A reminder from a chance conversation with a stranger that reminded me of the importance of taking a breath while traveling.
You know the expression “You never get a second chance to make a first impression?” That was the last thing I was thinking about as I accidentally slammed my luggage into the hostel dorm door, cringing as the sound echoed down the empty hallway. It had been an eventful day in New Zealand, as I had just left the town I called home for two months, in search of the next adventure to unfold during my working holiday stint.
The battle with my key card waged and eventually won, I quite literally stumbled into the room after tripping over aforementioned bag and was greeted with a bemused “Are you okay?” exclamation.
Looking slightly frightening while huffing and puffing à la the Big Bad Wolf in The Three Little Pigs is not usually how I like to meet my hostel dorm mates, but such is the backpacker life, or so I convinced myself. Pleasantries exchanged, and names forgotten right after they were mentioned, my newfound acquaintance settled back into bed while I got myself organized, and a semi-awkward silence enveloped the room.
Here’s a tip for solo travelers: food will be your friend, and could potentially make you friends. As a serial (and occasionally cereal) snacker, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to break the ice when meeting new people is to simply offer to share my snack supply.
True enough, silence gave way to munchies, which led to conversation. Soon we were comparing notes on Queenstown’s must-do’s, and we deemed an excursion around town as necessary to see what we could find. We fulfilled our duties as tourists by stopping frequently to capture photographs of the scenery, and scurried out of the launch paths of people trying their hand at frisbee golf, eventually settling on a bench to watch the sunset.
I asked him what his story was, wanting to know where he had been, what brought him to New Zealand’s adventure capital, and where he was going after. In return, he listened intently as I monologued on about the sequence of events that had led me to quit my job and move abroad for awhile, and the slew of odd jobs that had occupied my time there.
“When was the last time you relaxed?” he asked.
“I left my job to travel, remember? I came here to take time off and relax,” I protested.
“But have you, really?”
His question came accompanied with a pointed look.
I mulled over his words. Did I? The truth was, my time in New Zealand, while mostly amazing, had been spent working, applying for jobs, stressing out over my next destination or worrying about what would happen once I had to return home. By that point, my trip was almost at its finishing leg, and unintentionally, so much of my time and energy had gone into thinking and agonizing over crossing the finish line, that I had forgotten about simply taking a breath while traveling and enjoying the present moment, or the run itself, if you will.
“I thought so,” he said.
Well, I can tell you that the sunset in Queenstown was brilliant that day, with the warm hues splashed across the sky like a work of art. I have no photos to show you because I was doing exactly what he said — being there and savouring the moment, marveling over the fact that I was miles away from home in one of the most beautiful places I have visited, in the middle of the best and most eye-opening travel experience I have had, with someone who was a stranger to me a few hours prior.
I discovered some important things that day. Travel can be many things — exciting, wondrous, fun, life-changing, but also overwhelming at times. We all decide to book that plane, train or bus ticket for our own individual reasons, and for me, part of my experience was learning that taking a breath while traveling did not mean I was not making the most out of my time abroad.
I’ve heard a friend say that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. One of the best parts of traveling is the people we meet, the connections forged and friendships fostered regardless of where we come from. If we are lucky, some friendships survive the test of distance and time.
Some encounters are not afforded that same luxury, but serves a purpose, teaching us something valuable and leaving us with a fond memory to revisit from time to time. In this case, he gave me a much needed reminder of the importance of taking a step back and being in the present, a lesson which I continued to carry with me as I finished the remainder of my time at the Home of Middle‑earth.
So, while I still need to work on making a good first impression and learning to manage my talent of stumbling over everything and nothing at all, I think the people and moments that leave lasting impressions are the most meaningful ones we could ask for.