I saw him look at me out of the corner of my eye before he spoke.
My body tensed as I looked up at him, a man in his thirties who seemed friendly enough. But I knew from experience to expect the worst.
“Do you need me to show you how to get somewhere?”
I was holding a map, which I tried not to do for this very reason. I didn’t need help, nor did I want it, especially from male strangers.
“I’m fine, thanks. I was just checking to make sure I was heading in the right direction. I’m good.”
With that, I folded my map and looked straight ahead, waiting for the crosswalk signal to change. I was thankful for my reflective sunglasses, hiding the nervousness I’m sure was written all over my face. Would he follow me? Would he insist on getting me to where I was going? Would he say something creepy? All of these things have happened to me before, and as a female traveling alone I was especially on edge. My voice had given me away. Foreigner! American!
“Okay, well have a nice day! This is a great city!”
With that, the signal changed and he power-walked ahead of me without a backward glance. I breathed a sigh of relief and kept walking, feeling slightly foolish for jumping to conclusions.
I was in Wellington, New Zealand, a capital city with a population of 405,000, give or take a few stray kiwis. I knew how I looked on the outside: a young, blonde, white girl with unfortunately innocent facial features. As prior evidence would suggest, I looked like an easy target.
The stares in Europe had been blatant and unashamed. The looks and whispers in Asia had been slightly more discreet. The sexual shouts and gestures in South America had been unsettling.
But not here. No one stared, no one catcalled, no one appeared threatening. I had men and women telling me hitchhiking was a fun and safe way to get around and meet people.
Were all the stereotypes of females traveling alone complete bullshit? In New Zealand, it sure seemed like it.
I hadn’t planned to go to the other side of the world alone to have an epiphany about my identity. In fact, the trip began as many poorly planned decisions do — a late night scroll on Pinterest. But this was not a 30-day exercise regimen for rock hard abs or a tutorial on making a rustic headboard from a wooden pallet, and it was not so easily abandoned.
I decided I wanted to travel during the winter term for several reasons. One, seven weeks of break is painfully boring if you aren’t doing something with your time. Two, I didn’t feel like adding a fourth (probably unpaid) internship to my resume for a month of work in an expensive city. And three, I realized that traveling would be nearly impossible after graduation.
So a trip was the answer. No, not through Miami — I didn’t want to pay for credit hours. No, not Europe — too cold in January. But then there was New Zealand — set of “Lord of the Rings” and home to snow-capped mountains, sandy beaches, bustling cities and expansive national parks. The locals speak English, January is summertime in the Southern Hemisphere.
I had found my destination. But soon it became clear that a travel partner was going to be an issue. My friends were working, taking classes or simply didn’t feel that same unquenchable desire to fly off to the other side of the world.
The idea seemed preposterous at first. I couldn’t go alone, could I?
Hell yes I could, I’m an empowered female and it’s 2016, dammit.
But what if something went wrong?
I’m an adult. I can handle it.
I’m still basically 12. Adulthood is a sham.
I’ve traveled before, this isn’t any different.
Before I could lose the battle with myself, I talked to my parents and bought the plane tickets. There was no going back.
Over the next few months, waves of nervousness gave way to bouts of excitement as I prepped for my trip. I made lists, I booked hostels, checked and re-checked my backpack. Then, a few days after Christmas, I hoisted my giant pack onto my shoulders and clutched my passport as my brother drove away from me at the airport.
I was doing this.
Three weeks after boarding that first flight, I sat at an Italian café on Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand. I took a sip of my wine as I read the daily paper, a story about what had gone wrong in America’s election. People from other parts of the world are even more baffled than us, apparently.
It was one of my last days in New Zealand, and I was enjoying some much-needed downtime after weeks of hiking, bus rides, tours and lots and lots of walking.
I not only handled being alone, I loved it. Eating at restaurants by myself, shopping by myself, driving by myself — everything seemed more vibrant. I tasted my food more deeply without the distraction of a phone or conversation, the textures and flavors coming alive as I ate — truly ate. I took in my surroundings with new appreciation, hearing voices and languages mingle with exotic bird calls from the trees overhead. I did only what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it.
It was revolutionary.
There would never be a time in my life where I could have decided to travel alone and been completely ready for it. I could be 18 or 80, and the butterflies I felt getting on the plane would have been fluttering all the same.
As I prepare to graduate into an unknown world full of 401Ks and car insurance premiums, I still feel like I’m 12. But beneath the vulnerability is strength and knowledge and gumption.
I’ll never be ready, but I’m more ready than I know. New Zealand gave me that.