Original plans for 2019 saw me hopping on a one-way flight to Australia via China. I anticipated spending about three months traipsing my way around Australia, seeing as much as possible, before heading back to Vancouver.
Things don't always go as planned. But things do always happen for a reason.
While I was on a layover somewhere in Australia my then-boyfriend broke up with me. Instead of returning to Vancouver, I caught a plane to New Zealand and embarked on what I expected to be a six-week, solo jaunt up and down the country in search of healing. Fast forward a year and, well, I never left. I'm still in New Zealand.
Since leaving Canada and making New Zealand my temporary home, so much has happened; more adventures, more eye-opening experiences, more memorable moments and more learning about myself than I had ever expected.
New Zealand was exactly what I needed.
The lessons you learn by putting yourself in vulnerable positions in new environments (on the other side of the world!) are empowering and intense and raw and so, so real. Travelling is wonderful when you allow yourself to experience the unknown. Here's a look at some of the things I've learned during my year in New Zealand:
Living With Less
Besides downsizing and packing up my belongings before heading out, I crammed everything I’d need for "a couple of months" into my backpack. I'm still on the road more than a year later and I'm still carrying that same stuff on my back. Turns out, it's all I really needed.
Every hostel becomes "home" for a short stay, which for me has added up to over a hundred bunk beds in shared rooms, cooking in more communal kitchens than I can remember and finding my way around the countless places I've booked into. I sometimes miss my own bed, my books, my cozy candles and being able to just leave my belongings lying around.
But in the end, home is where you make it, so it’s crucial to being comfortable in your surroundings since there's no physical place that's going to do it for you! And really, stuff is just stuff. I've got about 30kg of belongings that can last me ages. It's a valuable lesson in experiences > materialism.
You Can Literally Do Whatever You Want
So apparently, we all need to get an education, get a good job, marry, have a couple kids and perhaps a pet, buy a nice house and then retire, right? Many people have this vision of life. For some it is a comforting plan.
For me? That plan is terrifying.
Going away and being able to roam freely, live affordably and do exactly what I wanted to do each day – well, that has been awesome. I realized I could find cheap accommodation and the means to pay for it and choose to stay as long as I wanted without having to be rich and famous. What social media influencers and travelers put out there about breaking out of the ‘9-5’ is do-able. You can pack up and move on to the next. You do have choices to be happy and live sustainably. You can do it.
Nature is Wonderful
Every day of my stay, New Zealand continues to ingrain in me just how wonderful planet Earth is. This country is big and open; you don't come here to see cities. You come here to see open farmland, endless mountain ranges, empty roads, tiny towns and villages, dark skies unpolluted by light, vast oceans and a gentle yet steady and proud appreciation of what's naturally around us.
I mean, consider the Lord of the Rings trilogy filmed almost exclusively in New Zealand. Those awe-inspiring landscapes that fill hours of films are truly what New Zealand is. I have fallen deeply in love with this beautiful country.
Solo travel is a fantastic way to connect with people because there are so many opportunities to meet others just like you at hostels, trekking the mountain-tops and taking in the sights. But the in-between moments can be lonely.
You don't have your family around you, your regular friend group to hang out with or the regularity of work colleagues you see from week to week. Instead, you're uprooted and alone with your thoughts in a hostel bunk bed, preparing a meal in strange surroundings, watching the world go by from public transport, isolated from truly belonging anywhere.
Moving from hostel to hostel every few days means revamping your social skills to strike up a conversation at any turn - with someone cooking next to you in that kitchen or sitting across from you on the bus. It can feel daunting.
When you're trekking alone from place to place it’s all on you - and yes, you can miss the bus by being on the wrong side of the street! Trudging between the grocery store and wherever you’ll have your next meal; wandering from sight to sight, choosing to go it alone on long walks or in a social setting; being alone with your thoughts more than you’d like to admit.
Loneliness can be a challenge, but it's also a chance to get to know yourself and what you need to push on.
Traveling means taking responsibility for yourself and your plans at all times. You're constantly having to make sure you've got a bed to sleep in for the night, a form of transport booked to get you from A to B, a schedule that lines up so you're in the right place at the right time and that you're buying enough vegetables at the grocery store!
If something goes wrong while you're solo traveling, it is almost always entirely your own responsibility to rectify. If you miss a bus/plane/train, if you run out of money or if you forget to book a hostel and now there's no beds left in town...that's all up to you. The constant cycle of planning and booking and making sure everything goes according to plan is all down to you.
You learn all about self-reliance when you travel solo. That constant pressure to stay on top of it all teaches you independence. You become more self-aware and know what you're capable of, even when you're exhausted.
When I look back on what has become second nature, I am amazed that they are things a year ago I would never have even considered doing.
Travel is expensive! Consider the accommodations, transport, food, activities and entertainment, insurance, a storage unit if you have one back home, replacing things you lose along the way, expected and unexpected medical costs and other miscellaneous emergency funds and the costs quickly add up.
You learn to budget for what's important and what you can live without. I search out mostly free activities, budget for food by almost always avoiding restaurants and coffee shops and by taking advantage of hostel free food shelves, book the cheapest bed even if it means sharing a room with 17 other people and going to op shops for any clothes I need to be job- or weather-appropriate!
Traveling on a shoestring comes with compromises. You have to make choices about fitting in another stop and extending your stay or taking an overnight bus to save on a hostel. I highly recommend a budgeting app to keep on top of your expenses and setting a daily budget. The one I use is Trail Wallet - it's a brilliant and satisfying way to track my spendings.
Instagram vs. Reality
You know when you see a picture of something stunning and you put it on your bucket list because you absolutely must see this place before you die?! Yes, you know the ones.
Then you arrive to find hundreds of other people vying for the same one-of-a-kind photo, which turns out to be a super zoomed-in shot of the only pretty thing in a town that otherwise kind of sucks. And it’s taken you hours worth of buses and trains and walking to get there.
Traveling means being wary of all the wonderful things the internet tries to sell us! It’s only natural that destinations are trying to entice eager tourists to come visit – and the better the photo, the more visitors it will draw. While plenty of photos are truly amazing and I've experienced some incredible things, be sure to research thoroughly before dropping all your money on "that view".
Luckily, the sights I’ve seen in New Zealand tend to fall more into the category “this place is famous for a reason because holy s*** this is unreal...!"
Traveling long-term is not just running away and seeing the world. Some days you just need a break from everything. I have had days in hostels where I just lie in bed with Netflix or a good book, getting up only to eat.
This is okay. You do not have to do something every single day.
Remember to take care of yourself, just as you would at home. Eat right, sleep well, shower regularly, do laundry frequently, maintain your skincare routines, drink plenty of water and exercise as much as possible! These are all things I’ve tried to follow to stay healthy and happy on the go.
Your world expands through the people you meet. Each person on their own journey to escape, to discover, to run away or towards, adds to your story. Whether you get to spend an hour, a day, a week or a couple of months with them, the encounter is all the more special when they share your outlook and help you feel normal out there in the big wide world. But eventually there are always goodbyes. You’ve met for a moment and must return each to your own path, never meant to stay in one place for too long.
Saying goodbye has been one of the hardest parts of my travels. I have crossed paths with hundreds of people - some of whom I will never see again and some of whom may become lifelong friends.
There’s an intensity that comes from knowing that each encounter is finite – that soon you will part ways – which makes each one so valuable. Rather than settling into a steady friendship, you strive to learn as much as possible about each other in the shortest time, quickly teasing apart what brought them to today.
Yet saying goodbye is not something to be feared. I would rather have met each person who made my travels what they are than never had had the opportunity at all. To those who I was lucky enough to share time, conversation, laughs and hugs with, thank you for shaping my journey, and me.