New Zealand: An Unexpected Journey
Updated: Sep 13
I always told myself that if you are a good person, and that if you do good things, then you’ll do alright in this world - you’ll avoid drama, you’ll avoid trouble. But what the last twelve months of traveling has taught me, is that that was a very naive former version of myself talking. Because it’s utter bullshit.
I learnt that bad, sometimes uncontrollable things will happen to everyone no matter who they are. It is an inevitable fact of life, but it is how we deal with the negative impact and aftermath of said bad situations, that contribute to how our futures will be affected. I learnt that it is all about perspective; how we deal with and react to these setbacks in order to make it all ok again.
Despite us having to deal with difficulties and struggles that seem out of our control, we should strive to utilise the outcomes in order to make ourselves and others stronger. Having a positive perspective has cured me of so much pain in the past, and I’m about to explain how recently it has helped me overcome one of the biggest hurdles I have ever faced in my life.
WHAT REALLY HAPPENED IN OZ
Ok, so a lot of you are unaware of the circumstances that arose when I was living in Australia, and to those that helped me through it, sorry you’re going to have to read about it again! When I was in England applying for my Australian visa, I obliviously applied for both the three month tourist visa AND paid for the 12 month working holiday visa.
Now, unknowingly, I thought I was covering my back by having both - I had never had to apply for a visa before and I had little knowledge of how it all worked, so I had relied upon other blogs and websites to explain. Several of these blogs had mentioned needing a tourist visa to get past border control and a work visa to actually gain employment - though, in hindsight, I misunderstood this information. These websites I had been reading must have been referring to people entering Australia purely for travel and tourism - not work.
What I also didn’t know at the time is that one visa nullifies the other. You cannot have two granted visas at the same time. The last one you had granted becomes the overriding visa.
So despite my immigration account displaying both visas as valid and granted, when I entered Australia I was actually scanned in on the three-month tourist visa, rather than my 12-month work visa, without me having any knowledge that this was even possible.
When I reached Sydney after eight weeks of traveling down the East Coast, I managed to acquire a Medicare account, a tax file number AND a job - all of which I shouldn’t have been able to obtain without a valid working visa. So, without any of this prior knowledge, you can see how I didn't question any of this. Everything was running smoothly and nobody had flagged anything unusual so I was in my own little world working away in a city retail store and living in a hostel with all my other backpacker friends.
Then in December, I applied for a second job at a restaurant. I handed over my visa details just as I had done with everything else and yet this was the first time I had an unfortunate response. This company had correctly sent my visa details to be checked by their HR department (which my first employers should have done) and had discovered that my visa was invalid for work. They informed me immediately and in complete shock I phoned immigration so that they could investigate this potential error further.
I couldn't understand. I imagined everything I had done was right and 'by the book'.
Immigration then came back to me with this; “so it turns out you entered Australia on a tourist visa back in July, meaning you should have left the country in October. That was two months ago. So you’ve been living and working unlawfully in Australia for over the bridging visa amount of time (28 days) - your only option is to apply for a two-week bridging visa and leave the country as soon as possible in order to make yourself lawful again. The good news is though, that once you’ve done this and left the country, you can reapply for your work visa as technically you never used it, and begin your year fresh”.
This news hit me like Thor's hammer. Shit. I had two weeks to figure out where in the world I was going to head to next in order to reapply for my correct visa. It was two weeks away from Christmas, meaning that I had to cancel all my new year plans with my friends and pray that I found some nice people to spend my first ever Christmas away from home with. I also only had a couple hundred dollars to my name, so I had to borrow money from a close friend in order to have enough to begin a temporary life somewhere else.
Due to the circumstances, I had to cease work immediately and quit my job, say goodbye to the family of dear friends I had made at my hostel, and spent the next few days under a complete cloud of depression and anxiety - terrified about how I was going to positively come out the other side of this. After desperate calls home to friends and family, and after a week of constant frustration, crying and panic, I made the decision to fly to New Zealand and continue my travels - rather than going home to England.
I felt in my heart that if I had gone home, I would have been defeated in my global quest and kicked myself for giving up. Instead, I felt like it was far more important to continue the adventure and really push myself out of my comfort zone by going solo for the first time. I felt brave and I knew I could channel any fear into a determination not to fail myself.
The flights were soon booked and my NZ work visa was granted just in time - the plan was to work for a few months and then head back to Oz to complete my farm work. Through tearful goodbyes, I waved off my life in Sydney, got to the airport, and what happened next completely destroyed every inch of optimism I had had for this unexpected transition.
BAD THINGS COME IN THREES
My passport wouldn’t scan through border control at Sydney airport, so an immigration agent came over to inspect it. My heart was in my stomach. She eventually came back and presented me with the news that my passport had been given an exclusion period, meaning that I was unable to re-enter Australia under a ban.
"a... a re-entry ban? how long for?"
I was numb.
I had not been informed or even warned that this was an outcome - despite the fact that I had spoken with three alternative immigration officers over the phone and in-person during the previous week (I wanted second and third opinions of my case as myself and everyone around me were convinced that what had happened wasn't really my fault). Not a soul had mentioned the possibility of a three year exclusion.
The officer who gave me the bad news had informed me that I could appeal the case, and I definitely planned on doing so.*
I stood motionless, exhausted from the stress of the past week; I was for once in my life, speechless. I had left half my belongings with friends in Sydney and had promised them I would be back in no longer than three months. My journey in Oz had come to a sudden and abrupt end without me having a proper goodbye. I silently made my way through customs, trying to hold back tears and desperately trying to switch on the ‘light bulb of ideas’ in my brain. Nothing. There was literally no way of getting around this. I, Annabel Emery had mistakenly become an illegal immigrant.
Due to the 12 hour time difference I was unable to call home and tell my family what had happened, and I was too embarrassed to speak to anyone else about it. I sat and waited for my first ever solo flight and stared into space, unable to fathom what this exclusion could actually mean for my future. Being asked to leave a country is one thing - but an exclusion period could actively prohibit me from gaining visas in other countries that I had plans to work in. I had only packed three months worth of belongings and prepared myself mentally for three months worth of adventure in New Zealand. Then in the short space of a three hour flight to Queenstown, I had to seriously rethink the next three years of my life.
*I later looked into appealing my case but unfortunately it turns out that you are only eligible to appeal if you have a relative in need of your care in Australia. Which I don't. So, still banned for three years woohoo :(
How the hell could I possibly look positively at this?
Is there really no way of getting myself out of this mess? What the bloody hell am I going to tell people!? I don’t want to have to explain the ins and outs to every man and his dog. How am I going to turn this around?? I am heading into a strange new country where I know NOBODY. I have no place booked to stay over Christmas - every hostel is full and unavailable. I am going to be homeless. I have no friends who I can stay with. I’m going to have to get a job as soon as I land so I can return the money I borrowed to get here. I don’t know what I am doing. I am a tragic, walking disaster.
That’s pretty much how my flight went.
The pilot's landing announcement interrupted the self-pity rant I was having in my head. I was startled by the sight I could now see from my window seat. We were literally landing in between the mountains of Frankton. I had never seen such a captivating landing site. A tear rolled down my cheek as I encountered one of those 'sad movie montage moments' where my hand was pressed to the window, devastating music playing through my iPod and my eyes glistening with salty water. This new emotion wasn't of sadness or grief though. It was now of wonder and intrigue. I don’t know how, but for a couple of seconds, I forgot all about my traumatic turn of events and lost myself completely to the majesty of the mountains.
It was at that moment that I put a smile on my face and strolled out of the airplane a different 'me'. I couldn’t possibly begin this next venture by being sad. I had to truly believe that I had the confidence, in order to ACTUALLY have the confidence to do this alone. Convincing others is easy, but convincing yourself is always the real challenge - so I forced a grin, and eventually, it became unforced.
It may seem like an absolute essay of an explanation, but believe me, that is the short alternative version compared to what my friends had to see me go through. But I landed safely in Queenstown (I am a very nervous flyer and this was a big deal for me) and immediately began setting up my life for the next 12 months - FEAR 1: conquered. I obtained a job after three days of being in town and pushed myself to get all my admin set up within the first week (bank accounts, tax file numbers, SIM card etc.) so that I was ready and raring to go. I even went out on my first night completely alone, which I had never done before.
Shortly after arriving in Queenstown and checking into Nomads Hostel, I met a lovely girl in my dorm who said I could meet her out after I had settled into the room, so I took her number and agreed to meet her at a bar for a drink. When I eventually got to the bar I received a text from her saying she had already gone home because she felt unwell, but that I could still go and meet her friends who were still out.
"Look for my friend wearing the red cowboy hat" the text read. I spotted the girl immediately at the bar but hesitated to speak to her. I felt so predatory lurking next to this woman's table, gormlessly debating whether or not to tap her shoulder and speak to her. This is too daunting.
I eventually gave up trying to convince myself I could do it and made my way to the exit of the bar. But then it hit me again; this bizarre, innate desire to push myself into doing something I didn't really want to do. I wheeled 180 degrees and headed back to the table, tapped the cowboy-hat-wearing girl on the shoulder, and introduced myself. Luckily, she was welcoming and invited me to drink with them. FEAR TWO: conquered. Now what else?
I decided that the only way to get over my ordeal was to openly speak about it. I had hoped that turning it into a 'whirlwind travel story' would help me to surpass the anxiety. I spoke with SO MANY travelers about what had happened in Australia and it turns out, I am not the first person it’s happened to! I’ve now met at least four other backpackers who have shared similar ban periods for different reasons, and I no longer feel so ashamed and alone. I still, however, remained silent to my friends back home, purely because it was such a long explanation and I knew that as soon as I had the chance to share it, I would be writing my story here.
The worst part about all of this is that it’s not over. This could still heavily affect my future, but I will fight for it. I also apologise to those that I didn’t tell about this in the beginning and have had to find out by reading this post, but I am sure you can forgive me and understand it wasn’t something I wanted to shout from the rooftops.
Now that I am slightly over the initial shock of it all, I feel it is my obligation to share my experience so that none of you have to go through the same thing. I thought I was helping myself by applying for the two visa’s, and I really wish someone could have discovered this error sooner. As for being able to apply for my tax number, employment, and Medicare account, no officials could actually inform me how any of this happened - the only response I got from immigration was “they’re different departments so we cannot help you”.
Now that I am here, living in Queenstown with a job I love, surrounded by some of the most awesome people I’ve ever met, I feel elated and overwhelmed with how much alignment I feel to this part of the world. I am a firm believer that 'everything happens for a reason' and I guess I was meant to experience this here.
Now I can use my bad situation to help others and in turn, grow stronger from an experience that hurt, but didn't kill me (queue Kelly Clarkson). I also believe that it’s incredibly important to highlight the lows of being amongst the traveling community - I get so many messages from back home telling me that I am living ‘the dream’. But I’m not. Far from it. But I am happy, and that’s because I am looking at it all from a new perspective.
It’s like what my friend Frankie said; “HOLY SHIT THIS IS HILARIOUS ANNIE. You’ve been deported and banned from a country. You were an illegal immigrant for two months without even knowing! How many people can tick that off their bucket list!?” Perhaps I’ll write a novel one day revealing all the dumb shit that’s happened to me out here and make a million out of a mockery.
Regardless of everything, I’ve been treated well on my travels. I was lucky enough to have met a wonderful array of globetrotters and locals who have willingly handed me keys to unlock the next parts of my journey; whether it be transport, a place to stay, a bite to eat, a loophole of some sort. I eventually found accommodation for over the Christmas period and enjoyed a very hot 25th December by the lakeside partying with my new work friends - so things did work out alright in the end.
There has been an unmeasurable amount of occasions where the generosity of others has guided me - full of gratitude - onto my next chapter. I just really want to take this opportunity to thank those special people who shed a little bit of light on this gloomy doom. I have yet to discover how this is all going to unfold, so if you can, cross your fingers and toes for me. And I guess, watch this space.
“If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
Dr. Wayne Dyer