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Why haven’t you visited New Zealand?

I am here to prove you are missing out big time if you don’t have New Zealand as your next long-distance travel destination. Finns, forget about Thailand and Bali. NZ is the place to be – and Australia isn’t too bad of a place to stop over on the way either.

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“Never say goodbye, because saying goodbye means going away, and going away means forgetting” (Peter Pan)

First though let’s be honest. Yes, it’s expensive to get there – but I am, among so many others, a living proof you can do it even with a student budget (and a few years’ of work + saving live crazy of course).. Secondly, it takes a hell of a lot of time to get there so you wanna stay for at least a couple of weeks. Preferably longer, especially if you are such a cheap-ass stingy person like me and rather travel for 42 hours and change planes five times just to save 300e. (Note, that 300e later paid for my sky diving adventure in Australia, so I gotta say it was totally worth the physically and mentally exhausting 42 hours. One way that is.). But, if you don’t go, you’ll regret it – so start saving up for your next big adventure!

Anyway, the top three things you probably know about New Zealand so far are:

1. Amazing nature.

Thanks to movies such as The Lord of the Rings, The Last Samurai, Whale Rider etc. I am pretty sure you have a pretty good idea of what an exotic beauty, blue sea and emerald green scenery awaits. Beach holiday, hiking or culture – it’s all there.

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I went on a quiet stroll on this beach, somewhere near the Bay of Islands maybe, two weeks before leaving for good in 2014

2. Sheep.

There’s a lot of them – enough actually to be frozen and shipped across the globe just to be sold in pretty much most supermarkets here in Finland… And I think during some English lesson in high school I learned that there are ten times more sheep in that country than people- though the truth is actually closer to six. Anyway when you get to NZ majority of the sheep are actually down south and people up north, or that’s how it seemed anyway, so you as foreigner end up more or less confused with the sheep shagger etc. jokes Aussies had been telling you about the Kiwis.

3. Wine? Rugby?

The third one is a little more difficult to come up with. I’d guess you’ve tried some excellent NZ wine? Or maybe you know rugby and the goosebump-raising, crowd-silencing war dance “Haka” the All Blacks do prior to the big games. Wow. Just wow. Google it.

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Me, Laura and her two brothers on Mt Taranaki, 2009

Anyway, recently my friends asked for advice re the Working Holiday visa and general life in New Zealand as they are heading over there later this year. And as so many great memories have now flooded my mind completely drowning out the important university assignment stuff that ought to be a priority over this silly daydreaming about going back to my second home once more, I decided to write down some key things here. Just thinking about the time spent in NZ makes me smile..

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Four hours. One fish. Still smiling.

So the top 3 things I hope you don’t miss out during your trip down under are:

Surprise surprise,

1. Amazing nature.

Yup you’ve seen photos, but in reality it’s even better. I loved the long scenic drives down the coast; having the bright blue water on the right and green hills and bushes filled with odd-looking plants on the left, with snow-topped mountains in the distance. Or the evergreen rain forests, gorges, waterfalls, and so on – hiking is definitely one of the must-do’s of your trip.

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We were camping by this stunning river, somewhere near Taupo

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Found this on the door one morning..

Why not conquer a mountain while you are there, climb to the top of Mt Taranaki for example? Or explore the Waitomo Caves and see the fascinating glowworms? Maybe even check out some wine regions? And it’s nice to know that as oppose to Australia, everything in the good old NZ is NOT trying to kill you so can feel pretty safe with all the wildlife and spiders and such.

Most of the time.

But forget about the daytime beauty. It’s is night when the magic happens.

Imagine. The sky gets filled with stars, with Milky Way showing it’s gorgeous form right above you as you get surrounded by a strange silence, wrapped in a comforting pitch-black cocoon with the stars forming a sparkling map of past and future, a place where you feel alone and small and insignificant, and empowered and alive and the ruler of the world all at the same time for that one moment when you just let go of everything else and be amazed how good it feels to be there. To feel fully free of constraints. To feel alive.

Please Google “New Zealand night sky” and see what I am talking about!

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Please let me introduce: Graeme, aka world’s best host dad and the bbq master of the family

2. Food.

Now I do admit NZ does not have the stereotypical stuff like what pizza is to Italy, sushi to Japan or tortillas and salsa for Mexico. But what is has is a wonderful melting pot of fresh produce, world-class wines (that don’t cost a fortune!) and some of the best seafood and meat available! There’s just something cozy about the Sunday dinner of roast lamb and three veggies. Not to forget fish n chips, or Chinese takeaway or any other fast foods enjoyed on Fridays by the beach – if it tastes good, does it really matter where the original recipe came from?

Paua jewellery is gorgeous, but why not taste the actual seafood? Or whitebait omelette? Maybe go to Rotorua and try the traditional hangi? For dessert there are so many puddings to choose from – but boysenberry, hokey pokey or rocky road ice cream, Pavlova, and maybe also Jaffas and pineapple lumps are among the things you do wanna try out yourself. ❤ And I gotta say, the beer and wine selection is pretty good, pretty good indeed. And I heard in the last couple of years they have started to get some decent local ciders as well 😉 I wouldn’t recommend trying to try drink a Kiwi under a table though…

3. Culture.

It’s seriously a laid-back, chilled, an informal and relaxing life they enjoy there. Yet everything works, things get done, and at the end of the day you can hang out with friends and have a beer while waiting for the bbq to heat up. In summer time life is great and the beaches are filled with people, in winter it’s cold and wet and quiet, quite like everywhere else. But they don’t usually get totally covered in snow in winter which is nice, and most of the time don’t need to pay attention if there’s a + or – when talking about the outdoor temperature. Little happy moments of life aye. By the way, you can actually get sunburnt in winter – I learned it the hard way! Sissel my dear friend, that’s a warning for you.

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WOMAD 2009

Nevertheless, with culture I also want to emphasize the arts – have you seen the amazing detail of Maori tattoos and carvings for example? Or read about the history? Don’t forget the music and the great local bands (check out music festivals such as WOMAD), or the abundance of different culture and sporting events – you need to check out the atmosphere of a proper rugby game at least!

 

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NZ is home to some pretty decent street art

Moreover, there are also the crazy tourist attractions and the adrenaline-spiking stuff like bungee jumping, skydiving and hang gliding among many others.. That country knows how to keep the tourists from getting bored!

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Queenstown – home to every adrenaline sport you need

So all in all, if you go there on a tourist visa or stay longer and complete a working holiday, I assure you there’s plenty to see and experience. And their tourism services are world class and the locals are super nice! Even though during my three years there I had plenty of ups and downs, a true culture shock many times over, all in all it was an amazing experience thanks to all the truly spectacular people I met ❤ One day I’ll be back.

So what are you waiting for, why aren’t you booking your flights already?

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Chasing the bubbles at Back Beach, New Plymouth

 

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A second family? – living in a host-family for a year

I remember standing in Auckland airport, waiting to board my third and final flight to New Plymouth. 2009, the exchange year was about to begin. I was happy, but really nervous because I didn’t know who would there to pick me up from the airport, with whom was I going to stay the year to follow.

I was the last Finn to get a host family from New Zealand that year, had almost given up on hope that I could travel with the other AFS students. A couple of nights before the visa application was due, I got a phone call from an elderly man late at night. He sounded kind, really lovely but with an accent so odd I missed half the stuff he said. The main point was that he was to be my host-dad. I did now sleep that night, couldn’t even hold still. It still brings a smile to my face just thinking about it.

Arriving to New Plymouth for the first time, 09

As I got the host family so late, there was no time to get in touch with them, to get a photo or anything. I got off the plane in New Plymouth and just stood there, hoping that someone would come.

That minute or two felt like ages. Finally one AFS volunteer waved at me, and with him was the man that had called me. Graeme, the man who has now over the years become something more of a second dad/granddad than a mere host for a year, and his granddaughter were there to pick me up. I couldn’t figure out half the stuff they were babbling on about, that kiwi accent was a bit of a challenge at first.

Front garden, 2009

I was told I’d be staying with him and his wife in Bell Block, a few kilometers away from New Plymouth (New Zealand), in a small house 5 min walk from the beach. Graeme was semi-retired and the wife was still working. The kids had moved out, but their son and the granddaughter were flatting across the road, and the youngest son would be home for the weekends. I would have to catch the school bus and the area was generally safe but I shouldn’t walk alone at night. Roger.

I met his wife, and the rest of the family that day. Heard the house rules, got familiar with the surroundings, made my room feel like home. Slept for ages to recover from the jet lag. I cannot really remember much from the first week or two… Everything was so new. And weird, like the light switches were the other way around, the meal times were different and not to mention driving on the left side. And oh dear the Internet was insanely slow and having a landline telephone was just plain strange (I didn’t know of anyone who’d have that back home).. It was all also amazingly exotic and wonderful and everyone seemed really nice and whoah the nature was gorgeous – I totally understand why some compare the start of the exchange as something resembling a honeymoon!

School started, I made some local friends my age and got used to catching the school bus daily. Slowly started to figure out the accent as well, though the text language, an essential part of the youth culture, with (m8, up2, brb etc) was still somewhat of a mystery. And I bet everyone thought I was an idiot for I didn’t get half the jokes the locals, especially my host-brother living across the road, were telling me…

Graeme took me to different AFS events, sightseeing, to meet the friends and extended family. We had lovely family dinners and I got to taste the Sunday roast lamb and the famous BBQ´s and passion fruit cheesecake. Yumm. The family had two dogs, for someone with previously only hamsters as pets that was quite cool! We also tried out lawn bowling and other strange kiwi activities and overall the everyday life became quite nice. Not amazing like what you would expect from the EF leaflets you see but nice and basic life, going to school on Monday felt just as bad as it did back home… Also, having the beach nearby was perfect, that’s the place I described at a previous post. Of course you get lonely, and start to miss home and everything familiar at times, but for me having the sea nearby helped tremendously for some reason. It’s the one place that seriously kept me sane when things weren’t going too well.

One might think it´s weird staying in a host-family with just an elderly couple, the kids having left home already. I disagree. I never got close to my host-mum unfortunately, but the siblings were wonderful even though they were a bit older than me and with Graeme we just built this strange connection with from the early stages. I never actually considered changing the family. He took me and one of his granddaughters on amazing road trips during school holidays, told me countless navy stories and made me feel like I was a part of the family. He wanted to meet all of my friends, set curfews and told me if I was to start dating, which I did, that he’d need to meet the guy asap. Basic dad-stuff aye – and I think despite being such a lovely person he really managed to scare my boyfriend when they met.

Roadtrip to Cape Reinga, 2009

Roadtrip to Cape Reinga, 2009

All in all, living in a host-family is such a major part of the exchange that I really appreciate the hard work all the AFS-volunteers go through when selecting the students and families. It’s not always a match made in heaven and strong personalities collide, at times one needs to change the families, but I’m happy of my placement. I couldn’t ask for a better experience. I learned so much that year, I grew as a person and am now much stronger thanks to all that. The great times were better than what I can describe, the bad times mixing in every now and then to make you appreciate the good little moments in life. Just the same as back home.

Now, 6 years later, I still feel happy when I think of my exchange year. So much has happened since, but that year was definitely the experience of a lifetime. I ended up going back to NZ to live there for another year and a half with my boyfriend of the time, but I kept in touch with the host-family and especially Graeme. He’s even friends with my parents, and is coming here on a holiday next summer with his wife. Can’t wait to get the chance to show him my country, all the wonders of the good-old Finland, to say thank you for everything he’s done for me. And maybe even let him scare the new boyfriend of mine… It´ll be fun.

The Best Host-Dad Ever. Another road trip, this time in 2014.

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Ten Reasons to go on an Exchange – you’ve already applied, haven’t you?

A student exchange. When I was fourteen the travel fever rose to the extremes and my Oxford-dream of intensive studies changed to sunbathing in Malta for a month. Don’t know if I learned much English, but it was fun anyway. A few years later it was time to step up the game and fly a bit further away from the nest – off to New Zealand and to an all-girls school for a year. School uniform, a new culture, an experience of a lifetime. That’s where it all started, a chain reaction, and soon I found myself looking for jobs abroad. Me, back then a 18-year-old naive little girl, all alone headed to the big world during the best age for some serious studying.

Not even once have I regretted.

You should definitely go on an exchange.

You grow as a person, you experience new things, you get to network. When meeting new people you absorb some of their life experience, start to see the bigger picture, maybe understand something new. You get inspired, might even get a gentle push to start following your dreams and become the entrepreneur you’ve always dreamed of. Or find the courage to follow a completely different career path, something you never thought was an option, to jump into the unknown with a smile.

Going on an exchange and working abroad encouraged me to change my career. Even ended up getting my favourite quote, my guideline in life, tattooed into my arm “vaikka juuret ovat maassa, siiville voit silti nousta” (Something along the lines of: even though the roots are in the ground, you can still rise onto your wings). Time for a new school, new stories. It’s still a year and a half before my next exchange, this time to Great Britain I hope. I smile when I think about that, Soon I’ll get to go.

Why don’t you go as well?

Where to go, and how?

University students have a lot more places to choose from than the shy sixteen year olds. The world has become a playground, jumping from an island to the next after employment opportunities or let’s say a 6 month exchange into Singapore is no longer rare. When you are wanting to go abroad, the easiest thing is to consult your school – take advantage of their partnership networks. They might even be able to help you out financially.

And if there’s a place you really want to go to but the school cannot help you with, check out Kilroy or other travel agencies who can help you out. Or be different like me (read annoying enough), plan and organize your own trip to the last detail and just ask for the principal’s approval… Getting that “Hmm okay, I guess you can do it” felt insanely good. Academically, you might fall a little behind if you go off by yourself – but experience-wise it’ll so be worth it.

When choosing the place, I’d think a little further than where to get the tastiest cocktails while chilling on a hammock. A couple of months checking out the best beaches and paradise islands sounds amazing, but challenging yourself in a prestige university or a traineeship in the fast-paced corporate world might prove more rewarding. Of course everyone has their own personality and goals, but I reckon for a fellow business student seeing the boom of Asia or the solid business hubs in Europe & the USA might offer some amazing career opportunities after graduation. Think on what will benefit you the most – there’ll be plenty of time for a beach holiday later on. Or even better, compromise, and head off to NZ – you can go surfing after work!

If you don’t go, you’ll miss out on so much.

Not everyone is adventurous, not everyone is interested in being international, so what – do what’s best for yourself. But if you have even a little flame burning inside you, a voice whispering stories of the wonders of the world and butterflies flapping their wings in your stomach every time you hear about someone else’s experiences then stop and think. What do you have to lose?

Opportunity cost, one of the first things I learned when Business School started last autumn. What do you need to let go of to get what you want, the price of your choice. If you don’t go, you won’t miss out on your life in Finland or wherever you are from. Your circle of friends will remain unchanged, the days rolling forward as always. A cup of coffee every morning, summer, autumn, winter, spring + maybe a deserved holiday? And again. The student parties and social relationships enlivening your weekdays, soon you will graduate and join the work force. Yay. You can execute your high school + university + work + retirement plan to the last detail. Travel when you are retired, having created a marvellous career, once the kids have moved out, when you have the time and money. When. If. Then. Just not yet.

But if you go now then.. Well I promise you’ll have fun. You are still young, isn’t now the best time to go, nothing is holding you down. When on an exchange you’ll meet new people, see new places. Oh and experience some setbacks and misfortunes and at times life in new culture sucks – that I promise as well. But you will grow as a person thanks to that.

The reason I encourage everyone to live in a new culture rather than just to travel there, is experiencing the normal everyday life. When you travel you’ll be enjoying a honeymoon; everything is new and beautiful like Instagram-photos, or dirty and dilapidated and shockingly exotic – depends on where you go. But you see everything from an outsider’s point of view, you taste the local cuisine, hear the music. You scratch the surface of the iceberg. But during the exchange you dive into the culture, dig a little deeper. Of course six months or even a year won’t let you experience, or understand, everything but nevertheless it’s a good start.

School will continue when you come back. The friends will not have vanished, and hey I doubt Finland has changed a lot. You’ll change, even a little. Might get a new perspective, maybe learn to appreciate your own culture in a new way, to genuinely cherish the free education. At least you’ll make friends. You’ll return happy and ready to get back to studies – overall, everything is pretty darn good over here. Or you come back, get a culture shock, want to improve everything and then filled with vigour find a way to lift Finland into a new economic boom while planning your new trip. Not bad.

And if nothing else, at least you don’t have to slouch in the snow slush for once.

I can’t wait for the snow to melt properly…