How Backpacking Changed My Life

This blog tells the story about my experiences of travel. Not the travel itself, as the story of where I went and what I did is less interesting than how I did it and how it changed me.

The background: I was 19 years old and at university. During my first year I had come down with appendicitis and to cut a very long story short, the surgery didn’t go to plan and I felt ill and drained for a long time afterwards. Prior to the illness I had been struggling with my course and finances, and towards the end of the year I realised that Uni wasn’t going to work out for me. But now I had no idea what to do with myself. After all I had spend the last 15 years in education and the last five years working alongside that, as well as spending most of my childhood in gymnastics training. No wonder I was tired.

I had occasionally thought about going travelling but had no idea where to begin. My past travels had largely consisted of family holidays to France and I had never been outside Europe.

I started off by thinking about where I wanted to go. I had always wanted to go to California so that was top of my list. I had also heard great things about New Zealand so included that too. And I really wanted to visit a stunning tropical beach like the ones I had only ever seen in photos – Fiji was the obvious choice. I worked in a shop for 11 months prior to departure, and I was going to spend 3 months travelling, returning home in time for the next academic year.

My departure date was 4th February 2001. With eight days to go, I very nearly cancelled the trip in a fit of panic. The only thing that stopped me was the feeling that if I didn’t do this trip, I would probably regret it later.

I arrived at Auckland airport early in the morning, jetlagged and nervous. Luckily I had booked my first three nights of accommodation already so I took the bus into town and used my guidebook to find the hostel. Even small things such as successfully getting from one town to another gave me a sense of achievement – I was well and truly fending for myself.

Four weeks into the trip and disaster struck – my bag was stolen from my dormitory containing my passport and wallet. All I had to my name were the clothes I stood up in with £2 in my pocket. I’d only had a small amount of cash in my wallet but it was the loss of the cards that was tricky. To complicate things further, it was a Friday evening preceding a bank holiday. The banks wouldn’t be open for four days. What should I do with that £2?

£1.12 of it went on phone calls (to my insurer – thankfully I had that). The remaining 88p went on a stiff drink where at the hostel bar where I told some fellow travellers what had happened. I had just seen the worst in human nature with the theft, but now I was about to see the very best. People gave me clothes and toiletries they no longer needed, gave me phone cards with a few pence left (in New Zealand you can combine phone cards and so I gained an extra £3 to make more important calls), shared their meals with me and listened when I felt a bit weepy and homesick. I pulled myself together and assessed the best way to continue, and a week later I had a new passport (I had left some photocopies at home which speeded things up) and a New Zealand bank account with money transferred from my British branch. I was off again.

I had been worried about travelling solo, both from a safety and a loneliness point of view, but it proved to be the best decision I made. While other pairs were discussing what they were going to do today, I was already off doing exactly what I wanted. Hostels are very sociable places and even a shy person can easily be included and make friends. As for safety, my mum always used to say to me “keep your wits about you!” I never really understood what she meant until this trip. I learned to read situations and trust my instincts if anything felt wrong. Going solo taught me a lot more about myself. I did get homesick at times, but I had a Hotmail account that I was able to check worldwide and I kept in regular contact with home.

I returned home in one piece, and a very different person. Before I would have described myself as a bit of a brat who relied too heavily on others to sort out my problems. Now I was back, and I was an adult in every sense of the word. My parents, who had serious reservations and concerns about how worthwhile my trip would be, were amazed at the change in me and they are now of the opinion that everyone should take some time out before study.

The ending of the story is that I didn’t go back to University. The shop where I was working had an Assistant Manager vacancy and the new mature me impressed the interview panel and got the job.

If you are still nervous about whether to go travelling it would be very easy for me to say “just do it” – but only you can make that decision. I recommend it very highly though – the good times were great and even the bad times are good for you in the end. Enjoy your time out – and don’t forget your insurance!