The Capsule Collective: The Trips that Changed Our Lives

We all might be grounded for the time being, but we’re getting by on the memories, lessons and love of our most life-changing travel. The Capsule Collective reminisces about trips that have fundamentally and irrevocably changed us as people, and the learnings we’re still using to this day.

Nicky – An Indian Odyssey

Last year I made a seven day round trip to India. It was my second visit, having travelled around 10 years ago – one of the best experiences of my life. This time I went to Bangalore with a group of journalists and travel agents, as esteemed guests of Tourism India. We were all invited there to celebrate and spread the word about International Day of Yoga, the 21st June. Bangalore is the tech capital of India, so high rises bearing the names of big software firms tower over tenements and slums and streets packed with all the good stuff you’d expect like cows and elephants and statues of Hindu gods wearing garlands of marigolds.

The first morning we assembled outside our hotel, all dressed in leggings and matching World Yoga Day t-shirts. People had come from across Europe, Brazil, Argentina, the UK, the US, China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia and, of course, yours truly from Aotearoa New Zealand. We boarded a bus to join even more people in a city park where we would all bend and stretch and breathe together en masse. We were jet lagged but happy and ready to namaste the shit out of everything.

Nicky’s Indian adventure has left her with life-long pals

Over the next six days we travelled around by bus and by plane, exploring different yoga related places, from a university to an ayurvedic hospital to a meditation centre that our very own Rach Hunter has been known to frequent. During that brief spell we talked a lot. India is the kind of place where you open up to people.

It blows your mind and makes you question things. Before long I knew about people’s children and people’s childhoods. They shared their everyday challenges and their regrets. One night we went out in rickshaws and drove around in the dark until we found a funny little backroom liquor vendor. We bought some badly fermented wine to toast ourselves and our adventure.

On the final day we had a four hour bus journey down a hillside, a five hour wait in a small airport and then (in my case) three long flights to get home. The chance would be a privilege now but in those complacent days I felt overwhelmed by the journey ahead. We’ll do it bit by bit, said one woman who had told me earlier about how she’d lost her husband to cancer. She reminded me of the lesson that I continue to learn and relearn – that this is how all things must be done. 

My memories of that trip have only heightened now we’re grounded indefinitely. Before we left India we started a Whatsapp group which we still use to keep in touch. The language barrier means that not all messages make sense and mostly it’s filled with gifs and flowers. I expect that in most cases those people will be struggling to keep their previously successful travel businesses afloat.

The woman whose husband died has now abandoned running tours and is now organising food parcels. She’s using her connections on the ground in India to deliver life-saving packages instead. People from the group are donating as they can but who knows what uncertain futures they are facing themselves. I don’t tell them about life in New Zealand because I don’t want to gloat about our incredible good fortune down here. But I feel so lucky, for then and for now.

Emma – A New York State of Mind

If my house was to catch fire, the things I would grab would be my boyfriend, my teddy bear, my rings and my travel journals. I spent most of my annual leave – as well as the majority of my money – during my twenties travelling the world, which is why I don’t own a house but I do have a lifetime of travel anecdotes.

My first big, adult trip was in 2009 when my best friend Lucy and I took a three week trip to America. We were 23 and 24 and boy, we were newbies at everything. We fell for multiple scams! We got lost all the time! There was no ‘Google maps on your phone’ convenience in those days! We wanted to go to the New York nightclubs but were too afraid to just bowl up by ourselves, so joined some sort of super geeky ‘official night club walking tour’ on a weird little website.

We booked hostels in really, really dodgy places where the doors at night were sealed with bank-vault levels of security. Every single one of our photos has not stood the test of time, style wise. But Jesus, did we have a blast. As two nerds on tour, we ate $2 breakfasts and $7 dinners at the local bodegas so we could afford to see as many Broadway shows as possible.

New York was, immediately, everything we had hoped it would be. Loud and glitzy and filled with celebrities – we saw Reese Witherspoon and John Stamos (!) on day one. You know Charlotte’s gay best friend Anthony from Sex and the City? He was on our subway train and when I looked at him with my flushed face of ‘I know who you are!,’ he death-stared me back with a look that said ‘F—k right off!’ it was SHOWBIZ, baby!

A two-dollar bodega breakfast is worth it if you get to see Hamilton, right?!

It was on that trip that I first began to understand the delicate balance travel has between being the worst of times and the best of times – you’re hungry and you’re cold and you’re lost, you are one meal away from blowing your budget, you can’t find a public toilet and you might just wee yourself in Greenwich Village.

But then, the magic happens. You turn a corner and there’s a man playing the cello and he’s playing your favourite song and it hits you straight in the heart. You get your street numbers confused and no less than five New Yorkers stop to help you. You pay $20 to get into a nightclub after queueing for 40 minutes and then it turns out to be an underage Spanish nightclub and you’re a decade older than everyone else there, but you say the immortal, weird travel experience phrase: ‘Oh well, at least it will make for a good story.’

From 2009 on, I have aimed to do a big trip every year and have ticked off a good portion of my travel bucket list, veering into more adventurous places as I got older like the Philippines, Iran and India. I was always grateful that I spent so much of my 20s travelling, even though it meant I have lived my entire professional life with pitiful savings. But now, in this post Covid-19 world, where we can’t even nip across the ditch? I’ve never been happier about a single one of my life decisions. As I have often quoted to anyone questioning my financial choices, “Travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer.”

Alice – My Love Affair With Lava

I can’t actually think of a trip that hasn’t changed my life. From travelling overseas on my own as a teenager (with no phone, yet alone a smart phone – I’m sorry, but WHAT were my parents thinking?) which taught me about self-reliance, confidence and the ability to read a map, to trips that opened my eyes and mind to the extraordinarily different ways people live around the world, to journeys that made or broke relationships (or one that began the spiral of a very unhealthy one) – each and every single one has taught me something about myself, or the world I live in.

But, in recent times, when I think of a fundamentally life-changing trip, I think of Hawaii: the visit to see lava that somehow caused a giant shift in me. Yes, things are going to get a bit woo-woo here, but please bear with.

It was the 30th of December 2016 and it’d been and up and down year – I’d finally come to the realization that I had an autoimmune disease that a pill wasn’t going to cure, I was recently single and I’d started an amazing, but ridiculously intense job as a weekly magazine editor. I needed to make some changes.

Don’t scoff at the magic of lava until you’ve seen it for yourself, says Alice

Because holidays didn’t exist during the Christmas period in weekly mag world, I had intense FOMO and it only took a little Grabaseat alert to pop up on my phone for me to immediately commit to a holiday. I was in the middle of chatting on a messenger group, so I typed some ridiculously over-excited mostly-in-caps message about how I was going to book a trip to Hawaii in March – and Emma replied, ‘Can I come too?’

Emma is the only other person I’ve met who has an equally strange obsession with volcanoes and lava – and has also watched Dantes Peak too many times. So, immediately my holiday went from what I imagined might be days lying by the beach in Waikiki and nights at the malls (which stay open until midnight), to a life-changing week-long trip out to Hawaii’s wild Big Island to take two different tours to get uncomfortably close to lava. A week after we booked, a massive lava spout opened up on the Big Island’s most active volcano field and didn’t stop for many months – I felt it was a sign.

Now, unfortunately I’m not someone who holds religious beliefs or attends church – and even the idea of woo-woo, ‘the universe at work’ and magic, used to get a big old eye-roll from me. I didn’t know anything of the spirituality that people speak of when they describe Hawaii – particularly the Big Island – but from the moment we got there, something seemed different. I felt like I was walking on an island that was alive. 

Our first meticulously researched trip to the lava was via the sea on an outrageously expensive boat tour which had special clearance to get within what now sounds like a very unsafe 50 metres from the lava exploding and pouring into the ocean. It’s worth noting that despite our great research, the tour company hit trouble a few months later when a lava bomb hit the boat and injured 23 people on board. I now realise how serious that waiver we signed was and how lucky we were to have such an incredibly experience, without coming into any harm.

It was one of the greatest moments of my life and indescribably exhilarating to see Mother Nature at her fiercest, right in front of us. Our skipper pulled a bucket of water up from the sea so we could feel the piping hot salty stew we were now floating on and our mouths were open in awe of the explosions and intensity of the display.

The next morning we took off at 3am to hike with Epic Lava Tours (which I would 100% recommend for an exhilarating but more safety-conscious tour) to get within centimeters of flowing lava. By this stage it’d been days of little coincidences, reminders to trust your gut, intense feelings and weird little events that I couldn’t explain away, so when our guide John spoke of the power of Pele – the goddess of volcanoes and fire – and used his “sixth sense” to find where the lava was currently active (a needle in a vast haystack) I didn’t roll my eyes.  

At one stage he picked up a small offering that someone had left for Pele – “It’ll never reach her here,” John said, and he popped it in his pocket. As we were leaving, he said to me, “Wanna see Pele in action?”, “Umm, yes?” So I watched as he walked to where the lava was slowly moving and pulled out the little banana leaf wrapped gift. “If I put it here, in front of the flow, she’ll pick it up, right?” he asked.

He then laughed and instead put it a foot away, on a 90 degree angle away from where the lava was currently moving. I looked at him – it wasn’t in the path the lava was taking – but he just grinned. I turned back and watched as the lava moved, some of it changed course and started moving toward the gift. It picked it up in puff of crackling smoke before swerving back to its original course. It’s the strangest thing that I’ve ever seen.

After exploring both sides of the island (including having a local make us a map to a little bay where old sea turtles bask in the shallow waters – I still picture myself floating in that water next to them when I feel overwhelmed!) I left Hawaii with the greatest sense of calm and an open mind – that something bigger is at play, your gut instincts should always be trusted, that not everything can be explained, but having a bit of faith in yourself and in the universe working it all out, perhaps isn’t something to scoff at after all. 

Kelly – Salut to the Past

Ah, the great Kiwi OE – a rite of passage that’s supposed to broaden our horizons, enrich our souls and allow us to experience life on the other side of the globe. 

If I had one regret, apart from blonde highlights and choosing not to purchase car insurance for three years, it’s that I didn’t do the traditional live-in-London-thing. 

I didn’t for a few reasons – career mostly (lol that worked out well) as well as the fact I love living in New Zealand – after all when you’re in paradise, why leave? 

I did, however, partake in one time-honoured Kiwi tradition – the good old Contiki, followed up by a week on a boat sailing around the Croatian islands. 

Anyone who’s done a Contiki will tell you the same thing – it’s a baptism by fire into the real world. For a lot of Kiwis and Aussies, it’s our first big trip away from home and it’s their first taste of freedom and frivolity. A Contiki is like the big red sampler box of biscuits you get at Christmas – you try a little of everything, then figure out your favourites and go back for more, while leaving the reject pink wafers in their little section (for me that was Rome – the most overrated city in the world. Paris, on the other hand, is a true Cameo Creme). 

A cold beer from a gypsy and a little Elton John makes for a magical night in Paris, writes Kelly

But it was on this trip through France, Germany and Italy that I, for the first time, saw just how different the Old World is from our charmed Antipodean lives. I met new people – some I liked, some I didn’t. I listened to other people’s viewpoints. I discovered I hated German wheat beer. I discovered I actually liked ribs – weirdly in the dining room of Contiki’s French chateau. I saw architecture that we can only dream of in New Zealand, walked down streets that were built before any of the explorers pulled their ships to shore in Aotearoa, and I could just feel the spirit and weight of so many years of history.

I also became the first person in my family to return to our ancestral homeland, France, since we were apparently kicked out a few hundreds years ago for being Huguenots, which I find hilarious now as it’s been a LONG time since any Bertrand has stepped foot into a church. And as silly and as distant as it is, I fell in love and felt a pull to the land and its people. Also to its pastries.

I connected with a land so foreign and so new it both confused me and soothed me. Anytime I heard a ‘comment ça va Mademoiselle Bertrand’, my heart leapt a little with excitement as if it recognised that once upon a time, I belonged there. Maybe my great-great-great-great grandmother walked down this street? Perhaps right here, on this corner, my ancestors gathered for a street fair?

One of the best nights of my life was sitting on the steps of Sacré-Cœur in Paris, the city sparkling beneath me and my friends as a delightful guitar player strummed Your Song by Sir Elton John and a friendly gypsy offered me an ice-cold beer for two euro. It was one of those picture-perfect, will-always-stay-with-you moments where I was just wholly, overwhelmingly happy. 

But, as is the beauty of a Contiki, or in fact any travel, it makes you realise that there truly is no place like home – and every time without fail when I fly back into Auckland (well, back in the days of travel obviously) I shed a little tear of joy when I spot Rangitoto, or see the beautiful and rugged West Coast, or when I walk underneath the magnificent carved tomokanga that signifies a traveller’s journey from darkness to light. 

And right now, especially, I can’t think of a better metaphor for New Zealanders coming home. Nau mai ra! 

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