Our plane descends through the clouds and land becomes visible beneath the wings. Great swaths of trees and houses fall away as the plane banks and turns towards the airport. The windows tilt to the sky and the sun spikes in, causing passengers to lower their window shades. I swallow and close my eyes, my brain fuzzy from jet lag and lack of sleep. I’m here on little more than a whim; tired of working a lackluster job, I picked a place I’d always wanted to visit and told my job I was quitting. Several months later, my obligations left behind, I boarded a plane to New Zealand. Now here I am, touching down on the tarmac in a foreign country I know little about. I only perused the guidebooks halfheartedly in the months before my departure. I’m not sure what made me shy away from learning all I could about this country. Perhaps I’m afraid of my own judgements of a place or afraid that once I learn all the facts, the magic will be gone. I get off the plane feeling exhausted but excited at all that lies before me.
The original plan was to stay in New Zealand for a year, taking jobs around the country in order to offset my food and lodging costs. I soon discovered that this was not going to happen. There was something magical about those islands, something that grabbed me and refused to let me stay in one place for very long. I didn’t want to waste a moment scrubbing kitchen ceilings when I could be trekking over mountains or kayaking across bays. By settling in a place and strapping myself into a routine, I knew I’d be closing myself off to the magic of serendipity that a solo traveler enjoys. How could I wake up in a warm seaside town one morning and adjacent to a glacier the next if I had to launder fifty sets of bedsheets and clean an entire hostel? I threw all but my basic itinerary in the trashcan and headed to the nearest pub. I had a vacation to enjoy.
The three months that followed were some of the most enjoyable of my life. Each day I woke up with a wide array of possibilities before me, the only obligations those of feeding and clothing myself and remembering where I was sleeping that night. I hiked the Tongariro Crossing, my knees shaking on the endless vertical switchbacks and my shoes filling with gravel as I skidded down the side of a glacial crater. I trudged through emerald-green valleys filled with sheep, listening to the strange birdcalls that filled the air. Sometimes I called back. I tied crampons to my hiking boots and climbed up a glacier, the glowing whitish-blue of the ice a stark contrast to the dark rock surrounding it. Donning a wetsuit and a helmet, I rappelled into a cave to explore an underground river. Glow worms hung from the ceiling above me, making constellations of their own in the subterranean sky. I made friends on ferries and in buses, danced in clubs and slept under the stars. I was free.
After three months of hiking, sightseeing, kayaking, caving, sunbathing and jumping out of one perfectly good plane, I ran out of money and had to return home. Exhausted, I fell asleep the minute I boarded the plane and slept through most of the flight back to California. When asked what my favorite thing about my trip had been, I didn’t know what to day. I listed hikes and adrenaline-packed activities but in my heart I knew that the best thing about the trip had been opening myself fully to the strangeness of a new country. When we release ourselves from the constraints of our routinely scheduled lives, we leave ourselves open to happenstance, to serendipity, and to magic. How else could I explain my wanderlust besides an opportunity to cast off the shackles of routine and expectation and truly just be myself? New Zealand was the first place to show that to me, and I’m confident it won’t be the last.
About the Author: Ravina Schneider is a snarky brunette who likes to cook almost as much as she likes to travel. Sometimes she does both at once. She grew up in Northern California, traveling with her parents to Europe for the first time at the age of 9. She has been to seven countries and nearly every state in the U.S since then.
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