Tag Archives: #dormlife

Goodbye Wilderness, Hello University of Canterbury

My five-week field camp is over. Our final week was spent mapping lava flows on Banks Peninsula. The work was similar to the volcanology we did on North Island, with one major difference: Whereas Taupo Volcanic Zone is one of the most active systems of its type in the world, the volcanoes of Banks Peninsula are extinct. Enough time has passed for the flows to become overgrown with vegetation, which makes them much harder to see. The upshot is an inviting, pastoral landscape, nothing at all like the foreboding, otherworldly terrain you saw in my last post.

 

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Akaroa Harbour, Banks Peninsula.

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The town of Akaroa, Banks Peninsula.

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The town of Akaroa, Banks Peninsula.

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The town of Akaroa, Banks Peninsula.

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Fishermans Bay, Banks Peninsula.

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Fishermans Bay, Banks Peninsula.

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Fishermans Bay, Banks Peninsula.

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The seal colony on this shore platform is home to dozens of seals, many of them newborn pups!

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The beach at Le Bons Bay. These local boys have erected walls of boogie boards and are now throwing sand at each other. As we passed, we overheard one of them call out, “It’s the U.S. vs. Mexico!”

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Some of the students from my group wade into Le Bons Bay, which is extremely shallow. Even 100 meters from the shore, I could still touch the bottom.

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This Maori war canoe, called a “waka,” paddled upstream as part of Okains Bay’s Waitangi Day celebrations. Waitangi Day is February 6 and celebrates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. The treaty gave England sovereignity over New Zealand while granting some rights to the indigenous Maori. Unfortunately, the English and Maori language versions of that treaty differ slightly, so there is debate over how to interpret them. Maori make up 15% of New Zealand’s population, but account for 50% of the prison population. On average, their income is only two thirds that of European New Zealanders. Still, they are better off than Native Americans. Many of New Zealand’s largest companies are Maori-owned, and 20% of New Zealand’s parliament is of Maori descent.

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Children’s foot races at Okains Bay’s Wataingi Day celebrations.

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Unlike nearby Australia, the wild animals in New Zealand are relatively harmless. Instead, it’s the plants that will get you. Gorse (pictured here) is the mildest. It’s sharp, but flimsy, so the best tactic is to walk quickly through it without pausing. Matagouri, on the other hand, is sharp and stiff, so it requires more caution. Worst of all is ongaonga, which grows only in shady areas and is covered by poisonous hairs. One look and you know its dripping with menace. Our professor described it as “stinging nettle on steroids.” The burning sensation lasts for up to three days!

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Full days in the field require plenty of food. Fortunately, we were well fed. This sandwich has sausage, chicken, ham, cheese, cucumber, tomato, lettuce, mustard, and hummus. My typical lunch would have two sandwiches like this, two pieces of fruit, and two granola bars.

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Our group plops down for an extended lunch break next to Coffin Rock (on which I was standing to take this high-angle photo), Banks Peninsula.

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The wind played an active role in many of the landscapes we visited. On one particularly bad day in Castle Hill Basin, gusts reached almost 100 mph! The wind was not as bad on Banks Peninsula (pictured here), but you can see it’s still strong enough to rake this bush into a sort of natural topiary.

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Our final stop was an old school that had been recently converted to a campground.

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The best part about camping at a school was getting to use the playground. Besides this soccer field, there was also a tennis court.

 

As fascinating and educational as field camp was, it was starting to wear on me by the end. The constant stimulation and weekly location changes were a little much for an introvert like me. I prefer to have my own space and a predictable schedule. Now I get my wish.

For the next four months, I get to settle down in the largest city on South Island, Christchurch (population 375,000). The city has been a hotbed for geology ever since 2011, when it was shaken by a deadly and highly destructive earthquake from which it is still recovering.

Three miles west of downtown is the University of Canterbury (UC), where I’m now one of 12,000 full-time students. It’s many times larger than Pomona College, but it’s not entirely unfamiliar. Before Pomona and before the Marine Corps, I spent a year at another UC: Berkeley.

I spent only one year at Berkeley because it was a poor fit for me at that time in my life. I struggled academically and socially, and ultimately withdrew. During this first week of class here in Christchurch I’ve had a few flashbacks to that overwhelming experience eight years ago. Thankfully, my work ethic and study skills are better now, and the students here are not workaholics, something I disliked about Berkeley.

I live on campus in a five-bedroom flat. Surprisingly, I’m younger than all four of my flatmates. Matt is a 32-year-old Kiwi undergrad who used to work in the wine industry but is now changing careers to become an accountant. Marius is a 27-year-old postdoc mechanical engineering student from Germany. Rounding out the flat are two PhD candidates: Calvin, a chemical engineer from Malaysia, and Jasper, a botanist from the Philippines. Although we’re still getting to know each other, we’ve already had some good conversations in our flat’s common room. It’s nice living with older students.

 

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After five weeks of sleeping in bunkrooms and tents, this spacious bedroom is a major upgrade. It’s mine for the next four months.

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There are five of us who share this five-bedroom flat. The common room has a fully stocked kitchen, a table with chairs, and a couple of sofas. It opens onto a balcony that faces another four-story building just ours. The front door to our flat is at the end of the hallway.

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There are about 1,000 international students at the University of Canterbury. This map shows where they call home.

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International Student Orientation was held inside the University’s largest lecture hall, the same room I use for Physics 101 and Statistics 101.

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Two days after orientation I went to the Central Library for enrollment. The domestic students get to enroll online, but we international students had to do it in person. I waited in a series of lines for more than two hours. Fortunately, I got into all four classes that I wanted to take.

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Special events are common during orientation and extend into the first week of classes also. This game reminded me of the pugil stick bouts that are important rites of passage for Marine Corps recruits at boot camp. The purpose of those pugil stick bouts is to teach aggression, but this game is just for fun. The building in the background is identical to the one in which I live.

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The area of campus west of the academic buildings has expansive lawns and gardens. Chalk advertisements are everywhere this week because the student clubs are recruiting new members. Here you can see one for the largest club on campus, EnSoc, which is short for Engineering Society.

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The Puaka-James Hight building houses the University’s Central Library and is one of the tallest buildings in Christchurch. Its blocky concrete architecture is typical of the rest of the campus, which was constructed in the 1960s.

I’ve been told that classes here are much easier than what I’m used to at Pomona College. That’s held true for the first week of class. This semester I’m taking two geology classes and what I fear will be two boring electives: Physics 101 and Statistics 101. They might not hold my interest like the Spanish and dance classes that were my go-to electives at Pomona, but they are prerequisites for graduate school.

Outside of classes, I expect that my biggest time commitment will be biking. This semester I’ve made it my goal to become an avid cyclist.

I need wheels. I feel trapped without them. I want to get out and explore the city, but anything more than two miles from campus is too far to walk, and I hate waiting on buses. My study abroad program doesn’t allow me to own a motor vehicle, so a human-powered one is the next best thing. With the right bike, I can expand my radius from two miles to twenty. Nothing will be off limits!

 

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I have all the gear I need for the perfect commuter bicycle: Helmet, lock, gloves, high-visibility vest, and cycling shoes with compatible pedals. All I need now is the bike. Every time I ride a new road, I’ll cross it off on the map that’s pinned to the wall.

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Once I have a bike, visiting attractions like this farmers’ market will be much easier. It took me 28 minutes to walk here from campus. With a bike I could do it in less than ten.

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The farmers’ market in the previous photo is held every week at Riccarton Bush, a park that is home to the last old-growth forest in Christchurch.

 

Over the last week, I’ve spent hours each day researching my options. I’m looking for a good, used road bike. Ideally, it will be fast enough to beat the bus, but cheap enough that I won’t be devastated if it’s stolen. This morning I test rode a 2006 Kona Zing that might fit the bill. I found it on Trade Me, a hugely popular New Zealand website that’s like Ebay and Craigslist combined.

Once I have a speedy bike for zipping around the city, I look forward to learning every neighborhood, visiting every park, riding all the way east to the ocean and south to the mountains of Banks Peninsula. By the end of the semester, I want to know my way around this city better than the locals. I’m stating that goal here so that my readers can hold me to it.

Until next time, that’s all the latest from Down Under!

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The Trials & Tribulations of Everyday Incidentals

Imagine you’re 18 and leaving home for the first time.  Your zone of authority has most likely been relegated to one room of the house for your entire life.  It probably doesn’t have a lockable door, or if it does the rest of the household doesn’t take kindly to its employment.  You may have decorator’s privileges, but not without inviting a stream of unsolicited opinions as to the quality of your particular tastes.  Some of them probably have veto rights.  You likely cannot come and go at your pleasure but must apply to the board for approval of your intentions, however well-planned or purely whimsical.  They inevitably demand more detail than you’re comfortable or prepared to produce on a regular basis.  Maybe your music bothers them, or your friends, or your gaming, or your internet search history. Maybe theirs bothers you.  The concept of privacy?  Veritably unfathomed.  Heading into one’s first home-away-from-home, the bar hasn’t been set too high.  Friendly roommates and you’re golden.

Now imagine you’re 36 and haven’t had to capitulate to anyone’s house rules in return for food and shelter in roughly a decade.  You’ve managed to keep yourself alive, to varying degrees of success, for a while now.  Being an adult is not all it’s cracked up to be, but we do it anyway because creating your own home remains the province of the vertically advanced and the youthfully impaired.  You can leave your bed unmade and your clothes on the floor and eat Cocoa Puffs for dinner – all without bringing your maturity into question because no one is the wiser.  You can infiltrate the fridge or commandeer the kitchen at any time, day or night, without petitions or excuses.  Bedeck the walls in whatever apparel appeals without answering for it.  Finally acquire that massaging-recliner or four-poster bed you still resent Santa for withholding.  Find the picket-fenced yard, start a fur family, develop that home theater or game room or man cave or lady lair you’ve always dreamed of.  This is why we trade in our badges for business cards, flying capes for collared shirts, and home-cooked meals for freezer food – to be kids, er, kings of our own castles.

And this king has been unceremoniously uncrowned.

I admit, I was seduced by the brochure.  Sure, I can handle a dorm… if it’s IN A CASTLE.  I’m sure the bay-window reading nook and rustic rock fireplace will compensate for whatever trifling gnats the neighbors may make of themselves.  Arriving in St Andrews, I lugged my backpack and two suitcases off the bus and, after a cursory scan of the horizon, made for the nearest towering, turreted stronghold.  Lower the drawbridge, Dunwyn, I’ve finally arrived.

But the drawbridge never descended.  Although the goal was in sight, it remained inaccessible and impenetrable.  I wound my way around a large green, up a hill, through a parking lot, past the campus field, and finally arrived at the gate which was, rather unwelcomingly, sealed shut.  Making my way around the perimeter I tried various doors with no success.  Finally I followed my ears to a nearby spot of activity and made inquiries.  A staff person led me around to the back of the beckoning stone masonry where a no-nonsense, asylum-looking structure was hiding in its shadow and impersonating its name.  “The main building is under renovation” the girl explained chirpily.  That wasn’t mentioned in the leaflet.  Sorry Mario

 

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The castle and the asylum.

 

The room was, to phrase it generously, a shoe-box.  Four white walls, some recycled office furniture, and a stripped mattress.  One of the more scandalizing discoveries I’ve made about Saint Andrew’s accommodations is that they are strictly BYOB: Buy Your Own Bedding.  They generously offer bedroom and bathroom sets for your purchasing convenience.  Determined to bargain-hunt, I spent the first week sleeping on thrift-store throw pillows and trying to turtle under a jacket.

 

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The shoe-box.

 

Justice in the asylum is maintained by on-site officials aptly called “Wardens.”  Ornamentation is absolutely opposed by the tricky tactic of forbidding all forms of fastening – from tacks right down to poster putty.  Bring a pile of family photos to stave off the homesickness?  They kindly supply a pin board for that which, incidentally, is also utilized for general notices and regulations, not to be removed or obstructed.  I figured I could rig something up with string and clothespins, but the room has been meticulously scrubbed of any lasso-able extensions you might utilize to commit something so scandalous.

Despite the fact that the hallway looks like something out of a horror movie, it quickly becomes a happening social hub for the new arrivals, which I have the benefit of participating in from either side of the sociably eavesdroppable walls.  The tiny window offers a welcome reminder of the breathably spacious outdoors, but the curtains look like they’ve been upcycled from Aunt Gertrude’s old school dresses, themselves upcycled from an antique tablecloth inspired by the lovely color patterns of an upchucked potato stew.  One of my study abroad organizers, herself a former international student, raved about the welcome package included with her room, offering practical items like a UK sim card.  I find a pinstriped french-fry bag filled with a lollipop, bubblegum, and a few pieces of hard candy.  Malcom Gladwell would be proud.

 

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Hallway of horrors.

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Delicious curtains.

 

But these are mere trifles.  The real surprise comes three days into my incarceration when a sharp knock awakes me from blessed semi-slumber beneath my luxurious hoodie-blanket.  Through my sleep-addled brain and the benefit of hotel experience I suddenly ascertained the word, “housekeeping!” and immediately ejected an emphatic, “No, thank you!”  The door swung wide and a woman poked her head in.  “I need to get the bins,” she stated patly.  I sat in my shoe-box as startled as a hounded hare, and nearly as naked.  “Sure,” I mumbled, shell-shocked and dream-dazed.  “Go right ahead.”

In consecutive days, the incident repeated itself courtesy of the managerial staff and the porter.  I studiously composed a pleading appeal to the management to inform me of impending appointments, but soon learned that students do not require such extravagances when my request was politely ignored.  Welcome to the playhouse – it’s great to be a kid again.

The kitchen oven proves another insurmountable hurdle for my simple American mind.  There are two separate knobs, each with its own little series of incomprehensible symbols.  A pro-Googler, I soon learn about the wide array of conduction methods of which the modest English oven is capable.  I expertly select the fan symbol, set the temperature after a quick conversion to Celsius, and watch my dinner sit in the dark, getting colder.  But wait!  Everything, and I do mean everything has a wall-switch in Scotland.  Yes – here it is, marked: “cooker”!  I flip it triumphantly. A little while later finds me improvising with two cookie sheets sandwiched over the graciously functionable stove. (Turns out English ovens can’t cook without knowing the time, and you have to depress a cleverly randomized set of buttons to do it.)

 

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The oven challenge.

 

Not to be shown up by the kitchen, the bathroom has its own set of hurdles in store.  It consists of a small room with toilet, sink and showerhead.  The latter is hung just to the right of the throne in a deformed-diamond shape corner of the oddly-angled room.  It’s partitioned off by a curtain which falls about a foot short of the floor, and a four-millimeter depression in the ground tile.  These are there to present toe-stubbing opportunities and the illusion of containment.  Don’t be fooled: the entire bathroom is your bathtub.  Your toilet will be standing in a centimeter of water on the memory-foam bath mat.  I initially sought to combat this unwelcome wading pool with sand bags strategically placed for maximum trippage, but ultimately found that an extra-long curtain resolved the issue more gracefully.  Score one for Ravenclaw.

 

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The shower challenge.

 

The shower diamond is about 30 inches across at its maximum width and barely sufficient to contain even a skinny sneetch like myself.  A large horizontal pipe additionally protrudes into the space with adjustment knobs at either end for activation and temperature, respectively.  The pipe gives literal meaning to the phrase, “piping hot”, so I spend my mornings skillfully tetrising myself between this and the lecherous curtain.  Most tragically of all, my beloved hand-held showerhead is conspicuously absent from this Scottish dormicile. I’m forced to resort to the medieval method of standing in the stream.

So far, this grand new adventure proves commendably challenging.  Level one starts off with a bang, dumping me into the playing field without even a tutorial (who’m I kidding?  I never use those) and forcing me to relearn the basics.  But I expect no less from this strange new Scottish world.  The princess may be in another castle, but the game hasn’t defeated me yet.

 

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Stranger in a strange land.

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