by Brittany Smith, Greenheart Travel Volunteer in New Zealand
“Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Miriam Beard
I finally realized I was heading to New Zealand when I strapped on my backpack and left for the airport with just 35 pounds of luggage for the next 6 weeks. Turning off my cell phone as I boarded the plane in Los Angeles and knowing I wouldn’t turn it back on for quite some time was strange, but I was ready. I was ready to say goodbye to the constant connection my iPhone provides and live out of a backpack with no certainty of what was ahead of me.
I arrived in New Zealand as a doe eyed American ready to volunteer for a cause I believe deeply in: global conservation. As I grew to learn, New Zealand has made environmental conservation a national priority and wants to be an example for the rest of the world on how to effectively restore the natural environment. Agriculture dominates the New Zealand economy and has stripped 70% of their native bush, which has resulted in a massive loss of native birds. Now Kiwis (New Zealand locals), volunteers, and all levels of the New Zealand government are working together to restore as much of the natural habitat as possible.
I volunteered with Conservation Volunteers for 6 weeks in New Zealand and had the opportunity to work on different projects all through the North Island. I started in the Kaipara Harbour, living and working on the Pouto Topu A Trust farm where we did seed collecting, beach monitoring and tackled wooly nightshade. We were an hour and a half from the closest grocery store so forget about TV, let alone a radio. There were 10 of us volunteers from various places, including Switzerland, Canada, Belgium, Germany, England, and America. We made dinner together every night followed by card games and paper and pen games where we had to work together to overcome language barriers. In a world where we are constantly connected to our phones and the internet, it was beautiful to connect with the people right there in the room with you.
A typical day consisted of waking up around 6:30 AM, making breakfast and lunch, getting ready for the day and being ready to go by 8 AM. We would work for a few hours (the morning hours are the best because the hot New Zealand sun isn’t beating down yet), have tea time, work some more, have lunch, work some more and head back to the bunkhouse for the evening. We rotated who made dinner and who did the dishes—it’s all about the team work! I stayed in many places including a farm house, a Marae, a bible camp, a 2 room cabin in a nature preserve, and in a 5 person tent. One of my favorite things about being in really remote locations was taking a moment every night to look at the stars and appreciate right where I was in the world.
One of the main things you learn when you volunteer is you get comfortable with a degree of dirtiness. I don’t mean this in an unsanitary way. I mean this as in: your clothes may not be as clean as you want, and your shower may not be as warm as you want, and there may be a few more mosquitos around then you want to live with, but it will be okay! One of the things I realized was in America we are so used to being comfortable, and I learned I can be comfortable without a plush mattress and every kitchen tool you can think of. You learn a lot about yourself when you travel—what your limits are, what makes you tick, how to be patient, how to communicate when you don’t speak the same first language, and so much more.
I was just saying to my mom the other day that it is so hard to sum up this volunteering experience when people ask me about it other than to say “amazing”. I learned so much about myself, met so many amazing international people (and now have even more traveling to do when I go visit them!), connected with nature, and even went skydiving. Volunteering makes you part of something bigger—it is so easy to sit back and dismiss the world’s environmental problems, and it is incredibly humbling and rewarding to make a difference no matter how big or small every day. I have so much respect for all the local farmers, citizens, and volunteers I met who shared their stories and work each day to make a difference.
Everyone has their own reason for traveling. Whether it is to explore, let go, discover, find a slice of happiness, lose yourself… often times it starts as one of these and it ends up as all of them. Traveling awakens the soul in an unexplainable way—you have to do it to understand it. For me, it lights a fire and it makes me want to keep searching, keep learning, and keep seeing what the amazing cultures all over the world have to share. As my wise team leader in New Zealand told me, “how does one understand the world if you do not travel it?”
Strapping on a backpack and getting on a plane to a far off distance away from everything you know, with no certainty of how things will go, is such a liberating feeling. One of the most amazing things about traveling is the people you meet. I have endless appreciation for everyone I met along the way that left a footprint on my life. My eyes see differently now, and I cannot wait to put on my backpack again. Until then, I have endless pictures and memories to hold me over.
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” ― Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky