SunLive         

I was 21 when I boarded a plane and flew more than 18,000 kilometres, away from everything I knew and everyone I loved.

I was 21 when I walked through the  gates of Auckland Airport with a pillow  in my arms and a teddy bear strapped to my backpack.

I was 21 when I innocently and naïvely ventured out on my own to do something amazing and terrifying.

I arrived home at 22 a new person,  with a camera full of photos and a head full of stories.

Obviously I didn’t know Grace Millane – if you’d mentioned her name to me two weeks ago I would have given you a blank stare. But with her story spreading across the world over the last week or two, something about it has been bugging me.

It wasn’t that she had gone missing, or had been murdered – as tragic as those scenarios are – it was that I was Grace Millane three years ago.

I had always lived with my family in rural Auckland, I’d never spent more than two nights alone, and I had absolutely no life experience. I didn’t know anything about international transfers, how to avoid being pick-pocketed or what to do if someone tried to take me down a dark alley – I was completely naïve.

But traveling alone through Western Europe, Scandinavia and Russia, my biggest and most real concerns were having my passport stolen or losing my wallet. I was kitted up with all the gear – hidden money belts, RFID protector sleeves for my credit cards and passport, apps that converted currency and language, locks and keys and straps for my suitcases and insurance to protect me from injury, illness, and lost items. I took precautions to try and protect myself and my belongings.

At no point did I worry about being kidnapped, raped, murdered or harmed.

Maybe that’s my fault for being naïve and traveling alone, but maybe that just reflects my upbringing in a country where, if you are aware and careful, these things don’t naturally cross your mind.

As Jacinda Ardern said, Grace should have been safe here and she wasn’t. I went from Auckland to London and had no issues, no worries and felt no danger. Grace came from Essex and died in Auckland, and that’s not fair.

I came home to my family with a suitcase filled with presents. I spent hours forcing them to sit down and listen to my stories and flick through my photos.

Grace and her family won’t have the same opportunity – sitting around listening to her stories, the nights she spent partying and socialising, the money she won (or lost) at the casino; she won’t see her friends and tell them about the cute boys she saw, or the exotic food she ate, or the gorgeous scenery she captured.

She won’t fill her Instagram with new art from her trip, her Facebook with amazing photos, or her journal with memories.

I celebrated my 22nd birthday in Helsinki, Finland.

I remember because I played Taylor Swift’s ‘22’ on repeat and I cried myself to sleep because I missed my family so much.

But even then, at no point did I consider that I might not make it home.

If she did meet her alleged killer through a dating app, who cares?

That doesn’t make it her fault, it doesn’t make it right for someone to murder her, and it shouldn’t matter.

It doesn’t make a difference how many Kiwis apologise to Grace’s family.

It doesn’t bring her back and it doesn’t change what happened. Adding my apology to the list only shows that I am sorry that Grace won’t make it home and that someone made a terrible decision.

But I am sorry that my country wasn’t able to protect Grace the same way her country protected me. I’m sorry that she wasn’t able to safely walk New Zealand’s streets the way I was able to safely walk along streets and through parks in London.

I’m sorry that one person has let down not only a family, but a nation, a world, and budding travellers en masse.

I know there are many, many more prolific writers and columnists writing about Grace at the moment, and many writers with more insight and wiser words than me, but I couldn’t ignore the parallels in our stories.

She should have been able to travel here safely, and leave here with memories, photos, souvenirs and stories.

I hope Grace’s story doesn’t put young women off traveling and seeing the world.

There are plenty of amazing, life-changing experiences I had when I packed my bags and travelled alone. I left as one person and I came back inspired, enlightened and full to the brim with wanderlust.

But I do hope it changes the conversations around solo travel. Women – and any traveller – should be aware of the dangers, and take measures to protect themselves, but everyone should also be able to help keep them safe. Nobody – man or woman – should have to feel unsafe traveling. And nobody – man or woman – should ever feel like they have the right to take a life.

As a worldwide community, and as a nation, we should be banding together and encouraging people to get out there. Don’t sit still and let the world pass you by.

To Grace, I know how much adrenaline would have been pumping in your veins when you boarded your plane. I know how excited you would have been, how you would have planned out what you were going to do in each city you visited, how you would have been enthusiastically sending photos back home to try and share these experiences with your family, how much you would have missed them and how you would have been so excited to get home and kiss your mum’s cheek, hug your dad and joke with your brother.

I know how nervous you would have been to leave everyone you love and everything you know to get out there, see the world and do something that matters. I was you in 2015, and today Facebook reminded me that I was packing my bags and getting ready to fly home this time three years ago.

Grace, I am truly sorry for what happened to you, but I also thank you for having the courage to travel solo.

Cayla-Fay Saunders

Cayla-Fay Saunders
cayla@thesun.co.nz
www.sunlive.co.nz