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October 4, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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The road less travelled

There’s an inclination among students to approach their ‘big OE’ in a predictable, almost perfunctory way. Take a year out of education after high school. Move to Melbourne or the Gold Coast or London. Work in hospo or retail and get trashed on the weekends and go to a few music festivals. And end up, a year later, doing a BA at Victoria University. OE. Done. Now on with the rest of your life: getting a degree, getting out of here, getting a good job.

From that point onwards, travel will likely either be a strategic move (you get paid more in Australia, I hear), or much further down the track.

At this point in our lives, we’re more flexible and foolhardy than we’ll ever be. When we end up in nine-to-fives, will we regret choosing that MacBook Pro over two weeks spent backpacking in Thailand? Maybe. When we’re climbing the career ladder, will we be able to take a month out to travel on a shoestring around Asia, around South America, around Europe—or all three—and back again?

Probably not. So, why don’t we make the most of the world’s opportunities, while we have the chance?

Going it alone

“I guess it’s just about opposing the conventional path of the young adult in New Zealand,” says Tammie Blundell, a 19-year-old first-year student of Religious Studies, Environmental Science and Theatre, who spent ten months travelling solo around Europe upon finishing high school.

Blundell talks quickly; her conversation is littered with place names, time frames, and allusions to anecdotes.

“In March, I flew to Hong Kong—stayed there for a week, couch-surfing with some randoms. Then I flew to Germany, and worked on vineyards for almost two months with some crazy old German men, who were kind of fun,” she says. “I hitchhiked all around Germany, went down to France—spent a couple of months there, went tramping, went festivalling… just had good times.

“Then I decided I was going to go to Spain, so I went to Spain, then I travelled around Morocco by myself, then back up to Spain, then to Portugal, then flew back to Germany, then to San Francisco—and then home! That’s the basic outline of ten months.”

At first, Blundell intended to spend the duration of her OE in Germany, learning the language and working in the film industry, in which she had contacts. Her plan “evolved” as she made new friends who had different travelling agendas.

“I kept on meeting people, and they’d pull me further south, and further south, and further south, and I just got to this point where I was like—screw it, I’m going to keep travelling. I’m here, so I might as well.”

Blundell says she purposely went to places where she didn’t speak the language, and put herself in situations that were completely alien.

“You’d just meet people and you’d instantly be on the same level,” she says. “You’d connect somehow.

“I WWOOFed [Willing Workers On Organic Farms] for a while in the middle of Spain for a couple of weeks, and I couldn’t speak Spanish at all, so we communicated through music,” she says.

“We played guitars, ate lots of paella, got really pissed… it was great.”

Blundell recommends travelling alone (“yeah, shit yeah”), as it forces you out of your comfort zone.

“When you meet new people, they don’t judge you by the person you’re with,” she says. “They just see you, directly for who you are…

“Or who they think you are, or who you want to be,” she adds. “Also, all the decisions you make are completely up to you; it’s more of a personal journey than a team mission.”

Blundell dismisses suggestions that travelling alone is more dangerous than with others. She hitchhiked everywhere, and estimates that of the ten months she spent overseas, she paid for accommodation for a total of just 12 nights. The vast majority of time, she couch-surfed, using the website http://www.couchsurfing.org.

“Everybody says ‘oh, that’s brave of you’, but you just need to be street smart, and have your head screwed on in the right direction. It’s something you learn as you go, really—you find the courage while you’re doing it.

“I mean, I had the odd scary experience… But I have this theory that 99 per cent of the time, it’s going to work out—like with hitchhiking. That one per cent of the time that happens to some people, that you hear about in the media—well, it’s not worth thinking about. If you go through life freaking about that one per cent, you’re not going to get anywhere.”

Blundell carried a Swiss army knife on her for her entire trip, but she only needed to draw it once: while wandering the suburbs of Barcelona at 4am, she realised she was being followed.

“That was the first time where I actually felt I needed to have my knife in my hand, and that was the only time,” she says. “But it was actually fine.”

Blundell notes that her experiences have added to her studies.

“Travelling like that takes you out of the system completely; you’re not institutionalised anymore,” she says.

“So coming back to that—where you can’t just go down to the road, stick your thumb out, and say, ‘I’ll go where you’re going’, which is something I like to do—was pretty hard, actually. But it also gave me a range of opinions and ideas that I’m actually able to apply to my studies, now that I’ve been there and done that.

“You also learn to really appreciate showers, internet—a mattress, if you’re lucky… and if not, then, you don’t care anyway, because you’re a cool person.”

A role in the community

Meg Howie, a student of design at Massey University, echoes Blundell’s sentiment that travel—and total immersion in another culture in particular—prompts people to reassess their priorities. Last year, she and other 13 school leavers spent six months in Vanuatu, teaching classes of Year 4 students maths, English, social studies, general science, PE and art, through Lattitude Global Volunteering.

“They came to our school, and did the little blurb,” remembers Howie. “Most people go to work in boarding schools in England and Scotland, that kind of thing, but they also do six months’ teaching in Vanuatu.

“When I first heard about it, I thought it would be a really cool thing to do, if I was the kind of person that did crazy things like that. Then I realised: if I did it, that would automatically make me that kind of person.”

Howie notes that the 13 other volunteers—all Australians, bar for one other New Zealander—got involved in the programme because they were Christian, or because they wanted to be teachers.

“I didn’t really want to do either of those things, and, in six months, I wasn’t too focused on making a big difference in the world or anything,” she says. “Just knowing that I’d have a role in the community was really cool. Also just to see other cultures, get that experience…”

Upon arriving in Vanuatu, the 14 volunteers were split into pairs and based on different islands around Vanuatu.

“I lived with another girl from Wellington—we lived in a little bamboo hut in the village,” says Howie. “We had a week of orientation with the volunteers that were there before us, and one day of teaching workshops. The rest was kind of culture stuff.”

Howie found teaching “physically exhausting”.

“I don’t think I ever realised this at school, but it’s a lot of work—especially primary school,” she says, wide-eyed. “The whole day, you don’t stop for a moment: you’re constantly trying to juggle all the kids who want attention, you have to be onto it all the time. It definitely helped my work ethic a lot—and I definitely don’t want to be a teacher.”

In the school holidays, Howie and the other volunteers decided to travel to a neighbouring island for two weeks of respite.

“It was kind of hard to organise because we’d have cellphone reception sometimes, while the other people in other villages would have cellphone reception sometimes. Everyone only had a vague idea of what everyone else was doing.”

Eventually, the 14 of them arranged to catch a cargo ship from Vila to Santo.

“We left two days early, because everything happens really, really slowly over there… which is lovely when you get used to it, but frustrating if you need to get somewhere.

“The cargo ship didn’t come. We weren’t too surprised by that—it’s Vanuatu,” says Howie. “The next day, it came at about 3am, and we were just waiting on the beach ‘til then.

“It was so cool, because our other friends from the villages further down the coast were already on the boat, and we hadn’t seen them for about four months. We all got onboard, and found a little space about the size of a picnic table for the six of us; someone gave us a straw mat, and everyone slept on piles of rice and timber.”

The experience has made Howie “feel like there’s kind of a lot more to [her]”.

“You have more of a sense of what you’re capable of,” she says. “You think: I can get myself to this place; I can really do this stuff. Everything you see and experience adds to who you are. I feel like the more I see and do, the more of a person I am.”

Her six months in Vanuatu also taught her the value of money.

“For uni, I have to buy a lot of art supplies, and living in Wellington, you tend to just go out and buy stuff, whereas [in Vanuatu] we got paid $30 a month between us for living expenses—and we didn’t spend it,” she laughs. “There was one shop, and it had, like, crackers and oil and tomato sauce for sale, and that was it. On average, I bought one thing every two weeks; it’s just cool knowing I could do that.”

A fortnight after returning to New Zealand, Howie headed off again: this time, to South East Asia with one of her fellow volunteers and his friend.

“It was very much ‘I’ve just been working for six months, and I’m just going to just—have fun’,” says Howie. “One of the best things about both trips was meeting people, but the people I was meeting in Asia were other travellers. Immediately, you have something in common with them: you’re backpacking, we’re backpacking… but I didn’t really engage with the culture, or get the same kind of understanding of it, as I did in Vanuatu.”

Howie is returning to the village for a month in January next year.

“It’s really amazing—lovely, lovely people; gorgeous kids,” she says. “Living in a village is so incredibly different; I’ll keep going back for the rest of my life.”

Howie agrees that taking a working holiday in another English-speaking country is not really ‘travel’.

“It doesn’t really count,” she says. “I’m sure you still have really good times, but… yeah.”

Travel broadens the mind, they say; well, it also makes the shit you study seem more relevant. Understanding and knowledge of cultures other than your own gives you new perspective; as hackneyed as the term is, it turns you into a ‘global citizen’. And in a country as isolated from the rest of the world as New Zealand is, that’s no bad thing.

Above all, though, what Blundell and Howie’s stories both illustrate is the allure of travel: catching a ride with whichever car that stops; sleeping on a new couch every night; waiting for the cargo ship, even when it doesn’t show up. These are the experiences you’ll remember for the rest of your life—not the time you got your first iPod. Make the most of the flexible lifestyle you enjoy as a student: take some time off university, and get out of New Zealand.

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About the Author ()

Elle started out at Salient reviewing music. In 2010, she wrote features and Animal of The Week, which an informal poll revealed to be 40% of Victoria students' favourite part of the magazine. Alongside Uther Dean, she was co-editor for 2011. In 2012, she is chief features writer.

Comments (3)

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  1. One of the things that struck me the most about travelling was the little things you notice are different when you jump into a new country. Luxembourg, for example, smells like cheese. I’m going back there soon.

  2. Electrum Stardust says:

    “Still round the corner there may wait
    A new road or a secret gate,
    And though I oft have passed them by,
    A day will come at last when I
    Shall take the hidden paths that run
    West of the Moon, East of the Sun”

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