A woman finds herself on a solo backpacking trip to New Zealand after losing the love of her life
Who doesn’t love a good chicken nugget? Whether it’s (probably) fake, machine-pressed, highly processed, magical goodness from McDonalds or a $7-a-box, frozen, gluten-free nugget from Whole Foods, they are damn delicious. Chicken nuggets are what you look for at a restaurant because you know you will enjoy them. You’ll dunk them in honey mustard, or barbeque sauce, or whatever, and you’ll be satisfied. Chicken nuggets are safe. But they’re fucking boring.
I met a man in Christchurch, New Zealand who had decided he was done with chicken nuggets forever. His name is Shane and his beautiful heart, soul, and face are just some of the reasons why he is amazing. One of the great things about being in New Zealand is talking to strangers. I have learned more about people than the superficial. The real ‘them’ may even come out to play, if you’re lucky. I’d like to think I’m good at bringing the deeper self out of people; letting them know that the ‘self’ they are willing to show will be reciprocated and kept safe. All it takes is a little vulnerability and some courage. But really what’s the worst that can happen? (As my mom would say) You don’t know these people and their opinion only matters if you want it to matter, if you choose to value it. Shane’s story was similar to others’ stories I’ve heard, in its own unique way.
“Why are you in New Zealand?”
“Tell me a secret.”
“Where are you traveling and where have you come from?”
The answers to these questions are important, maybe even precious. In a nutshell, the stories I heard resembled each other in regards to self-discovery, self-reflection, taking a break from life, or finding a new one. Another similarity is that many people from different countries all over the world (they are the most exciting to meet), all said they have been told by others, or have even felt themselves, that they are doing the Eat, Pray, Love or Wild thing. Many friends and family members have also told me this back home. Maybe we are doing that. Or maybe we have just run out of excuses and decided that we aren’t ordering chicken nuggets anymore; we’re going out there and living our fucking lives.
For the first time in my life, I feel like what I am literally carrying on my back is all I need; granola bars and nuts as meals for days are enough; the people I meet in hostels, on busses, or on the beach and spend my day telling stories to are enough. And even sitting in silence and knowing that you have the company of another human being beside you is enough.
Back home, becoming dependent on a car, the Internet, social media, and the people you know and feel comfortable with feels good to me. It feels really good. But deciding to ditch all of that for muesli or scroggin and a yarn with a stranger? That feels amazing. If you don’t know what those are, go out there and find out; don’t use the Internet, use an airplane and a passport and a backpack.
Now you may be thinking that I’m on my pretentious, gluten-free travelers high-horse. But let me give you a disclaimer, New Zealand has been my first backpacking trip and I am in no way an expert in leaving your life behind and starting a new one on the other side of the planet. With that being said, my reason for traveling is overwhelmingly complicated, yet also completely simple. A year ago in March the love of my life died and my life crumbled. Depression took over and I wanted to run. I thought that if I didn’t have a serious change in scenery I might kill myself. So, I researched some places and booked a ticket to New Zealand and decided I was going to go backpacking by myself for 40 days. Another thing I decided was that I was going to delete all social media and cut off communication with everyone back home, except for a Whatsapp message here and there to my family. Besides that, I would not talk to anyone I know. I also decided I would not get a SIM card and I would only use the Internet via free Wi-Fi, where I could find it. Living this way for 40 days has been difficult at times, but it has forced me to be more present, more thoughtful in conversations, and more reliable on maps rather than on GPS. It has forced me out of my comfort zone, away from the chicken nuggets and onto a different page of the menu. I felt like I needed to figure myself out, my next steps, and how the hell I’m supposed to live my life without the person I thought would always be by my side. I lost part of my soul. Now, I am trying to find it.
*Cue Eat, Pray, Love & Wild.
Before I left, I was a planner. If things didn’t go the way I had anticipated or intended, I would get stressed, sometimes to the point of having an anxiety attack. I couldn’t adjust to new circumstances when I had already planned an outcome. Traveling helped me change that. When I had a bus, but no place to sleep, or a place to sleep, but no bus to get there, I had to get creative and accept that what I imagined that night or the next day being, probably wasn’t going to play out as intended. I also adjusted things other than my plans; such as my 41-pound backpack that I constantly thought was trying to kill me by breaking my bones into a million pieces. I have close to no upper body strength, so you could say I was struggling. But just as I was not going to let my heavy backpack slow me down, neither was the fear of the unknown ahead. For the first time I decided to live everyday with no set plan. What I realized was that I would meet people and find new things to do that went against all the thinking about what I was going to do next. And I always went with it, without hesitation. I was cancelling or changing buses, hostels, and reservations like it was my damn job. And I loved it. I was not going to miss out on something or someone potentially great because I had a bus to catch. Part of this “going with the flow” attitude was saying yes, to everything. I thought of myself as becoming a “yes woman”. That sounds progressive, right? When I was offered something, whether it is a ride, food, or spontaneous adventures, I would always accept. Thinking back to improv comedy (shout out to my little bro), saying yes and going with it is essential and keeps the scene going — the scene in this case being life. My new attitude had a mind of its own and was ready for anything. It was because of this decision, I believe my trip was so memorable and amazing; so full of life and opportunities. I was a yes woman with an open heart and no plans. That’s the smell of freedom.
Most people travel for the sights, am-I-right? I was no exception in my choice to go to New Zealand, a country, I would argue, is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I wanted to take in as much beauty as I could fit into each day. On one of these memorable days I found myself taking on the Ben Lomond Track in Queenstown. The day began at 6:00 am and was to culminate in a jump from 12,000 feet out of a plane down through the clouds, (later I would throw myself off a 154 foot ledge while attached to a bungee cord). I thought it was only appropriate to continue this trend of amazing ideas and pull myself up into the saddle of this magnificent track in the heart of Queenstown overlooking Lake Wakatipu. The truth is that I didn’t reach the saddle. I was running out of liquids and my body was getting burned. I had been warned that New Zealand has a burn time of 45 seconds — the sun does not play around, so don’t test it. When I was walking the track, which is mostly in direct sunlight, I was alone. Although I was sweating, hurting, and only running off of the adrenaline of the activities earlier that day, it dawned on me that this masterpiece of nature that I was immersed in is so much more than a pretty face. What makes a place or a moment special are the feelings that it brings you; the emotion that you feel, and sometimes release; and the thoughts and vulnerabilities that come after. I reached a peak where I sat and let my legs dangle off the ledge, took a deep breath, and started talking to Drew. I told him I hoped he found his freedom, because I had found mine. But he already knew that.
I found that when I surrounded myself in the glory that is Mother Earth, it was easier to get to the real reason I traveled to the other side of the world; to get in touch with my soul; to be connected to something bigger than me; to be closer to the one I had lost. Speaking solely for myself, this wasn’t possible to do that in the everyday life I was living back home. I needed to escape, to recharge. Something that I really loved, and tried to do as much as I could, was described to me as “chasing the sun”. This is the concept of following the sun when it is setting; seeing it best from a high mountain view; or going to find the sun when it rises. One of the most spectacular moments I had was watching the sunrise on the beach in Kaikoura. The warmth of the sun and the beauty before my eyes soaked my soul. It made me think of how incredible every moment could be if we just stopped for one second, decided to live our lives differently for one second — what beauty would we find?
If we have the courage to flip the page of the menu and order something new, dare to step out of the chicken nugget arena and live the way we have always dreamed of living, wouldn’t that be spectacular? Most people are afraid to give themselves a break because of one reason or another. You have to trust me on this: be good to yourself and just do it. Maybe your break is playing hooky from work to go see the Ravens kick some Steelers ass; or maybe it’s getting the massage you have been meaning to get for the past four years; or maybe it’s leaving your life and finding a new one in another country. Whatever it is, you can do what I did and give yourself permission. I knew I deserved it and so do you.
I feel like there is a recurring theme of taking opportunity by the balls and making it your bitch in this story. Does anyone else feel that way? If your favorite food is fried squares of chicken, I bet you don’t. When opportunity came my way, I took it. I turned “Oh, shit” moments into “Hell yeah” moments. When I was on the road and saw a sign that looked like it led to nowhere, but said “scenic route”, you bet I took it. Maybe it added five minutes, maybe it added an hour, who cares; I had time. I made the time. I also thought about how, when I am in a new outdoor environment, I rarely look up when I am walking. This is because I am afraid I will fall, or I’ll step on a dead mouse and die of fright. But this I am the new me, and I am empowered, and brave, and only terrified of mice, but no longer deathly afraid. So, when I was hiking in this glorious new world of New Zealand, I would watch where I was going, but I wasn’t always staring at the ground. I didn’t want to eventually look up and realize that I had marched through 10 miles of magnificent beauty staring at my boots and trying not to trip. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
One of the best things about traveling alone is the freedom to be whoever you want to be. Think of how wonderful and freeing it is to have no idea what the day has in store for you, what will fall into place, and who you will meet. We seem to be stuck in our lives, finding it tremendously difficult to change in a significant way, even if we crave that change. Is the fear of the unknown much more powerful than the fear of living a mediocre, only somewhat fulfilling life? Are we making a choice, or are life’s limitations merely too large? It is unrealistic and simply untrue to think that everyone has the ability to travel or make all of the changes they wish to make in their lives. Many people are restricted either by our culture’s systemic lifestyle, disability, money, or larger responsibilities. I could go on. Unfortunately, I feel like this is true for a lot of people. Though, I can’t put all the blame on the people; it is the American culture that introduced us to chicken nuggets in the first place. Things that are scary, unacceptable, or crazy in America, seem to be pretty much the opposite in other parts of the world. For example, speaking to a stranger sounds like a joke. Like, seriously, why would you ever do that? But personally, I thrived on that. For example, before I left for the trip, I purchased a GoPro as well as a selfie-stick. (It’s embarrassing, I know.) Apparently I forgot I had a working arm and hand that was engineered and designed specifically to take selfies. Anyway, most days I decided I didn’t want to take the selfie stick with me because then I’d be forced to talk to strangers and ask them to take my picture. This led to starting conversations. Magical. So easy. Selfie sticks: keeping people antisocial since 2005.
Continuing these conversations with these people was also a big, scary thing in America. Don’t talk to people you don’t know, don’t bother them, it’s none of your business. I decided to take none of that into consideration. And that’s where shit got real. That’s when I started to get to know people, to learn about them, hear their story. This is when the Eat, Pray, Love moments came. The moments where I realized that I am not special, and neither are you, and neither are our experiences. The experiences that brought me to the other side of the world are different than what brought Shane, and the other people I met, to the same destination. But when we dissect those experiences and the reasons that we all have, a foundation is established. I found that we are all here for similar reasons and what I thought separated me and made me unique, actually doesn’t. We all suffer, we are all in pain, we are all filled with love, and we are all looking for something. It was in the moments that I decided to shut up and listen, than I found out what human connection really is, and everything we all want can be summed up simply: we want to feel happy, wanted, and purposeful. I imagine we all can think of other things we want as well, but those are what I have come to find in my experience with connecting with other human beings in this life so far.
So, maybe by now you have made the first step and have decided to give up chicken nuggets for Lent. Maybe that will lead to you never ordering them again. Feel overwhelmed yet? I know the feeling. One of the main things I told myself was that I had to do things I wouldn’t normally do. Act in ways I wouldn’t normally act. Basically: no chicken nuggets. I didn’t want the fear of the unknown holding me back. You know the quote that goes along the lines of, “Everything you want is on the other side of fear”? I used to believe that sort of thinking was dumb. But I promise you it is so real. I decided that I will be brave, and I will be new. I will give myself a 1,2,3, go and a pep talk in the bathroom mirror and remind myself that on a daily basis, I’m fucking killin’ it, and so are you. Before I left I had a friend say to me, “I want to venture, but I don’t have the vacation days.” Excuse my French, but what the fuck is that?! Without targeting her, that statement is the absolute worst. It is the epitome of daily life, money, people, “the man”, holding you back. Don’t get me wrong; I totally understand why she said it. Life is life, and life needs money and has responsibilities. Life has me in over $100,000 worth of debt from grad school alone. So believe me, I get it. But it’s bullshit. Why should I and everyone else be force-fed the chicken nugget diet when we want seconds-out-of-water, still-on-the-boat-deck, cut-open fish dipped in soy sauce and wasabi? That’s some fresh sushi. (I literally saw this when I was in Russell in the Bay of Islands). I wanted to write on a beach in the middle of nowhere in, what has been said to be by some, the most beautiful place in New Zealand. And as I’m writing this, I am sitting on said beach.
I want to challenge myself, be proud of myself, see myself, love myself, and let others love me. If I, and other people like me — people that are looking for pieces of their soul or a sign from something — that soulful sign comes at us full force. Maybe if we chase the sun and not let ourselves fall into darkness we will find the gratefulness, acceptance, and bravery we crave. If we just open ourselves up and be present, the answer will be right in front of our faces. If we can allow ourselves to chill the fuck out and sit the hell down and remember that if we take a deep breath, take in the surroundings, and trust the future; everything will be more than okay. It will be amazing. So, the next time you feel hungry, for food or adventure, ask yourself: what do I really want? Take your time and be honest in your answer. Because you deserve more than a boring chicken nugget; you deserve the meal of a lifetime.
Arielle Sokoll-Ward holds an LGSW and a Masters in Social Work. She started a chapter of GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing) in Columbia, MD for people who have lost a loved one to drugs or alcohol after her boyfriend passed away. She is always willing to have an open conversation about anything and is on a search for meaning and human connection.