Why is it that every young Kiwi wants to travel the world? Nina Harrap explores the concept of the O.E. and how you can go on yours as soon as possible.

travelling the world as a young adult has always been an integral part of Kiwi culture; if you haven’t been away for at least six months by the time you’re 25 or so, people look at you oddly. Where’s your sense of adventure? Don’t you have any gumption? Round about the end of high school, every New Zealander starts fantasising about going out into the big wide world and exploring – it’s been that way for generations. Unfortunately, for most of us it stays a fantasy for quite a while – a crippling student debt isn’t exactly helpful for trip planning, and the fact that you have to pay interest on it if you’re out of the country for more than six months is a bit of a turn-off, too. Yet the idea of travel lures us as surely as Fatty Lane beckons to those on diets. Why? I trawled the Internet and libraries for weeks trying to find scientific reasons, but seeing as I couldn’t find any I’ll make up my own.

The major one that comes to mind is that wanderlust is in our blood. Every single New Zealander is descended from immigrants, whether Maori, European, Polynesian, or whatever. All our ancestors travelled thousands of kilometres to get here; they were prepared to sail into the unknown in search of new experiences and a new life, which makes Kiwis a pretty adventurous bunch. Another important point is that New Zealand is pretty darn small. I’m not even 20 yet but I’ve seen a decent amount of the country – as have many of us. Who hasn’t taken family road trips in the summer holidays? After you’ve seen all the major centres and a few towns, that’s basically it. It’s a little under 2,000 kilometres from Kaitaia to Invercargill and if you really floored it you could probably drive the length of the country in two days flat. So it makes sense that, just as we all start to leave home and find our own paths, we decide that New Zealand just isn’t big enough for us any more. There isn’t enough variety – people in Auckland don’t speak a different language from those in Gore (although they’d like to think they do) – we barely even have regional accents. Contrast that with Europe, where 47 countries with almost as many official languages and diverse cultures are pressed cheek by jowl, and it’s not hard to see why so many of us are keen to explore.

Besides having relatively little cultural diversity, New Zealand is also the most isolated first-world country on earth. When you grow up in an island nation and the nearest country is over 2,000 kilometres away across the Tasman Sea, it’d be pretty damn awesome to be able to step across a border into another country. We’re also one of the youngest first world countries. I went on a family holiday to the U.S. when I was in high school and while we were there we stayed a night in Rhode Island, in a little town called Newport. For dinner we went to a local Mexican restaurant, and when the waitress told us that the building was constructed before James Cook set foot in New Zealand, my mind nearly exploded. Of course, in Europe and South America there are pieces of architecture that are thousands of years old. Considering that 300 years ago Aotearoa was home to the Maori, a wide range of birds and not much else, the idea of seeing architecture built in the BC’s is pretty cool.

Nowadays, there’s basically a standard formula for taking an O.E: you save and save and save, and then one summer you spend a month or two somewhere else – probably South East Asia – before coming back to uni or work or whatever. But it didn’t used to be that way. For our parents’ generation, going on an O.E. was something entirely different. In the mid-60s, if you wanted to get out of the country you bought a one-way ticket on a ship: 3 days to Australia, 4 weeks to the U.S, 6 weeks to Britain. Forget planes – a fare to the U.S. cost the equivalent of $50,000 in today’s money. International security was worse, too. In 1965 my dad sailed to America, lived and worked there and in Canada illegally for 5 years, and managed to come home with a clean record. An awesome O.E., but not a viable option nowadays. In the ‘80s, the normal thing to do was buy a one-way ticket to England. Fresh out of uni, young Kiwis would arrive in London with next to no money, find a flat and a job, and stay there for a couple of years on a student working visa. It was the days before terrorism and closed borders, so the dream was to travel home from England overland – driving through Europe, the Middle East, India and South East Asia before flying out of Singapore, and smoking weed all the way. Although that sounds absolutely epic, the war-zones in the Middle East means it’s not a common choice for an O.E. today, and the fact that you have to pay interest on a student loan after 6 months away means that it’s (sadly) pretty unusual to buy a one-way ticket at all.

Taking an O.E. is such an integral part of young-adult New Zealand culture, it’s hard to imagine that other countries don’t view overseas travel in quite the same way. I was shocked to discover that in the U.S., for example, taking a gap year or even a few weeks to travel is often a black mark against your name and makes your future career prospects bleaker. My family runs a B&B in Wellington, and a couple of years ago we had an American girl in her mid-20s stay with us. She’d flown over for 3 weeks to attend a friend’s wedding in Australia, and was travelling around New Zealand as well before flying home. She told us that if she stepped off the career ladder to travel for 6 months it’d look bad on her C.V. and make employers less likely to offer her a job. I still remember sitting with her in our living room; “I envy young New Zealanders,” she said. “I wish America wouldn’t hold it against me that I want to see the world.” Similarly, while I was in Queenstown in the semester break, I met a 22-year-old girl named Amy from Salt Lake City. She’d finished a liberal arts degree at university (the equivalent of a BA) and then moved here earlier this year to work and investigate postgraduate study options. In the final weeks of her degree, many of her lecturers asked her what her post-uni plans were. When she told them she was going to travel, not one of them was happy for her. “Oh”, they said. “So, you’re giving up”. In the U.S., there’s a path you’re meant to follow – finish high school, finish uni, get a career, start a family. House with a white picket fence and all that – the American dream. Like our B&B guest, Amy was envious of the freedom to travel without negative repercussions that so many young Kiwis take for granted.

So while we should be grateful that we live in a culture where everyone from our grandparents to our bosses say “On ya” when we decide to travel, that still doesn’t solve the problem of how we’re actually going to get out of the country or, rather, afford to. The most common method is what I’ve dubbed the “Save and go,” but there’s a whole heap of other ways to experience the world. The downside of saving up and going is that you probably won’t be gone for very long – not many of us can afford to spend the entire summer away, for example. Between the cost of travelling and the loss of summer earnings, it’s just not a feasible option for the average heavily-indebted student. So if you’ve been feeling the wanderlust lately but haven’t been able to figure out how you’ll get out of the country, I’ve got some options that you might find interesting.

The first (and most obvious) one is going on an exchange. Every university in the country offers an exchange program, and Otago is no exception. Getting accepted into the exchange program here is surprisingly easy; as long as you’ve got a B+ average or higher, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting in. Once you’re in, you can go just about anywhere – Otago has nearly 100 exchange partners in 5 different continents. You can go for up to a year, you only have to pay Otago fees (rather than the ridiculously overpriced international student ones), the university will give you at least $1,000 for leaving (make of that what you will) and, best of all, you can still get Studylink while you’re away. I was recently accepted into the exchange program, and decided to go to the Sorbonne University in Paris. Even though rent in the city of lights is ridiculously expensive, groceries are much cheaper and when I did the math I realised I’d actually be paying less per week to live in Paris than I currently do living in Dunedin. Plus, once semester ended, I’d have six weeks to backpack around Europe. It’s the perfect cure for that yearning to travel. If you want to go on exchange, it’s pretty simple. You attend a one-hour seminar, fill out a form and write 300 words on why you want to go, and attend a short interview. After that, you browse your chosen university’s webpage and choose your courses, book your airfares, and you’re away laughing. Courses are cross-credited so you don’t even need to delay your graduation.

Another option, and one which isn’t nearly as well-known as the first, is volunteering abroad. There are more opportunities to volunteer than you can count, in every country from Argentina to Zambia, in every field from reforestation to education. If you want to go abroad and you also want to make a difference in the world, volunteering is the way to do it. You could look after elephants in a sanctuary in Thailand, build a children’s hospital in Kenya, teach English to a family in Romania, track endangered animals in the Amazon, look after children at a summer camp in Canada, provide support and education to HIV/AIDS sufferers in Tanzania – the list goes on and on and on and ON. Volunteer placements range from a couple of weeks to a year, depending on the project and how much you’re willing to spend. Yes, spend – although scholarships are available, most volunteer abroad programs do cost quite a bit of money. As counterintuitive as that seems, it works out well – accommodation is included in the volunteer placement, and often meals are as well. And, of course, your project will need wood to build that school for impoverished children or food to feed those endangered orangutans, and that has to be bought with something. If you’re considering volunteering abroad for your O.E., make sure that you volunteer with a not-for-profit organisation. The last thing you want is for your hard-earned cash to benefit some businessman somewhere rather than the people, places and animals that need it most.

A third possibility is to take a working holiday. It’s the best of both worlds – you get to travel over the summer without losing the income that you would’ve had at home. A working holiday could entail just buying a return ticket and a visa and trying to find work somewhere else, or you could do something a little more interesting. For example, during the summer numerous northern hemisphere ski areas offer paid internships to young internationals wanting to qualify as ski or snowboard instructors. You don’t even have to be a good skier or boarder to be accepted! And at the end of it, you’ll have an internationally recognised qualification. Alternatively, there are rich families all over the world who’ll pay good money to have a student-age international act as an au pair to their family – food, board and spending money included. If you look for them, there are all sorts of awesome opportunities you can take to work overseas – one of my friends spent the summer working on a mega-yacht, cruising the Mediterranean. A quick Google search of “working holiday programs” will throw up a whole heap of interesting and exciting choices.

Taking an O.E. has been part of the Kiwi culture for generations, and with luck it’ll stay part of our culture for a long time to come. Even though the world is smaller now than it was in our parents’ and grandparents’ time, there’s still a hell of a lot of exploring to be done and heaps of different ways to do it. Whether we go on a uni exchange, volunteer or work abroad, or just save and go one summer, the vast majority of us will spend quite a bit of time out of the country within the next few years. Whether you’re planning a trip now or have decided to wait a while before venturing out into the world, I’m sure you’ll have an awesome time wherever you choose to go.
This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2014.
Posted 5:12pm Sunday 20th July 2014 by Nina Harrap.