How Wookie Saved Me in Black Rock City, USA

July 25th, 2017

Travel Writing AwardUnited States

Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Inspiration 2017 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Inspiration 2017 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Inspiration 2017 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Inspiration 2017 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Inspiration 2017 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Inspiration 2017 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Inspiration 2017 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the  Inspiration 2017 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.

GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, from different angles.

This is how and why I travel. I think, regardless of what motivates you to get out of bed in the morning, we can share the journey of open mindedness, to imagine what could be possible rather than what is possible and to understand that there is more than one way to live this life.

When we allow our minds the ability to freely travel, that is when we open the door for real change. We can start to believe our dreams are possible.

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GOING STAG in the USA

When I hit the brakes, the open packet of Kettle chips slid forward off the passenger seat of my rental Rav4 and scattered onto the floor… What a waste. I gripped the steering wheel and watched the illuminated spectacle that would become my first ever hit and run when I saw a deer artfully leap between two moving cars on the other side of the road and right in front of mine. Between hitting the brakes and then the deer I was probably only doing 20 miles per hour. The doe rolled twice, away from the car as though I’d just thrown it off balance. All the other cars in the heavy peak-hour traffic had stopped and in the few seconds of frozen time I begged the animal lying on the ground to please, please get up. And it did. After its brief rest, it leapt up, and ran back in the direction it came from. I hit, you run. That was fine by me. I continued my drive to the Jackson Hole hostel where I was due to check in, happy to not have to reckon with the fact I’d become a murderer, and that my rental was still in one piece. Sure it had a few tufts of deer hair in the cracked bumper, but I wore those tufts of hair on my car like a hood ornament, as proof you can get knocked down but it’s not always the end.

***

I’m turning 30 in October. I realised it one day when I was working on some remedial task at my 9-5 job in Sydney back when I was 28. There’s only 18 months left of my twenties. The fear set in by this realisation twisted at my stomach. Fear had prevented me from pursuing so many of the things I wanted my entire life: volunteering for the lead part in a ballet recital; saying yes to Jim when he asked me to dance at the fifth grade disco; being a camp counsellor for the summer in my early twenties because I didn’t think my boyfriend would like me leaving for eight weeks. I waited so long for an adventure buddy, thinking I was too shy to travel alone. I thought I could wait for a travelling companion, but 30 was looming, and I’d done my time thinking patience was my virtue.

I’d like to say that it was courage that pushed me to travel alone. I’d like to say it was because I was brave and that I believed I’m one of those women you read about who step fearlessly into the unknown with a backpack and sturdy pair of shoes. Courage wasn’t what pushed me out the door though; it was fear. I used the fear I had of becoming a life-long commuter, stuck at my desk, forever editing poorly-written travel stories and never getting to write any of my own. So I said goodbye to my job, my prospects and my security. I arranged a six-month visa for the US and I left. I had no plans or direction except one: to see and do cool shit. I was as free as a leaf on the breeze and kept that image at the forefront of my mind. If an opportunity presented itself, it was my duty to take it. If I asked the waiter for their opinion on what was the best thing on the menu, I’d order it. It was time to be bold.

So I carry my fear with me everywhere I go. That fear of being boring, of missing out, of living with regret. It pushes me to be bold, to act courageously when I feel like doing the opposite. And this is living. Even when I hit that deer – and watched it jump up and run away – I thought, this is living. White-knuckling my way through a blizzard over Grand Teton Pass, three days after picking up my rental car: that was living, and living dangerously. Standing alone at the top of Horsetooth Mountain in Colorado, after I was told I wouldn’t be able to make it up there: that’s living. I go stag to bars knowing if nothing else, I can talk to the bartender and I’m not afraid to eat alone at restaurants anymore. I travel alone, but I’m never lonely. What was I so afraid of?

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Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.

I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”

Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.

Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.

Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.

In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.

It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.

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Surviving the Storm in Mexico

It was pouring, the kind of haphazard rain you only get in the middle of a tropical storm. My hair had taken on a life of its own, to the point where I looked like Brendan Fraser’s character in Encino Man. My palms were sweaty as I searched through my portable backpack for the third time. I bought it on Amazon for day hikes and was lured by its foldable features, completely oblivious to the catch that it fails to protect any of its contents.

I tossed my soaked brochures aside, going through the process yet again of emptying and re-filling my backpack, as if somehow my wallet would magically appear with one last wishful pull from the Barney Bag.

It didn’t.

After about the fourth or fifth time of repeating this process while huddled in the corner of the Isla Mujeres ferry station, reality started to set in. I’d lost my wallet. In Mexico. I was stranded in a foreign country without identification, money or contacts.

The buzz from my margarita quickly turned into a throbbing headache as the realization hit. My fingers started to tingle with panic. This was bad. I fumbled through my phone and dialed every Mexican number on the recent call log, hoping to somehow track my wallet down. Some numbers picked up, others were invalid and a few led me to call Victor the cab driver repeatedly, much to his dismay. As I struggled to find a solution, a woman approached.

“Are you ok?” she asked with raised eyebrows while standing a few feet back, exercising caution. She looked to be in her late 30s and was traveling with a group of friends.

“Nooooo,” I replied in the low wail of desperation that precedes an ugly cry. “I lost my wallet. I have nothing. This is the worst trip ever!!”

It really was. The wallet was a low point but I’d been sinking long before then. I lost the rental car keys on the first day. The tropical storm I mentioned was present for the exact duration of my stay and cancelled all my plans, from swimming with whale sharks to seeing the pink rivers of the Yucatan (my only reason for renting a car in the first place). I was literally walking around with a cloud above my head and had finally reached a breaking point.

Slowly, the woman dug into her pocketbook and pulled out 50 pesos. “I’m sorry,” she said earnestly. “I hope this helps.”

I looked up at her, my eyes big with gratitude and lower lip quivering with emotion. “Thank you” was all I managed to say. She smiled kindly. “You shouldn’t be traveling alone,” she warned. “These things can happen.”

In that moment, all the fears and insecurities I’d fought to suppress came surging back. Maybe she was right. Maybe solo travel should be left to the men. After all, traveling would be easier if I had a husband or boyfriend to rely on in an emergency. Despite my best “girl power” attitude I’d found myself a damsel in distress, unwittingly fulfilling the stereotype.

The woman had good intentions so I smiled back and said, “I’ll be alright.” I didn’t know it then, but I would be.

Two other people donated to my ferry fund that evening, allowing me to get back to my AirBnB in downtown Cancun safely. In the morning, one of the random numbers I’d dialed called me back, letting me know they found my wallet and could bring it to Cancun for me. They even apologized for the wait since the morning’s first ferry was cancelled due to weather.

It would be easy to focus on everything that went wrong during my trip and ignore the people who did their best to make things right again. But in a low point in Mexico when I thought I had no one to turn to, I found myself ultimately ushered home by the kindness of strangers. Perhaps that’s all we can hope to learn from traveling–that as long as we’re on this shared planet we’re never truly alone and that there’s a rainbow at the end of every storm if you choose to see it.

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Travel moments of pure Freedom and Happiness

Traveling the world fulfills our soul. It helps us to grow as a person. We evolve. Slow, but steady. It spreads out minds. It opens our hearts. And eventually, it lightens the ship and lets us sail off.

These are what we all hope and search for in our life – to become truely free and happy. Free of boundaries, old habits and the chains of a modern society. A way of living, that gets faster and faster every single day.

But where to start chasing the ultimate goals of pure freedom? It starts by taking the first little steps into cold water. Leaving your comfort zone and stepping out into the world full of unknown and exciting adventures. Quitting the 9 to 5 job and focusing on the epic journeys ahead. That’s where the feeling of freedom and happiness starts to evolve.

But it is different for every person. Everyone has another way to approach the challenge of becoming a completely free human being. Some people like to hang out and chill as much as they can. Some others do all different kind of sports. The next one tries it with Yoga or meditation. I don’t know if any of these approaches help. I certainly don’t think so. In my opinion, pure freedom and true happiness can only be reached by conquering the world, unconditionally chasing your biggest hopes and dreams. Experiencing moments, that last forever, making friends all over the world and trying out new food I have never tasted before.

For me, true happiness and freedom take over when I talk to complete strangers anywhere in the world about what makes their country so great. Seeing the smiling faces while they tell their stories about themselves and the place they call „home“. The feeling of freedom really overwhelms me when I see places only a few people see in their lives – like the lost temples Angkor Wat. Or, when I master a task while traveling, which only a small percentage of people is able to master – like climbing the never sleeping vulcanic giant in Indonesia called „Rinjani“. Moments like walking along the Killing Fields in Cambodia are the ones, that fulfill your heart with pride and humility, but also make you feel free in a way, which is hard to explain. Just being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want.

But sometimes it’s not a certain moment, which fills your heart with happiness and the feeling of freedom. Sometimes it’s the people, that come out of nowhere, share their time with you and leave you speechless in the end. Just like this business lady in Mui Nè, that picked me up on the streets after I drove for 10 hours straight with my dodgy motorbike along the coastline of Vietnam and had no place to sleep, offering me a luxurious hotel room at the beach for free for 2 nights, integrating me into their family and treating me like I was one of them.

These are the people and stories, that make a difference in your life. They teach you to loose your negative point of view and prejudgements about other people, cultures, and countries. They are the ones, that bring you closer to where you want to be. They take us further to the point where we start to become conscious about our behavior and our thinking. Because ultimately, freedom is a state of mind and every single person is in charge of their own thoughts.

So, it is only up to ourselves to reach the state of ultimate freedom and happiness…

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Return to New Zealand

I’m flying Sydney to Christchurch, New Zealand for my cousin’s wedding. 733km into the trip, I ask the air hostess if they have any gin.

“Sorry?” She says.

“Gin!” I yell over the plane’s engine.

She misses it a second time so I try again in her accent.

‘Jun’.

‘Oh!’ She exhales. ‘Like a jun and tonuc?’

My uncle picks us up at the airport and I look at the road signs; a roll call of memories: Timaru, Hamner, Riccarton, Cashmere.

I feel anxious going to Christchurch. Like returning to a once tended garden after years of neglect: what’s it going to look like?

My kiwi Mum would take me over almost every year when I was little to visit my Grandma. These days, since she died, I go for friend’s or cousin’s weddings.

I had seen the damage a few weeks after the initial 2010 earthquake, four months before the big one. The second one was smaller in size but deadlier because of its location and depth. I didn’t know what to expect.

We arrive at our Air B&B and Cheryl, the host, hands us a glass of wine.

“What’s the earthquake procedure?” I ask.

“Get outside,” she says and points to the door.

Apparently the safest place to be is probably not where you’re likely to be. Unless you happen to be jogging on an oval.

115 people died in the one structurally unsound building, the CTV. There’s a whole field of white chairs, painted by an artist as a memorial. Each chair represents every life lost, including one bassinet.

Cheryl’s partner Peter tells us how things have changed since the earthquake. People became friendlier on the road, letting each other into traffic. A few more luxury cars have been zipping about, the result of unexpectedly large insurance payouts.

The creatives rose up, setting up makeshift dance floors and sound systems, dragging pianos out onto the street. The art gallery has large colourful letters on it’s exterior: ‘Everything is going to be alright’.

Christchurch is a vivid fixture in my memory. The chirping birds, so innocuous compared to the squawking alarm systems sitting in Australian trees. The furry, fat bumble bees, long driveways and rose bushes everywhere.

Cold nights rugged up at Grandma’s reading stories, learning to ski at Mt Hutt, cycling through Hagley park and getting buried in autumn leaves. The whole city framed by grassy hills melting into distant mountains.

You can’t not romanticise it, it was exactly how it sounds. Despite its geographical ties to Australia, Christchurch is more like an Enid Blyton novel.

We drive around with my Uncle who shows us the extent of the damage. Mum’s memories bubble over; that school, or that street. Whole suburbs are now reduced to grass and weeds. “This is confronting!” she says.

Memories linger in vacant lots, like the sensation of phantom limbs.

Apparently a lot of people who initially left are returning to rebuild. Maybe the pull of home is greater than the uncertainty of disaster.

The day after the wedding we set off to the centre of town through Hagley Park which would have been fine had I not been wearing the wedges I was left with after leaving a bag of stuff at the wedding venue.

Not long after we start walking, I feel the skin ripping off my toes and around my heels, a unique pain that suggests punishment for being a fashion victim.

I decide that whatever is on the ground can’t be as dangerous as the wedges so I take them off.

I walk through Hagley Park past the ancient oaks, remaining steadfast throughout my childhood, throughout the earthquakes. People pass by and stare at my bare and bloodied feet.

I feel intimately connected to the earth. I feel free.

There are cracks in the pavement and I imagine huge tectonic plates shifting underneath. Tiny white flowers sprout out of the fractures.

I’m grateful to return to this place and see the tenacity of life despite the shifting and shaking, with beautiful things growing out of the broken ground.

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Finding Freedom in the Falkland Islands

“What do you reckon then, left or right?”. The question was gently asked, but with enough earnestness detectable to betray genuine concern. To my colleague, Mike, the man who had asked me, there were implications in the outcome; it mattered to him.

“Let’s go left”, I heard myself saying confidently, as we strode away from the car and towards the hushed sound of breaking waves. This hadn’t been the answer Mike was expecting. After a moment’s silence he confronted my decision; “Gav saw them to the right the other day, you know?” I hadn’t known this, but I stuck to my guns nonetheless, we were seeking an elusive quarry; it could show up almost anywhere at any time, and superstition was unlikely to increase our odds of an encounter.

As we walked towards the water the sand was initially hard-packed, shaped into low buttresses and ridges by the fierce wind that thankfully had abated overnight. Its absence had allowed a thick frost to develop instead and all around us delicate, silvery crystals sparkled in the early morning sunlight, even on the surface of the sand. I’d never seen that before, frost on a beach. But it was June now and the austral winter was in full swing.

We talked as we walked. Low-intensity conversation that allowed us to keep half an eye fixed offshore.
Then I saw them: “Mike, look!”. Fifty metres offshore, the unmistakeable flash of a fin, no two, no five fins broke the water’s surface sporadically. Mike’s face lit up as his gaze focused on the dolphins, temporarily but completely absorbed by their presence.

Excited now, we quickened our stride to be perpendicular to the pod. As we neared the dolphins, they also swam closer to us until they sat just thirty feet away, lazing about in the shallows, uncharacteristically subdued.

Commersons dolphins are pint-sized cetaceans that inhabit the southern ocean, a frequent sight from the Falkland Islands many beaches. Gregarious animals, they are much loved by the locals for their playfulness and exuberance. Today though, the pod seemed anything but active. Several individuals swam slowly around the group while the others rested, lying still on the surface and gently bobbing with the passing waves. It was reassuring to see wild animals that seemed so at ease, a rare pleasure in our ecologically strained world, and their presence, though calm, was utterly captivating.

I turned to Mike, announcing that I was going into the water, and hastily proceeded to undress until I was standing in nothing but my underwear and a jumper. Clutching my old camera I quickly strode into the water recognizing, but not reacting to, the cold, which would normally shock me. I wanted to get closer to the dolphins.

As I neared the pod, the size of the swell increased suddenly. Each passing wave wet the bottom of my jumper and I hesitated, spotting even larger breakers in the distance. The dolphins too noticed what was heading their way but, unlike me, in a sudden burst of animation they began to speed out to sea, out to where the waves were breaking.

The pod waited for the largest wave in the set to rear up out of the water and then, to our utter delight, they lined up, ten of them we now realised, framed perfectly in the clean cylinder of the breaking wave, and accelerated towards the shore. As they matched the speed of the swell they became linked to it, harnessing its energy to rush forward with the surf, before jumping clear at the final moment, when the rising water reached an unsustainable height and curled forward to crash back down.

The dolphins clearly derived pleasure from these waves; from the speed and the power they offered. This rush, the appreciation of natural forces greater than themselves, is something our two species have in common. We both seek experiences that put us in the moment, that take us beyond ourselves, that transcend.

For I realised, as the sharp sting of the cold seawater gradually replaced the slowly eroding sense of wonder I felt, that my decision to strip half-naked and run into the sea had been impulsive. I had reacted, not thought. I had been free, even if only for a few moments, from every one of my concerns. From daily cares, from long-term worries about the health of loved ones, from the ever-present tendrils of ‘weltschmertz’ that slithered into my thoughts when I contemplated the world around me.

As we walked back down the beach, we didn’t say much to each other. We savoured what we had just enjoyed and relished our luck in realising the morning’s ambition; to experience something so remarkable that it reduced us to nothing, and so set us free in the Falkland Islands.

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Analog in Rio De Janiero, Brazil

When I chose to travel only using analog cameras, I chose the insecurity of independence, the waiting and the unexpected over the immediate certainty a digital one would bring. Independence for there was no contract between us that would guarantee I shall always get at least one good picture out of the bunch for the mere reason I could repeat the process to my liking. Using only analog cameras required me to think about what I wanted to capture, my attention to detail had suddenly to be perfected because I couldn’t just waste twenty shots to get a good one. I was on a budget and films were expensive.
I tried really hard to get only good shots, yet I still failed more than succeed. When my first picture came out with an error, for it was exposed, I was disappointed I didn’t spend those extra dollars on films. Such a rookie mistake to open a camera in a broad daylight, all product of my generational anxiety. I don’t remember when it happened, but it was probably in between Rio de Janeiro and Ilha Grande. I used one film per city, usually.
I continued my trip free from the facilities of digital world. Sure, I would occasionally text my family and friends to let them know I was alive but the whole point of this experiment was to disconnect digitally to connect personally. And so I did. I woke up and chose what to do with my day without curating it through social media, I asked locals and enjoyed my time just being, not showing.
Chosing film over digital resulted in independence as I lived those moments for myself and not to feed my instagram account. When I look at this picture now, I realize that I have not ruined the still memories captured in film, but enlighted them in my mind. The explosion of light may present it self as an error at first but, in actuality, it is what enables me to revisit that place with my senses. When I look at this picture, I see the movement of the waves, the deep blue ocean and the mountains that sit in the background. I recall the people swimming, the wind whispering melodies gently at the corner of my ear, the independence of my mind.
“There is a light that never goes out…” echoed Morrisey’s voice when he was still part of the Smiths. Before his own independence. That was my soundtrack walking the streets of Rio most of the time. I also wanted to see people and life, a song about love took me to places of myself I’ve never been. I no longer rushed to the water in fear of others seeing my imperfect body. I felt the cold water touch my feet and let the wave explode in my body until I had no choice but to dive in. After a few minutes, my body temperature adjusted and stopped shivering. I belonged there.
From the water, I could see some people I met at the beach sitting together, smiling as they talked but I dind’t want to participate. Not yet. For now, I just wanted to dive in salty water and feel it move against my skin. I just wanted to be.

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Independence at a Price in New Zealand
The shape of my bags attracted attention. Two unconventional long sausage-shaped bags, connected by webbing. At the end of my cycling adventure, when the bike had been sold, I’d laced my bike panniers together around the top of a smaller back-pack which gave a turtle like appearance. Mike Cogswell’s beat-up little blue car, slowed and pulled over just before the precipitous water edge road that skirted the Firth of Thames.
Mike drove as I contemplated power constructed in the water because road met water on one side, steep hills on the other.
‘Where are you going to stay?’ Mike asked
‘Been told to show up at Barry Brickell’s with a bottle of wine.’
Wandering back down the driveway, sans wine; rejected, I was glad to see Mike’s car still beside the roadway.
‘No luck, huh?’ He said while those bags again disappeared into Mike’s boot.
I hovered in the doorway, of Mike’s studio, feeling like an intruder. Even now I recall the drifting aroma of ceramic glazes, oil paints and brushes soaking in linseed oil. Chris Issac’s A Man of Colours suddenly had a whole new meaning.
Mike showed me the east coast surf beaches so in contrast with the low, flat pale greenish-grey waters of the Firth of Thames.
But now departing the Coromandel Peninsular with my thumb pointed toward faster transport. Even though my mother’s voice still commented on the perils of hitchhiking, the generosity of random strangers in New Zealand dulled those warnings.
An old station wagon pulled over into the dusty road edge. Once white, it was now pitted by salt spray, daubed by half-finished panel beatings and pink undercoat. The three boys in the car shuffled themselves to make space for the newcomer and bags.
Each of the boys were giant Maoris, likely to be 150 kilos, All Blacks front row forward style. Even more than that, they were man-mountains. The driver wore jeans that at some stage of their life had been blue, but now were more a shade of greyish-brown. There was a distinct fishy smell. The stains could be mud, grease or fish-gut remains.
‘We’ve been getting mussels up on the ‘mandel.’ One passenger said.
I attempted to blend in with the car’s contents yet keep my boundaries. Those bags helped create a small buffer zone, I pushed it deeper amid the flotsam of a day’s fishing.
All three including the driver took occasional drafts from a long-neck brown bottle carefully stashed between their legs.
‘Wanna a swig?’
‘Oh, no thanks.’
The crunch came with the announcement – ‘Better get more beer, eh?’
‘Wait here.’
Sitting for what would have been moments but seemed like ages, I contemplated options. For all my seeming confidence I was still one small, slim, foreign girl compared to these three hefty men. Yes, they had been nothing other than perfect gentlemen, but would that continue? Who would know if I just vanished? Was I being racist?
It was now or never.
As I left the car and semi-ran to the nearby road, I was sure a muffled, ‘Where ya going?’ blew back towards me. I spent much of the next leg of my journey looking over my shoulder.
Sitting in the empty bus stop, I thought, thank God I got away. I probably needed the shock of feeling an uncomfortable panic in a random stranger’s car as a counter to my earlier bliss. I tried to examine why I’d been so spooked. Such a hypocrite, being comfortable with a glass of wine on an artist’s deck, chatting about art, but not amongst hunter-gatherers drinking beer. Still they were so big, and I’d felt tiny, frail even. Surely I wasn’t a racist; nope I’d have run if the boys hadn’t been Maoris. What had provoked fear was the lack of common ground. Unlike Mike, his artistic friends or even Barry I really didn’t share any mutual experiences with those boys. I wouldn’t have been the one sitting on a misty shore waiting for them to drag in a feast of mussels. Whereas I’d have happily mixed paints, or carried snacks to a working artist.
What was the worst thing that had happened? I might have confused a group of guys watching the dust settle around a weird hitchhiker with sausage shaped bags. They might have expected me to flee, or been excited by the sight of my panicked departure. Most extreme scenario was that I could have been a bloody carcass buried in a shallow grave by the road-side. Yet these were the type of events that might have happened as a result of sleeping in Mike’s little weatherboard shack high above Coromandel Town. Instead of trusting my artistic friend because we shared something ethereal.

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How I started Traveling when I stopped looking in the Mirror

To say travel has changed my life is an accurate statement, but it might not be in quite the way you would imagine. When people talk of traveling, images of distant lands, big mountains, exotic foods or unique animals come to mind. Those things are a part of my travels, but for me, the ability to travel began with a mirror.

I didn’t have a traditional upbringing. Wanting to protect me from the evils of the world, I was kept fairly isolated and homeschooled until the fourth grade. Sometimes I feel like I missed the boat with some developmental learning in those formative years. For instance, multiplication, well let’s just say I am really good at the 5’s. During that period of my life I was happy and my world was filled with learning, forests, building forts and climbing trees.

The issues came when I was forced to attend a small Catholic School. The only reason it happened was because family members insisted my sister and I needed more formal education and they paid for it. As you can imagine, I did not fit in. I barely had any idea how to socialize with other kids, let alone kids in a higher socioeconomic bracket. It was a brutal time. For four years I endured constantly hearing what is still to this day the meanest, worst and soul crushing comments ever to be said me.

I think it is part of our instinct for survival, that even if we are feeling dead inside, we still try to look alive on the outside.
Despite getting up every day and going through the motions, my self-worth was non-existent. I used to look in the mirror for hours believing all the things the kids and adults said to me were true. Until one day I had enough and said, “I’m not going to look at myself anymore in the mirror.” I didn’t know what else to do with myself, but I least wasn’t going to keep analyzing every feature, whether visible or emotional, and keep putting myself down for it.

By stepping away from the mirror I learned that I can travel just as much within my own mind as I can in the physical world. I realized the beliefs I held within my own head could either propel me or limit me to where I could go.

At the time I didn’t know that travel was what would allow my life to fill fulfilled, I just knew I wanted my mind to be free. So I stopped looking in the mirror. I stopped, as much as I could, believing I was who the other kids told me I was. And stopped believing that I was confined to my fate, as I knew it at that time.

The result is I am now living a free life. Not that it’s a cake walk – I work hard and make sacrifices to achieve the goals I have, but it’s a life that I feel excited to live. The older I get, the more I realize less and less people can say they are excited about their own life. Along with my husband, I have traveled to over 35 countries, dove with bull sharks, overlanded across ten African countries and multiple times taken a full year off to travel nonstop. We have built our life around travel. I still hold other values with high importance and make time for family, friends and to foster a community, but travel is propelling motive.

For me I travel because it’s one of the only ways I can make sense of this world. Our individual worlds are only as big as our minds know them to be. Despite living in the age of the fastest internet ever, experiencing the world through a one dimensional screen is not an accurate portrayal of what’s going on around us. If we solely go by what we are seeing there, it’s no different than me believing the one perspective of what those kids told me. But when we can travel, when we get lost, get found, walk in and out of situations we never even imagined experiencing, then we can begin to feel alive and see our lives, and the lives of others, f