It's night, the stars are out, and a bonfire is burning wildly in the middle of the road. Green shards of glass from smashed bottles are strewn about the flames. Through a thick column of smoke, you can see that the entire street is filled with a mosh pit of students, hundreds thick. You peer closer at the fire, fearing what could be burning in there. Dodging flying sparks, you see the shape of-- a ratty old couch.
In Dunedin, a medium sized university town on New Zealand's south island, burning couches is a tradition. I don't know where it started, but I know that the tradition burns on during Dunedin party nights, and a little bit of liquor in the system quite literally fans the flames. Until a year ago, students could get away with burning pretty much anything on the street with just a warning, but in '13, when double the number of couches were set alight than previous years, the cops finally cracked down, and now threaten to expel kids who are caught lighting a couch.
The couch tradition burns especially strong during orientation week or "Ori", the week before classes start when students move in to party, internationals get "oriented", and "freshers" get egged and hazed. According to the New Zealand newspaper "Stuff", orientation week is the Dunedin fire department's busiest week of the year.
I had no idea that the Arcadia team was going to arrive in Dunedin a full week and a half before classes started, but we landed right in the thick of things, and got the opportunity to experience a student culture entirely different from my home school. We rolled up in our tour bus on Wednesday evening, room assignments and keys. My little white slip of paper read 630 Castle. Castle-- the name sounded familiar. The most notorious party street in all of Dunedin.
We were all curb kicked at our addresses, popped out like baby birds into the thick of the student jungle. Across the street from my house, a graffiti tag covered the dilapidated side of an old Victorian-style house. In the driveway and amongst smashed bottles, a gang of about fifteen Kiwi dudes-- long ratty hair, baseball cap, bare feet, jean shorts-- lounged on four ratty couches, throwing back brews and shootin' the bull. I decided to hold off on introducing myself just yet, assured nonetheless that I'd soon make friends with these friendly-looking neighbors.
My house, a nice little old yellow flat due to be torn down and remodeled at the end of the semester, was tucked behind the front row of houses down a narrow driveway. It was completely empty but for a mysterious six pack in the fridge. I decided to take the moment to unpack and get set up.
Ten minutes after arriving there's a bang on my window. A tall Kiwi with a goofy fro and backwards cap is banging on the glass, motioning wildly for me to open up. I crack the window to say hello-- without a word, he and a British girl climb awkwardly through the window and plop into my room.
"I'm Biggie," the tall one says. "I live next door. If you didn't know, your room is The Portal-- when the gate gets locked next door, we'll need to come through here. So expect this to happen pretty regularly."
Turns out he's the Kiwi Host (like an RA that's in charge of showing internationals a good time instead of disciplining, and basically throw parties for their residents) and lives next door with the British girl, a full-year exchange student.
Privacy is nonexistent in Dunedin. Everyone leaves their doors open; there is an ebb and flow of students and friends wandering through open doors (and apparently, windows) day and night. If you see something exciting happening through a window, it is perfectly acceptable to climb through unannounced and uninvited. Luckily the kids who broke in on the first night have become my good friends.
At the University of Otago, freshman live in the dorms, but then second years move onto Castle Street. At that point they're surly all 18 (the legal drinking age), and thirsty for freedom. The result is comparable to letting loose a horde of starved, caged monkeys into a jungle completely completely covered with bananas. It's an unregulated, unofficial, nonexclusive frat row on crack. Castle street also happens to be where they put the majority of the international kids.
Luckily, they put the international kids in the relatively nicer flats. Kiwi flats are themed and covered with colorful street art. Doorways sport names like “The Jungle”, “The Beehive”, and “Nightmare Abbey.” They aren't insulated, appliances tend not to work, and leaks spring from unlikely places. Most students don’t turn on the heating once the entire year to save money on electricity, and temperatures plummet far below freezing in New Zealand’s winter.
To save money on food, students’ meals generally resemble a can of tuna and a spoon. Food in New Zealand is mostly imported and expensive; even food grown locally is exported without being subsidized, so locals are competing with consumers overseas.
You can recognize a Kiwi dude immediately by the bare feet, long tangled and bleached surfer's hair, ratty t-shirt loose about the shoulders with the neck hole cut out, and either sagging chinos or frayed shorts.
My first impression of Kiwis is that they are incredibly relaxed, friendly and open, and I love it. On my first night, every local I met invited me over, and have every night since. Baristas, shop owners and bank tellers would rather have a half hour long chat with you than do business. Flight attendants aren't concerned about overweight bags and travelers don't bat an eyelash at a flight delayed an hour. Kids running around at night in shorts and a tank don't seem to care about the 40 degree weather.
Perhaps most strikingly, campus cops didn't seem at all concerned about the Castle street chaos that ensued every night or Orientation week, but rather hung out on street corners wearing amused smiles and chatting with passerby's.
Sunday night, I approached an officer for directions to a friend’s flat. He was standing calmly in the street in the midst of the couch-burning riot.
“I’m looking for 378 Leith street,” I offered, tentatively.
“Oh, I heard there’s a great party there!,” he replied. And then—“I’ll walk you over! How do you like Dunedin so far? Hope you’re having fun.”
We ducked out onto the next road, where a river lined with weeping willows runs through the center of campus. We chatted about my experience so far, and he gave me some tips on good hikes. It turned into a fifteen-minute conversation before I popped into my friend’s apartment.
Aside from the nightly couch-burning chaos, Orientation week included a line up of activities, some specifically for freshers to avoid (like the toga party where the noobs get egged on their way to the dance), some specifically for freshers to jump in on (SPORTS DAY!), and some all-around sweet-as cultural events, like the Highlanders vs. Cruisaders rugby game (Dunedin vs. Christ Church) and the Stickyfingers concert (an Australian band).
My flat mates eventually arrived, one after the other-- first a Chicagoan named Matt, then Alessandro, a Spanish-Italian from Barcelona, then our famous Kiwi host, Wong, and finally Maggie from Iowa.
Leading up to hard core nights we've had hard core days-- beach-going, hiking, bouldering, swimming, runs and walks in the botanical garden, and exploring the city, all of which I will explain in greater detail soon.
The same content is featured on my blog, “A bird’s eye view.”