How a Stranger’s Death Reminded Me of My Purpose

I thought the hardest part was over once I’d shoved the last item into my backpack. By this point, I’d already said goodbye to everyone and everything I ever loved. All I could do before I embarked on a year-long journey to New Zealand was stare straight ahead, a numb and petrified shell.

How am I going to make it through this?

How a Stranger’s Death Reminded Me of My Purpose

Traveling in New Zealand

The travel itself ended up being easier than I thought. The first few weeks were the most difficult, with my entire family catching the flu the day of my departure, rendering them unable to say goodbye, added to the insane effect of culture shock, no matter how much I’d prepared for it.

All of that seemed so futile after I’d gotten used to the rapid movement of traveler’s life. The immediate bonding of friends in the hostels, the accompanying adrenaline rush each day brought. Getting up every morning with the prospect of new sights became a thrill in and of itself.

How a Stranger’s Death Reminded Me of My Purpose

Three months into the trip, when I’d finished out (mostly) everything I’d wanted to do on New Zealand’s North Island, I stopped moving for a while. The original plan was to do six months of travel, then six months living and working. I craved a complete submersion into the Kiwi culture, and I knew that just seeing it all in a month couldn’t accomplish that.

With winter approaching and the Southerly winds casting their chill, I was advised to hold off on my South Island trip unless I was heartily interested in snow-related activities. I wasn’t, so I opted to stay in the North Island while I waited out the winter.

I can travel in this country, but can I live in it, too?

At the bottom of the North Island rested the city I never knew I’d fall in love with: Wellington.

Read more: How New Zealand Changed our Perspective on Life.

Learning to live in New Zealand

Wellington was pretty low on the list of places I thought I wanted to end up, but it captured my soul the moment I entered its boundaries. I knew if I had to stay anywhere, it should be here.

I gave myself two weeks. Fourteen days to find both a roof and a job. Otherwise, I’d have to keep it moving somehow. Being used to the California sun, I didn’t want to face the frozen tundras of the South Island. The rest of the activities I yearned to do kept getting canceled due to the weather, and I couldn’t afford to stay in Wellington without an income.

Every day, I went out and dropped off at least eight resumes. Bars, restaurants, hotels, cafes, the works. I searched the job hunt boards, I asked around, and I did the same for finding a house. A few interested housemates messaged me, but I couldn’t find the right fit.

How a Stranger’s Death Reminded Me of My Purpose

Wellington, New Zealand

Getting out into nature

To avoid stress, I took to hiking the hill in the center of Wellington known as Mount Victoria. There, they filmed the first scene from The Lord of the Rings, where Frodo and the Hobbits hide from their first wraith. Being a fan of the movies, I thought the memory of its presence attracted me to it, and I followed its call each day.

At the top of the mountain, I veered to the right and found an empty alcove. A lonely bench rested in the center, away from the rush of the rest of the park. A sliver of Wellington’s skyline peaked through the gaps in the trees, but it was the seclusion that enchanted me. The brown bark at the base of the trees melted into white stripes that resembled antlers. The way the wind blew through the grass invited me to sit, and the silence from the outside world brought me the peace I sought.

For a week and a half, I climbed the mountain every day, sat on the one empty bench, and told myself, “It’s okay. You knew it wouldn’t be easy to become a local. Transition. You’ve still got time.”

Despite my efforts to stay positive, when I’d sent out 50 applications and countless roommate requests to no response, I started to lose hope. Ten days into my job and house hunt, when I still had nothing, panic set in.

How a Stranger’s Death Reminded Me of My Purpose

Having second thoughts

Have I made a mistake? I was so convinced this was the best idea, but are the fates against me? Was I wrong? Did I just waste all of this time trying to settle? Is a year not in the cards for me, after all? If I’ve got nothing in the next four days, I’ll have just enough money to see the South Island, and that’s it. If I can’t find anything, I have to go home.

The fear closed in stronger, but I hiked up Mount Vic and sat at my spot, the same as any other day. Though I had only spent ten days here, each visit encouraged me to search for a deeper sense of clarity. The cove’s isolation from any passing hiker allowed me to gaze at the city through the trees, journal out my thoughts, and fill my head with hope.

That fated tenth day, however, was not like the others. That fated tenth day changed my life forever.

How a Stranger’s Death Reminded Me of My Purpose

The chance meeting that changed everything

I was mid-journal at the time, reflecting on what my options were if none of the 50 applications I’d put in returned my call. A pair of dogs sprinted into the cove, almost as if it was beckoning them home.

“Sorry about that!” said their owner as he ran in after them. He tried to call them back, but they ignored him.

I shook my head and batted off his apology. “Oh, don’t worry about it at all, I love dogs! It’s totally fine.”

I looked back to my computer, but the man pressed on in conversation.

“Do you come here often?” he asked.

Don’t even let me open that can of worms. “I do, actually. Well, every day for the last week and a half or so, at least. To be honest, I just moved here from California, and I’ve been job hunting and trying to find a place to live and everything, and I come here to sort out my thoughts. It’s been my favorite spot for the last ten days.”

How a Stranger’s Death Reminded Me of My Purpose

View from the bench

The man smiled. “So you like it here?”

“Yeah, it’s really peaceful.”

He nodded and tossed a ball for his dogs to chase. “It is, isn’t it? My name’s Johnny.”

“Andrew, here.”

“That was the first bench ever put in this park, you know.”

I couldn’t help the joy the fact brought me. Out of all the places I could have ended up, I landed on the park’s first bench.

How poetic.

“Really? That’s so cool.”

How a Stranger’s Death Reminded Me of My Purpose

The bench

“Yeah. Looks like they’ve touched it up a bit since the last time I was here. It’s been there twenty-seven years.” He paused as he looked me in the eye. “I had it put there as a memorial for my daughter.”

My smile dropped, and my eyes widened. I instantly shut my laptop and rushed to pack my things. “Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry, I’ll totally get out of your way!”

The man waved a hand and shook his head. “Please, don’t. My wife and I drive down the coast every so often just to visit. We live up north a ways.”

I’d already finished zipping my bag. “Please, sir, come sit down. Honestly, I’ve already been here an hour, you can totally have your turn.”

Tears had filled Johnny’s eyes before I finished my offer, but he still shook his head. “You say this spot’s your favorite?”

I nodded.

“I have never once seen someone here,” he said. “In all of my years visiting, I’ve never seen anybody enjoying her bench. Nobody but you. And to hear you say you come every day, and that it brings you peace…” He stopped as tears choked his throat. “To hear my Jonna giving somebody else peace is the greatest gift of all. Please. Stay here as long as you’d like. Have a nice day.”

Check out New Zealand's hidden gems through hitchhiking.

Remembering a stranger

And with a wave, he was gone, but his imprint seared into my consciousness. I turned around after he’d left, and there, in the middle of the bench, on the sign I never thought to read, was the dedication to Jonna Victoria Poulson and her bear-sweet dogs.

How a Stranger’s Death Reminded Me of My Purpose

The bench honoring the memory of Jonna

I hadn’t been brought here by the memory of The Lord of the Rings. I’d been brought by Jonna, who called out to a weary traveler, because she knew his mere presence would bring joy to her grieving father.

In that moment, I thought, How could I have thought I was in the wrong place? If I hadn’t journeyed to the top of this mountain, to this random spot every day, I wouldn’t have had this interaction. If I didn’t suffer, this place wouldn’t have brought me the peace that healed someone else’s pain.

How a Stranger’s Death Reminded Me of My Purpose

A chance meeting can change your perspective

The next morning, I received a phone call from the only job I’d applied to as a joke: The Parliament. I found a place to stay the same night.

The transition from traveler to local, in the end, turned out to be much harder than the decision to go in the first place. But wherever I am, wherever I’ll go, I’ll think of Jonna and her bear-sweet dogs, and remember how even the death of a stranger can remind me of my purpose.

Author bio:

When Andrew J. Stillman isn’t busy creating fantasy worlds for his book series, he’s out exploring every cranny of the real world for inspiration. Glimpses of his stories can be found at the Life in Another World Blog. If you’re a fantasy buff, feel free to check out his author website for information on the books. Likewise, he welcomes you to like the Facebook page, follow the blog on Instagram, or connect on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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