Once upon a time, Ockham-shortlisted writer Rebecca Reilly could not imagine a world without airline check-ins and travel itineraries. Here she contemplates her new homebound normal.
Before everything changed, I used to be a person who travelled. Three years ago, I couldn’t have imagined a world where we all stayed put, without keeping up to date with airlines sales, making plans to see friends overseas or trying to dodge a crowd of cruise ship passengers every day of the summer. It’s unclear if things will ever go back to how they once were, and if they don’t, is that really a bad thing?
I have always had a deep interest in doing and seeing things I have never experienced before. At school I remember poring over the UNICEF book Children Just Like Me, which showed how children lived in each country of the world. I imagined what it would be like to be a boy in New York who lived in an apartment, or a girl who collected water with her mother in Botswana and was afraid of camels. Someone who was the same age as me but liked playing soccer and just happened to live near the Great Pyramid of Giza.
After I graduated from university, I taught English in Germany for a year. When my contract ended I carried on around the Baltic Sea, with a flight to Helsinki, a boat across a frozen sea to Estonia, and a series of buses across the dry expanses of land that were Latvia, Lithuania and Poland as autumn turned to winter. The earth of the farmlands was cracked and hard, and I felt grateful for all the things we can grow in Aotearoa that I’d never thought much of before.
Although I was disappointed sometimes that I was alone in seeing things for the first time with no one to share the experience with – an iceberg in the ocean, a reindeer, the lawless attitude of Polish bus drivers – I never really felt lonely or bored.
A few years later, back here, I found myself working in the travel industry, planning other people’s trips to fund my own. Like many people in my age group, with a below-average-paying desk job and without any rich parents or benefactors to speak of, finding a house deposit was totally out of the question. The most luxurious things in reach, as a person in their late 20s without dependents, were budget airline tickets and hostel bookings. I didn’t really know what else it was possible to want or aim for.
When I was a teenager, I thought I would go to university, live overseas for a bit, get a good job, get married and live in a big old house in a nice suburb by the time I was 27. By the time I was 27, there had been a global financial crisis, a recession and the housing crisis had well and truly set in. Things felt bad, and the light at the end of the tunnel was always being somewhere else.
The way we talked about travel in the office was split between two modes: the types of trips we booked for the clients – slow, expensive, luxurious, with private transfers everywhere they went – and the trips we wanted for ourselves, crammed into annual leave allotments and with a big focus on ticking things off bucket lists. In the industry, clients tend to prefer working with agents who have personally been to the locations they’re interested in travelling to, especially when they’re spending a lot of money. Of course they do, it makes sense, the best service is always going to be from an expert.
But at the same time, this pushes people working in travel to “tick off” as many places as they can. It’s necessary if you want to build a solid client base or move up the ranks. Everyone who emailed me had the number of countries they’d been to in their signature. Last trip, next trip, favourite city, total number.
Companies are incentivised to send their agents on “fam” trips, short for familiarisation, usually paid for by a tour company or tourism board, so they can get to know a place and sell it to their clients. This is the kind of thing that in theory sounds like a great perk. My colleague went and inspected every hotel in Rarotonga on an overnight trip and I was sent to Ecuador for four days. It felt like most of the trip was spent waiting for connecting flights in the Santiago airport, watching the diner staff perform the same song on the hour. It didn’t feel like a good or useful thing to have done, in terms of a use of my own time or the environmental impact of having flown on so many planes in quick succession. I had seen a sea turtle and found out I wasn’t really a boat person. There was no recovery time, it was always straight back to work from the airport, backpacks stowed under the desks. I didn’t renew my contract.
My last big trip was at the end of 2018, after my job ended. I needed to rethink having a life without goals or ambition. I couldn’t keep working in sales, as I had realised that I had no interest whatsoever in convincing people to buy things. I had to make something else happen. I suppose it seems like unfortunate timing now, to have a life crisis and a change in direction immediately before the pandemic, not as a result of it. I calculated a budget of $90 a day (which, as a former travel professional, I cannot in good conscience recommend) and went back to Europe for three months.
Central Europe and the Balkans are my favourite regions to travel to alone, considering cost, level of infrastructure and things to see and do. This is not to say there are high-speed trains going all over Albania or that meals are as cheap in Slovenia as they are in Vietnam or Thailand, but it’s easy enough to get around without a car and mainly speaking English.
The landscapes in Montenegro are as beautiful and dramatic as those in Switzerland but you can buy a whole meal at a restaurant for less than $10, whereas in Zürich I once paid $22 for a chicken nugget combo. I was planning to go to Oslo once as well, but then found out it was $120 to get the bus from the airport I had booked to the city centre.
I prefer the Balkan travel surprises of an unexpected bowl of soup with your dinner or a coach trip beginning with a ride from the petrol station from an elderly man in an unmarked van. Plus, I love Brutalist architecture and museums, like Tirana’s Bunk’art 1, a five-storey underground bunker constructed for Enver Hoxha, Albania’s dictator from 1944 until 1985, converted into a museum about the country’s history, and Zagreb’s famous Museum of Broken Relationships.
In a hostel in Belgrade, I met the most hardcore group of backpacking enthusiasts I had ever come across. They had been to towns where there was only one place to stay and had wallets full of plastic coins from the breakaway state of Transnistria. They were interesting in their deep desire to stay away from the beaten track, and I was impressed by how confident they were, having done things I would never do just because I can only go with the flow to a certain extent.
At the same time, it felt to me like their way of being on holiday was difficult just for the sake of being difficult. Most of these people were American men, and I wondered if this was a part of a culture that considers overcoming challenges an admirable quality. Maybe this way of doing things was no more respectable than the resort holidays I booked for New Zealand tourists in Da Nang.
I arranged to meet with one of the more casual members of the group in Bucharest, someone who said he worked in “energy” and didn’t specify what that meant, but he got caught up couch-surfing in Cluj Napoca and never showed up. I had lunch at Ikea and went to the movies instead. You don’t get to go to the movies when you’re a hardcore backpacker, I don’t think.
One thing I like about being away from where I usually am is finding out how I’m perceived by people in other places. Here in Tāmaki Makaurau I’m one of the many tall, ambiguously beige people who are all over the place, but in other places I’m someone else. In Hamburg, older Turkish women would always try to call me over to translate for them and tut when I couldn’t understand. In Albania a taxi driver very apologetically told me he couldn’t speak Italian. In Macedonia a teenage boy gave me a stick of gum on the bus and asked which school I went to. I met two guys from Wellington in Bulgaria who sniggered at the OTP Bank sign and told me it was funny in their country and I wouldn’t get it.
I care about my identities and they’re important to me, but it can be heavy to carry them all sometimes; being Māori in a colonised Aotearoa, being a queer person in a predominantly straight and cis world, being autistic in a society particularly hellbent on coming across as relaxed and easy- going. Sometimes it’s nice to take a break and have the man at the souvlaki shop apologise about all the tourists and hand you a menu in Greek.
My life has changed a lot in the last three years and most people I talk to every day didn’t know me when I was a burnt-out office worker or when I tried to buy butter at the supermarket in Sofia but accidentally bought a foil cube of plain yeast. I’ve liked the certainty that everyone being here has brought, without anyone announcing a move to Melbourne or London or somewhere else that seems bigger and more exciting than what we have here. Being locked down for so long makes me feel lucky but anxious every time I get to leave Auckland, like it could be snatched away again at any moment. If I feel like that driving to Hamilton, I don’t think I’m ready to hit the mall in Kuala Lumpur just yet.
I know I’ll feel the pull to go elsewhere again at some point, but for now, I’m okay with being here.
This is Public Interest Journalism funded by NZ On Air.