When I stepped off a 600-passenger trans-Pacific flight in Nadi, Fiji, my first thought in that predawn hour was that I had stepped into a greenhouse: the moist, humid air mingled with an earthy smell, and the snow back home felt a long ways away. I had slept during most of the 11 hour flight from Los Angeles, but my body and mind were still disoriented. Fortunately, I was riding a wave of excitement and anticipation; still, I was hungry. I couldn’t eat during the four hour stopover because I hadn’t told my credit card company I would be in Fiji. Having your credit card cancelled on your first day overseas is not ideal. By the time I landed in Auckland, the sun was shining brightly on leafy green trees and clear blue waters.
It was exactly the way a good story was supposed to start, with a fresh energy that was palpable from the very core of this place. When I checked into the youth hostel just off Queen Street, the main commercial drag in Auckland’s downtown, I was immediately surrounded by other travelers who had come a long way for a similar reason. Everyone was looking forward to starting their own journey, and if you hadn’t felt it before, then you certainly got caught up in now.
If you look at a map of New Zealand, you see that Auckland is positioned very near the northern tip of the country. Other than the Northland region, every location you could want to visit opens up from this harbour city of 1.5 million, making it a natural jumping-off-point. By the next morning, I had assembled a sizable collection of pamphlets and brochures of attractions, bus tours, maps, and just about anything a backpacker could want to do between Cape Reinga and Stewart Island.
An adventure I had only dreamed about before was now opening up right in front of my eyes. And by the third day, I was starting to think about home, and counting down the time before I would be back in Newfoundland.
Wait a minute. What happened there?
A few stages before acceptance
Take just about any band out there. You can spend hours listening to their albums, memorizing every note and nuance, and pouring over concert DVDs and YouTube clips. Nothing, though, can really prepare you for seeing them live – it’s one of these things that you have to experience for yourself to really understand. The same can be said for homesickness. My problem was complicated by the fact that I’d had plenty of opportunity to get homesick before, and hadn’t – not when I moved away for university, nor when I went to Europe for three months. So I wasn’t only completely unprepared; I had assumed myself to be worldly and immune, and this was a major blow to my ego. People who went to the other side of the world on their own had a good reason to miss the safety of a routine – other people though, not me, surely!
That probably explains why I dealt with those unexpected longings so poorly. I got angry at myself. Really, really mad, stopping just short of flogging myself in the street. “How dare you?” I thought. “You spent all this time and money, gearing up for a trip that so many other people would jump at the opportunity to experience, and you’re moping and thinking about your frozen comfort zone? Seriously, how dare you?”
That wasn’t the right approach, of course. It caused me to sink into a gloomy netherworld where I couldn’t reach out to anyone, fearing I was right and no one would possibly pity the guy on a six-month vacation in the South Pacific; what was worse, though, is I couldn’t even justify my feelings within myself. Imagine being a stranger on the other side of the world, where the people you meet in a hostel move by in a dizzying current of constant change, and you can’t even find solace in yourself. That kind of loneliness is the most complete I’ve ever encountered, and I had no idea how to overcome it – or, even worse, I had no idea if I would be able to.
Tough lessons learned
Those first few weeks were tough. I did a lot in them – I climbed Mt. Eden in Auckland, went to Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty and ended up being invited onto a yacht for the afternoon, visited the Hobbiton movie set in Matamata, and trekked through the desert in Tongariro National Park – but they were tough. Each new experience just made me upset that I wasn’t enjoying myself the way I should be. By the end of the second week, I was convinced that every moment I was miserable was a moment that I would regret someday, so I put added pressure on myself to get better faster.
In short, I was a bit of a mess for those first few weeks. And it all came to a stormhead in a small, rundown hostel in Turangi. I didn’t recognize the significance at the time, but looking back, I do think now that it was a do or die moment. I was alone in my room, a motley crew of complete strangers outside the door, and I was wondering how I was possibly going to make it through the next six months on my own, without a core group around me who I could later share these memories with. I never said it out loud, but I was fully aware that a part of me wanted to go home for real.
In the end, it came down to a simple decision. I decided to stoop brooding, just for the time being, and to go out to the common room and not worry about the next six months, or even the next six days. I managed to calm myself down enough to focus on having a good time right here, right now. The rest would come later.
Every moment since then has been a learning experience. I figured out that, no matter how hard you try, you can’t completely control your emotions, and there’s no off switch to separate yourself from the life you left behind. It’s been a gradual process, made easier by the fact that, in Wellington the next night, I met up with a friend who had gone through a similar thing when she first arrived. By the end of the week, I started a job at a hostel in Havelock, where I was not only settled into one spot for a few weeks, but had a regular group around me who I’m still in decent contact with.
As out of my hands as my emotions at the time were, I do think that recognizing the problem, confronting it, and making a proactive attempt to make it better in that dilapidated hostel was absolutely essential. From that point on, I started being less critical of myself. Yes, I was in a great place, living a dreamlike existence, but I was also a long way from everything I knew. Every semblance of routine had been thrown out the window, and you can’t expect to hit the ground running when you get shook up like that. Even then I knew that, but the trick was making myself believe it and not be ashamed of stumbling from time to time.
Three months later . . .
I don’t think there is a one-solution fix to homesickness, and if there is then I don’t profess to know it. But I have found that you need to be not only willing to admit to yourself you have a problem, but to accept that’s OK. You can’t always be focusing on the big picture – you’ll miss a lot of the details of the individual moments along the way. Besides, if you didn’t have things on the other side of the world to look forward to, that’s a different sort of problem, isn’t it?
Travelling alone can be terrifying and lonely at times, and it’s impossible to actually prepare yourself for it. But, there are a lot of perks too – you set your own schedule and agenda in order to have exactly the kind of trip you want to have. If you don’t know what kind of trip that is, then that’s even better, because you’ll have to find out, rather than be dragged along to live out some other person’s adventure. The personal growth that takes place is immense, especially when you come out of an internal crisis and feel like you’ve learned something about yourself.
I still have to book my airline ticket home, and had a very important realization a few nights ago, just before I fell asleep: when I leave New Zealand, it’s gone. This experience ends when I step onto that flight, and even if I am lucky enough to come back some day, I will never again be a 24-year-old backpacker. I’ve got a few months to go, but in that moment I truly started to miss this place – and it was a strangely comforting moment, because I knew then that I had come out on top. By spending a few weeks here and there, I’ve gotten to know a few people beyond just the regular “where are you from/how long are you in New Zealand” spiel. But more importantly, I’ve gotten to know myself better.
I know there will be times over the next few months when I’ll think about home, but I also know that I’m having the time of my life here now, and that I’m going to be fine. And as I sit here, on a farm in Kaikoura completely content in the moment, I’m glad I wanted to go home three months ago. I’ve come to appreciate everything since that much more.
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