Reflecting on my 2020 Travels

jana meerman waiohine gorge carterton (24)

Well, 2020 was damn weird.

We started out the year so optimistically, fresh off a most lovely Christmas holiday in California with my parents. It quickly wound up being the strangest year yet. COVID-19 had a major impact on our lives, as it did with just about everyone's in the world. Plans were changed and every vision we had for 2020 ground to a halt.

Regardless, we looked for the positives in every situation - whether that was during our lock down in New Zealand or our journey to Europe - and made the most of this year that we possibly could.

This year, we still managed to visit four countries, during which time we lived in three apartments, a handful of hostels and AirBnBs and even spent a couple of months living in a van. I developed my photography and writing skills, sharing more than I ever have before, as well as propelling into the world of videography as Nico and I started our own YouTube channel. We also launched a few brand new Instagram accounts - Make This Space and Make This Plate - which I'm so excited to expand. I celebrated more than a year being with the love of my life and moved around the world with him to begin a new chapter. I started the year working in New Zealand and finished it working in Belgium and somewhere along the way, read 26 wonderful books.

Here's a summary of everywhere I went in 2020, with some of my favourite accompanying blog posts for you to peruse alongside:


1. UNITED STATES

We started out the year with my parents in California where we had spent Christmas, Nico's birthday and New Year's Eve. It was the most magical Christmas yet as it was the first time I had seen my parents since last January - a whole year apart!

(Little did we know it would be the last time we would see each other all of 2020 and into the immediate future...)

jana meerman san francisco (15)

San Francisco, California

Posts to read from our time there:


2. New Zealand

We flew back to New Zealand on January 3rd which really felt like coming home - it was a wonderful feeling. After missing our connecting flight in Auckland and having to wait seven hours for the next one, we arrived safely back in Wellington and moved into our new apartment the same day.

We lived and worked in Wellington for another two months, continuing to explore our favourite city in the entire country during the peak of summer. During this time, we bought a new camera and most excitingly, we also bought a van - Bongo! She was perfect for escaping the city and we explored lots of hikes and beaches around the Wellington region. We loved the freedom she brought.

jana meerman castle point (1)

Castle Point

Posts to read from our time there:

You can also check out all my blog posts from New Zealand here!


3. Samoa

Nico's visa was due to expire in early March so we finished up work and left New Zealand for a ten-day whirlwind trip to Samoa.

COVID-19 was starting to ramp up around the world but while we were leaving New Zealand, flights were still permitted. However, it did mean our flight was changed twice as they began to adjust and limit the number of flights going between New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. Originally, we were meant to fly from Auckland to Apia on a Sunday; this was moved to the Monday, so we made all accommodating arrangements. Then, on the Friday, we were informed that we were flying on the Saturday (with no other flight options until the following Thursday). Confused? We were, too!

Basically, it meant getting on a plane to Samoa from Auckland the following morning. However, we still had to pack, move out of our apartment, get medical clearance to fly from the doctor and travel from Wellington to Auckland...all within four hours.

Somehow, we managed, and scrambled our way up to Auckland to spend the night in the airport there before flying to Apia the following morning.

Samoa was hot and sticky and also sadly quiet. COVID-19 hit the smallest economies hardest, those that rely so heavily on tourism. Markets were empty, taxis drove past with no passengers, rental cars stayed on the lots and our hotel had no other guests.

We explored the two islands of Samoa as well as we could, experiencing an unprecedented and unique situation. We mostly laid low, enjoying the time off after working in New Zealand and trying to grapple with what was going on in the world around us.

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To Sua Ocean Trench, Upolu

Posts to read from our time there:


4. New Zealand II

We flew back to New Zealand two days before they closed the borders to foreigners and moved into our van full-time.

What was supposed to be an epic six-week roadtrip around the North Island turned into barely ten days, before we received a nationwide alert that New Zealand was moving into at least one month of Level 4 lock down. This meant 'stay home' but for us living on the road in our tiny van, we didn't really know what this meant.

Luckily, an old colleague from Wellington offered us a place to stay on her orchard in the tiny town of Carterton, which allowed us to safely park our van and at least have access to a shower and such things.

A chance encounter at the local supermarket saw us move into a flat attached to a local's house - the family who offered us safe haven became like our New Zealand family. We lived in the flat for more than two months during which time New Zealand slowly moved out of lock down.

Once it was safe to do so, we moved back into our van and picked up where we had left off with our roadtrip and went off on a two-month roadtrip around the North Island, taking it slow, hiking as much as we could and photographing every experience.

Originally having planned to leave New Zealand in April to move to Belgium, we enjoyed the freedom to see New Zealand at our own pace without the thousands of tourists that normally flood through the country's borders. We successfully eliminated community COVID-19 transmission on June 8th and life returned to normal within the borders.

We returned to the Carterton flat in mid-July to sell our van and prepare for the next step in our adventure. During those last few weeks in New Zealand, we helped out with the adopted lambs living in the backyard, launched new projects, packed and sorted everything we owned and began the paperwork needed for our next move.

On August 11th, New Zealand announced COVID-19 had returned and a version of lockdown was reintroduced, although not as severe as March's. We pretty much stayed in Carterton anyway, as we had plenty to prepare.

Eventually, things fell into place with Nico's acceptance at university, Belgium's borders reopening to EU citizens and Emirates flights restarting operations. Our New Zealand visa extension was due to run out at the end of September, so we finally, on September 8th, made an epic 59-hour journey from Carterton to Brussels after stopping in at the local hospital to have COVID-19 swabs up our noses.

Leaving New Zealand was as hard as expected; it's one of the safest and greatest countries in the world and easily my favourite.

jana meerman tongariro alpine crossing (16)

Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Tongariro National Park

Posts to read from our time there:

You can also check out all my blog posts from New Zealand here!


5. Belgium

We arrived in Belgium on September 9th after an exceptionally strange journey around the world and checked ourselves into an AirBnB to complete our mandatory two-week isolation period. We used this time to start figuring out some of the logistics of moving internationally, secured phone plans and started looking online for apartments to rent.

As soon as we got out of isolation, we immediately went apartment-hunting and signed a lease on a stunning 1913-built apartment in the heart of the European quarter and spent the next few months opening bank accounts, getting jobs, getting insurance, going to Ikea and finally unpacking our lives after nearly two years of full-time traveling.

While it felt good to finally have a place to call home for the next few years, we also struggled with the glaring differences between Belgium and New Zealand. Returning to Europe was a true culture shock and especially with regards to COVID-19. Belgium went back into lockdown at the beginning of November which coincided with me starting my new job which was done entirely from home. That was hard and the lack of social connections was such a strange difference.

All I can say is it is so clear and obvious how New Zealand beat the virus and, while being an isolated island in the bottom of the ocean does help, their success can be attributed to so much more than geographic benefits.

We spent as many weekends as we could exploring different towns and cities in Belgium, with border restrictions limiting our ability to explore much else of Europe. In between those traveling moments and getting dug into my new job, I also declared residency in Belgium before that ghastly thing we call Brexit, safely securing my ability to live and work on the European continent! That was a big win, and a major part of why we decided this was the year to move our lives to Europe.

To wrap up this strange year, Christmas was a rather subdued affair. We stayed in Belgium, missing my parents desperately after yet another year apart. Christmas markets were cancelled, lockdown was in effect to curb the rising case numbers around the holiday season and we spent our holidays playing board games and watching far too many Hallmark Christmas movies. We did manage to squeeze in a mini roadtrip around southern Belgium for a little end-of-year/Nico's birthday getaway, but otherwise rounded out the year at home, calmly waiting for a brighter and more optimistic year ahead.

jana meerman leuven belgium (30)

Grand Beguinage, Leuven

Posts to read from our time there:

You can also check out all my blog posts from Belgium here!


In 2021, now that I have a job, an apartment and European residency among other things, and with a COVID-19 vaccine on the way, I'm fully focused on seeing as much of Europe as possible. Watch this space for what's to come!

And, before you go, check out my 2019 travel round-up here.

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