Kathy: Expect the Unexpected

Reflection:

Life lesson: things don’t always go to plan. By now I thought I would be telling you all about how I made it through my first set of partial exams, the epic spring break adventures I got to experience with my new friends and how I met the Mexican man of my dreams (seriously). I didn’t ever expect to be withdrawing from my exchange 3 months early, and I certainly wouldn’t have imagined I’d be writing this post from my childhood bedroom back in NZ where the entire country is currently in a lockdown; the world facing a pandemic it was not prepared for. But that is in fact exactly how things played out, and though it’s been tough, I know that overcoming challenges such as these is a part of life.

Yes, I’m sad, but I’m also incredibly grateful for the time that I was able to spend overseas. I’m grateful that my family and I are safe and comfortable, and that Covid-19 has not affected my life in such a drastic way as many others who have lost their jobs or loved ones. Even so, now that I have had the opportunity to slow down and reflect on everything that has happened, the truth is that the past few weeks have been really hard for me. Having all your plans get completely changed in such a short space of time is obviously a shock to the system, and I think I have just needed some time to fully comprehend and accept my current situation.

View of Mexico City while transiting on the way back to NZ.

Final Weekend in Mexico:

I remember when the World Health Organisation first declared that they were considering the Coronavirus to be a pandemic, which was just a few days before my friend and I had planned to fly down to Jalisco for a long-weekend trip. It never really crossed our minds that this was something we should even consider cancelling, and I think I actually laughed and said something along the lines of “don’t be ridiculous” when questioned if I was thinking of going back to New Zealand early. It was that very weekend I booked my flights home…

The University of Auckland sent out an email saying that all students and staff currently overseas should return as soon as possible, though exchange students ultimately had the choice whether to stay or not. I desperately did not want to leave, but after lots of calls home and talking to my family, I realised that there was just no way to predict how the situation was going to develop in Mexico. My travel insurance had an exclusion for any claims caused by a pandemic disease (I was aware of this, but at the time I thought what are the chances, right???), so at the end of the day, I made the heart-breaking decision that it was safest to try and get home while there were still flights available.

The rest of the trip consisted of a fair bit of crying along with many unforgettable experiences, such as watching the Danza de los Voladores – the Voladores or “flyers” lower themselves from a very tall pole by swinging from rope tied to their ankles – or driving around the small town of Tequila in a tequila-bottle-shaped-bus. I feel so fortunate to have had such a great last weekend in Mexico, and it has made me realise how much more of the country I would still love to explore! I know for sure that I will return one day soon.

Danza de los Voladores.

What I’m Doing Now:

Tec de Monterrey had just switched to online classes when I left but had not yet decided if these would extend right to the end of the semester, or if online examinations would be an option. They have now confirmed this, and I know quite a few exchange students have decided to complete the Tec semester from their home countries, but at the time I couldn’t be sure if it would work out. I was also offered the choice to enroll back at UoA, but this would have meant catching up several weeks of work while in self-isolation and honestly, I just did not think I would be able to cope with the stress of it all. I therefore decided to take the semester off completely. Even though this is going to extend my degree and has left me in a bit of a limbo at the moment, I don’t regret it at all because it’s given me the time I needed to work things through.

I’m currently still figuring out if it’s going to be possible to go back to uni next semester (engineering degrees are very structured and courses tend to build on prior content), but I’ve got my fingers crossed and even if I can’t, I know I’ll still manage to work it all out. I’ve come to the realisation that missing a year is not the end of the world in the grand scheme of things. This whole situation has been a great opportunity for me to weigh up what is most important to me in life, and for that I am truly grateful.

I just want to say thank you so much again to the 360 International team for being so supportive, and I hope that this reflection might be useful to anyone going through a similar experience.

To finish, enjoy these photos of some yummy Mexican food because let’s be honest that was always going to be the best part 😉.

Hasta luego everyone, thanks for following along xx

Laila: MISS YOU ALREADY MEXICO!!! HASTA LUEGO ♡

Boy oh boy a lot has happened since my last blog post. I never would’ve guessed that events would pan out this way, but they did and unfortunately COVID-19 meant my exchange had to end 3 months earlier than planned. As sad as I am that it all came to such an abrupt end, I am so thankful I got to have this experience and I wanted to share with you some aspects of my exchange that made it so memorable and exciting.

But once again, before we begin let’s set the mood…

absolute banger, if you want to imagine how Mexico sounds in a song.. this is it

UNIVERSITY LIFE

Being an exchange student at Tecnológico de Monterrey was an eye-opening experience. In New Zealand, and particularly at UOA, there seems to be a sort of anonymity among students. Each lecture hall is filled to the brim with students, majority of which you will probably never speak to. My experience in Mexico was very different as classes were small and therefore the relationships I formed with other students and the professor was a lot more personal and informal in a sense, something I came to really appreciate.

Each of my courses were great for different reasons. My Political Science courses were very interesting and informative, I quickly learnt that Mexican students were very outspoken and enjoyed debating and discussing many topics during class, no matter how controversial. Spanish was a lot of fun because the whole class was comprised of exchange students and we spent the entire 6 hours of classes per week only speaking Spanish, which definitely allowed me to improve my abilities a lot. We also sang a lot of Shakira (like a lot). My favourite course, however, was Photography – I had never taken professional or academic courses before, so this was a really a new experience for me. The cherry on top was that my host university lent me a professional camera for the duration of my exchange, meaning I was able to capture a lot of moments on a device better than my dying phone lol.

Now I am back home in NZ, but I have decided to continue on with my Mexican courses online with the grace of our saviour Zoom. I am grateful that whilst I am on the opposite side of the world, I can still virtually connect back to Mexico almost every day and still see my friends, classmates and professors.

TRAVEL

There is something so special about traveling with new friends in a new country. I was fortunate enough to get a decent amount of travelling in before my trip ended, so I want to share with you the highlights from my top three personal favourite destinations: Veracruz, Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta.

I went to Veracruz with six friends for the Carnaval, which is a celebration in Western Christianity occurring just before lent. Basically, it’s a massive parade filled with dancing, music and all around #good vibez. My friends and I stayed in a massive Airbnb right next to the sea and spent our days playing pool, hanging out and partying. My favourite day was spent exploring around the city center, attending  the Carnaval parade in the evening and then meeting up with another group of exchange students. That night we stayed up until 7am just talking and having a good time. I will forever remember that day!

Guadalajara: known for its tequila plants and production, I went to Guadalajara with three other friends and we went there on a mission. We splurged a little on a flashy Jose Cuervo tour and honestly had the best time. The tour involved traditional Mexican meals (such as Torta de Ahogada, typical of the Jalisco region), demonstrations of how the agave plant is prepared for tequila production, traditional Mexican dances, a train ride during the sunset and constant open bar with our own personal bartender! Needless to say, it was a day well spent. The rest of our days in Guadalajara were spent exploring the city, trying new food and enjoying the sun – I also rode a carriage and took a tour around the historical center!!! Horses are great.

Puerto Vallarta: being away for a solid 2 months gave me a newfound appreciation for how accessible the beach is to us here in NZ. Mexico City, being right in the middle of Mexico, does not have access to clean, swimmable waters. That’s why the minute we landed in Puerto Vallarta, a beautiful coastal city surrounded by beaches, I instantly fell in love. It was possibly the most picturesque place I’ve ever been; everyone was happy, and the sun was constantly out. I spent the entirety of my three-day stay swimming, tanning, eating and exploring. Puerto Vallarta is a place I’d recommend to anyone who visits Mexico.

As I said, it’s such a shame that my trip was cut short. I felt like there was still so much to see and do. However, I am so beyond grateful for being able to have this opportunity in the first place. Those two months really shaped my year in the best way possible, gave me a fresh perspective and a handful of memories and friends that I will never forget.

Mexico truly has my heart and I will without a doubt be returning to finish what I started

Shanti: Culture and Trip Reflection

Hi all, it has been a little while since I have gotten back to New Zealand, but I still want to post my third instalment of my adventures. One of my favourite things about studying in Taiwan was being able to immerse myself in the Culture and Language. Being back in New Zealand, I have really been able to appreciate the improvement I have made in both my confidence and ability in speaking Mandarin. I definitely recommend doing a 360 exchange program or language exchange if you enjoy travelling.

Apart from just daily life, the Chinese Language Centre at NCKU also organised some cultural trips especially for the University of Auckland students. These trips are definitely in my top list of memories of my time in Taiwan. In addition to the cultural excursions, we also had different cultural classes and electives that we could choose from.

Full Day Trip:

As part of the program organised by the University of Auckland and the National Cheng Kung University Chinese Language Center, we were taken on a full day trip to Kaohsiung (高雄), a city one hour North of Tainan. First, we were taken to Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Museum, a massive complex that houses multiple shrines, pagodas, and even a Starbucks. I often go to the Auckland branch of Fo Guang Shan Temple, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was on the itinerary. At the museum we were also taught the traditional ceremonial way of serving and drinking tea.

Photo from the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Museum

Next on the list was lunch at a themed restaurant. This restaurant had a massive model train going through it, with tables and seating inside. The rest of the restaurant had a strong Japanese influence, something I had found to be common throughout my travels in Taiwan. This is something that initially surprised me, as I did not know too much about the relationship and current sentiment between Taiwan and Japan. However, with Japan ruling over Taiwan for 51 years after the Treaty of Shimonoseki, much of the development of Taiwan is attributed to this time.

After lunch, we went on a ferry ride to the 红毛港文化园区 (Hongmaogang Cultural Park). This cultural park preserves remnants of a small fishing and shrimp farm village. Called “Hong Mao” or ‘red hair’, in reference to the Dutch, the park features old buildings and photos of what life was like before the development of the area into an international port. The people who once lived there were relocated, but the cultural park keeps the history alive.

 

Half Day Trip:

The half day trip was an optional tour available to all students at the Chinese Language Centre. On this trip, we went to some historical sites around Tainan, including the first school in Taiwan, and the Old District Court. The first school in Taiwan was a Confucian temple and though the main structure is currently under restoration, we were still able to see the outside courtyard. The half day trip was actually the second time I had been there. The first time I went, we also explored the surrounding streets, one of which has a cute market that has lots of stalls selling homemade items, a few hidden restaurants and a palm reader.

One of the outer buildings of the first school in Taiwan.

The Old District Court was built during Japanese rule and is now a Judicial museum. It also features an interesting sculpture which is an inverse clock tower, reflected on the shiny tiled ground. It’s a bit hard to describe but I will put a photo below. Lastly, we went to the Grand Mazu Temple that was constructed in 1664. This temple definitely felt like it had a lot of history surrounding it and I took the time to wish for a good year while I was there.

Cultural Classes:

As part of the University of Auckland language program, our group had several cultural classes and experiences. One of the most interesting experiences was the Taiwanese foot massage. To say it was relaxing would be a bit of a lie. My feet definitely felt different after, but the actual process was a bit painful to be totally honest. As well as the actual massage, our overall health was assessed from how our feet were looking. I was told that I should sleep more and earlier, something I already knew but still need to work on.

One of my favourite cultural classes (maybe because it involved food) was our cooking class. As a group we went to a nearby high school to cook some Taiwanese food, Sweet and Sour pork, crispy fried mushrooms and some classic 真祖奶茶 (pearl milk tea). This was a fun hands-on activity and it was good practice listening to the instructions in Mandarin with minimal translation. Another more hands-on activity was stamp engraving. In this class we carved our names onto slabs of stone, which could be coated in ink and stamped on to paper as a signature. Stamps were widely used, mainly for high class as an official signature or to show one’s rank (such as in the army). Later on, stamps were also used by everyday people who were illiterate, in order to sign documents.

In addition to the organised cultural activities, we were also given the opportunity to choose an extracurricular class with the other Chinese Language Center students. I chose 书法 (calligraphy). I found the classes really relaxing and my characters improved somewhat over the lessons.

 

Studying Abroad: A Reflection

I am so happy that I took the opportunity to study abroad. The experience not only improved my Mandarin speaking skills, but it also gave me more insight into Taiwanese culture. Because the program was part of a University of Auckland Summer school paper, I was able to gain 15 points towards my Chinese degree as well as explore another country for a month.

C1班, my class of three weeks.

One thing that really helped me in terms of funding my study abroad was the Prime Minister’s Scholarship. These scholarships are awarded to students and others who are going to Asia (or Latin America) so that Kiwis like me can learn more about the cultures of their destination country. The scholarship also aims to strengthen the ties between New Zealand and these two regions, as well as promote New Zealand’s education system. So if you are interested in going on exchange, or one of the many overseas opportunities that the University of Auckland provides, I fully recommend applying for a Prime Minister’s Scholarship. There are both individual and group scholarships available. If you have any questions, the 360 International office team are always there to help.

I think that studying abroad was such a great opportunity, not just to learn, but also to make new friends and to travel. In Taiwan I made new friends, not only with those from our University of Auckland group but also with our language buddies and fellow Chinese Language Center students. It was great to hang out with people around the similar ages as us and to get some inside scoops of the modern Taiwanese youth culture, as opposed to just historical and traditional culture. It was a bit of a sad departure, but I’m super keen to go back to Taiwan to visit. After I finished my course, took the opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing in Taiwan, and I also visited Singapore. This was my first time travelling alone, so it was a great opportunity to use my Mandarin skills with no one else around to help me. Because New Zealand is quite far from many countries, it was also good to travel while I was already in the area. Solo travel, though initially quite daunting, was both a challenging and enjoyable learning experience. I definitely recommend doing some sightseeing if you study abroad.

Over the my few years at university, so many people have told me to make the most of my time at university, because once you graduate and start working, you will most likely be stuck in a full-time job with little opportunities to travel. So I am giving whoever is reading this the same advice, take up the opportunities while you are still studying and go on 360 exchange and/or study abroad!

– Shanti Truong-George, 張湘婷。

Laila: Mexico City, the city that never stops giving

Before we begin, let’s set the mood: Alexa, play Cuando Voy Por La Calle by Trio America

It’s been almost one month since I left New Zealand and I can safely say that I am completely in love with Mexico City and all of its goodness. In preparation for any big trip I think it’s important to self-reflect. For me, I knew there were certain goals I wanted to achieve during my semester-long exchange; I wanted to become more independent, learn more Spanish, discover more about myself and meet a diverse range of people. I hope that through these blog posts you can go through this journey with me 🙂

For my first post, there are two main things that I want to tell you about that really stuck out to me during my first month here – the kindness of Mexican people and the beauty of Mexican food.

MI CASA ES SU CASA

Before I came to Mexico, I had no idea where I would be living, and whilst I always argue that spontaneity adds a bit of spice to the life, I would be lying if I said this simple fact did not stress me out (in fact, my left eye twitched for three whole weeks before my departure. It came to a point where I started to accept that this was a permanent part of my personality). The reason for this was because my host university did not offer on-campus accommodation meaning I had one of two options; stay with a host family or find a flat. I knew I wanted to live in a flat with people I’d meet from Mexico but obviously I had to meet them first, alas, I had nowhere to live.

One day before arriving in Mexico, I booked an Airbnb for a week to give me time to meet new people and get settled before finding a more permanent residence. Luckily for me, I was welcomed by the best hosts I could have asked for – Mario and Maty, an older Mexican couple, and their beautiful pup Vertrek. From the minute I arrived in their house I felt as though they had welcomed me into their family. I felt like much more than just a guest as they took me with them on outings, included me in all their meals, drove me and picked me up from places to ensure my safety and even gifted me with several Mexican treats and décor. By the end of the week, I felt as though I had made a strong connection to this beautiful family and had promised to visit them regularly even when I moved out.

Thankfully, plans panned out accordingly, and I was able to meet some great people and move in with them, but I am so grateful to have had such a wholesome experience to start off my trip.

This is testament to the kindness of Mexican people – during my stay so far, I have never once encountered an unpleasant or distressing situation. People are so incredibly warm, generous and ready to open up their heart and home to you in any given situation and I think everyone can learn something from the Mexicans!!

LA COMIDA DE MIS SUEÑOS

I love Mexican food. Every bite evokes a party in your mouth and I’m so here for it. Tortillas here are a staple, they are as known to a local Mexican as water is. Tortillas are not limited to a certain meal but rather become a lifestyle – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack? Tortillas. I’ve eaten so many tacos I may turn into one soon. For my first three weeks here, I experimented with as much food as I could (to the disdain of my stomach which was not ready for such a ride). From market stalls, to street food, to extravagant restaurants and the local taqueria – I have included a range of my favourite meals so far including tacos, enchilladas, chilaquiles, and chimmichurri beef.

The thing I love the most about the food here (after how good it tastes of course) is that every meal is an opportunity to form a connection. All the local Mexicans I have met here I have gotten to know better over a typical Mexican meal. They love to share their food and the history behind each dish, making every single meal memorable. I hope that by the end of this trip I can learn how to make some of my favourite dishes so I can bring it back home and share the love with my fellow Kiwis.

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There is so much I want to share but I’ll save it for future posts. I’d like to end with one valuable lesson I’ve learnt during my time here: never trust a Mexican who says something is not spicy.

Until we meet again amigo, hasta luego (˶◕‿◕˶✿)

Kathy: Getting to Know Mexico

First ImpRessions:

Wow. Monterrey, you have truly taken my breath away. A metropolitan city surrounded by vast mountain ranges and flat desert plains; you are unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.

I’d heard that Mexican people were generally quite open and warm, but nothing could have prepared me for just how welcoming, friendly and helpful everyone has been to me from the moment I arrived here. I can’t believe that I’ve managed to make so many meaningful connections with people who were total strangers just a couple of weeks ago!

It’s safe to say that I’ve really enjoyed my my time here so far, so if I’m being honest this first post is definitely going to be a snapshot into my honeymoon stage of the exchange. Stay tuned for bumps in the road still to come 😉 .

Accommodation:

While I had the option to stay in one of the university residences or with a host family, I personally decided to look for more independent housing as I felt it would suit me better. I must admit I was a little nervous to leave New Zealand without first securing a place to live, but within a few days of arriving I’d managed to find an apartment that suited me perfectly, and it was definitely worthwhile to see the place in person before signing any contracts or paying a deposit.

The block of apartments I live in is about a 15-minute walk from Tec, with most of the residents being local or international students. It has a pool (can’t wait for summer hehe), an events room, study spaces and a small gym. It’s definitely not the cheapest option out there, but compared to my normal rent in Auckland it was completely affordable and the convenience really makes it worthwhile for me personally.

I share a 4-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment with one Colombian exchange student and two Mexicans who are from different cities but are currently studying/working in Monterrey. They are honestly the loveliest people to live with, and because we only really speak Spanish, I feel that I have improved my language skills significantly in even just the past couple of weeks.

My new roomies/friends!

However, there were definitely a couple of things that I found quite strange when I first moved in that I had never thought about before back in NZ! One is that you don’t ever flush toilet paper down the toilet, and instead put it in a small rubbish bin on the side so as to not clog the pipes. Having never done this before, it took a little bit of getting used to but it’s actually not a big deal at all and feels totally normal now.

The second thing is that hardly anyone drinks the tap water here, and instead usually buys 20L bottles of water at a time for their homes. Monterrey does have a high-quality water treatment facility, but many of the pipes leading to the buildings here have been damaged in past earthquakes. This means there is a reasonable risk of contamination and so, if you can afford it, you generally drink bottled water. Once again, I’d never before experienced running out of water like you would any other household product, but it is super easy to adapt to new ways of doing things when you are in a new country.

Exploring the City:

Barrio Antiguo, or the “old” part of town in Monterrey, was one of my first highlights when I went to go see the Sunday markets that are held there every week. Honestly, it kind of felt like stepping into another world, one much more traditional and “authentically” Mexican than the modern industrial part of the city I’m currently living in. The buildings are mostly clay and are often painted in pastel colours, while the market stalls sell all sorts of hand crafted jewellery, figurines, clothing, books and much more. We went to a restaurant on the outskirts of the town that was owned by an indigenous family who taught us a bit about their language and culture, and I also got to try by first bocol and quesadilla made with purple corn! Mmmmm 😊

The other cool part of the city that I’ve had the chance to explore so far is Parque Fundidora, which definitely has a very “Jurassic Park” feel to it, complete with several giant dinosaur statues. The park is connected to the Santa Lucía river – a man made canal which leads all the way into the central city plaza. It is flanked on both sides by pretty trees covered in fairy lights and various kinds of street art.

First hiking experience:

During orientation week, a few of us decided to climb up Monterrey’s famous Cerro de la Silla (Saddle Mountain) to the viewing platform which overlooks a large portion of the city. Apparently back in the 60s they were going to build a restaurant on it, but during the testing, the cable car designed to take diners up and down the mountain failed and the entire project was scrapped.

The climb was hard work, but the sunset view was absolutely incredible. It was really nice to meet some of the other international students, as well as talk to the local guide about the best outdoor activities to do in Monterrey. I can’t wait to eventually tackle the many other mountains scattered throughout the city!

Making new friends 🙂
View from the platform!

Conclusions:

All in all, it feels like time has flown by but also that I’ve been living here a lot longer than just 3 weeks. I didn’t really talk about Tec de Monterrey at all in this post as I thought I’d give myself a bit longer to get used to the classes and really give you guys a good overview of campus life in the next one.

I just want to thank 360 International and ENZ for providing the opportunity for me to have this amazing experience. The PMSLA Scholarship is honestly such an great initiative and I’m incredibly excited to be a part of strengthening the relationship between Mexico and New Zealand.

¡Hasta luego!

Sarah: Step Foot into India

It’s not often we look down and take a mental note, let alone a photo, of what our feet are walking upon. Nick, the programme director of IndoGenius (and soon to be friend), mentioned on one of our first bus rides to look at what we are standing on to get an idea of the incredible diversity. Not only does this make an interesting perspective but also shows how much diversity and contrast there is in India. From marble tiles in popular temples to carpeted multi-storey business buildings to litter strewn streets… the contrast is not only vast, but densely concentrated. You don’t have to travel very far at all to see this abrupt change. So enjoy many photos of my toes and the places they have been.

Infosys visit in Mysore – Tech consulting and outsourcing company that has an incredible campus for an international internship program. The campus is impressively big, with nods to European architecture and the accommodation buildings even spell out “INFOSYS” on Google maps.

One night in Delhi, a bunch of us decided to visit Gurudwara Bangla Sahib which is a Sikh temple. Upon entering the temple grounds, we covered our heads with shawls and took off our footwear. After dipping our feet into water to wash them, we walked along cold marble around the serene area, observing people worship and contemplate in silence. We were allowed to walk around inside the stunning temple full of gold adornments and luxurious carpet, seeing people authentically pay respects and worship. It was a beautiful experience, especially in the dark of night with friends to accompany you.

Walking through streets in Old Delhi, seeing and smelling the flower & spice market. Chaos on the streets and taking small pathways with stray dried chillies that got left behind getting crushed beneath our feet. Atop one of the buildings, we got a good view of the surrounding area – buildings packed in tight with temples and mosques in the hazy distance.

Pink evening light reflecting off the Taj Mahal at the end of a day trip to Agra – a tourist must see in India ticked off the bucket list.

We visited one of the places that makes hand printed and dyed products for FabIndia. Intricate patterns are printed with wooden ‘stamps’ using natural dye or with mud, depending on what part of the fabric is being coloured. Seeing a transparent part of the supply chain and the natural dyes made shopping at FabIndia much more meaningful. It’s so important to know where your purchases are coming from, what resources are used and how workers are being treated.

Exploring through the beautiful Amer Fort in Jaipur. So many different views, towers and courtyards to explore, not to mention the flocks of birds swooping all around. Definitely an underrated destination, especially compared to the Taj Mahal, with very interesting stories behind it’s construction and living quarters.

Morning yoga sessions with Susie. Even after an exhausting day the day before, an early morning rise for yoga was worth it. Not only centring and balancing your body but also your mind. A regular routine that I would love to continue back in Aotearoa.

This is the sort of photo that media would convey as the prominent sight in India: trash everywhere. I felt it is important to also show the sights that we may not be used to seeing back home in New Zealand. Here is the rubbish I was walking on in Old Delhi and similar scenes could be seen in most places in India. While this is common, there is so much beauty to hold all around in India. This perspective does make me increasingly grateful for the clean public spaces in New Zealand but also encourages me to do more to reduce my impact on the environment in any way possible.

A kolam drawn early each morning in front of almost every home or business in Pondicherry, Southern India. It is a geometric design that is tradition for many locals to partake in, often as part of their routine for aesthetic purposes but also for spiritual reasons.

The red earthy grounds of Auroville in Southern India where we saw many different sustainable solutions for basic needs, such as water recycling, clay brick construction and organic farming.

Sarah Goedhart

Sarah: Cultural Awakening – How India encouraged me to explore more of NZ culture

The wealth and richness of India’s culture is obvious everywhere you turn. Grand temples with incredible architecture stand out against the haze in the distance. Colourful street side statues and temples caught my eye regularly, even in rural fields away from hustling cities. Music and prayer calls ring out while locals decorate themselves with meaningful symbols of their religion and culture. Intoxicating smells of sizzling food paired with chutneys and spices was mouthwatering. Extravagantly coloured houses lining bustling streets contrast greatly to the plain coloured houses in suburban New Zealand. The description could go on and on and on. It’s no wonder India can be described as an assault on your senses. There is an abundance of things to take in that are usually very foreign from what we are used to in New Zealand. 

During our IndoGenius experience, we visited temples of many different religions and participated in various ceremonies and traditions. On the first official day with the Australian students, we got to experience a Havan. It’s a Hindu ceremony to cleanse, energize and protect the inner self as well as the surroundings where the ceremony is performed. Significant ‘firsts’ such as marriage, birth, death etc. are often marked by a Havan. As this program was my first time setting foot in India, it was the perfect ceremony to mark the occasion. It involved various chants and offerings of grains/ earthy material.

We also got to practise Bollywood dancing with Gilles, the Bollywood dance instructor from the IndoGenius team. Not only was it an incredibly fun icebreaker to get to know each other, it was also the perfect way to be exposed to and participate in the culture of India. 

Bollywood dance lessons with Gilles

Surprisingly, one of my cultural highlights was visiting the New Zealand High Commission. We were all suited up in traditional Indian wear for the visit, talking about how New Zealand and India can partner together as well as learn from one another. After discussions, questions and refreshments, the boardroom table was moved aside and music prepared for a performance; a test of our newly acquired bollywood dancing skills. After completing our choreography (obviously with a few forgetful steps and laughter), the team at the high commission surprised me completely. People working within the building were gathered to sing a waiata for us. A familiar tune of Tutira Mai Nga Iwi met our ears and we joined in singing together. The exchange of culture was truly beautiful. Kiwis dressed in traditional Indian wear dancing bollywood style while representatives of New Zealand High Commission (mostly Indian) singing a waiata. It was a perfect example of a respectful, appreciative exchange of culture. For me, I felt like this cultural exchange is how we should approach other cultures. To be willing and enthusiastic to learn and participate in a culture that is not our own. To be willing to make mistakes and share our knowledge, not only of the culture of our country but also share what we have learnt about another culture. To be continually learning, open minded and respectful.

New Zealand High Commission Visit

In our final week of the trip, we went to Auroville and visited Solitude Kitchen – an organic farm that harvests all the food they serve from their gardens. It’s full of native plants and follows the ‘do nothing’ method which is exactly what it suggests – do nothing except return organic matter to the earth. One of the founding members, Krishna Mackenzie, spoke about the importance of reestablishing our relationship with mother nature. When he said, “disconnecting from mother nature is like the disintegration of the human spirit”, it reminded me about the deep connection to the land that is prevalent in Maori culture. There is such a rich connection from the land to the sea and everything in between, viewing soil, water and land as taonga (sacred treasures). The strong bond to the land, Papatuanuku, Mother Earth provides Maori with identity and unity – sustaining them and giving life but also needing guardianship so the land isn’t over exploited. It makes me think that if we had a stronger, deeper connection to the land like Maori do, we would be more conscious of the consequences our actions can have on the environment. 

Learning about the vibrant Indian culture has ignited my desire to learn more about Maori language and culture. Usually coming back home to Aotearoa after being overseas and exploring new things, it’s hard to be fully satisfied adjusting to the reality of life and routine. This has felt extremely different after India in regard to nature and culture. I would love to explore our beautiful country more and be more connected to the incredible nature all around us. I would love to learn Te Reo Maori, even just the basics, and learn about the culture. India has sparked an immense curiosity to learn more about my home, just as I learnt so much in India. 

Sarah Goedhart