Study abroad is something that you never fully get used to. It constantly pushes your boundaries — mentally, emotionally, and as I found out last weekend, physically. I embarked on what I now know was the greatest challenge of my life thus far. Of course, I mean studying abroad as a whole, but last week was the hardest part of that journey
For those of you (most everyone in America) who hasn’t heard of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, I will briefly summarize it for context. The hike is 12 miles and takes about seven or eight hours to complete. By the way, this isn’t a flat hike. The hike is through a range of volcanoes so we’re talking extreme inclines along the way. There was even a sign before the hike got really tough asking you to seriously consider turning back if you aren’t in good enough physical condition — I probably should have taken the sign more seriously. We climbed hundreds of stairs and trekked through a crater. We scaled the side of a volcano that had no real path and slid down the other side on a volcanic substance so fine it was similar to sand.
I don’t consider myself extremely outdoorsy, but one look at my Instagram feed will tell you that I love being outside. I am not into extreme sports and I don’t do overnight hikes or backpacking, but last week I came close.
This was the single hardest hike, or any sort of physical activity, I have ever done. It was so difficult, I wasn’t even having fun while I was doing it. But then after looking back on it after a couple of days, I decided I was glad that I had experienced it. From the top, we had an amazing view of various craters as well as brightly colored mineral lakes. The landscapes were breathtaking (as was the altitude) and it was otherworldly to be eye to eye with volcanic peaks and craters all in one moment.
The hike, in a way, is a metaphor for my experience of studying abroad. Granted I thought of this somewhere around mile 10 when my legs were aching and I was on the brink of hallucinations. I still think it’s true though. You don’t know how much you can do until you test your limits, and isn’t that what studying abroad is all about?
Now of course, study abroad isn’t so hard that it isn’t fun, but it never gets easier to be away from friends, family and all the comforts of home that I’ve gotten used to in California. The experience has been life-changing though and I’ve continued to learn about myself in a deeper and more meaningful way than if I had chosen to stay back in Los Angeles this semester. Similarly, I learned that I am not cut out to be climbing any volcanoes.
Other things I’ve learned in my time in New Zealand include: you don’t appreciate good Mexican food until you don’t have it; the 24-hour accessibility of food is an American thing; it rains, sometimes a lot, outside of Southern California; and that you control what makes up and how you live your life. The hardest experiences are the ones that can turn into the most meaningful ones. How many people can say they spent five months living in New Zealand? How many people can say they’ve climbed active volcanoes? How many people never take the plunge because they are too scared of how hard it’s going to be?
I’ve had bouts with culture shock and homesickness, and being on the other side of the globe and in a different Hemisphere hasn’t always been easy. There were times when I wanted to sit on the side of the mountain or just turn around and look up a picture of the Emerald Lakes instead. The challenging experiences in life though are the ones that leave you feeling accomplished when you look back. Sure, I probably wouldn’t hike the Crossing again, but now that I’ve done it, I’ll never forget it. The same could be said for studying abroad. It’s been something that has affected my life in more ways than I know right now, and it’s something I will never ever forget.