Submitted By: Mia Zavalij, Board Member
It’s been difficult to write about my study abroad experience in New Zealand. I chose to go to New Zealand because it was one of the last options left by the time I had decided to spend my next spring semester, and my last semester of undergrad, abroad. Of course, I also chose New Zealand because of it’s breathtaking sights and landscapes. I mean, could I really not have a great time in the country where Frodo and Bilbo Baggins journey through Middle-earth?
The truth is, a study abroad trip, or almost any solo trip for that matter, is always about so much more than the trip itself. Although I was thrilled to be travelling to one of the notably most beautiful countries in the world, I would have eagerly jumped at the chance to go to anywhere else.
I was holding on to some deep seated dissatisfaction with my life. I worked incredibly hard in college, and was fortunate enough to have cofounded a successful nonprofit at a very young age. But my hard work didn’t translate to my academics. It had been four years since I recovered from an eating disorder and I had even planned awareness raising events on campus. But, internally, I was still plagued by my past and felt incredibly disconnected from my body. I had one year left until graduation. I’d graduate after five years of undergrad, and a robust resume that I wasn’t proud of. The feeling of “this isn’t enough” followed me. So the option was, push through and finish up undergrad in one more semester OR — my dad offered me another alternative. Why don’t you study abroad?
I landed in Auckland, New Zealand on February 15th. I was at the top of the North Island and I had one last flight to go before my final destination to my soon to be home for five months, Wellington. It all felt pretty surreal. My flight from Maryland to California had been delayed because of a snowstorm, causing me to miss my flight to New Zealand and forcing me to stay the night in LA in a crappy Holiday Inn room by the airport that reeked of smoke. So I won’t be lying when I say that Auckland felt like a breath of fresh air. When I made it to Wellington, my wonderful homestay mom picked me up and drove us up a steep hill to the neighborhood of Melrose, where she was hosting two other students. Lisa, from Germany and Dan, from China. These women became nothing short of family. The house itself was idyllic. A charming white house, with wood floors, tall windows and front yard with a view of the bay. I opened the door to my temporary room and sighed, yeah I could be happy here I thought. It felt like a blank page, white walls and empty spaces.
My journey through Middle-earth
Despite being in an entirely new country, it was easy for me to find my way to my old habits. I made friends easily, said yes to everything and constantly told myself I was somehow screwing it all up. I had begun to fill my schedule with people and things without intention and my mind filled up with the uneasiness of it all. I’d come home and wonder, but what am I supposed to get out of all this? Did I decide to explore the right things today? Why don’t I feel like a new person? Am I supposed to be enlightened by now? Am I taking enough classes? Am I taking too many classes?
A few weeks in I decided to wipe it all clean again, I physically slid off all the clutter from my desk and went back to the drawing boards. I told my newfound friends that I went on this trip because there were some things I needed to do on my own and although within days we had become “the goon squad” and were already lifelong friends, they understood. I decided there wasn’t anything I needed to be getting from the trip, and my only objective was to feel whole. I crumpled up all of the lists I had made with the things I had to do and places I had to visit, the lists that were beginning to weigh me down. I committed instead to go on one hike every single week, no matter where I was in the country. And I wrote five magical words on one sticky note. “Today, I will enjoy myself.” I woke up every single day for five months and saw those words. It didn’t matter if it meant I was studying by the beautiful Wellington waterfront or taking a run along the coastline in Lyall Bay. Oh and that’s the other thing. I took my very first run out of desire. Of course it’s easy to love running when you are surrounded by rugged coastline. But that was the first time I was running not because I had to. And not because I felt shitty about eating and six miles was my personal punishment for being born with hips and thick legs.
Woman vs. wild
Now this is the fun part. Cue montage of a woman in flannel and khaki pants trekking up mountains, backpacking along coastlines and laughing while drinking wine with her friends as they watch the sunset on a beach. Now picture me, my experience was hardly as graceful or picturesque. It was me and my new best friends eating string cheese in the dark for dinner when we arrived at a hostel in the middle of the night. It was running through the streets of Wellington in the middle of a cyclone for the fun of it. It was jumping off a pier off the coast after seeing the shadow of a couple of stingrays swimming just beneath the surface and screaming “fuck it”; likelihood of death by stingray: low, belief of death by stingray: high. It was taking a five day backpacking trip in the Abel Tasman with my friend Anna and missing a week of school because it was oh so worth it. And it was getting in trouble with a park ranger because you messed up the dates on said backpacking trip. Oh and also learning the absolute wrong way to back your backpack. It was drinking Scrumpies (cheap, super sweet cider) with my friends in their dorm room and learning that iced coffee actually meant coffee milkshake no matter how many times you said you just wanted ice in your coffee. It was climbing up Mount Doom (you know the one in Lord of the Rings), and hating every minute of it because with every step up, the rocks would slide you back down again. But also loving it, because you were going to tell everyone that you climbed up Mount Doom. It was going to hot water beach, and digging in the sand to find the hot water only to find you made a bunch of pits in the sand that were filling up with lukewarm water. It was taking a windy and narrow kayaking trip that was above your skill level and getting stuck in the bushes along the way. It was never as glamorous as I thought it should be, but it was always glorious. It was full of lessons, memories and people that I will treasure for a lifetime. And yes, by the end I really did feel like I was whole again.
It wouldn’t feel right to share my experience in New Zealand without compiling a list of some of my favorite adventures. So if you ever do find yourself in New Zealand, I hope you make some pretty imperfect memories in these places too:
- My favorite multi day backpacking trip, and how I learned the best way to not pack a backpack: Abel Tasman, South Island. If you love the idea of hiking up mountains while having a view of the coast and its beaches, and being able to take a dip in the ocean at the end of the day — this is the most perfect backpacking trip.
- When I felt the strongest, aka my favorite day hike: Tongariro Crossing, North Island, New Zealand. Great for hiking up volcanoes, Mount Doom and discovering the beauty of emerald green lakes. (
- Most peaceful hostel: Little Earth Lodge – Whangarei, Northland, New Zealand. Also the best place to find the greenest of hikes.
- Most challenging kayaking experience: Tokaanu, just outside of Lake Taupo, North Island.
- Coolest experience: Waitomo Caves, North Island. Make sure to take an evening walk through the surrounding forest — you’ll be surrounded by glow worms in the trees and the starry skies.
- Favorite beach (and hot tub!) : Hot Water Beach, Coromandel Bay, North Island. You really can dig up your own personal hot tub.
- Best van rental: Escape Rentals. For traveling around in style.