea there is a tradition, a time to take and reflect on the day, enjoy one another’s company. The ceremony surrounding the national drink is a sacred one and each day we have it built into our schedule. I’m eager to partake in such a seemingly serene tradition, and for those that know me, it seems as though it will be right up my alley.

This trip will be much different than any experience I’ve had in my twenty years and I’m more than excited to finally head out—the anticipation really might kill me. Hopefully I’ll be able to keep this blog updated. In the meantime, Cheers and مع السلامة.

Ending on a High Note: A Weekend at Lake Tekapo

When I signed up to go on this trip, I didn’t really factor in the fact that there would be nineteen other people going. It was a non-issue for me; they would do their thing, and I would do mine. I imagined us as separate ecosystems, quite naively if I do say so. I didn’t stop to imagine the possibility that I might make some (lasting?) friendships.

This past weekend, sixteen of us twenty decided to plan a separate excursion since we had two days off for the queen’s birthday. Sixteen people planned an entire trip, got along, and had a blast. I don’t know about you, but I find that exceedingly impressive.

The entire bus ride down to Lake Tekapo, our chosen destination, I could hardly contain my excitement. Nearly every kiwi we had talked to described this place as a slice of heaven, their favorite place in the whole of New Zealand. Upon arrival, I could see why.

The lake is by far, the most intensely blue body of water I have ever seen. Accented by the snow-capped mountains, the lake glistened like something off a movie screen. I think each and every single one of our jaws hit the floor of the bus when we finally got there.

Another really great aspect of the trip was one that sort of happened by accident. Since it was a holiday weekend, Tekapo was booked full, with backpacker’s lodges not having any rooms available. As such, we decided to rent three hotel rooms and just sneak a few people in. At the time of the booking, we didn’t really pay attention to our accommodations aside from making sure we were close to the lake. We didn’t take the time to realize that we had somehow managed to nap three villas with a lakeside view at an unreal price. This was quite a nice surprise to find.

We started off our first day with a hike up Mt. John to watch the sunset. The hike was a lot of fun, but a lot more treacherous than we had initially planned for. Much of the trail had frozen over so we had to be especially careful. There would be long stretches of clinging to trees or climbing up over shrubs in order to avoid sliding down or injuring ourselves. With a lot of our group not having proper footwear nor a lot of hiking experience, it was a bit of a struggle to get to the top. Once we got there though, I think we were all very glad to have but in the effort.

Standing at the summit of a mountain with an altitude of 3,376 feet is an extremely sobering experience. You feel small, but also accomplished; calm, but simultaneously triumphant. Trees that stand at least five times taller me when next to them now looked like garden shrubs. Passing cars on the road looked like ants. The lake, in contrast, spanned the field of my vision, before disappearing into the horizon. The silence on the mountaintop was deafening, with each of us lost in our own thoughts as well as lost in the atmosphere of the mountain. I would like to think that we all got some sort of comfort at that summit, a peace of mind.

Personally, I sat on a rocky ledge for a bit, just taking in the scene, the crispness of the air and the general feeling of the place. Before this trip, I will admit to being a bit of a mess. Second semester had fried my nerves with stress academically, professionally, and personally (for a taste of this, check out my previous post “The Myth of the Blank Page). Coming here has been such a blessing in that I feel ten times lighter; I no longer have a weight pressing on my chest. I’ve taken a step back and taken the time to relax, to unwind, and to reason through issues that had previously overwhelmed me. Watching the sun sink between the mountains is something I’m never going to forget. I’d like to think that the next time life becomes a bit too much, I’ll just think of that mountaintop. I’ll think of the way the tired sun sank between those twin snowcapped peaks. How the light made the mountains look a bright purple color. Or how the silence was so incredibly pure: no talking, no birds, no busy cars or slamming doors. I like to think I will find that sense of peace again.

That’s enough on my teenage angst, however, and more onto the fun stuff. The hike down was a little rough, with the sun having gone and with it all the warmth we had previously enjoyed. The path had only gotten slicker with the dropping temperature, and so we clung to the brush for dear life, trusting no rock or patch of snow. At the bottom, however, it was all smiles as we reflected on that feeling at the summit.

We turned up for dinner quite early with the hike having left us ravenous. The restaurant we booked was notorious for their lakefront view…it’s just to bad we hadn’t factored in the pitch darkness of the night. Nonetheless, dinner was fun and quite good. I had a delicious udon noodle soup as well as some miso basted fried salmon. We all had some house made ice cream for desert as well (I ordered a delicious bowl of green tea flavored ice cream, my favorite).

After dinner, we headed back to our rooms, meeting back at our villa to hang out and chill for a bit. I mentioned at the beginning of the post how I didn’t really factor in making friends here. I can’t express what a mistake this was. The people I’ve met here are not people I would have encountered were it not for this trip. We come from all different backgrounds, majors, and ages. Our group dynamic is quite odd, and yet, it works. We are all kindhearted and truly look out for one another. Sure, we have a few jokes at the expense of each other (okay, a lot more than a few), but we know how to have fun and we genuinely have grown to care about one another. I count myself as extraordinarily lucky to now call them my friends.

A very unique part of Lake Tekapo is the fact that it has the second clearest view of the stars in the world. I’ve seen stars before, there aren’t that may lights on my street so they’re decently clear on a nice night. Not like this though. Around two in the morning, we all layered up and trekked out to see the stars in a field by our lodge. We plopped down and laid amongst the frozen blades of grass, taking in the sky above us. With the new moon making things even clearer, the stars were so unbelievably bright, they looked as though they were fake. The purple outline of the Milky Way was clearly visible, creating an awe-inspiring view. I will say, I didn’t stay out for all that long, after twenty or so minutes, I was ready for bed. The view was incredible, but I wanted to be rested for the sunrise trek to the lake in the morning.

At 7:00 in the morning, our alarm clocks blared, rising us from what’s probably been our best sleep since we got here (the room had heat, something most of our homestays do not). I will admit to a moment of weakness in which I contemplated going back to bed and missing the whole thing. I’m only human.

Upon dressing and layering up for a frigid morning, we headed out the door, groggy and blurry eyed. The second our feet hit the beach though, our eyes went wide and the weariness left us. I know most of those who read this blog are probably tired of me describing things as beautiful. Honestly, to me it sounds like a cop out. But the fact of the matter is that there are not any words in the English language that are capable of describing the sights of seen in the last few weeks. Lake Tekapo is one of the hardest. Seeing the lake at first light was a wholly unreal experience. The stillness of the lake combined with the frosty morning made it appear as though made of glass, the mountains accenting its near-frozen beauty.

We sat there for upwards of 45 minutes, watching the sun make its ascension to the sky. Again, totally silence ensued (for at least the first half of the time, we are a particularly chatty group). After, we headed back for breakfast and check out, readying ourselves for another hike.

Our hike this time wasn’t nearly as strenuous as the climb up Mt. John, it was actually quite the opposite. We took a bath around the lake, stopping at a few beaches here and there, enjoying a relaxed view of the scenery. We laughed and talked and munched on the snacks we had brought as well as some hurriedly made PB&Js (they were made with love though).

Overall, this trip has been one of the best parts of New Zealand. We planned it by ourselves and it went off without a hitch. That’s not to mention the fact that it was a boatload of fun. Everyone hung out together as well, it wasn’t just like we split off into our factions and ignored everyone else. While there are those of us who have become closer than others, we are, overall, a very inclusive group and that’s something that makes the trip that much the better. I suppose I will conclude by saying once again, how incredibly blessed I am to be on this trip. It’s better than anything I could have imagined.

Another Phenomenal Week

It’s hard to believe that as I type this, I’m finishing out my last weekend in New Zealand. It’s hard to believe how fast these three weeks have flown by and how much has occurred in such little time. I’ve had some incredible experiences as well as met some amazing people. I went from being surrounded by strangers in a foreign country to creating some phenomenal (lasting?) friendships in a place to astonishing to be real. I’m so incredibly grateful to all the people who made this trip as awesome as it has been, both here and back at home. Now, enough with the sappy nonsense and on to the fun stuff.

This week was a pretty low-key one, with the finishing of our research project being the prime focus (believe it or not, I do actually attend class here). We had a few adventures after class, but for the most part, school took center stage. One of these little excursions included a trip to the middle of nowhere to find this awesome t-shirt shop with my friend, Audrey. We got there right before they were about to close, and instead of booting us out, the lady let us browse and chat for a little bit which was really nice. I swear, Kiwis are the friendliest people on earth. After that, we sat in a café for what felt like just a few minutes, but turned out to be hours (side note, I got this caramel coffee cake that was to die for). The plan for the day had been to catch up with the rest of the group at the art gallery, where an event on Kiwi culture was being held, but we wound up missing them. That’s not to say we didn’t go to the art gallery though. I wasn’t initially thrilled about the event, as it didn’t seem like there was that much to do, but Audrey and I wound up sitting in on this really cool discussion on “Cultural Cringe”. It was an open talk about how New Zealanders perceive their culture and it was really interesting.

Another cool stop this week was the Antarctic center. Christchurch is the location of the U.S. Antarctic base so hence; there is an Antarctic center. The highpoint of this trip, however, is when we got thrown into a room that was, at the time, 17 degrees, a balmy summer day in Antarctica. However, this room was actually a storm simulator, which means wind turbines were turned on, lights went off, snow was kicked up, and the temp dropped to negative one degree Fahrenheit. I will say that the two other people aside from our group had to be pretty amused by the mob of 16 Americans running around yelling.

After the Antarctic center, we headed out for our final B.Y.O. (for an explanation of what this is, check out my previous post). Since my home sister was leaving that day, I met up with the group later and enjoyed a last meal with her and her family. Upon arriving at the B.Y.O. though, I found the group to be in good spirits to say the least. This B.Y.O. was definitely the most entertaining with two of the boys deciding it would be a bright idea to down two Chinese hot peppers. David wound up under the table and Wes wound up in tears, as did the rest of the group. We topped the night off by heading to the foundry, the university bar/event center to watch the live band before heading home.

The real fun began yesterday though, with our cancelled trip to Akaroa being made up. Akaroa is a port on the East coast of the south island that was formed by a volcano millions of years ago. We got to really explore the unique area by taking a harbor cruise out past the bay and into the Pacific. On the way, we saw breathtaking landscapes, a volcanic vent, penguins, dolphins, and seals. It was fantastic, seated at the front of the boat, I had a front row view. A quick note about the dolphins: they weren’t just your average run of the mill dolphin (you know, because I see dolphins all the time back in Ohio). These dolphins were Hector’s dolphins, the most rare dolphin in the world. Growing to only a meter in length and having unique white markings on them, they are only found here in New Zealand. I’m so glad we were able to make up the harbor cruise on a day so gorgeous. The water was probably the bluest I’ve ever seen and with the sun hitting the ocean mist as it rose from the waves, it looked photoshopped. Our boat, for the most part, was silent on the way back. There’s just something about gliding over the water, with the wind in your hair and the tang of salt on your lips that is so incredibly clarifying. I don’t know how you could have a worry in the world with such an incredible experience. HAR_1283.jpg

We finished the day off with some fish and chips and a little bit of souvenir shopping around the town. The drive home, however very weary after a long day, was gorgeous. We weaved through mountain roads and watched the sun set over the city. I swear, I really, really don’t want to leave this place

Today proved to be just as awesome as we trekked off to Castle Hill. For those of you who don’t know, this is where both The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia were filmed. Upon arrival, I could see why.

Massive rocks jutted from snowy outcroppings as the land wove its way into the mountain ranges. The air was warmer than usual, but still crisp from the snow so most of us wound up ditching our winter jackets as we climbed up the hills. The rocks were unreal, and upon climbing them, the view beyond was just as fantastic.

Castle hill wasn’t our only stop for the day though; we also headed to a local farm. Since New Zealand has more sheep than people, it was only fitting that we should see one before we left. The farm was really fun, with us getting to see a farm in action as well as eat a phenomenal farm fresh meal (I’m still full). The real fun though, came when the farmer decided to prove his point on the importance of sheep dogs. He had volunteers attempt to herd the sheep through the gate, two at a time, just as the dogs do. Naturally, Audrey and I volunteered.

HAR_1798.jpgToday marks the end of our university-sanctioned weekend excursions. Again, I don’t want this trip to end. However, I am excited for tomorrow as our group heads off on a mini trip we planned to Lake Tekapo for the queen’s birthday. Lake Tekapo is supposed to have the second clearest star gazing in the world as picturesque turquoise waters dotted with wildflowers. This time of year, it’s also supposed to be covered in a light frost. We’re staying the night, so we’ll have plenty of time to take in the sights. I can’t wait.

Christchurch Day 1

A Walking Tour of Christchurch

One of the many questions I found myself facing from friends and family before I left was a basic one: “are you nervous?” My response, of course, was always a quick no and an expression of excitement. In truth, I was nervous; not for the flights, or going abroad, or anything along those lines, but I was nervous that New Zealand wouldn’t live up to my admittedly high expectations. Based on today, it has not only lived up to them, it’s surpassed them.

It’s so hard to believe that my first day in Christchurch has already come and gone. Let me just start by saying that my homestay is absolutely phenomenal. Marie and Phillippe are two of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. They immediately made me feel welcome in their home and they are incredibly interesting to chat with. Originally from South Africa, they came to New Zealand roughly twenty years ago. Since then, they’ve been all over the world and brought quite a bit of it back with them as they have hosted numerous international students. Currently, they are also hosting another student aside from myself from Singapore. Her name is Rachel and from what I’ve gotten to know about her she’s just as amazing. We spent my first night gathered around a world atlas, showing one another the places we’re from and sharing places we’ve travelled.

I will say, however, I was a little disappointed when the only real question they had about America was pertaining to Donald Trump.

We started the day today at the University of Canterbury, a quaint little campus with a population of 11,000. From there, we started our walking tour of Christchurch at the North side of the botanical gardens. Everything was absolutely beautiful, with the leaves having changed for autumn the trees are absolutely stunning. Unfortunately for me, I was only able to capture a few photos from the excursion as I forgot to change my settings from multiple exposure mode. I was not pleased to say the least. Still, I got some pretty nice shots and I’m going to attempt to put up a gallery at some point.

From there, we walked around a bit and caught glimpses of the Canterbury Museum and the Christchurch Art Gallery, both of which will be visiting in the next few weeks. Our next destination was a particular favorite of mine, the Re:START container mall.

Christchurch was hit with a series of devastating earthquakes in 2011 and 2012 that have left the city with devastating damage and a high need to rebuild and reorganize. Within a year of the quakes, the container mall was put up as a temporary shopping center built entirely of shipping containers. The outcome is something unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, an interesting aesthetic with a very upbeat and new sort of vibe. The shops were very cool as well, offering a lot of different items and trinkets (barring the Lululemon which is still just as ridiculously overpriced as the states). The idea for the mall was kind of a wildcard, but the place has grown from just 27 businesses in 2011 to over 50 today. It’s become a cornerstone for the tourist industry and a favorite amongst the locals.

Our next stops were more somber ones, starting with the Bridge of Remembrance. Having just been reopened a few weeks ago, the bridge commemorates all of those fallen in past wars and is one of two war memorials in Christchurch. After our visit there, we visited 185 Empty White Chairs—a memorial to all those lost in the 2011 earthquake. Each of the chairs is unique and represents an aspect of the individual it represents. The chairs range from a wheelchair, a student’s desk, to the most heartbreaking: an infant’s car seat. The 185 square meters of grass the chair sit on was originally supposed to be a temporary, with the artist’s statement being: “installation is temporary—as is life”, but following a pouring of positive feedback, speculation says it may be here to stay for good.

Following the memorials, our group stopped at the Cardboard Church, a temporary place of worship for the people of Christchurch while the church decides what to do with the old cathedral. Upon paying a visit to the former cathedral, once a hallmark of the city, it was really apparent how much damage the quake had done. Completely fenced off, it was heart wrenching to see a place of such grandeur as broken as it is now. The entire front of the building had completely collapsed and the bell towers had fallen and lay amongst the rubble, etchings of the phrase “kia kaha”, “stay strong” in Maori, could be seen all along the fence and surrounding fixtures.

One of our final stops was New Regent Street, the only complete heritage streetscape in Christchurch. The Spanish Mission Architecture is home to several cafes and boutiques, making it an extremely popular and unique site. New Regent Street is also home to the Isaac Theatre Royal, the premiere performing arts center in Canterbury. The theatre was severely damaged in the quakes, but has recently been completely rebuilt.

Following a stop at the bus exchange to fill up all of our metro cards, most of us decided to stay in the city and head out for drinks to get to know one another a little better. Having been one of the last to arrive, I felt as though I’d been playing catch up the whole time trying to meet everyone in our group. We headed over to a place called Engineers, a nifty little bar recommended by our coordinator. It had a gorgeous rooftop view with an open patio section. We stayed until about 5 (*around one a.m. back in Ohio), and then headed back to our respective homestays. Everyone from the group seems really nice and extremely friendly, which is good considering we’ll be spending a lot of time together over the next month!

Overall, New Zealand has been phenomenal so far. It’s kind of similar but the differences are extremely glaring. A prime example of this occurred this morning upon my realization that the toilet was not, in fact, in the bathroom. About to pee my pants, I finally broke down and asked where exactly it was located and my homestay looked at me as though I had three heads. In New Zealand, apparently, the toilet has its own separate room. This was obviously news to me.

Overall, kiwis (what the people of New Zealand are called), all seem to be extremely friendly and totally open to conversation. At lunch, our server was particularly funny, knowing exactly who Ohio State is, he informed us that, “scarlet and gray only belong together on speed bumps” and “who the hell calls themselves after a nut”. The kiwis very much enjoy banter, making for some very funny conversations.

To end this, I’ll list a few major differences I’ve noticed:

  • “Tramping” means hiking in New Zealand. This obviously has a very different meaning in the states.
  • Kiwis are very eco-friendly, for example, you won’t find paper towels in any of their bathrooms. They either have air dryers, or they use a paper towel dispenser, except instead of the paper towels its sort of like a revolving cloth towel.
  • There’s gorgeous street art everywhere. Here it isn’t considered graffiti and there’s no negative connotation, it’s just art.
  • DRIVING ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ROAD IS STRANGE. I’ve nearly gotten into the driver’s side of the vehicle at least four times. Roundabouts are also terrifying.
  • In restaurants, there’s no tipping and you need to get up and pay, the servers don’t bring the bill to you.
  • The coffee is 10x better here.
  • At the university, students go “flatting” where housemates of each flight all start with a red card. This red card gets pulled at various times throughout the year, once by each roommate. When the red card gets pulled, its that roommates’ responsibility to come up with a crazy party idea or a dare for each of their roommates to complete (generally revolving around alcohol).
  • I can only ever understand about 50% of what’s being said to me due to various slang words including “Ta”, “cheers”, “catch ‘ya” and loads more. I’ve also been made fun of about 17 separate times for saying “college” instead of “uni”.
  • Kiwis are super friendly, love to party, and curse often. I think I’ve found my people.