Excitement. Fear. Elation. Anxiety. Euphoria. Hesitation. There are many words that can be used to describe the millions of emotions one experiences when traveling abroad for the first time, and when I first stepped foot into New Zealand — my first country ever, I experienced all of these and more.
I’ve already stated that stepping onto my Air New Zealand plane and flying to the other side of the world was the scariest moment of my life (not because of the Richard Simmons intro they have), but stepping off the plane onto foreign soil for the first time was a whole different bag of emotions. Even though it has now been 4 years since that day, and I’ve flown well over 50 times and traveled to 18 different countries, I still remember that moment vividly.
It sticks with you, the feelings when you first embark on this great adventure not knowing what will follow, or what you will do, or what the country and the trip will be like. There are those of you that have been traveling since you were that crying baby on the plane, and surely there are some people out there that can’t recall the time a country stole your passport’s virginity, but for me everything about life was in a little town with a little town mentality that never thought much about the outside world.
I gave no real thought to the rest of the world. I cut grass on weekends. I worked in a job I hated. I drank more than 3 people should nightly. I obsessed over fleeting hobbies that usually involved get-rich-quick schemes. I dwelled over the small issues, I tried to date everyone I could and then got over them within days, I loved to talk shit about other people and lived in a constant state of anger.
It wasn’t until I started reading travel blogs and flipping through inspirational quote pictures on Tumblr for hours a day that I began to believe there was a much bigger world out there. Ignorance made me think that other countries were only seen in movies and on TV, something of fantasy. Those people, like me, forever stayed in their country and in their home city. Until the passport came. It still seemed like a fantasy — the ability to go to another country, but it was fast becoming reality. A mysterious reality.
Beads of sweat crawled down my forehead as I crossed the gangway and into Auckland Airport from the intense nervousness that had made me gnaw off my fingernails, and probably because I was wearing a winter hat and it was summer in New Zealand. Summer! It was November and I had just left the nipply weather of Los Angeles and it was as if I landed in some mythical land where everything was opposite. It kinda’ was. However silly it is to read that one of my first emotions when I entered New Zealand the surprise that it was summer and not winter, I was then a person that thought getting a passport involved some impossible feat. Until I got one of course and realized it just involved a short trip to the post office. I laugh at things like this now, but it felt as if the plane ride was more like traveling to another planet and it blew me away that 12 hours could make the seasons flip.
As I crossed the gangway and saw the words “Kia Ora!“ upon entering the customs area glass labyrinth, I was filled with a rush of happiness. My stomach was tight and trembled, and I was trying to hold back from giggling. My skin tingles with a thousand needles and with this electricity coursing through my veins I couldn’t help but smile gigantically. I’m sure people hated me and were pushing to get by me as I stood in the way fumbling with my Lonely Planet guidebook, passport, and phone to try to take a photo. But dammit, I was going to take a photo of this sign and maybe everything else along the way. Right up until a security guard approached me and said, “Please keep moving and no photos in the customs area.”
I got a photo anyway. And managed to drop my iPhone and shatter the glass. Thanks security guard!
Making my way through the glass labyrinth and into the customs area, I had no clue what to expect. I had never gone through a customs before, but all I saw was the lot of us being herded into queues and fear knotted up into my throat. What did I think? That we were being queued up for slaughter or something? Either way, I found it suddenly hard to swallow and my hands were shaking. It was probably because I had made the mistake of watching that Kiwi show Border Patrol on YouTube before flying to New Zealand about the customs police catching smugglers. At the time I found it hilariously silly, but now I felt as though they would stop me for some reason and I’d end up in jail. Of course I wasn’t smuggling anything at all, but the fear was there.
Do I smile or not smile? What do I say? Do I make eye contact or avoid it. Did I mess up my declaration form? Should I say “Kia Ora” or “Hello“? Does my breath smell? And then I was before the customs guard. I looked down to make sure my feet were in the right place and the blonde female guard with a stern face called me forward.
“Passport?!” She called out half annoyed, and I fumbled to give it to her.
“Hi how are you?” I blurted out louder than I should have.
“Fine.” she said with a courteous smirk as she flipped through my pages.
“It’s my first time doing this” I said, and realized as my cheeks flushed how embarrassing of a statement that was, but it cracked her stone facade and she laughed softly.
“I can see that” she said, and then stamped me in. “Welcome to New Zealand Mr. Brown” she said with a smile, and handed me back my passport.
With my passport virginity taken by New Zealand and the blonde officer, I strode with awkward confidence through the gate.
I was past the gate and into New Zealand, but my confident stride stopped there. Where do I go now? There were signs pointing to go right and so I followed, but there were more queues and this time I had to choose. I ended up in the customs declaration line simply because I didn’t want to somehow get in trouble for leaving and accidentally not declaring anything. Then I realized I hadn’t even gone to get my backpack from the baggage carousel yet!
Either me turning around fast and walking away or blurting out “Oh fuck” must have caught the attention of the customs agents. I went to my baggage claim area and found my bag already on the ground, wrapped in plastic. That was strange. I didn’t before loading it on and I started to freak out a bit like it meant I was caught for something. As I tore away the plastic, two border patrol agents stepped over. “Need help with anything?” one asked.
“Uh, I just don’t know where to go after this” I said, secretly looking for TV show cameras nearby.
“Can I see your passport please?” the other asked, and my stomach dropped. I was in trouble for something.
“Do you have anything to declare in your bag” the one who wasn’t looking at the passport asked.
“Uh, maybe my goldfish?” I said
“Goldfish?!” he retorted, “You got live goldfish onto the plane?!”
“No officer, no, these crackers” I said, and pulled them out.
They both laughed. And I chuckled nervously. “First time eh?” the one with the passport stated as he saw my lonely New Zealand stamp there.
“Yes, first time outside the United States.”
“Just head to declaration and show your goldfish” A guard said with a smirk, and handed back my passport. My first time was fast becoming a joke, but I was just happy to move on.
Declarations did take away my beloved Goldfish crackers.
New Zealand was almost there. I conquered my fears and traveled abroad. I made it (awkwardly) through customs and had my passport stamped. All I had to do was leave the airport. And I hesitated. I hadn’t booked any hotels or hostels. I didn’t know anyone at all. I was afraid to speak to a stranger and ask for directions. All of these “what if” scenarios flooded my brain and made me hesitate. It was as if I thought some sort of ferocious beasts lay in wait for me ahead. I couldn’t connect to wifi so I couldn’t just use my phone to make decisions for me on what to do and where to go. And then I met Scott. He saw me standing there, frozen, when he approached.
“Hey man” he said with a California cool. I was hesitant to respond to him as well. Was he some slick scam artist? Did he want to rob me? But he seemed like a nice person, and though it was hard to drop my guard I did.
“You’re from America too aren’t ya?”
“Yeah, DC area but I just got in from LA.” I said.
“Me too, we must have been on the same plane.” he replied. “Where are you staying?”
“I have no clue at all” I said. And it was true. I may have stood there all day, but instead, he forced me from my hesitation and my comfort zone and we left the airport to both find some accommodation.
I felt the weight of fear and hesitation and confusion drift away.
Once I left the airport, I suddenly became curious about everything. It was a rush of excitement and eagerness to just wander and explore and find out more. Just to walk for hours and take everything in. New Zealand, especially Auckland, is a very easy city to have as your first because everyone speaks English and most things are familiar. But everything was still different in a sense. Scott fed that curiosity as well. He was someone who I wanted to be like. I didn’t want to be him, but he had an air of weightlessness about him when it came to talking to strangers and doing something without worrying too much and I wanted to be like that. Though I still had my worries in the back of my head, I was curious about things for once. Curious enough to take a chance even if the outcome could be bad.
That is what travel is and has become for me since; a curiosity, knowing that a decision could turn out bad, but it could also be the best decision ever. The only way to find out is to give into your curiosity and do it. If not, you’ll never know, and not knowing and not taking a chance is the worst thing you can do in life. Desiring to find out about cultures and people and curious enough to talk to strangers and make new friends.
Since that original trip, every new flight and new country bring a floods of emotions. Not like that first time though. These days, I pass through airports and land in another country and wonder “I’m already here?” because most of that has become automatic for me. I still get immensely excited in airports watching people coming and going and knowing I am too, but the procedural part of it is now automatic. But that first time flying to a foreign country at the age of 23 and only knowing a world that existed in a few states I had traveled to in the United States brought hundreds of emotions at once. Some of them made me second guess my decision, but most of them were overpowering in a positive way. Many of those emotions told me that because I was feeling these emotions, it meant that what I was doing was worth it. There wasn’t a numbness in my heart anymore, it was thudding rapidly with happiness and curiosity.
For those of you that haven’t been traveling and have always dreamed of hopping on a plane and seeing the world — there are plenty of emotions that will try to stop you from doing this. I felt these fears and anxieties and hesitations before my trip to New Zealand, and even afterward. Much of life for many of us, especially if you grew up in the United States, exists only there. And people in your life and societal norms will say that it’s crazy to quit your job and sell your things and pursue a passionate endeavor.
From 4 years traveling around the world since that first fateful day, I tell you to listen not to outside influences, but listen to your heart. There are many countries around the world that the people can’t travel or chase their dreams. Countries where people dream the same dreams as you, but it isn’t fear that holds them back from leaving, it’s poverty or inability to get visas or political instabilities or war.
It is our responsibility as a human beings with the ability and freedom to travel to face our fears. To get over comfort zones of not having secure jobs and not having a big screen TV or not having our Starbucks. To travel to feed our curiosities, which will be the best education you ever have just by gobbling up all observations and experience that come from travel. To travel for people who won’t ever have the chance to, and when you meet those people, to connect with them and share your culture. To share a smile and a meal. To share emotions. Because though you may have these emotions flood you when you begin traveling, in your travels you will see that this is what connects every human being on the planet. We all feel the same emotions and desire the same basic things in life.
It’s perfectly normal to experience all of these emotions when you first start traveling.
In the battle of hundreds of emotions when you first start traveling, once you conquer the conflicting ones and continue this amazing journey, you will then discover nothing divides the human race as a whole except the fear of the unknown — and it is the one thing that was holding you back from surpassing your boundaries as well. You will be a piece in the puzzle connecting the world by surpassing boundaries, on a map or of the mind.