The Journey That Brought Me Abroad

Two years in Aotearoa New Zealand. Two long years. I remember when I arrived the first week of October 2019. I was full of giddy excitement and mature trepidation over the massive journey I was taking alone, with only what I could carry on my back as a thirty-one year old woman. “What am I doing?”, was the thought that most frequently ran through my head before, during and constantly after I arrived. I remember my boss looking me dead in the eyes after I told him I was going to be quitting my job to pursue a lifelong dream of traveling New Zealand as he said, “You know, a woman of your age should be focused on building her career and family right now – not traveling the world.” The shock I felt hearing someone actually say that to me in 2019 was real. It sure was something. But never mind him. I obviously carried on. I had an unfulfilled dream that I intended to fulfill: To see New Zealand. But to understand where I am now and how I got here, we’ll need to take the long way around.

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been talking about New Zealand since I was a child. I took every opportunity I could to tell anyone who would listen that I would live in New Zealand one day. The dream first entered my heart when my parents contemplated moving myself and the entire family there back when I was nothing more than 9 or 10 years old. Dad would rent VHS tapes from the local library and the family would gather around the TV after dinner and watch the glory of New Zealand unfold in front of us. We would dream about where we’d live, what schools we’d attend, how fantastic life would be…

In the end, we never moved. We got our passports and made all the initial plans – but it came to nothing. Yet that dream got forged so deeply into my heart that I was unable to ever let it go. I told all of my close friends that one day they’d find me living there throughout my middle school and high school years. The second I graduated high school I was in the Study Abroad office of the university I would soon attend trying to find any way to study abroad in New Zealand. Try as I might over four years, I couldn’t find a way to make it work financially. It would have cost roughly triple what I was paying to study in the States to study there. I was gutted. A couple years after graduating from university I was attending a church and began to consider international ministry schools and of course New Zealand was the first country I pursued. I applied to attend the YWAM (Youth With a Mission) ministry school based in Tauranga, New Zealand and was accepted. Wow! Only, my church leaders decided to sit me down and strongly encourage that I do their local ministry school instead of study abroad. With the cost of the YWAM school being a fair chunk of money and my local school being much more reasonable – I made the extremely unfortunate decision to cancel my application for YWAM and remain in North Carolina.

That decision would come to haunt me because the years that followed with that church became some of the most painful and devastating years of my life. And, after now living in New Zealand for the past two years, I’ve wondered if I would have learned long ago that New Zealand was not the dream I’d hoped it would be and would have saved myself so much cumulative heartache I’ve now experienced.

However, that haunt leaves me quick enough because I remember that while New Zealand has been a place of deep pain and loneliness for me, it also brought me the deepest love I’ve ever known inside the husband that I only found by choosing to come here, finally in 2019. So perhaps, had I attended YWAM and left NZ one year later, I would have never met Nick. And that’s a reality I never want to imagine.

But I digress. After choosing to remain in North Carolina I officially put New Zealand on a back burner of my mind. I focused on what was in front of me. After the shit show that was my time with that church finally came to an end in October of 2013 I forged my own path into Tennessee, then California, spending six years away from my hometown finding myself, as they say. However, New Zealand was always a quiet whisper in the reaches of my mind. I guess I began to picture it as that unattainable dream that was sort of pulling me forward through life; giving me something to hope for. It felt so far, so impossible – and I began to make peace with the fact that after traveling to and living in so many places internationally and nationally I was finally ready to let New Zealand be the one dream I’d never fulfill. I was ready for a life of stability and relative routine. I was done with travel.

So I left California, begrudgingly returned to my hometown, and tried to reconcile within myself what was next. What did I want to do now? I had begun applying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation before I left California with the intention to complete the process from North Carolina in the hopes of being based on the East Coast. I’d worked with FBI recruiters for hours over the phone, met with agents at their Sacramento office, and begun getting my body in shape for the physical fitness requirements. My plan was to enroll in a PHD program online in forensic psychology by night, while working as an FBI agent by day, in the hopes of eventually joining the Behavioral Sciences Unit of the FBI – culminating in a run for political office 15 years down the line.

Yes, this really was my plan.

In the meantime, I thought, what the hell, why not go down to my local chapter of the Democratic Party and put my name in the running for the upcoming election – NC Representative to the House for District 11. There was an election coming up with Mark Meadows sure to leave office and a seat to be filled. Why not go for it? I’ve always been politically passionate and I reckoned that either I’d be successful with the election and end up going the political route instead of the FBI. Or I’d be unsuccessful in the election and carry on with my FBI pursuits and give politics another try down the road. So while researching PHD programs I began attending local political speeches and rallies, fundraising events, and a host of meetings.

Yes, I really did all of this.

In the end, I received a call from the former President of the NC Democratic Party and current Organizing and Training Director, who spent over an hour passively encouraging me not to pursue political office – primarily because I had no political fundraising experience and was naïve about the process. She felt I would put myself and my family through unnecessary hell to pursue a cause I was doomed to lose. The belief at the time was that Mark Meadows wasn’t actually going to give up his seat and that I needed to have hundreds of thousands of dollars ready to invest, a willingness to call every rich person in Western North Carolina and beg for money to pay for TV ads and mailers, and an attack dog mentality to even pursue the election, that again, I was sure to lose. Contrarily, I believed that Mark Meadows was going to leave his seat at the last minute, leaving Republicans scrambling for a new candidate and that I could get the upper hand by campaigning earlier than my opponent and strategically use social media, a strong Bernie-based platform, and face-to-face, door-to-door grassroots organizing to win. I didn’t believe in their outdated obsession with old school methods and lobbying the rich, nor did I care for the rigid and frozen approach they had to modern politics. Thus, we were at an impasse. Feeling like I didn’t have the backing or confidence of those I would need most to give a political run a proper effort, I took her advice and abandoned my political pursuits.

(Needless to say, Mark Meadows did relinquish his seat at the last minute, the Democratic Party rallied no real political contender for our district and young ultra-right wing Madison Cawthorn won the election. I can’t help but imagine what might have happened if I had been able to run against him. I guess we’ll never know, eh District 11?)

“Back to the original plan”, I told myself. It was a good plan. It was a doable plan. The FBI was a noble pursuit with plenty of upside, the only downside being the difficulty of getting married and starting a family. The bureau has one of the highest divorce rates of any government agency. It isn’t exactly a family friendly career field. But I was single, had little to no desire to have children, and was old enough to know what level of responsibility I was ready to take on. I mean, I’d just tried to run for political office with no experience and no backing so I guess, if anything, I’m enough of a dreamer to try anything once.

Then one morning, I woke up and it was as if someone was sitting in the room with me speaking, but all they said was “New Zealand”. It was clear and crisp. I know what I heard and I heard those two words. But while those words were clear, my brain was sleepy and not nearly woken up enough to contemplate what they meant. Nevertheless, being who I am, I pulled out my phone, went to the New Zealand Immigration website, searched for the “Working Holiday Scheme” visa, lazily applied, clicked submit and went back to sleep. Honestly, I had absolutely no belief I would actually get the visa and had no idea what I would do if I got it. I think it was just the mental place I was in at the time. I was willing to try things. Go for things. Just see what happened and let fate lead the way.

In 24 hours I received a “Congratulations!” email from New Zealand Immigration and I was left stunned with choices.

For the first time in my life I had both the financial means and the know-how to make my New Zealand dream a reality, but for the first time in my life I genuinely didn’t want to go. Like, I really didn’t want to go. I felt exuberant over the reality that I finally could – but felt it was coming at the wrong time. I was one month from turning thirty-one years old. And once you’re over the age of thirty, you are no longer eligible for the Working Holiday Scheme visa and entering New Zealand later becomes much more difficult. So it was kind of now, or never. But why now? Why was it only reachable when I was least interested? I may never know.

So I made an agreement with myself: Just go. Fulfill this dream. See the islands, meet the people, feel it out. Travel one last time. Then come home and go full steam ahead into this other dream of yours, feeling certain that you’re ready to put the rolling stone life behind you.

And we now all know that I’ve never returned…*insert eye roll here*.

Not to leave you hanging, but I’m going to save the rest of this journey for the next post. This one is plenty long enough. Like I said, we’re taking the long way around this story. See you over there.

-Rachel

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