"The entire six months we were away were filled with feelings of incredulous awe and appreciation. Both of the unparalleled scenes of nature in front of me that had remained for so long, as well as a humble appreciation for the daily realities and routines of the people around us."
When thinking about what experiences I had that would qualify as ‘out of my comfort zone’ for the purposes of this article, I found myself questioning if I even had any. The many Instagram accounts and travel blogs I followed before leaving had me expecting that I would be wistfully observing jaw-droppingly beautiful surroundings almost daily.
Granted, this did happen many times throughout the trip. Standing in Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, the lowest point in North America (at a balmy 49 degrees Celsius) in the middle of expansive salt flats, was surreal and felt like I was on another planet. I did begin to look a lot closer at where I placed my feet however, after reading in our friendly visitor brochure that scorpions frequent the flats also... ‘Death Valley’ really is a terrible choice of name, one that basically invites an overactive imagination of what would happen if our petrol really had run out in the middle of the valley, as we feared would be the case when noticing the petrol levels dropping unnervingly quickly. (Because who actually follows the ranger’s advice of entering with a full tank of gas? And who would subsequently pay the exorbitant prices on offer at the lone gas station in the valley?)
The entire six months we were away were filled with feelings of incredulous awe and appreciation. Both of the unparalleled scenes of nature in front of me that had remained for so long, as well as a humble appreciation for the daily realities and routines of the people around us. Being invited to share people’s stories, homes, lives and thoughts was an experience that even now I can’t adequately describe or capture in an Instagram post (although I did try).
The Hmong tribe women and our local guide in SaPa Vietnam for instance, who ‘showed’ (i.e literally held me up while trekking through muddy rice paddies) us around their village, spoke no English and yet showed us where and how they lived, shared a meal with us and even casually fended off some territorial dogs who weren’t quite as pleased about our presence. It turns out that “thank you” (from me) and “ya”(from the women) were all the words necessary to carry a three-hour conversation. That, as well as the ability to laugh at the Westerner’s many stumbles and mistakes. I should point out these women were many years older and many sizes smaller than me…
The travel cliché’s did come true; the realisation that ‘the world is so big yet so small at the same time’ and that you ‘learn so much about yourself when travelling.’
The vast expanse of America for example, let alone the rest of the world, is something to be marvelled at. However it can also reveal the few degrees of separation between us all, as well as the shared knowledge and experiences amongst us.
This includes the experience, common to many a travelling Kiwi, of foreigners’ incorrect assumptions about where New Zealand really is. Or isn’t (depending on whether they think we are a indeed a fictitious country.) The blank, friendly smile of someone when you’ve just introduced where you’re from, the “you’re by Scotland/England/ [insert geographically incorrect location here]…” comments are well known amongst those that have left our shores.
But there were also confronting insights into the realities of people, that I would until then only have had a limited perspective provided by the media. Arriving in Budapest’s main Keleti train station days after the first waves of refugees began pouring into the city with no way of leaving, we were preparing for heaving masses of refugees, protests and chaos. This was after meeting travellers in Vienna who had managed to catch what was the last train out of Hungary before they closed up their borders for the refugees travelling onwards for Germany. The train station itself was relatively empty and, but for the subtle presence of (what was rather a lot) of policemen at the entrances, everything seemed unexpectedly ordinary.
Stepping outside, it was a different story. There were hundreds of people; many were women, children and babies. These people were stuck, with no ability to leave the city that had effectively trapped them outside the station and prevented them from going any further into Budapest. There was no shelter beyond the semi covered concrete walkways, any food, water or comfort being provided. A large crowd peacefully sitting outside the station entrance were simply holding their train tickets in the air that had been legitimately purchased before all train travel from Keleti was suspended.
A few days later, a handful of port-a-loos had appeared, as well as tents, blankets, food and bottled water from volunteers. The government had provided no tangible support, but the ring of heavily padded policemen surrounding the station remained. I remember standing amongst these exhausted, desperate and brave people, at a loss to understand why they were being treated so poorly. The feelings of outrage, despair and frustration that I felt for them I hope to never forget. It was not an uplifting moment of the trip, but it was a powerful reminder of what happens when we stop attempting to understand and empathise.
Putting on my big girl pants and travelling through 20 countries in six months was the best experience I’ve had. Needless to say, we scrapped the spreadsheet and any efforts to really organise our next steps, quite quickly into the journey. It turned out that luck, the generosity of strangers (as well as Pringles and free wifi) carried us a long way. I expect that a similar open-plan and attitude will take us where we need to go next time around. I can’t wait!
Erica Burke is a New Zealander who just returned to Auckland from a 6 month trip around the world. She loves cooking, hiking, walking her dog and of course travel. You can contact Erica by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org