“The entire six months were filled with feelings of incredulous awe and appreciation—both of the unparalleled scenes of nature, and a humble appreciation for the daily realities and routines of the people around us.”
With minimal planning, an uncertain amount of money in the bank account, valid passports (tick!) and a handful of countries and continents on our (wait for it) excel spreadsheet itinerary, we were off. “We” being myself and my fiancé, who fortunately has a sense of direction akin to that of a migratory bird. This proved to be invaluable for my rather confused internal GPS.
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” is a terrible choice of name, one that 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 were filled with feelings of incredulous awe and appreciation—both of the unparalleled scenes of nature, and a humble appreciation for the daily realities and routines of the people around us. Being invited to share stories, homes, lives and thoughts with strangers 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 conveyed to 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 clichés did come to fruition—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 at which to be marvelled. 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, familiar to many a travelling Kiwi, of foreigners’ incorrect assumptions about where New Zealand is. Or isn’t (depending on whether they think we are 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 foreign country realities, 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 Syrian refugees began pouring into the city, we were preparing for protests and chaos. This was after meeting travellers in Vienna who had managed to catch what was the last train out of Hungary before it closed up their borders to stop the flow of refugees travelling onwards for Germany. The train station itself was relatively empty and, but for the subtle presence of (what was rather a lot) police officers 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. 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 police officers 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 never to 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 organise our next steps quite quickly into the journey. It turned out that luck and 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!
Author - Erica Burke
Erica Burke is from New Zealand. She loves cooking, hiking, walking her dog and of course, travel.