In my last post, I discussed my overall feelings regarding my solo trip to New Zealand this past December. While I’ve been meaning to write the follow-up post for weeks, I’m just now finding the time to do so. It’s also a great time for me to write about one of my favorite parts of my trip: gaining alternative perspectives. I’ll apologize for the length of it now.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been frustrated with my brain. It’s something I can never escape. I can never turn it off. I can only see and experience life the way my brain allows me to do it. Going to New Zealand was not only a great opportunity for me to grow as a person, but to also talk with people, and get an idea of what life looks like through the eyes of someone else. What their daily lives involve. How we ended up in the same place at the same time. There were numerous moments/conversations that I had while on my trip that I wish I could relive over and over in my head. They’re moments that I pull up in my mind when I need to be reminded why I work hard at my job and save up my vacation time to use in large chunks. I do it so I can escape not just from my cube and all the stress and monotony of my daily work, but to escape everything that is comfortable to me, to talk to people, to ask questions, to sit and just listen to someone else’s life experiences, to understand how they experience their lives.
One of my biggest concerns before my trip had nothing to do with the fact that I was traveling alone, or that I was going somewhere unfamiliar. After twice choosing to attend out of state colleges in locations where I didn’t know a single soul to get both of my degrees, going somewhere new and alone wasn’t out of the ordinary. My biggest concern was regarding my nationality. I had always heard (and to be honest, assumed) that Americans have a pretty terrible international reputation. The stereotypes of ignorant American tourists have to come from somewhere, and I didn’t want to fall into that trap. However, I’m not one to rely on stereotypes as a main source of information about some topic or another, so I took the opportunity to ask people what they thought of Americans/the US when the opportunity arose.
The first chance I had to ask someone about this was on my flight from San Francisco to Auckland. I sat next to this incredibly friendly girl who was returning home to New Zealand after being gone for 11 months, traveling and volunteering her way across the globe. My guess is that she was around my age, and had seen and experienced so much in her time abroad. We began to talk as we filled out our papers to go through customs, and I’m very glad we did. I had asked her what had brought her to the States in the first place, and I got much more than I expected in her response. She told me all about her travels, how she started out going to Cambodia to volunteer for 3 months, met and befriended a Canadian girl, who she then travelled with to Thailand and Nepal, then started making her way to the US to attend a wedding in South Carolina. It was her first trip to the US, and I apologized for South Carolina being the first thing she experienced. I asked her what she thought of the people, and I learned a lot from her response. She said that more than one person told her they didn’t know that New Zealand was even a country. She was asked if New Zealand was one of the “states” of Australia. She was asked if there was a bridge connecting Australia and New Zealand (a bridge, she noted, that would span over 400 miles of the most treacherous ocean waters on the planet). Worst of all, she said that she hadn’t realized how many Americans lived inside of their own bubble, and she was surprised so many people were so ignorant of what was happening in the world beyond the US borders. I can’t argue with her. For example, comedian John Oliver regularly enjoys playing a geography game on his show, Last Week Tonight, when he discusses South American countries. He’ll mention a country, such as Paraguay, and highlight it on a map. Except he intentionally has the incorrect country highlighted, and jumps around before landing on the correct country. Most people I talk to that watch this show usually don’t know that these countries even exist before John Oliver discusses them. How are we supposed to know what’s going on in the world, if most people don’t even know that Togo is an actual country in Africa? For the first time on my trip, and certainly not the last, I felt embarrassed for all of those ignorant people this poor girl had the misfortune of running into. I was only able to talk to this girl for about fifteen minutes or so before we both got off the plane and went our separate ways, but it was a very eye-opening conversation.
Once I made it down to Queenstown to meet up with my tour group (I was late, thanks to some flight delays in Chicago), I was picked up by a tour guide named Vanessa, and driven 3 hours up the New Zealand countryside to be dropped off at a hotel. Later on, during the last night of my trip, we were each asked to discuss our favorite part of the trip. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure that my ride with Vanessa was my favorite part. For about an hour, we made polite small talk. She asked about my story, why I was late, and I told her. I told her where I was from and how long I was staying in New Zealand. Then we stopped to eat lunch, and that’s when everything changed. I was relatively jet-lagged, since I had just spent the previous 14 hours or so on planes, so I had no filter. As I sat eating a lunch that Vanessa was kind enough to buy me, I straight up asked her what her perception and opinions of Americans as a whole were. It turns out that her stepmother was from Seattle, and Vanessa’s opinion of Americans was largely based on her experiences with her. For the rest of the ride up to my hotel, we discussed Americans, American politics, New Zealand politics, and general global issues. I remarked on how clean New Zealand was, and how friendly people seemed to be. She told me, without hesitation, her stances on various issues and her honest opinion of the US and its citizens and her plans to come and travel across the country and see it for herself. By the time she dropped me off, I was exhausted and delirious and desperately in need of a shower, but I also felt like I had just met and made a new best friend. Apparently Vanessa enjoyed my company as well, since she gave me both her cell phone number and her family’s phone number, since they lived on the north island and would be able to help me should I run into trouble after striking out on my own. To this day, I’m still a little sad that Vanessa wasn’t one of my actual tour guides for the rest of the week, even though the two I had were fantastic.
I could go on and on about the people I was able to talk with during my trip. There was Ken, the native Minnesotan living and working in Singapore, always good for stories about what it’s like to be living somewhere so different than the place you grew up. There was Dave from California, another young person traveling alone like me with very interesting world views. There was the newlywed couple from Washington State, always willing to refill my water bottle or share bug spray or tell story after story after story. There was Paul, the successful businessman from England, who always had a fun joke or story to tell, but who would also talk politics with you until there was nothing left to say. There were the tour guides themselves, full of stories about life in New Zealand and working in Australia or on cattle farms, or attending university. There was the gentleman I spoke with while waiting in San Francisco for our flight to Auckland to board, who was full of helpful advice and information. There was the grandmother who was next to me in the gate as I waited to return to the States, excited to visit friends and family in Florida. I feel incredibly lucky and grateful to have had the opportunity to meet each and every individual mentioned here, and more that I didn’t. I learned so much about them, and myself, and received many reminders to stop and try to view things through someone else’s eyes. I was reminded to not worrying about telling my own stories, but to listen to other people’s stories. It’s something that I am still working to do.