The best kind of travel experience

I just returned home to New York after three weeks in New Zealand and Australia. In the coming days and weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my best stories from this adventure with you. On my travels, I was fortunate enough to swim with dolphins, explore gorgeous beaches, hike up mountains and around lakes and interact with some amazing animals. But for my first story from this trip, I’d like to share with you one of the best travel experiences I have ever had. In fact, it’s one of my best life experiences in general.

I arrived in Auckland late in the evening after more than 24 hours in planes, airports and buses. Needless to say, I collapsed in bed at my hostel (after a few whiskeys at the pub) and planned to hop a bus to Paihia in the Bay of Islands early the next morning. I was alone on the other side of the world but I felt nothing but excitement and anticipation.
The next day, I caught a bus north to Paihia. It’s a four-hour ride by bus from Auckland, so I sat back, watched the gorgeous New Zealand countryside roll by and started to realize how breathtaking that part of the world really is. Since I was traveling alone, I was able to lose myself in the scenery, jot down notes to myself and experience the bliss of feeling like you’re all alone even when other people are around you. I was, obviously, quite content.

After two hours, the bus stopped for a rest break. We pulled into a roadside cafe in a small town and the driver instructed us that we had 15 minutes to stretch our legs, have a snack and use the toilets. The bus would be locked and no one would be allowed back on until it was time to leave. Having spent the previous day traveling from New York and the first two hours of my first day in New Zealand on a bus, I was eager to breathe some fresh air and unfold myself. Plus, I was starved.

I entered the cafe and worked my way immediately to the pies. Before I left New York, everyone I knew told me to eat pies while in New Zealand and Australia. My eyes grew wide and my stomach rumbled as I grabbed a mince pie and got in the queue. That’s when things took an odd turn.

I reached into my back pocket for my wallet and felt nothing. I patted down every pocket in my shorts (cargo shorts…this process took a minute) to no avail. While on the bus, I had taken my wallet out of my pocket to get more comfortable. Wallets can be a real pain in the ass. Literally. In my infinite wisdom, I had left it there when I got out for our break. So, no mince pie for me. Knowing that I had a granola bar in my bag, I resigned myself to waiting to eat back on the bus. I put the pie back and walked outside.

Other passengers milled about and I exchanged a few pleasantries while admiring the vastness of the sky, interrupted only at the horizon by the rolling green hills. Lost in my own thoughts, I didn’t even notice the teen-aged Māori girl who had walked over to me. She extended her hand, in which she had a white bag. “It looked like you left your money on the bus,” she said. “I got you your pie.” I was flabbergasted. I was so amazed by the generosity and selflessness of this act that I was without words for a moment. Finally, I thanked her profusely and assured her that my wallet was, in fact, on the bus and that I would give her the money in a few minutes. Before I could introduce myself, ask her where she was traveling to or engage her in any conversation, she strolled away seemingly oblivious to how moved I was by her gesture.

So, I sat in the sun and ate my pie. It tasted even better than I had hoped. When I saw the driver unlock the bus, I hurried to get on so that I could grab some money from my wallet as quickly as possible. I scurried to my seat and found a NZ$5 note right as the girl began her walk down the aisle. As she passed my seat, I looked up at her and offered her the bill while thanking her again. “No worries,” she said. “It’s OK. Don’t worry about it.” I was floored. “Are you sure? I owe you the money,” I said. She shook her head, smiled and walked to her seat. The bus pulled away, the cafe disappeared in the distance and we entered the lush northern regions of New Zealand’s north island.

Over the next hour, I caught myself stealing glances in the girl’s direction. She gazed out the window, listened to music and sent text messages on her phone. Eventually, she reached her destination in a tiny town that didn’t even have a true bus stop. She didn’t acknowledge me as she walked up the aisle and got off the bus. To her, our interaction was innocuous. I, however, still remember it in vivid detail.

My trip was just beginning and already I felt the warmth of the people of New Zealand. I felt welcomed. I felt positive about people and humanity and the world at large. What I didn’t feel was alone. And I couldn’t have been happier.