After graduating from university, I stuffed my pack for my first solo adventure out of the United States, my destination being New Zealand, the land of the Long White Cloud, Maoris and the All Blacks. After six months of hostel work and house building, I wanted to continue my tour of N.Z. by heading south, where I was determined to see every fjord, glow worm, bar, glacier and rugby game I could. But before I made it off the North Island, I stopped for one night in the city of Hamilton. That night proved a pivotal juncture, not just for my traveling style, but for my life philosophy: this was the night I met Glen, my first travel guru.
We were placed together in a small basement area that more resembled a boiler room than a place to sleep. Glen was about 50, graying and stocky, with an air of what I now know was cool confidence and nothing else. He was from South Africa, biking the length of N.Z., and I learned quickly that he’d traveled extensively, everywhere from South America to Japan. Most baffling, though, was the amount of time he’d spent in specific places, and not just countries as a whole. He would spend months in a single small town or city in any given country.
When he asked me about my travel plans, I told him my grand scheme for a sweeping, whistle stop tour of the South Island, my plan to spend one or two nights in each place. He nodded as I rifled off the names of places I’d decided to see, but the tone of his comments (though encouraging) told me he was holding something back. I pressed him.
“You could do that — but you will learn nothing,” he said, with a small smile.
But I would see so much so fast, I insisted, hitting the highlights, absorbing and moving on to the next destination like a machine, sticking perfectly to my plan. “That is the problem,” he said, then quickly asked why I decided to travel. To learn, to experience another way of life, I said. Now I was almost pleading, hoping I was right because I already looked up to him. The next thing he said has stuck with me since:
“You cannot know how another person lives until you live as they do.”
That seemingly simple thought, and the rest of our conversation that night, marked the end of traveling to say I’d been somewhere and the beginning of traveling to understand as much as I could, something only possible by going to the local’s part of town where there are no statues, great stone cathedrals and shopping malls. Glen told me I had to sit on their curbs, eat what they eat, work their hours, accept their hospitality and even share their hardships — all of which isn’t possible in just a week or two, let alone one night and day of tour group photo shooting and overpriced spectacles. So I left determined to make the effort to reach out to the locals with honesty and unassuming curiosity, which I now know usually leads to experiences others who fly through towns and cities will never have because of the capital-and-country-bagging culture prescribed by mass-market tour groups who recycle phrases and overcharge unsavvy or frightened sight seers. The confident traveler, it turns out, integrates, touches, chills and explores, adapting to a new way through patience, not running from landmark to landmark.
Later, when I took Glen’s advice to slow down and worked in a hostel for a month in the small town of Franz Josef, I had a chance to put these new-to-me ideas into deliberate practice. Before arriving, I called and set up a working agreement with the local YHA for an undetermined amount of weeks — exactly the right time frame. At first I was meeting tour groups and hanging out mostly with the other hostel workers, bonding over cleaning the sauna, mopping the kitchen and picking up trash in the parking lot. But soon, once it was known that I had no predetermined plan, Kiwis began inviting me for a drink, offering to show me less traveled hike or to hang out at their house. One of my best memories from Franz Josef was going to a party at “The Compound,” a two story dorm-style housing for the guides at F.J. and Fox glaciers. These neighborly nutbags shared their beer, taught me how to self arrest with an ice axe and even treated me to a climbing demonstration, one actually ascending the vertical wall of the house with his axes — an encouraged practice, I was assured. Later, for my first warm weather Christmas, I played cricket in the cul-de-sac and floated down a glacial river. These and the countless other local activities I enjoyed wouldn’t have been possible had I blown through town, seen the glacier and ran off to another bus.
I only spent that one night with Glen, but we, like others I met in Franz Josef, keep in touch to this day. We’ve exchanged emails from Africa, Asia, Europe and lands in between, sharing our new experiences and passing on advice. I owe him much, but what Glen, like all great gurus, really taught me was how to teach myself through adapting to new surroundings, slowing way, way down and stepping out of my comfort zone; this is the true soul of traveling. Soon enough, if his advice is taken to heart, we find that a step into the darkness quickly becomes an easy practice, not something to suffer through. It pay dividends of enlightenment for life.
Lessons from Glen:
- Find somewhere you think is cool and stay there: exploring takes time.
- Reach out to the locals with honestly.
- Seeing everything is an impossible goal.
- To understand another, you must live as another.
5. Be your own guide.