When people hear that I’m studying abroad in New Zealand, they tend to ask a lot of questions. The first usually being “Why?” (Except from Lord of the Rings fans, who unswervingly offer their approval of my venture). For the sake of those who do not know what it’s like to binge watch 12 plus hours of hobbits marching through majestic mountain scenery or have Frodo’s face tattooed to their arm, I will tell you why I chose New Zealand.
It all began when I was five, when I dreamed of traveling to Australia. As some of you may know, Steve Irwin was one of my childhood heroes, and I never quite outgrew the desire to go to there and wrestle crocodiles, or at least meet people who did. I wanted to be out in the wild, and spend my time snuggling with koalas and kicking it with kangaroos. But as I began to look into Australia as a study abroad destination, I started to discover that less Australians wrestle crocodiles than one might expect, and that the country housed a plethora of large cities and poisonous animals (something Irwin should have prepared me for), both of which would limit my access to the outdoors. By the time my study abroad adviser told me that I was really looking for New Zealand and had laid out the study abroad pamphlet in front of me, I was sold (it didn’t hurt that I had also found out that koalas have an extremely high rate of chlamydia). With it’s unparalleled beauty and it’s unrivaled access to the outdoors, New Zealand quickly jumped over my previous study abroad considerations like Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne.
It’s also not entirely uncommon when you mention New Zealand to hear stories about past vacations and business trips, and uncle’s friend’s sister-in-law’s flightless bird’s visit to Wellington. I’ve heard stories of dangerous roads with the most beautiful views, and tales of miracle men magically parachuting from the sky to save stranded drivers, and once, I was taken to a kind woman’s house to be shown a magnificent painting of a young Maori man. Most of the time, I love and appreciate the stories that people share with me. They make me feel like I’m not going to fall off the globe without a trace if I take a 20 hour flight across the world, and they confirm that I’ve chosen a good place on the map to live for five months.
But as I begin my trip, I think that what holds the most relevance for me is something that came up during a conversation with my neighbor just before I left. We were standing in my backyard, surrounded by the organized chaos of my younger brother’s high school graduation party, when she asked “Are you scared?” For a brief moment, I felt shocked, and then I felt an overwhelming sense of appreciation for her question. I’d spent countless hours talking with what felt like hundreds of people about my trip, and I’d been asked what felt like hundreds of times if I was excited to go, but no one had ever asked me if I was scared. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what I felt. In that moment, I felt shell shocked, caught somewhere between consciously knowing I was leaving and utterly incapable of accessing the emotions that go along with that realization.
I supposed that maybe once I stepped foot on the plane that would take me from San Francisco to New Zealand, leaving my parents behind to enjoy another day in the city, I might be utterly terrified. Maybe I wouldn’t be scared until I arrived at the airport on the other side of the world, or once I made it to my flat, or once orientation began. Although I wasn’t certain when that moment (most likely, moments) of fright would hit me square on, I knew that it would happen. And I appreciated that my neighbor understood that being frightened of an experience and valuing it were not mutually exclusive: “I was nervous to go to Spain when I studied abroad, but I think it’s good to be scared. If you’re not scared, then you’re not out of your comfort zone, and then you’re not really gaining anything from the experience.”
It’s these words that I will carry with me as I set off for New Zealand. Instead of being ashamed of whatever fear I may recognize in myself as I move forward towards this adventure, I will embrace it. It is only when we embrace our fear that we turn it into a tool capable of helping us grow. If we are ashamed of our fear, we either push it down or let it push us down, and either way we are limited and consumed by it. When we embrace our fear, exciting doors we never knew existed are opened, and the colors appear brighter and more beautiful than they ever did when we were merely comfortable and secure.
As I prepare to hop on the plane tonight, and any denial that protected me from my nervousness has started to melt away, I realize that I am starting to feel afraid. When I realize this, all I can think is, “Well, I must be doing something right.”
Exactly three weeks ago, I published this post on my travel blog, The Wonderful World of the Wanderer. 21 days in Dunedin has proven my theory: I really must have done something right.