Isanya Köhne

For this week’s story, we’re traveling much further than Europe, all the way to one of the corners of the world. Cara, 23 years old and currently doing her masters’ degree in New Media & Digital Culture in Utrecht, but did an exchange during her bachelors two years ago. Where’d she go? She went to the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. “I had briefly been to New Zealand a few years before, however, it was not enough time to truly experience the culture and all the beautiful landscapes. Therefore, I knew I had to go back there”.

An eye-opening experience

The procedure leading up to my exchange was quite exciting as we had to apply for particular destinations. There were limited spots so an interview and a motivation letter were in play. Everything during this process was very straightforward. I also applied for ‘exchange student housing’, which was an interesting concept, because these were actual houses completely converted for students in New Zealand. I lived on a street with plenty of international students around me. We were with five others, two boys and three girls. In our house we had a living room, a kitchen, two bathrooms and everyone had their own private bedroom. We even had a garden, which had incredible views. The only thing I’d say would be slightly negative, is that it was quite expensive living there, but that’s not something uncommon in Wellington. I believe going on exchange is very valuable, especially for your personal development. Of course, you initially go for academic purposes, but the traveling, living independently, and finding your way around a new city and culture is very eye-opening. Before going on exchange, I was living in a student home already, but going to New Zealand really helped me gain more self-confidence. I was incredibly nervous about going away for a full six months, especially as I arrived there in July and that’s still winter in New Zealand. I was nervous about making new friends and the availability of activities in the winter. However, these feelings disappeared rather soon!

New Zealand’s culture is not too different from the British culture, which I’m very familiar with as I’m half British. So, I didn’t really experience a big culture shock upon arriving and living in New Zealand. During my time there, I was fortunate enough to take a class in Maori culture, New Zealand’s indigenous people, and spend a night in a Maori sacred house. It was so interesting to see how the Maori culture is becoming more interwoven. It’s easy to communicate with the locals in New Zealand, as they speak English, of course. Most locals are very excited to meet people from abroad, they’re very social and open to talking to strangers. I really enjoyed visiting new places around the country and listening to locals’ recommendations. The only challenge I’d say there was is that some locals talk with quite a heavy accent, and it can be difficult to follow at times.

Cultures & landscapes

My fondest memory of my exchange has to be a road trip I went on after classes had finished at the end November. Four girls and I took a campervan and travelled all around the South island over a span of three weeks. It was so much fun, both the time spent with them as well as to see all these beautiful landscapes that New Zealand is famous for. Another one is, as I mentioned before, the time I got to sleep at a Maori sacred house, which is called a Marae. The Maori community of Wellington invited all the new international students to spend two days at the marae to learn about the culture Stories, music, history, food, it was all part of the experience. I felt so lucky to have been part of it as I later learned how sacred the marae is and people aren’t usually allowed to stay there.

A Week in Wellington

My classes were a mix of international students and local New Zealanders. However, I hung out most with the exchange students as we all lived on the same block. I did manage to meet up with other locals, as I joined a dance club and not many internationals joined this particular group. It was also very easy to meet other international students during the social activities that the housing association organised throughout the semester. A week in my life on exchange started with dance class on Monday morning, and then regular classes in the afternoon, yoga in the evening. My classes were usually in the afternoon, except for Thursdays where I'd have class all day. Nights out in Wellington were usually Wednesdays and on the weekends. On the weekend or in the evenings, I would try to meet up with friends and we would cook together, explore the city, watch movies, or, when the weather was better, we’d go to the beach. On Sundays there was always a fresh fruit and vegetable market in the harbour of Wellington, so my friends and I would always go and get our groceries for the week on that day. Living in New Zealand is definitely not cheap. The rent for the room is quite high and the general costs of groceries and such were also quite expensive as the majority of the products need to be imported to the island. I ate mostly vegetarian as meat was expensive, and got my fruits and veggies at the market where it would be cheaper and locally grown. I also did this because I wanted to save money and spend it on traveling.  

If there’s anything I wish I knew before going on exchange here, it would be to be updated on the lack of life in Wellington during the winter. Nobody is on the streets, nobody goes out and that made it quite difficult when it was also dark so soon and raining. If I knew this in advance, I would’ve been better prepared mentally and maybe would’ve made more effort to set up activities in my own house with people and friends. I also advise you to go and explore Wellington! I regret not seeing more of the city centre. I was so focused on exploring the country I didn’t take much time to explore the city I lived in for six months.

Flying home for Christmas

“Is there anything from your exchange country that till this day you still cannot comprehend?” Yes! I do not understand the New Zealanders obsession with rugby. But maybe that’s just because I don’t understand the game very well. If you’re thinking about going on exchange, I encourage you to do it! If you haven’t travelled much before or been abroad I definitely recommend a country a little closer to home with a smaller time difference. But that’s just a personal recommendation. You’re going to develop yourself in ways you couldn’t have imagined before. I fell in love with New Zealand when I took my first road trip around the North Island. We visited Cathedral Cove and it was one of the first really nice warm days of the year. The location was beautiful, the nature incredible, and the sunshine made it feel like we were in paradise. It was so secluded and there were hardly any tourists. If you’re going on exchange to NZ, you must try to visit the South Island. The North Island is beautiful in its own way, but more people live there. The nature and the number of things to see and do in the South is amazing. Go and see the countryside, for sure.

When I got back home, I was excited to see my family and girlfriend again. Near the end, I was eager to get back as I had enough of living out of a suitcase for a month during my traveling. It was also nearing Christmas time, which is one of my favourite times of the year, and it really doesn’t feel like Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere, haha. I had had an amazing time, but it was nice to return home. I’m still in touch with friends who I met during my exchange. I actually meet up with a couple girls who also live in the Netherlands quite regularly. I haven’t been back to NZ since my exchange, but I would really like to go back with my girlfriend and show her around. Something I still practice till this day is getting my fruits and veggies at the market, like I did in Wellington. It’s much cheaper and you get incredible deals.

Thank you Cara for taking us onto your journey to the stunning New Zealand, tucked into the corner of the world. If anyone has any questions about travelling to this distant land and/or going on exchange there, feel free to contact Cara about it. Next time, we’ve got stories coming up that are a little closer to home. Keep an eye out!