“She’s talking American again,” my coworker says to the others at the dingy bar in the capital. We exchange blank looks. I give up and wave goodbye as I walk out into the early morning hours after my shift.
This was hardly the first lost-in-translation moment I’d experienced here. Though I was living in New Zealand, another English-speaking country, these were as common as a furious flurry in the aptly nicknamed Windy Wellington.
I wasn’t always the savvy, adaptable traveler I am today (if I do say so myself).
When I first stepped off the plane onto New Zealand soil, despite my good intentions, I was the picture perfect stereotypical traveler of my homeland. Loud. Culturally oblivious. Geographically inept.
Stateside, during the lulls at my 9-5 job in Arizona, I had meticulously researched my new destination. Attractions, weather patterns, and places to visit were all neatly written down in my spiral notebook.
What else could I have needed to know?
Everything, as it turns out. My 22-year-old self hadn’t considered all of the intricacies that make up a culture. I assumed that since they spoke my language, they would speak it like I did – just with a funny accent.
What do you mean jandals? These are called flip-flops! I should know, I’m from Florida.
How could you not know what “holler back” means?
Don’t you play any good music here? You know, from America?
And don’t get me started on Marmite (aka the most disgusting things I’ve seen people eat in all five years of my travels).
The strange words, strange choice of food, and strange music weren’t the only speed bumps I gracelessly navigated over.
An Incompetent Backpacker
Backpacking is more than just the type of bag you choose to lug your crap around in. It’s a style of travel. An attitude, really. And though I was the proud owner of this essential travel item (so overstuffed and heavy that I broke a sweat just lifting it off of the ground), what I lacked was the skills necessary to thrive in a backpacking environment.
I didn’t know I was supposed to talk to the others.
I didn’t know I was supposed to hange out in the common areas, inviting myself along on day trips and out to bars.
I didn’t know that traveling was more about the people you meet than the places you go.
Instead, I was glued to my bunk bed at sun down, pouring over my guidebook or staring at my laptop screen, headphones plugged into my ears, pretending like what I was doing was cooler than laughing and getting to know people.
Broke & Lonely
After my 10-week stint in Wellington, I traveled around the South Island where I made beds and cleaned toilets in exchange for free accommodation, watched humpback whales plunge into the ocean, visited a town smaller than anything I could have imagined, trekked to a glacier, and witnessed some of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth.
But my self-inflicted isolation was beginning to take its toll on me. So did my weeks of spending money without making money.
It was time for a change.
Belonging (and not belonging)
To replenish my meager savings, I settled down in Christchurch and worked multiple jobs. I was the first backpacker to bartend at the uber-cool Base Nightclub on South of Lichfield Sqaure. I looked forward to coming to work here every weekend despite the mind-numbing electronic music.
During the day, I worked as a receptionist at the corporate headquarters of New Zealand Cricket. I’m not sure why they hired me. Maybe because my mom is from Trinidad (a fellow cricket-crazy country) or because I kick ass at job interviews.
It certainly wasn’t for my vast knowledge of the sport. My palms glistened with sweat every time a caller noticed how un-local my accent was and challenged me with a question.
I dreaded Fridays, where we would all gather in the break room for the last hour of work and make small talk about weekend plans. Worse was the irritating upper level executive who insisted on making me feel as uncomfortable as possible about being an American in this extremely Kiwi establishment.
I found solace in a 13-bedroom house filled with local students and fun, adventurous young travelers. It’s here I learned that settling into an apartment for a few months instead of living at a hostel is one of the best ways to feel like you are experiencing a place and not just observing it – advice I would heed many times over in future travels.
A house like this was the perfect place for a socially awkward, naïve traveler like myself. I made friends with almost all of my new flatmates – except for the loud Chileans who ate my food and the old Kiwi who insisted on cooking lamb every time I was in the kitchen. I started to feel a sense of belonging.
After a few months, summer turned to winter and I couldn’t cope with the extreme cold and darkness of the season. I bid my flatmates a “see ya lata mate” and flew over the equator once again.
It was time for my next adventure.
November 2012 marks my fifth travel anniversary! To follow the series commemorating the event, check out the rest here.