Travelers’ Advisory: “Choose the Complete Unknown”

SkyTower, Auckland, N

Travel advice from our globetrotting alumni and faculty for first-time international wayfarers—and some stories from their adventures.


“Choose the Complete Unknown”

by  Smike Wallen ’90

About a decade ago I went through an existential crisis. I had lost my direction and grown melancholy.

Remembering that travel always fed and renewed my soul, I took out my globe and spun it. My finger landed on New Zealand. So I booked a two-week trip to Auckland with the goal of doing whatever came my way.

En route to the hotel I’d already booked and paid for, I asked the driver what I should see and do. He told me to tour the country. So I changed plans and was renting a camper van when some young ladies told me that I couldn’t leave Auckland without jumping off the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere.

Within two hours of landing in this far-off place, I found myself standing at the edge of the SkyTower, a structure very similar to the Seattle Space Needle. I was trembling (I have a fear of heights) but opted to take the leap and trust my mission. To this day I consider the jump suicide without consequence.

It took mere seconds for me to land, yet I was transformed completely by the time my wobbly feet felt safe again on terra firma. I spent the next two weeks in the camper van traveling the whole of the north island of that country. Reignited with a zest for life, I bungee-jumped for the first time, took my virgin jump out of an airplane at 15,000 feet, slid my body into a giant air ball and went Zorbing down a mountain side, and accidentally, nearly drove off the cliff of the northernmost tip of New Zealand.

Tip #2

Plan to spend a minimum of two weeks (and preferably a month or more) at one far off location.

Stressed out busy people like myself simply cannot unwind and enjoy a vacation/destination in a week. It takes that long to detach from one’s ordinary day-to-day. By week two, most of us are able to get into the grove of a new place—enjoying the sights, sounds, culture. Then, as quickly as it took to relax and enjoy, most of us are back on the plane.

The BEST part of travel happens during weeks three, four, and beyond. By the third week, the trip becomes more uncomfortable—the tourist stuff fades (seen and done it all), and then one is forced to actually just be there, live there, commune with the locals.

Something magical happens when we are forced to eat, sleep and be conscious of ourselves without the comforts of our chosen life back home. In Bali, I’ve had this experience many times, and it’s perhaps the reason I return.

The stillness and angst of being a foreigner alone in an accepting cultural environment renews the soul.

Smike Wallen ’90 is the founder of Smike Wallen Living, which last summer hosted Wabash interns. Read about their experiences here.

Read more alumni travel stories in the current print edition of Wabash Magazine.