With our eighth backward lurch and frantic pull on the emergency parking break, I was beginning to worry.
It was as if we were constantly riding to the top of the big hill of a roller coaster but never getting to enjoy the thrilling downward plunge! Somehow I had found myself sitting in a gigantic campervan halfway around the world.
My husband Mike was in the driver’s seat attempting to learn how to drive a stick shift vehicle (left handed!) on the treacherous “hills” of New Zealand.
While it had certainly sounded like a fun adventure two months earlier when we decided to take a career break to travel the world, as my knuckles turned whiter and we constantly stalled on the same hill, I started to think that we had bitten off more than we could chew…
Prior to our decision to take a year off to travel and volunteer, I was an ordinary, checklist oriented, routine loving businessperson. I owned a small condo in Chicago with Mike, traveled when I could, and felt “adventurous” when I drove to work without GPS.
While this might sound pretty boring, I was happy in my life.
But when Mike and I learned about another business professional that was chucking it all to travel, we knew that we too had to scratch our wanderlust itch.
I expected that the 250-day, 20-country trip would bring many ups and downs but quickly learned that it would also push me out of my comfort zone and expose me to the best (and worst) parts of different cultures. It truly was the ride of my life.
Mike and I’s first stop on our journey was New Zealand where the landscape was unreal and the laid back New Zealanders helped us harness the country mantra of “no worries”. Instead of easing into our trip, we decided to hop right out of our comfort zones and engage in a long list of firsts.
Some went better than others…
My first time camping. Mike and I rented a campervan and drove around the South Island for two weeks. It was an unbelievable first camping experience!
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) manages vehicle and boat-accessible camping areas on conservation land throughout the country. They also run numerous information shops and provide camping brochures to show you where everything is, making it simple to stop for a day hike or swim.
We camped under Mt. Cook – the tallest mountain in New Zealand – and washed our clothes (and ourselves) in a bucket filled with crystal clear lake water.
We enjoyed the sunrise in Kinloch on the shores of Lake Wakatipu (near the starting point of the famous Routeburn Track) and sipped our way through Marlborough wine country. Without this “hotel room on wheels” we never would have been able to see and experience the nooks and crannies of this glorious country. And while the thought of two weeks without a microwave, TV, or clothes dryer initially worried me, I was pleasantly surprised by life on the open road and blown away but what we could see and experience while campsite hopping.
Mike’s first time driving stick shift was a little less seamless and really pushed me to my limit. While Mike eventually got the hang of driving stick shift, I really could’ve used an IV filled with Chardonnay to ease the stress that I felt as a passenger.
Each leg of the drive felt like we were plopped in the middle of a video game – complete with dense fog, narrow roads, treacherous drop-offs and sheep that jutted in front of our van at just the right moment. I had to quickly learn when to keep my mouth shut and when to be supportive. (Tip: When you almost hit a parked car, it is not a good time to make jokes).
Yet, even though these drives through the South Island may have taken years off my life, they taught me the valuable lessons of trust and patience.
And I quickly learned that Mike and I had to be each other’s support system no matter what.
Our first time skydiving. As weird as it may sound, I went skydiving by accident. I NEVER would have considered taking such a leap in the past – I was the girl that got to the top of the high dive and turned around in middle school. But, I credit the overly laid back Kiwis when I talk about my first time jumping out of a plane.
Mike had always wanted to skydive and I agreed to go along with him for moral support and to play photographer. My initial interest was peaked however when I chatted with the oh-so-chill instructors that run the NZone Skydiving company. They seemed so knowledgeable and nonchalant that the wheels in my head stared turning. Then, I sat next to a 70-year old Indian doctor and his two best friends during the safety video and they were ALL going to participate.
My Fear-of-Missing-Out (FOMO) kicked in and I began to contemplate if I really had the guts to take the plunge.
The last straw came when Mike was all suited up and ready to board his flight. My curiosity got the best of me and I found myself thinking “why else did we take this career break if not to live life to the fullest?!” So, in dramatic fashion, I ran up to the store counter, scribbled my name on the liability waiver, and ran towards Mike to join him in this adventure.
And I never looked back – only down at the breathtaking scenery.
New Zealand was the perfect place to begin our nine-month trip around the world.
The people, landscape, and unique campervan experience pushed me out of my comfort zone and showed me that the best part of a roller coaster is not the anticipation or the expected excitement of the first free fall but the unforeseen twists and turns along the way. Our key to a successful journey was to embrace these surprising jaunts and then enjoy the ride!
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About the author: Kathryn is a social entrepreneur from Chicago with a passion for travel and giving back. She grew up in Columbus, Ohio and attended Cornell University where she received her Bachelor’s of Science in Communications and Business. After years of working in sales for large corporations, she took a career break with her husband, Mike, and traveled the world doing a mix of personal travel and volunteer work. She returned from the trip inspired her to create her own social venture – Unearth the World – that focuses on service learning and responsibly pairing volunteers with international nonprofits.