Tag Archives: travel

Why full-time travel is not for me

nzmuse not interested in full time travel

“She’s living the dream!”

The person I replaced at my new job – let’s call her B – is doing a similar thing to what we did in 2013. Extended travel, that is (though she outright quit, and their trip is somewhat open ended, so no firm end date). So far it sounds like she’s doing a bang-up job balancing freelance work with travel and working a lot more than I was on the road, so after each update from her, everyone simultaneously sighs wistfully and utters the same phrase.

(“I was living the dream in 2013 too!” I want to squawk.)

But like Amanda of A Dangerous Business, I have done extended travel and confirmed long term travel just doesn’t interest me.

Yeah, I know location independence is trendy. Everyone wants to be a digital nomad – cast off the shackles of a house and steady paycheque and work from some island beach. These are the same people who’ll rail against being a slave to their desk and miserable in the corporate world.

But that has never been me.

We live in climactic paradise (just about)

Location independence usually means spending a fair bit of time in cheaper countries, for obvious reasons. These are often hotter countries.

I am not a fan of heat, and T cannot handle the heat at all. (He struggles during Auckland summers, so that should tell you all you need to know. 20 degrees is HARD for him, and I’m only happy up to the mid/late 20s.) Having grown up in a super mild climate, we are both ill-prepared for real heat. Or real cold, for that matter; he can cope okay when the temperature drops, but I most certainly cannot. UV rays in summer and uninsulated rentals in winter aside, this is about as good as it gets for us.

Six weeks in Asia did us in physically and I can’t imagine spending months on end, in, say, Thailand (Chiang Mai was the expat hotspot for a while, is it still?). As B and her partner make their way around South America, they’re dealing with all sorts of temperature extremes, so while I oooh and ahhh at her blog posts and pictures, I’m inwardly shuddering imagining the conditions and thanking my stars I’m not there.

Yeah … We really can’t handle the jandal on the climate front.

The stress

Not having a home base long term would not sit well with me. It is really freaking draining having to periodically figure out where you go next, where you will stay, figuring out visas, all those logistics. By the end of our trip I was really worn down by that aspect. And I had planned outlines beforehand, so it’s not like I didn’t already have a good guide to work from! Filling in those gaps as we went grew exhausting. I don’t want to have to coordinate such basic life elements regularly.

I don’t want to work for myself

I know others who do, and mostly they struggle (I’m talking about my specific field) particularly in NZ. Realistically, I probably would not be one of the exceptions.

I really like my job – even the meetings! – and the fact I am working on something much bigger than myself. When I think about my career, what I want to do next and how I can best learn and grow, it’s in relation to organisations, not self-employment.The stress and uncertainty of freelancing is not something I would voluntarily choose for myself. And T’s work does not lend itself to nomadism.

I want the traditional stuff

Now that I’ve scratched the itch and ticked off most of the destinations burning a hole in my bucket list, I’m dreaming of a kitchen with a full stove, maybe even a dishwasher, building a pizza oven in the backyard. Dog and kids.

In an ideal world I’d have 2-3 months a year to travel, on top of having all the other things I want (this job, a house in Auckland, etc), but as the saying goes, you can have anything you want – you just can’t have everything you want.

The other day I decided to answer this question on Quora: Which one would you prefer: half a year travel or 6 separate one month-long travels? And while I started out thinking I would prefer another long trip, by the time I finished writing my response I’d realised that with one long trip under my belt, now I would actually rather take the shorter trips – if money was no object.

Routine can be tedious – doing the dishes, supermarket runs, taking the bins out every Thursday.

It can also be incredibly sublime – coming in to the familiar comfort of coworkers’ faces in the morning, cuddling up to your partner at night, chowing down on your favourite treats at the farmer’s market, familiar beaches with free parking that are never too crowded.

For me, a ‘normal’ life is where it’s at. I love to travel, but home is where the heart is.

RTW and back: An interview with Amanda of A Dangerous Business

amanda dangerous biz rtw nzmuse

Like moi, A Dangerous Business blogger Amanda Williams doesn’t aspire to a life of perpetual travel. In fact, she actually cut short her RTW trip when she realised she was no longer enjoying herself and finished the second leg separately after returning home to recharge for a bit.

(I don’t think I ever mentioned it here, but T hit a real low point about halfway through ours – on one particularly hellish Italian train ride, I was just about convinced I would have to dispatch him home and finish our trip by myself, which would have made the whole American road trip thing tricky…)

Here’s how she describes herself: I’m just a small-town Ohio girl trying to balance a “normal” life with a desire to discover the world beyond my Midwest bubble. My adventurous nature and inability to say “no” have led me to some pretty amazing adventures around the world, from swimming with sharks in Belize to hiking on glaciers in New Zealand to playing a concert on the Great Wall of China. I’m here to prove to people that traveling (and especially traveling as a woman) doesn’t have to be scary, lonely, or out of anybody’s reach.

What made you decide to embark on your extended trip? What’s the story there?

I’ve always loved traveling, and for the past few years I envied those “permanent nomads” who flit from place to place and get so see so much of the world. I was nearing the end of graduate school, and so taking off on a long trip right afterwards seemed like perfect timing!

How did you fund the trip?

The way most people do – I saved up money! That, and by the time I left I was making a decent amount of money from my blog and freelance writing, so I knew I would be able to work and earn a little money on the road, too.

What do you wish you knew before leaving? Any advice for would-be RTW travellers?

I wish I would have realized how burnt out I would get by traveling so quickly. By the end of 3 months in Europe, I was exhausted. I should have scheduled in more down-time for myself.

What is the most surprising thing you learned on the road?

I learned that the long-term travel thing really isn’t for me. I LOVE traveling and I love experiencing other cultures and picking out the little things that are the same and different from my own. But I was really missing home after about 2 months. Traveling non-stop for months on end just isn’t for me!

amanda dangerous biz rtw nzmuse 2

What was your favourite destination (or since I know this can be impossible to choose, what’s one place you would return to in a heartbeat?)

Sooooo difficult to choose! London is probably my favorite city in the world, but I also fell in love with Berlin on my RTW trip. Also, Vietnam! I went there during Part 2 of this trip (I ended up going home after 3 months in Europe, and did the Southeast Asia part of the trip separately), and really loved it.

You cut your RTW trip short after realising long term travel isn’t your thing. What was it like returning home?

It actually was a relief to book that ticket home after 3 months in Europe. I didn’t view it as giving up or anything – I just knew it was what I needed. It was DEFINITELY the right decision. And of course my family and boyfriend were really happy to have me home early! Plus, it gave me time to recharge and plan the Asia part of the trip.

Where are you at the moment? Do you plan to stay put – is this your ‘forever’ city?

I’m back in Ohio right now, building up my freelancing business and trying to carve out a career for myself that will allow me to work from anywhere in the world. This definitely isn’t my “forever” home, but it’s home for now. It makes a great base to take shorter trips from!

What’s still on your travel wishlist? Any confirmed trips coming up?

As for my travel wish list… it’s still huge! At the top are South Africa, Colombia, Norway, and Mexico. And as for upcoming trips, I’m doing some US/Canada exploring this summer, with trips to Niagara Falls and Alaska coming up in the next month. Beyond that, I’m currently considering a trip to New Zealand in November (it’s my favorite country ever!), or perhaps going back to Europe for some conferences. As always, who knows where I’ll end up!

Also see: RTW and back with Two for the Road and RTW and back with See You Soon

In defence of touristy places

tourist spots i love - in defence of touristy spots

While I suspect I may lose some cred for admitting to adoring all these destinations, I don’t care. I love them anyway.

Hoi An

nzmuse hoi an

Basically the definition of a tourist town. Were it not for tourism, I’m not sure it would exist. It’s colourful, with fantastic food, a little bit of a time warp in the middle of the country.  As I wrote last year: “It’s all a show, really, but it doesn’t make it any less magical.”

Halong Bay

nzmuse halong bay tourist spot

Yup, another Vietnamese spot!  I had heard negative things about the rubbish and pollution in the waters here, but it was surprisingly clean overall (note that we went during low season). This is a World Heritage site that will leave you feeling humbled and awed.

Santorini

nzmuse santorini tourist spot

The light here is like nothing else. Eat, drink, swim – try to hit the black, red AND white beaches – and be merry. Quite possibly the most romantic spot we visited. Fairly affordable, too.

Venice

nzmuse venice touristy spots

I was prepared for the worst – smelly, grotty, humid canals. But there was absolutely zero stench and while it was rather sweltering in August, I looooved the tiny alleyways, the gelato, and our overpriced gondola ride. ALL OF IT.

Queenstown

nzmuse queenstown touristy spot

Picture-perfect, even if it does get bloody cold down there. (The razor-like winds will cut you almost as deep as Iceland’s gusts.)

 

Haggling in Asia: Tales from the street vault

nzmuse bangkok haggling

It’s hard to believe that a year ago we were waving goodbye to Bangkok, hopping the Airtrain and winging our way to London. Suvarnabhumi was one heck of an airport, I’ll say. I’ll always remember it for the crazy fast travelators, our last fix of Mr Donut and oh, yeah, the fact I managed to lose my boarding pass somewhere between checkin and boarding.

One thing I wasn’t looking forward to about travelling in Asia was bargaining. I’m not used to negotiating, and even if it was expected of me, I just didn’t know how I’d cope.

As it turns out, we didn’t have much to worry about. We weren’t there for the shopping; we were there to eat and sightsee. We did buy a couple of things, though.

Our first haggle came courtesy of T, who took it upon himself to acquire a flip-knife he spotted amongst the treasures at a street stall. (Result: 50 baht off for a total of 300 baht. If I recall correctly. I don’t think that was hugely successful.)

There was also his tattoo, a totally out-of-the-blue purchase. While he’d been bugging me about getting inked in Thailand, I simply kept giving him The Look. Then, one night, we headed out to Khao San Rd for a drink run at about 10.30pm. (I think the hardest part about Cambodia and Vietnam, for him, was the absence of 7-11s and his beloved Big Gulp drinks.) We stopped so he could flip through yet another tattoo parlour’s lookbook. The owner ushered us inside and started doing his sales spiel. To say it was a tough sell would be an understatement – I totally stonewalled him. He threw out an initial quote of maybe 6000 and eventually came down to 5000 in an attempt to convince me… and since T was able to pull up his second family crest online to show the artist, and the price was way less than we’d pay here, I conceded.

And that’s how we ended up going out for a Coke and coming back many hours later with a tattoo.

The other occasion where we found ourselves forced to haggle was with drivers. You might find drivers unwilling to use the meter, for whatever dodgy reason, who quote you absolutely outrageous fares for a 5-minute ride when you KNOW it should cost, at the most, half of that number.

And yet … the sums involved are usually fairly small in the grand scheme of things. There’s the principle; you know what’s a fair price to pay, and you don’t want to get ripped off. At the same time, we may have been budget travellers , but a dollar or two would have meant a lot more to locals than it did to us.

Got any haggling stories to share?

HelpStay: Launching a thousand journeys

helpstay nzmuse The concept of volunteering overseas changed my life. Literally. Had I not discovered the likes of WWOOF and HelpX, odds are we would never have taken our RTW trip. Volunteering (which we did in Italy and Germany) enabled us to extend our travels and gave us some of the richest memories and experiences of that entire journey.

So when Shay Gleeson, founder of HelpStay, got in touch with me, I was intrigued. His twist on the concept is introducing a fundamental layer of quality assurance – vetting, if you like. He’s an Irish bloke who (like us) recently took a six-month sabbatical and spent time travelling in Thailand, Vietnam and Australia, including some WWOOFing in the latter. Not surprisingly, he met plenty of other backpackers supplementing their travels by swapping their skills for lodging and food – there’s plenty of that here in New Zealand too.

The plan is to start small and expand from there. HelpStay has launched with a number of Irish hosts (most of whom he says are also members of other major volunteering sites) and Canada will be next off the ranks.

helpstay logo We had a chat about the birth of HelpStay, what he hopes to achieve, and where he’s off to next…

How he got the idea for HelpStay

I worked on organic farms for 3 weeks in Australia when I was on my travels. The idea started fermenting in my head. I was thinking ‘this is great’ …

Unfortunately I don’t have an inheritance or a nest egg or a trust fund … so you know the trip is going to come to an end sometime and you gotta go back to your home country, work for a few months, get some cash together then you can go off again.

I was thinking there must be an easier way to do this, to travel perpetually. That’s where the whole idea came from … that you can sustain your travel longer and go further.

A good UK friend of mine who is a surfing fanatic spent the whole summer in Australia helping in a surf lodge and surfing in his spare time. He did it all on a very tight budget.

To me travel is all about sharing, learning and growing and I think HelpStay facilitates the traveller to share their skills, learn new ones and grow as an individual. In addition, the traveller is living among locals, creating meaningful social connections and travelling with a purpose.

I guess we are the next evolution of Couchsurfing – you can crash on the couch but you will need to pull your weight about the place.

What sets HelpStay apart

There are other places doing it but where I’m different is that I wanted to actually look at building some trust and security into the system. At the moment, the other places, they don’t actually do any of that, they don’t actually go to the hosts and verify them, interview them and so forth.

If you’re a traveller and want to go to a host you’re taking a bit of a gamble. You don’t really know much about them. It’s a big ask to ask someone to go halfway across the world and stay with somebody they don’t know.

Hosts are only accepted on the platform once I have visited and interviewed them. I am also in the process of photographing all the hosts’ properties. This way the helper will know what to expect. It’s a big ask for someone to travel half way across the world, they need to know what to expect. I want to ensure that each host property and stay is as expected. Trust and security play a massive part and it’s something that is at the forefront of this venture. After all, trust is the currency of the new economy.

The end game

With HelpStay, I want to start 1000+ journeys. I want to entice people to start travelling and exploring the world. I want to empower the current generations to leave the safety of the couch and start a new journey. In the future, I would love to have hosts in a diverse range of countries and regions. How cool would it be to spend a month living and learning fabric weaving in Ireland or on a ranch learning horsemanship skills in Mongolia?

The end game of the whole project is to have hosts in as many countries as possible, in really interesting countries … like Mongolia, Iran or Iraq. If it works the way it’s supposed to work you will be able to travel around the world free, you can go from one host to another and that way travel perpetually (Ed: And a handy excuse to travel there to vet them!).

Once I have Ireland up and running, I am going to start travelling again. I have booked my flights to leave for Australia in early December.

helpstay nzmuse

My thoughts, in closing:

Shay mentions that volunteering can easily turn into exploitation if there’s a lack of communication and expectations aren’t laid out (hence the required approval process here, even though it takes a lot of work on his part). As he says, it really is the little things that can ruin an experience. We got a bit of a feel for our host via Skype beforehand, but were totally thrown by their eating habits (quantity/timing) when we got there. That’s a really hard thing to nail down – what do you call a reasonable amount of food, and does it line up with my perception?! – but I know if we ever volunteer again I’ll be asking about their dining routine early on.

 

RTW and back: An interview with Arienne from See You Soon

arienne see you soon rtw nzmuse

Teaching English overseas is a pretty common rite of passage for NZers, particularly as Asia develops further – but it’s a bit rarer among North Americans. Canadians Arienne Parzei and her partner are two who took this path … and the opportunity to tack on some extended travel at the end of it all. Good call!

You’ll find her blog over at seeyousoon.ca (with a niche in adventure activities, cultural experiences, and budget travel).  Arienne is a travel writer, videographer, and photographer from Toronto, whose insatiable curiosity for learning about different cultures first hand has led her to some amazing destinations and experiences, including living in South Korea for two years and backpacking for eight months through China, Southeast Asia, Australia, and New Zealand (huzzah! That’s her at Mt Cook above). We definitely share a predominantly go-with-the-flow travel philosophy, love for Malaysian food, and wonderment at the inherent goodness of human nature.

What made you decide to embark on your extended trip?

For a number of years I had thought about doing an extended trip, ideally backpacking for about six months. Up until this point I had only done two-week trips here and there and a one-month trip down to Peru. I wanted to do something longer where I could really sink my feet into a country and region. When we decided to move to South Korea, we knew it would be the perfect time to tack on a trip after our contracts finished and explore more of Asia and the surrounding areas.

Had you planned it all before South Korea or did you decide while you were over there?

The only thing we planned before South Korea was that we would be traveling for 6 months after our contracts finished. We ended up having a really great time in Korea, so we stayed a second year. While in Korea, we had the idea that we would be backpacking through Southeast Asia and hopefully would have enough money to make it down to Australia and New Zealand. We bought our one-way plane tickets from Seoul to Beijing about 5 months before our contracts finished in Korea and really only planned out our first months of travel through China.

How long did it take to plan/prepare?

It took us about 6 months to prepare for the trip, researching visas and destinations, ensuring we had all the gear we’d need for the trip, etc. But in terms of planning the actual trip, we took a 2-weeks-at-a-time approach in that we really only planned out the next two-weeks. We had a general idea of the route we wanted to take, but usually found accommodations on arrival and went with what we felt like doing at the time.

How did you fund the trip?

The trip was entirely funded from our savings while teaching in South Korea. Moving abroad gave us the opportunity to experience a new culture while being able to save for the ‘big trip’.

What do you wish you knew before leaving? Any advice for would-be RTW travellers?

Hmm, I really can’t think of anything I wish I had known before going. That’s all part of the travel experience. I will say though, that we didn’t expect to be in Southeast Asia for as long as we did. We thought we would be traveling for 6 months. But our budget was holding up and we ended up being on the road for 8 months (5 of which were in Southeast Asia). In terms of advice, I’d say don’t tie yourself down to any set plans. Go with the flow, follow your gut, and don’t race your way through destinations.

What is something surprising you learned on the road?

I learned that there are a lot of amazing people in this world. Kind-hearted people who are willing to open their doors to you, invite you to join in a meal, even when you’re complete strangers. I think many of us approach situations from a skeptical eye, thinking “what does this person really want from me?” And while there are some of those people, more often than not, the people you’ll meet mean the best. I learned to be open to allow those situations to happen.

What was your favourite place (or since I know this is impossible to choose, what’s one place you would return to in a heartbeat?)

Yes it’s hard to choose! We visited 10 countries on our trip and there are 3 that I would return to in a heartbeat; Laos, Malaysia, and New Zealand. Laos for the laid-backness, Malaysia for the food, and New Zealand for the scenery.

What’s still on your travel wish list? Any confirmed trips coming up?

There’s still a lot on the wish list! We’d both like to explore more of our own country, Canada, and we’re talking about a big road trip through the United States. I’d also really like to start exploring more of Eastern Europe.

What’s it been like settling back in Canada so far?

It took some time to readjust to living in Canada again. We were gone for almost 3 years, so we did experience some reverse culture shock. Tristan went back to school and got his teaching degree and he’s now teaching in the public schools in Toronto and I ended up getting a job working at Ryerson University teaching video and radio production. It seems our time in Korean classrooms made an impression on us!

Do you plan to stay put – is this your ‘forever’ city?

That’s a hard question. For most people, deciding to move abroad can be one of the hardest things to do. But once you’ve done it you realize how capable and straightforward it can be. You also learn that you don’t really need too much stuff. Toronto is where our families and friends are but we’re not going to rule out the possibility of moving abroad again one day.

Also see: RTW and back: An interview with Maddie and Paul of Two for the Road)

Winter is coming…. Dreaming of a tropical birthday getaway

I’ve been lucky to have spent my last three birthdays abroad. Rarotonga, 2011. Sydney, 2012. Prague, 2013.

Alas, that streak eventually had to end. Seeing as I managed to skip winter entirely last year, I’m finding it abysmally cold  right now (by Auckland standards, obviously) and it’s not helped by the fact our little house has the chililest tiled floors ever known to man.

So here I am, dreaming of tropical island escapes.

Maldives water bungalow
By: Sarah_Ackerman

A water bungalow in the Maldives, maybe?

Vanuatu Eruption
By: U.S. Geological Survey

Getting close to the action at Mt Yasur, Vanuatu

By: Philippe AMIOT

Or some French flavour in New Caledonia.

And of course, Niue is still on my bucket list. I’ll never forget the look the travel agent gave me when I first enquired about Pacific Island holidays back in 2011. “Niue is very … natural,” he said, appearing to dampen what might have been a smirk. Fine by me.

It’s just over one month till my birthday. I have no idea what I’ll be doing, so universe, I’m open to options!

A Kiwi abroad: 5 things that feel alien

 

All you can eat buffets in different cuisines. I remember getting all bug-eyed in Toronto at the signs – Korean, Japanese, Indian! I’ve only ever seen western style buffets here, and mostly they’re underwhelming. Ditto with a la carte portions – meals in NZ are stingily small, especially in western restaurants – I can’t think of a single time where I had just a main at a pub or other western eatery and walked out properly full. (Brunch excepted – sometimes big breakfasts actually DO live up to their name.)

Cops with guns. I never got used to seeing armed police. It was always my first instinct to move away from them as soon as I saw them. (Obviously, our police force is unarmed.)

Waking up hot. At least you’ll never get up feeling sticky. It’s always cool here in the mornings and even on the hottest summer days I would never presume to leave the house without at least a cardigan in my bag – you never know when the weather could turn.  As a result, it’s hard to describe, but there’s a certain temperature at which it feels strange to wake up because the air is so warm around you.

Adding taxes at the till. Almost as annoying as having to tip.

Not being able to drink the tap water. I must say, we totally failed at avoiding iced drinks in Asia. I’m sure odds are we probably consumed some unpurified ice cubes at some point. We were stringent about sticking to bottle water, of course.

Travel Tuesday: 10 questions

travel blogger nzmuse q&A

(Hat tip to Kara for this one! When I saw this on her blog I just knew I had to do this too)

1. Your most treasured passport stamp? I was super bummed to realise that I wouldn’t get passport stamps for all the Schengen countries we visited in Europe! Otherwise Italy would be top of this list. Instead, I will go with the stamp I got when we landed at JFK in New York. I’ll never forget the interminable baggage delay, the chipper customs official, and our first glimpses of the city from the Airtrain. So exciting.

2. Can you recite your passport number from memory if asked? Um, yep. And T’s too, because it’s only one digit different.

3. Preferred method of travel: Plane, train, or automobile? Probably by car, with T driving. Our road trip of the US was so comfortable – planes have nothing on it, nor do even the nicest trains.

4. Top three travel items? Smartphone, Camelbak, comfy shoes. (More on my packing style here!)

5. Hostel or hotel? Not fussed, whatever’s more cost-effective. I like the privacy and amenities of hotels, but we’ve met some cool people at hostels and had experiences we never would’ve had at a hotel.

6. Are you a repeat visitor, or do you prefer to explore new places? Definitely prefer to explore new places. So many to see! That said, if money was no object I’d love to go back to Italy and Greece (and of course I want to revisit New York).

7. Do you read up on your destination, or do you wing it? I like to read up a little so I know what I’m in for and can try to orient myself once we get there. I remember arriving in Hanoi and being dropped off at a travel agency by the bus and having NO idea where we were.

8. Favourite travel website? I don’t really use websites a lot except in the research stage. I do use Booking.com for accommodation and while in the US, Yelp for finding places to eat. But these are the travel apps I swear by.

9. Where would you recommend a friend to visit, and why? I’d have to ask them a ton more questions to narrow down what they want first!

10. You’re leaving tomorrow and money is no option; where are you going? Ooh! Well, in that case … another RTW trip. We’d hit Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Spain, Portugal, Russia, the Pacific Northwest, the Galapagos, and maybe Mexico.

My top 10 RTW travel moments of 2013

NZMUSE TOP 10 TRAVEL MOMENTS NZMUSE It’s been exactly one year since we left on our RTW trip. All I can say about that is HOLY CRAP.

Also, time flies.

Lest I forget, I thought I’d chronicle 10 memorable moments from our RTW trip on this anniversary.

nzmuse mexican food

Our first brush with Mexican food

Eating Mexican food was one of the things I was most looking forward to in the States. But with so much amazing cuisine on offer on the East Coast, it just didn’t even register, really, until Chicago. Once we’d had hot dogs and pizza and pierogi there (and White Castle, but let’s not speak of that abomination) accompanying our friend to a local Mexican restaurant – a highly recommended one – was a nobrainer.

Everything was a revelation. Free UNLIMITED corn chips? Insanity. The tortilla soup was so complex and rich in flavours. The plates were huge, packed with the rice, refried beans, salad and wraps that you just can’t find an equivalent of in New Zealand.  

From then on, we ate Mexican at least every other day until we flew out of LA. I desperately, desperately miss it.

Serendipitously spotting the Northern Lights in Iceland

If you look north, you might be able to spot the northern lights, our Couchsurfing host texted us. 

We were just leaving Reykjavik in our rental car, so I took a look on Google Maps and directed us to what looked to be a giant piece of parkland away from the mass of houses and residential roads. (It turned out to be a golf course, I think). Driving out there utterly alone was super eerie, but we achieved the main thing: leaving the light pollution of civilisation and getting out into the real dark of night.

After parking up, we sat back and waited. Chowed down on the snacks we’d stopped to grab on the way. Stared intensely into the blackness ahead of us.

Eventually, T pointed out a faint streak of green through the windscreen that seemed to move ever so slightly. It was one of those things that’s so ethereal, so delicate, you almost can’t see it if you’re focusing intently. Rather, by looking a little sideways and relaxing my gaze, the lights seemed clearer to me. They were very faint, very subtle, very undramatic, undulating in and out of visibility – but they were there.

I honestly wasn’t expecting to see the northern lights at all, given the time of year, and it didn’t cost us a thing extra.

Our first deli subs in New York

After a weird but entertaining first meeting with our Airbnb host in Brooklyn, we headed downstairs and out to Broadway in search of sustenance. Fried chicken was tempting, but we decided to go the deli route. I can’t remember what T ordered, but I know I got a cheese steak sub, and one bite in, my eyes were rolling back in my head with pleasure. After wolfing down our sandwiches, we crossed the road to another deli (they were not in short supply around this area…) and bought two more. Sigh.

Having mouthgasms in Rome

Sorry to be crude, but that really is the only way to describe it.

We walked for ages, trying to get away from the touristy restaurants, constantly stopping to peruse menus, then continuing on our way. Eventually we came across a little square, where locals seemed to be congregating around the fountain, and just off this square was a restaurant positively teeming with Italians and not an obvious foreigner in sight.

Eating at that restaurant was one of the best decisions we ever made. An unholy cheese platter with four kinds of cheese, served with honey. Eggplant parm that melted in my mouth. Bechamel lasagne, so rich but yet so perfectly balanced, we would happily have paid double the price for it if we had to. Oh, Italy, come back to me.

Blazing through Vermont on a bike

Our friends in Vermont were super keen to organise a fun itinerary for us. Alas, we couldn’t tee up a Harley, but we did manage to get some enormous, fast and powerful BMWs (they were, of course, an eyesore, but that’s secondary).

We crossed Lake Champlain onto the Grand Isle just as the sun set and rode way past dark, before heading back to Burlington for kebabs and Ben  & Jerry’s. The next day, we rode for hours and hours, through the mountains, to Montpelier, and back, flying past the neverending crimson forests. Serenity is the best way to describe those hours. I was so relaxed, I was almost nodding off on the back (not the best time to doze, I know).

halong bay sunset nzmuse

Cruising through Halong Bay

Apparently trying to visit Halong Bay by yourself is more often than not a bad idea, so we went with a tour. It was definitely the right choice. We kayaked around, craning our necks to look up at the amazing rock formations. We saw monkeys, chattering, fighting, playing, cuddling. And perhaps my favourite moment of all – we watched the sun set, a bouquet of reds and pinks and oranges over the horizon.

I can’t imagine how crowded it must get in peak season. We went in the low season and there were still boats all over the show; I imagine they must be practically jostled side by side in the peak tourist months.

Swimming through a pitch black cave

It took me a very long time to muster the guts to even jump off the boat. High on my list of things to avoid at all costs are deep water, darkness, and small spaces.  The Emerald Cave in Thailand ticked all those boxes. But somehow I made it through, and the pristine little beach at the end of it all was so worth it. One of the most out-of-this-world experiences in my life.

Finding our American doppelgangers in SoCal

When she heard we were coming to California, S from Tiny Apartment promptly emailed with an invitation to stay with her and a ton of ideas for places to see and eat. And as if that wasn’t enough, when we finally met in person, we quickly found out we were basically living eerily parallel lives on opposite sides of the world. She and her fiance were exact mirrors of me and T in almost every way imaginable – the way we think, behave, our quirks, even the stuff we clash over, the roles we play in our respective relationships. It was like there was no need to ever finish a sentence or a thought because the other would instantly know exactly what you meant.

Wanting to freeze time at Ocean Beach

There are moments toward the end of a long trip when you feel so overwhelmed by all you’ve seen and done, you just want to gather it all up to you and absorb it like a second skin so that those memories will never leave you. When you’re so glad to be alive and feel so lucky to be where you are that you can barely swallow over the lump of gratitude in your throat. When you just don’t want that night to end, and wish you could pause time because the days are falling away like brittle autumn leaves before your eyes. 

I felt this way often, but it was particularly strong that one night in San Diego. We’d spent the day by the beach, but before heading to bed, we hopped in the car and made our way to the nearest body of water, a corner of the coast bordered by dunes, where a fire glowed softly at its base, ringed by a group of teenagers. It was just too picture-perfect – something straight out of a Sarah Dessen book, maybe – the ideal backdrop for a summer romance, the kind of life I’d never had but always wistfully dreamed of as the phlegmatic adolescent I was. But here we were, a mid-20s married couple … scaling the dune, scuffing along through the sand, admiring the waves through sound rather than sight, contemplating all that had been and what was to come, then making our way back to our Dodge and finally to our soulless motel room.

playing with dogs

Rolling around with the farm dogs

There’s something about watching a grown man tenderly interacting with his child, amirite? Well, I felt a similar squeeze around my heart on one of our last days volunteering in Italy.

It was late afternoon, the sun no longer broiling us but languidly heading for the hills. Two of the five dogs kept racing off after each other, fighting over something (a bone, perhaps). T was lying on the grass, playfighting with the others, laughing and rolling around on the ground. It was a scene of pure contentment, simplicity, connection.

The funny thing is, I saw volunteering initially in purely financial terms – a way to extend our trip by saving money. Instead, those experiences yielded some of the most memorable highlights of our whole trip.

From the Black Forest, I’ll never forget our evening plays, our campfire night, dancing to Psy, laughing my head off at students’ jokes, hearing an unfamiliar song and being teased – “Hasn’t this song come out in New Zealand yet?”, being invited to stay with our German students, our sweet little Swiss protege who I cried to farewell, even the annoying old Americans who wore our nerves down at the time.

From Italy, I’ll never forget eating fresh bread every morning, the sweet joy of tomatoes off the vine, the Beatles concert, chasing little kids around trying to supervise their leaf-raking, a night drinking at the local boat club, the countless dinner parties with musicians and artists, the oh-so-awkward topless swim (so much for it being a nude beach; my host and I were the only ones doing it).  

What are some of your favourite travel memories?