“So why did you choose New Zealand?” This was one of the questions most asked of me throughout my five and half months studying abroad. My answer was never the same. Usually I replied with some version of “I’ve always loved the outdoors, and New Zealand seemed like a great place to explore!” or “I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make it to this side of the world!” And though these responses aren’t lies, they’re also not the whole truth.
The truest answer to the why-did-I-choose-New-Zealand question is that before this, I’d never been alone. I wanted to figure out if that was even possible. And if it was, I wanted to see what would happen when I found myself completely and utterly alone. True to the millennial stereotype, I’m a very connected individual. I maintain a steady social media persona, my phone is usually in arm’s reach, and my current events knowledge comes from Internet headlines more often than inked ones. And I am somewhat terrified of being alone. So I packed a backpack, a rolling carry-on, and a bright blue suitcase and moved to the other side of the world.
It wasn’t until the second day of hiking the Rakiura Track in Stewart Island that I experienced what it was like to feel totally alone. The Rakiura Track is one of the nine Great Walks of New Zealand. Across roughly 34 kilometers across the island, hikers walk for three days through beaches, rain forests, and a mountain range. After a late start, my group began day two of our tramp under the early afternoon sun. My group soon spread out along the path. A few of the more ambitious members sped forward while the trio walking behind me stopped for a break. And just like that I found myself walking alone.
The path was quiet. Bird songs were faint in the distance, but with every step my foot sunk into thick mud, and the squelching of my boots drowned out most of the sounds of the woods. I had to make a conscious effort to pull my gaze from the muddy path and focus instead on my surroundings. I was deep into the rainforest of the island; All I could see in any direction were trees layered upon trees. The sun was hot, the mud was black, and I was all alone. My nerves fluttered the longer I walked. Half an hour passed. And then an hour. I just kept walking, half-heartedly wondering what I would do if I never came across anyone again. According to my trail guide pamphlet, the path split at some point along this stretch with one direction turning into a twelve-day tramp through the mountains while the other was the continuation of the Rakiura Track. I began to wonder if maybe I had taken the wrong fork. But I didn’t know what to do besides keep walking.
And then, thirty minutes later I climbed up a creek bed to find a half of my group lounging along on a fallen tree, swallowing the last of their PB and Js. Though rejoining my group reassured me that I was not lost in the wilderness, I had to give up my solitude. It wasn’t until I found my group that I realized what I had to leave behind. Walking that stretch of the path with only myself gave me so much time to think. By being completely disconnected from the outside world I became aware of just how many connections I had made in only a few months abroad. I thought about my family, my partner, my friends both new and old. I realized that I really could pick up and move somewhere without knowing a soul and somehow manage to make a life. It just might require doing some things by myself.
Studying abroad was one of the most beneficial experiences I have put myself through. It was hard, just like climbing three hundred stairs in one hour with a thirty pound pack was hard, and at times it was just as uncomfortable. But these uncomfortable moments were necessary because change is often uncomfortable. While studying abroad I came to understand the difference between being lonely and being alone. I felt lonely on a few occasions, but living in Auckland along side of one third of New Zealand’s population I was never actually alone. It wasn’t until I walked to the very tip of the southernmost point of the island that I experienced actual aloneness, and I couldn’t have felt more surrounded by people. As it turns out, loneliness and aloneness aren’t mutually inclusive.
I have grown and learned so much through my time in New Zealand. I moved in with strangers and left with best friends. I lived on the ground for a month, went at least a week without a shower, and I fell in love. But most importantly, I realized that I’m comfortable with who I am. And not only that, I also found out that I actually enjoy spending time with who I am. Alone.