You know those lurking dreams and desires that tend to hang out somewhere right beyond the periphery of the part of your mind that you use on a day-to-day basis? Constantly there, but just far enough away that you only get fleeting glimpses and reminders that you even want or desire that particular thing? Well, I've had this thought for a while now. It started as a dream, a yeah right, maybe kind of thing. It slowly morphed into a tentative plan. Now it's becoming an act. It's happening.
I can pinpoint the exact moment when I determined that some part of me, at some point in my life, needed to move to New Zealand. Not permanently, not even for a full year, but an actual move, not just travel. I was on an early morning walk through Queenstown, eager to wake up before my travel buddies so I could venture off for hot chocolate and wifi (I wasn't a coffee drinker yet, gasp), basking in the pure joy of being somewhere new and feeling like the whole world was opening up in front of me. I was 20, fresh out of a semester abroad at the University of Western Australia, road-tripping around the North and South Islands of New Zealand with some fellow Notre Dame study-abroaders before returning home for Christmas. We had two hilarious Wicked campervans, a steady supply of bread and peanut butter, a zest for adventure, and no set itinerary. It was delicious.
During that solo moment in the early morning hours of a December day, sitting by Lake Wakatipu, I felt an internal shift - a moment of clarity. I realized that I had options for my future, which was something that I had been frantically fretting over as I watched my fun, carefree semester abroad draw to a close and I stood facing the most challenging semester of my degree yet, waiting ominously for me back at Notre Dame. It was going to be the end of my junior year - in my world, that was code for What are you doing for the rest of your life? Chop chop, make a decision. Friends were taking the MCATS. I had been "planning" on medical school since I started applying for colleges, but something wasn't sitting right with that decision, and with these graduate school plans slipping away from me, my life was starting to lack the structure I had always been accustomed to and I felt utterly lost. During that moment by the lake, however, I stopped fretting for a hot second and felt a wave of opportunity wash over me. So what if I didn't get a big job right out of college, or go to graduate school? There is a different path for everyone, and what's right for one isn't necessarily right for the other. I could make a choice to do something that felt right to me. And, at that moment, returning to New Zealand to work for a few months felt like the most right choice in the world. After graduation, I told myself. I just need to go survive Thermo II. Hah. Hah.
Of course, as often happens, life intervened - but in the best way possible. I did survive Thermo II, and the other terrifying classes a junior Cheg has to suffer through. Summer arrived. Bit by the travel bug, eager for a break from the math and the physics and the left side of my brain, and fueled by an ambition only adventure can bring about, I spent the summer in South Africa filming great white sharks for an amateur documentary I wanted to produce. I fell in love with the country, and the time abroad and interactions with new people reinforced my desire to travel back to NZ after graduation. After spending the winter of my senior year making Spotify playlists titled Journey to NZ and sending applications for horse trek guiding positions on the South Island, I ended up accepting a volunteer teaching position at a home for children in South Africa following graduation. I was excited to go back, and told myself that NZ would just have to wait a bit longer. We flew out to the Eastern Cape at the end of June, a little over a month after I had tucked away my tassels and diploma. I stayed at the homeschool for about four months and spent the next five working and traveling around South Africa, loving the open road and lack of responsibilities.
Back home that following March, I went back to fretting. New Zealand dreams had trickled slowly away. I was putting crazy pressure on myself to figure out my life passion, and to find a job that I loved. Frantically seeking something, I got offered a chance to work in Maui as a marine naturalist and knew it was the perfect jumping-off point for my next chapter.
I stayed in Maui for a year and underwent a dramatic transformation in terms of my self-expectations. I became more forgiving with myself, more patient, more relaxed, more okay with trusting the natural timing of own life. Maybe it was the island doing it to me, that daily dose of aloha and island time that I was swallowing down; whatever it was, I loved my new circle of ocean-loving friends and our island home, and I was able to dive deeper into the world of marine biology that was first introduced to me during my sharky summer in South Africa. Fueled by this new passion, I moved up to Washington to spend the following summer as a whale watch guide in the San Juan Islands. This was my first taste of the seasonal life (you spend summers working a tourist season somewhere beautiful up north, then hop south to spend winters in warm weather in another beautiful place, working another tourist season). I loved what I was doing. Being on the water, teaching people about wildlife and two very different ecosystems, learning about marine conservation and uncovering new passions - it felt right.
After that first summer in Washington, with September 2016 rolling in fast, I had this gut feeling: now it was actually time for New Zealand. I had no real plans, no job solidified, just inspiration gleaned from a few kayak guides who had recently completed a working holiday down under and loved it. I applied for my own working holiday visa and received it two days later. Seeing it in my hands made it seem so real. A friend and I were planning on spending the month of October traveling Southeast Asia, guzzling down copious amounts of Cambodian coffee and Thai tea, experiencing new people and new ways of life. I figured that I could fly straight to NZ afterwards and continue my adventure.
But, I put it on hold again. I didn't feel prepared. I wouldn't say I chickened out, I just wanted to spend more time with family and friends back home and put a little more thought into the move. The work visa I had been granted would stay valid for another year, so there was no immediate pressure to use it. Next year became my new mantra. I flew back to the mainland, spent November in Seattle, and went back to beautiful Maui to work another exciting winter whale season. I spent those months surfing my favorite little waves on the west side with good people, eating acai bowls under palm trees, adventuring around Oahu and the Big Island with an amazing friend and my family, and watching the glorious humpback whales get frisky with all of their breeding season hormones. When that season wrapped up, I was now fully subscribed to the seasonal lifestyle, so I went back up to Washington to spend more time with the orcas and connect with the friends I had made last summer. It's been an amazing season, and it just wrapped up. So here I am, and you're all caught up. It's the present moment. Now what?
I'm on a plane to Honolulu, but it's just for a layover. I'll only have a couple of hours to wave out the window to my favorite volcanic islands, and Maui in particular, the beautiful place I was blessed to call home for a whole year and a half. But this stinkin' procrastinator is taking her aloha spirit with her and getting her tush on a plane to Auckland.
I'm finally doing it. I'm going back to New Zealand!
I made a promise to myself 5 years ago. And now I'm finally sticking with it. Besides, if I didn't, my visa would expire and I wouldn't be eligible for another working holiday. Time is of the essence, my friends.
So here. We. Go.
Anyone keen to come visit? I have only tentative plans, and company is always welcome for spontaneous camping, tramping, diving, kayaking, wining, dining, and horseback riding.
So now I want to ask you: is there something you've been putting off in your life? A trip you've wanted to take forever? Maybe there's a friend you've been meaning to call? An art class or sailing course you've been wanting to sign up for? A family member you need to hug, or a special someone you need to confess your undying love to? Maybe it's a journal you've been meaning to write in, or a jigsaw puzzle you haven't gotten around to finishing. Take a minute to close your eyes and think about it. Then ask yourself - what's standing in your way? The answer is, almost always, your own head. Step out of it, and step into this whole world of possibilities.
I hope this didn't bore you to tears. For me, writing about these thoughts, and looking back on the journey that's made me who I am, is deeply therapeutic. Thanks for allowing me the space to breathe and write. And, if you decide you maybe want to see what happens next, there's more to come on the upcoming adventures!