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Growing up, the most exciting travel we had ever done was from our hometown in a rural Ontario farming community to Toronto, 2.5 hours away. I had always been fascinated by stories told by others about new and exotic places, foods, customs and lifestyles. I remember my first plane ride like it was yesterday – I loved every part of the experience like choosing what to pack, the hustle of the airport, the feeling of being in flight. Without the limitations of a set schedule the feelings of adventure and freedom were intoxicating.

My first solo adventure was prompted by a curiosity about what the rest of the world has to offer, and by a feeling of restlessness that begun to overwhelm me. I saw a flyer advertising a student exchange on the University of Waterloo campus, and I was compelled to apply. I didn’t know where I wanted to go or what I wanted to see, but I knew that the change and clarity I sought would come from allowing myself a healthy distance from life as I knew it.

I chose to spend a semester in Sydney, Australia at Macquarie University. Because their semesters don’t line up with ours, I had a total of eight months to play with. Knowing almost nothing about Australia, I booked a flight from Toronto to Oahu, Oahu to Sydney and a flight out of Melbourne to Singapore on a whim. If I had all of this time, and was going to the other side of the planet, there was no point in being cooped up in a plane the whole time! I felt compelled to see all that I could – when else would I ever do this again?

When I set out on this journey, I was not aware of the adventurous and fiercely independent spirit that I possessed, or how this experience in my early 20s would impact the rest of my life. Making my way through Oahu, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Macau and Hong Kong in eight months I was pushed to my limits and felt the power of my inner strength. From stolen passports to the confessions of an ex-lover, from battling homesickness and isolation after losing my grandfather to the illness of a close friend, I experienced and learned to cope with all of life’s ups and downs in a very short period of time.

In Oahu I discovered the healing powers of the ocean, experienced island life for the first time, and had a seal emerge from the water to sunbathe with me on a beach near the most beautiful secluded lagoon. I learned about the gifts of kindness and giving from fellow vacationers, and I also spent one very uncomfortable night in the Honolulu airport, followed by a patience-testing delay of my early morning flight to Sydney. I had no idea this was a blessing in disguise. A fellow traveller also spending the night in the airport was coming home to Australia after spending some time in Canada, and he and I would become good friends and travel companions.

Toronto to Oahu to Sydney to Singapore

Australia was one of the most welcoming places I have ever been. Immediately when I arrived in Sydney I felt like I was at home. Of course, accidents happen close to home! My passport, identification and credit cards were stolen within my first days in Australia, and my grandfather passed away just before my midterm exams began.

While studying in Canada, my classmate and friend introduced me to his mother, who worked on campus. Annette and I got along well immediately, and ended up taking a couple of classes together. During one of those classes, Annette’s brother Tony was visiting from Australia, and joined her for one of our lessons. During my time in Australia, I would visit Tony and his friends in Brisbane on three separate occasions for long weekends or for several weeks at a time. I couldn’t be more grateful for the generosity and hospitality that he showed me, and for the impression that his love of live music left me with. Not to mention a few wild kangaroo and koala sitings! Shortly after I left Australia, I discovered that Tony had been diagnosed with a large tumour in his chest.

All of these emotional setbacks were difficult to process… to say the least. When you are totally alone in a new place, emotional experiences are felt even stronger and stay with you longer, but they have taught me one of life’s greatest lessons about continually moving forward. I was forced to re-focus my energies and be present in the moment – a realization that you never know what will happen tomorrow.

I highly recommend that everyone travel – to forge your own path and to embrace being pushed out of your comfort zone. Since my Hawaii-Australia-Asia adventure, I have experienced ten other countries, and I still enjoy every aspect of the journey. In the trials of travel adventures you will discover that often from the worst of situations come the most interesting stories to tell and retell, and within yourself you will find incredible strength and perseverance for the road ahead.

Rachael Matheson Dagonas – I am a Toronto-based communications, operations and relationship management professional, passionate about travel and new experiences.

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