In the middle of the road, a ratty old couch bursts into flames. The fire leaps into the night sky and sends off a thick column of smoke, lighting up the smashed windows and shards of glass in an orange glow. The couch’s time had come; it was asking to be burned. Someone had put it out in the front yard, and on Castle street, that means the couch is going to burn that night.
It is Sunday night on Castle Street, Dunedin’s infamous undergraduate party street, and coincidentally, my place of residence. Surrounding the flaming couch, the street looks like a music festival mosh pit, crammed so thick with bodies that I can’t squeeze through to get down the block. Campus Watch officers lean against their cars in uniform, observing the scene with amused smirks across their faces.
At night, Castle Street is infamous throughout Dunedin for its parties and riots. At the University of Otago, first-years live in the dorms like anywhere else, but at the start of year two, the cool thing to do is move onto Castle Street. The result is a sort of unregulated and open frat row and a bunch of wild Kiwis thirsty for a taste of freedom.
Houses are themed and covered with graffiti, and colorful street art blankets brick walls and sidewalks. Doorways sport spray painted names like “The Jungle”, “The Beehive”, and “Nightmare Abbey.” Inside the locals’ flats, there is no insulation, appliances tend not to work, and leaks spring from the 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.
Within a half hour of my arrival in my small, cozy flat last Thursday, a group of kids appeared in my back yard and knocked violently on my window, motioning dramatically. I cracked the window and poked my head out.
“We need to get through!”
They climbed awkwardly through the window into my room and introduced themselves: one was a Kiwi host named Biggie (Kiwi hosts are the Otago version of RAs).
“By the way, your room is the Portal,” Biggie explained. “When the gate gets locked next door, we’ll need to get through here. So just expect this to happen pretty regularly.”
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. I suppose welcoming any old kid into your house can result in a crack den-esque aesthetic after a few weeks of unregulated visitations.
Luckily, international students on Castle Street get the good end of the deal with the nicest flats (our stove works and I have a space heater in my room), but nobody lasts more than a year tops on Castle street. By year three, Otago students have had enough, and move a couple blocks away to quieter, nicer accommodations. The fact that us international students have been thrown in with the lions is baffling to most locals; I’ve gotten many a look of concern from locals in shops and cafes—“They put you where?! You poor child.”
One of the most surprising elements to me is the nonchalant demeanor of the campus police in the face of all the chaos. On 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.
Kiwis are ridiculously relaxed human beings, and not just about partying. Checking bags at the airport was a breeze—although I was warned how strict the airlines are on weight limits (domestic New Zealand flights are tiny), the attendants behind the desk shrugged at my overweight bags, gave each other a look and told me, “we won’t say anything about it,” under their breath.
Rules are less important here. It’s okay to be barefoot pretty much anywhere, it’s okay to be a bit late and stress levels are considerably lower than in the states. Locals seem to just want to chill out and have a conversation.
Yesterday, I walked into a local Kiwi bank to set up an account. I had an appointment set up with a banker named Alexa. Before we got jumped into the task, we got lost in conversation about geology, and she wound up using her computer to look up information on the north island’s volcanoes rather than setting up my account. In the U.S., it would have been purely business—in and out.
On Monday afternoon at 3 p.m., a group of ten second-year goons strolled down the road barefoot, hopping over rivers of shattered glass—beer bottles thrown from balconies above the night before. They were taking swigs from bottles of Speights, Dunedin’s classic local brew. Long tangled hair stuck out under ratty hats, bleached by the sun that shines too strong through the hole in the ozone layer above New Zealand.
I know I’ll get tired of the chaos eventually, but classes don’t start for a week, and right now the excitement is a fascinating contrast to Occidental. Each day is like an anthropological study, and I’m excited to learn about Otago student culture first hand before the learning begins in the classroom.