The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of a Cultural Exchange

I was 17. I had a stable group of friends back home. I was in love. And my family finally moved into a house. Life promised to be pretty stable from now on. Until I heard that a couple of girls from school were planning an exchange year in Chile and France.

The idea started growing in my head. I was already pretty sure I would leave Latvia as soon as I’d finish school. And not because of the bad economy or the weather. Although of course, that matters. But mainly because I was curious.

So when I heard that I could do it even earlier, the game was on.

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My Journey to fluency in 6 languages. Part 2

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So moving to another country and setting up your life so that you have no choice but to speak a new language, is a guaranteed way to become at least conversationally fluent.

To keep the language, you need to keep practicing. For example, staying in touch with your new made friends helps a lot. Although, they are forced to read your letters out loud, in order to understand what sounds you’ve tried to put into words like a coded spy message. Ups.

Make sure they are nice and patient people.

Writing in French still, doesn’t make sense to me. Neither does English, but in case of latter, I had a teacher who made me memorize everything from random texts to grammar for the longest 12 years of my life. Every day. Every year started with conjugating every possible verb out there. It is the worst possible way to learn a language and cannot be done when you’re relying on your motivation alone. School sucks.

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It was Love at First Sight

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Growing up I never had pets. Ok, that’s a lie. I had a couple of fishes that I either over-fed or forgot to feed. I forgot the cause of the death. Ok, I forgot to feed them. And an angry little parrot that I never managed to tame.

As so many kids, I always wanted a dog. I preferred and angry parrot to a cat. No cats! But a dog!? OMGSH PLZ. But since I can remember myself, my family always moved from one flat to another. And by the time my mum finally created something I could call my home, it was time for my first year abroad in Belgium. Followed by another 5 other countries I’ve resided in so far.

Yeaaaah, no space and love for animals in this luggage.

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I tried to run away from people and then they came to the rescue in a heli

So I got a job in Arthur’s Pass. All I knew is that it was a village of 30 people with one random cafe and a bar. As well as the coldest, rainiest and highest settlement in New Zealand. Yeaaay.

I wasn’t sure if I made the right decision. Should I have stayed in Wanaka? Fight for a job with Vikki? Have a bit of a..social life?

Pff.I was tiiired. Tired of moving around. Tired of having the same travelers’ small talk. Which is basically people secretly measuring each other’s travel plans and past experiences, hiding the  fear-of-missing-out and justifying the decisions already taken. Myself included.

Or I just I enjoy solitude more than I dare to admit. Boom. There. Ok, I  said it. So off I went to the mountains!

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Rimu Grove: the place is nice, the vines are true

Two months passed by. I was running away from Queenstown and I got into the car with these three Argentinians. They were so nice. They even tolerated my attempts to say random stuff in Spanish. That was a bloody long lift as well- Wanaka to Nelson.Oh dear..

So we started looking for a job together and ended up in Rimu Grove. A little vineyard in between Nelson and Motueka. Run by this awesome dude Luke.

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Here’s how I just about made it through a Week of Silence

Before New Zealand, I decided to go for a meditation retreat in Thailand. I was interested in the retreat due to a book I read on depression. And meditation as an equally, if not a better way to deal with it than  drugs.

Luckily, I don’t have a depression but that got me curious. I’ve also been curious about the lessons of Buddhism which this Vipassana retreat delivered in a healthy, non-dogmatic starters’ dose. Anyways Buddhism is not even a religion, as there is no god to worship. And Buddha identified himself as a physicist, not a religious leader.

So after 3 months of spending every single day together, I and Andra went our own ways. All of the sudden I felt so alone. I thought this is the worst time ever to face my demons. I was afraid my loneliness would take over me and I will end up crying every day.

img_6919Day one of silence was shit. We had to wake up at 4am. Straight to the mediation hall. Meditate for hours and then have breakfast. Meditate. Lunch 11am- the last meal of the day. Well, at least I’m gonna come out of this a skinny bitch, I thought to myself.

On day three I felt a bit more human again. And every day it was easier and easier to meditate. There were barely any distractions. We were in a jungle on a tropical island. We were fed delicious food. For the first time in my life, I noticed how much better I felt when eating so much fruit and vegetables. Oh and you actually don’t starve if you eliminate animal products and that third meal of the day?

My biggest distractions – a new roomy and the chair lady.

The New Roomy

img_6901The very, very first day when we still talked, I heard some Russian. The woman who spoke it moved in my room out of the blue on the second day of silence. And that was after my little victory dance, celebrating that I had the premises all to myself. Damn it.

She had that sad, angry Eastern European face. She never smiled. Well, in all fairness nobody did the first half of the week. I guess I was the only weirdo.

I felt the benefits of such intense meditation almost straight away. I felt like Bradly Cooper in the Limitless. Ok, maybe not that dramatic. But my mind was really clear. I had an abundance of energy. I wanted to become a nun.

I observed these negative thoughts of having a roommate. And of course, it didn’t matter a day later. Actually, I was happy there was someone else to scare the scorpions away as I sheepishly took the top of the bunk bed.

Once the silence was broken, all of the sudden I saw Irina in a completely different light. This super nice, beautiful yogi DOES know how to smile. In one day I connected with her to the point that I would happily make an effort to see her again one day.

Needless to say, I was super embarrassed about all my stupid judgments beforehand, when this Russian Mother Theresa ‘broke’ my peace.

The Squeaking Chair Lady

I noticed this older lady in a group. It was definitely not her first time at the retreat. She seemed super dedicated. Like her, I chose a place right in the first line of the meditation hall. I knew I had to have everyone behind me since I love to spy on people and therefore I’d get distracted easily.

And then one day, this lady put a squeaking chair RIGHT in front of my nose, my practice. My chakras, my auras, my whatever everything!  I’ve been doing so good. It was almost the end of the retreat. And suddenly this wave of thoughts of this Madame and her chair took over my mind.

And so I observed them as I was supposed to. And then I thought- No I will ask her to move when we’re done. And so I observed the thought. Squeek. I can’t do this! Use the sound. I hear, I hear, I hear. Squeek. I will throw that chair out. Thinking, thinking, thinking.

And then I never did anything about it. img_6886

On the very last day of silence, our teacher invited anyone keen to come up front and share their experience with others. One after another, all the chatty volunteers said more or less the same thing. Described same difficulties, doubts, joys, and relief.

It was one of the worst days of the retreat. I enjoyed the silence so much. And all these stories just started that endless chatter in my head again. I was not able to fall asleep that night.

Then my Madam with the squeaking chair took over the stage. She described herself as an ex-workaholic from the Netherlands. Almost ruined her health by working so much. Had a hip operation and therefore really needed that chair in order to continue her practice.

Needless to say- I was relieved I didn’t tell her off.

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All photos taken by Irina

Conclusions

I wish I could say, I took away so much from this retreat. That I meditated every day since then. That I never ever made quick judgments about people again. That I now take the time to think things through rather than react to whatever life throws at me.

But of course, one week of silence is not a quick fix one might hope for. And as much as I want to go to that kind of a retreat again, I know it will have a minimal impact on my day-to-day life.

It was an amazing experience and an opportunity to see the benefits of the meditation myself. But a retreat didn’t make it a daily habit. And making it a habit is what really makes a difference. Even if just for five minutes a day. Continuous effort. A little bit better every day.

Here’s why I don’t mind being a shitty climber…

 

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So  badass

I remember passing by a huge indoor climbing wall at a sports centre in Cambridge. I thought to myself- that’s crazy. Climbing is so hard. How on earth people do that?

I don’t even know why I thought it was hard. I never ever tried it before. In any case, those high walls and ropes didn’t attract me at all. Instead, I was inspired to go rowing. Which turned out not so cruisy either. Well, everything is hard when you are a dutiful, out of shape business student really.

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Why didn’t I unpack my bags in New Zealand?

The most common question asked since I came back to Europe. Every time I get this question, I ask myself that same question. Why didn’t I?

And indeed, why wouldn’t I wanna settle on an island? Find a job in Auckland. Learn how to stand on a surfboard? I’m becoming less and less ambitious about my surfing career..

Then start a business in South Island and enjoy the mountains whenever I please?

From what I heard it seems pretty straight forward- you just need to find a sponsor. Even travellers working in cafes get sponsored by their employers. And if you are a nurse, they will roll out a red carpet upon your arrival. In these terms, kiwis seem to be super welcoming unlike the big island just west of them.

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But I left. Actually, when I went to NZ, I only planned to go there for a month. I missed my sister. It felt wrong to be so far away and go work for a bank. I already had a cubicle waiting for me back in Europe. Yeay. And me working on a farm? Right.

I thought Queenstown must be the answer. But it was full of English teenagers/ wannabe snowboarders. And Latvians. And Brazilians. And everyone else.  And shitty customer service jobs and overpriced dodgy rooms.

Planning is stupid. I ended up picking grapes. Those were my hippy beginnings. Those were good times. This is where I worked for probably the best boss I will ever have. A chilled–out dreaded rock climber who told me about a climbing campground just an hour away from the vineyard. I somehow managed to end up there half a year later despite almost leaving NZ like 100 times.

And so a chain of short-term jobs lined up and with it people who never intended to make this island their home. All of the sudden you feel a bit more normal in the company of other lost souls. No place is better than the next one.

And once you’ve got a taste of travelling on the other side of the world, it’s impossible to resist the rest of it.

 

Vikki Alex Wanaka. Or how I solved my first world problems in New Zealand

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Work on a farm? I asked again this super adventurous English guy  who planned to do farming in New Zealand. No way. I’m a banker. I earn real money. I didn’t study to work on a farm.

By the time I reached New Zealand, I was luckily less stupid. I ended up realising I’m so far not in order to earn money. I’m here for new experiences. And that does not include a shitty customer service job in Queenstown either. At least not in a touristy town like this squeezed village, when just next to it you lies gorgeous Wanaka with all the space in the world and far less rain.

And after working at Rimu Grove vineyard that was it for me. I could do anything. I didn’t care. Until I got depressed.

I ended up working and living with people I didn’t like. It drained the energy out of me and I was ready to go back home. I was actively looking for excuses for why I should leave this beautiful corner of the world. Winter, too much travelling, miss my sister. Anything.

Before leaving I still had some things to check off my list, though. So I got together with Vikki and set off for a winter road trip.

South Island is stunning in winter. I froze my ass off at Milford but I wouldn’t trade it for any other day. Vikki turned out to be my cure. The bundle of energy that I truly needed. You can google any landscape in the world. But sharing ideas and experiences with other people is the true beauty of travelling. At least for me.

Vikki has a degree, but had a clear idea from the very beginning- she was not in New Zealand to import her French lifestyle. She was going to do woofing- work for other people in exchange for accommodation and food. Aiming to learn practical skills that we are no longer taught at school or university. Money was not the aim. Experience is what truly mattered to her.

I found that really inspiring. Her love for Wanaka was contagious as well. And then the Mountain Film festival with two last tickets for Alex Honnold’s presentation happened. He so bad-ass.

Next thing I know, I’m not depressed anymore. I too want to try new things. Get out of the comfort zone. I don’t wanna go back to Europe and get sucked into the routine and lifestyle I think I’m ‘supposed’ to have.

Unfortunately, Wanaka by that time was buzzing with CVs of desperate backpackers. I was too lazy to fight for some 20-hour cleaning job and an unheated kiwi room.

So I ventured off to the middle of nowhere in the mountains. That’s good enough for getting out of the comfort zone right? Well hello there, Arthur’s Pass. New Zealand, I ain’t goin nowhere.

My #1 Epic Fail in New Zealand

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As I travelled through Asia, I got my Working Holiday visa for New Zealand. I couldn’t believe this was happening. 100 places for Latvians each year and I got one of them.

I didn’t really have a plan. It was time to leave Asia because I thought I was running out of money. I wasn’t really. I just still had that ‘you-need-tons-of-money-travel’ mindset.

In Auckland I met this guy who was selling his car with a surfboard. Deamn. That was the moment of enlightenment. I should have gone home, gotten my driver’s licence and return to NZ.  But I was on the other side of the world! Fail.

Taking the bus was not cool. I wanted the freedom. I was still under the illusion I could learn how to surf. But New Zealand is not Thailand- packed full of people, making a living out of getting you from A to B. It’s remote. It’s the furthest place on the earth from anywhere. Who would wanna live on an island full of beautiful beaches, volcanoes and nice people anyways?

I had the money to buy a car but NO driver’s licence in a country peeerfect for your first van-life experience. Epic fail. Going to Gisborne rather than Raglan was a fail as well.

Then I met this super nice American chick who suggested I try hitch-hiking. So I stuck out the thumb for my first ever 15-minute lift.. Two seconds later a car full of three big kiwi guys pulls over..

Seriously? Wasn’t it supposed to be a nice old lady? Is this the moment where you say ‘thank you. But no thank you.’? But I suck at saying no. So I got into the car. Facepalm. And then these guys ended sick worried for me as I  got dropped off at this super dodgy hippy hostel. The irony.

Turns out hitch-hiking is dead easy.

And so I continued to travel New Zealand in other peoples’ cars. Hitchin throughout the country. Thanks to super friendly kiwis, other travellers and one very interesting hippy, who decided to make a stop at the top of Takaka hill. Get his guitar out and sing a song or two. That was the beginning of the best summer of my life.But that’s another story.

By the time I reached New Zealand’s third largest city – Wellington (I think) it was clear, that it would be stupid to get an office job and live the same kind of life just on the other side of the world.

One month passed by on the North Island and I decided- OK South Island, show me what you got..?!

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Winter is coming. World famous Queenstown surrounded by beautiful mountains will be the place where I’ll settle for a while. And then, going to Queenstown, full off wanna-be teenage snowboarders, dodgy rooms and crappy jobs, turned out to be another epic fail.

So I stuck my thumb out again. A car full of Argentineans heading to Nelson pulled over.