My Sister’s Influence

by Brenna Holeman

Brenna and Zalie airport

 At the airport before I flew to Central America, 2012

I went to South America because of my sister. She went to South America because of a bottle of mezcal.

Wait. Let me back up. At 22 years old, I took my first long-term solo trip around Europe. That led to years of solo travel and living abroad, including a year travelling through Asia. In that year, I’d met another backpacker who became my boyfriend. When we broke up, I felt totally lost; we had made all of these grand plans together, and suddenly I was stuck in a Winnipeg winter trying to save my pennies as a bartender. I had no idea what to do next.

“You should go to South America, you’d love it,” my big sister Zalie said to me the night I got dumped, as if it was the natural next step. And just like that, a seed was planted, a fire lit. Within five months of that conversation, she was dropping me off at the airport to fly to Belize, where I’d start a nine-month journey through Central and South America.

People often ask me where I got the confidence, the bravery, or the idea to travel the world on my own.

“Easy,” I say to them. “I simply followed in my sister’s footsteps.”

Brenna and Zalie Vienna

Zalie and I spending Christmas in Vienna together

When I was 15, I went with my family to the airport as we said goodbye to Zalie. She, fresh out of high school, was on her way to travel Southeast Asia and Australia for a while. This was pretty uncommon then, at least in Canada. With today’s social media and travel blogs, the idea of solo travel for women has become a more recognised notion of independence. Then, it seemed wildly exciting – keep in mind we didn’t even have email addresses, let alone any idea how to use the internet. The only travellers we read about were in books or magazines, and they were mostly men.

Over the next decade, Zalie continued to travel, and I continued to be inspired to do the same. We often spoke over shaky phone connections, using calling cards to get five minutes of conversation. Sometimes I called her in Mexico while I was in Russia. Sometimes she called me from Israel while I was in Japan. I wouldn’t have done any of the travelling I’ve done if it wasn’t for her carving the path for me, showing me that travelling the world was safe and fun and eye-opening and beautiful and so much more than anything you could ever imagine. Every day I am thankful to come from a family of people who value, support, and appreciate travelling.

Skype call

Skyping/drinking with my family from London to Canada (my mum has always been a huge influence on my choice to keep travelling, too, because she does the same)

A couple of years after I returned from South America, I found myself living in London and working on my master’s degree. One of my assignments was to interview someone who had influenced my life. I, of course, chose Zalie, and interviewed her about her decision to move to Mexico at 21 by herself, even though she had no friends there, no job lined up, and didn’t even speak Spanish. I never published that interview, but it’s such an inspiring story about turning your wanderlust into something tangible that I thought it should have a home on this blog.

In Zalie’s words:

“I remember tearing up as the plane was landing. I suddenly thought, “What am I doing?” I only had a backpack, a one-way ticket, and a guidebook. I knew nothing of Mexico before I went. I knew that people spoke Spanish, and that was it. On the plane people talked to me, and I couldn’t even say, “My name is” or “How are you?”

Right after high school, instead of going to university, I worked for a year and then went to Southeast Asia and Australia with a friend. Although I travelled when I was growing up, that was my first big trip without anyone in the family. It really gave me the push to see what else was out there, and as that old cliché says, I was bitten by the travel bug. When I came back from Asia, I went to university for a year, but I was always thinking about travelling. I made the decision to take another year off, and to finish my degree at a later date.

My friend was living in Mexico, and she brought home a bottle of mezcal. It said Oaxaca on it, and I asked her, “O-ax-a-ca? Where’s that?” She told me it was a state in Mexico, and it was pronounced wa-ha-ka. I was so young, and I had nothing to lose, so I just thought, “Hmm, that sounds good.”

I loved all my friends and family, and it was hard for me to leave them, but I needed to see other things. There was something inside me that was pulling me away to see the world. I also knew I had to do it by myself, because I didn’t want to wait around until someone else was ready to join me. 

I was 21 when I got off the plane in Acapulco, and I had no clue what I was doing. Gradually, over the first three days, I started to think, “Okay, I can do this.” It was the first time that I was really by myself, but I knew that I could do it on my own. Even though it took me a really long time to do things, and I got frustrated, I eventually figured it out. Even buying a phone card to call home was difficult, but I needed to prove to myself that I could do it.

I then took the bus to Oaxaca and moved into a hostel. I went door to door, to different English schools, asking for a job. I started working, I met an artist who became my boyfriend, and I found an apartment. I just knew I had to be courageous and push myself to create the life I wanted. I eventually learned the language and made lots of friends, both foreigners and Mexicans. Sometimes there was no electricity or hot water, but that made me appreciate the things I had growing up in Canada, and I learned to be a bit more humble. Most importantly I learned the joy of living elsewhere, and of experiencing a whole new life.

Once, when I was travelling to Chiapas in the south for a holiday, I fell asleep on the bus. I woke up to an army man with a machine gun kicking my legs, telling me to get off the bus. He ransacked my bag; to this day I think it was because I was the only tourist on board. When I got back on the bus, I was crying, and everyone offered me candy and alcohol to calm me down. Those things do happen, but it’s part of the adventure; it can be an adventure just to get on the plane and leave home in the first place. People sometimes choose not to travel because they are frightened, because it’s difficult. They are scared of the unknown, scared of any sort of change. I guess I was different – more than it scared me, it excited me. I didn’t let being scared stop me. And I never wanted to go home. As much as I was frightened sometimes, and thought, “Shit, what am I doing?”, nothing inside me told me to leave.

Travel makes you stronger. You learn to deal with things, to not be afraid and to confront your fears. And the more places you see, the more you want to see; you meet people and discover so much, and that creates a cycle of travel. Living in Mexico led me to travelling around South America, which led me to living in Israel.

I don’t know what I was looking for when I got on that plane, but I knew that, whatever it was, I couldn’t find it if I stayed still. If I hadn’t travelled, I would be married and have kids, but I have absolutely no regrets. The experiences I had living abroad and travelling made me stronger and more confident, and those experiences can’t be replaced. Over ten years later and I still get excited thinking about the next destination, I still get excited thinking about what adventures I can have. I know I’ll always have a life of travel.”

Brenna and Zalie Hawaii

Zalie and I in Maui as kids

Today is my sister Zalie’s birthday. She is my biggest supporter, one of my greatest inspirations, and my very best friend in the whole wide world.

Do any of your family members, loved ones, or friends love to travel, too? Have they influenced you to travel?

You may also like


Helen January 26, 2017 - 11:41 pm

Love this! Wish I had a big sister! Happy Birthday Zalie! x

Brenna Holeman January 26, 2017 - 11:58 pm

I have to admit, having a big sister is pretty amazing. I feel very lucky! 🙂

Zalie January 30, 2017 - 2:37 am

Thank you so much for the birthday wishes Helen 🙂

Lawrence January 26, 2017 - 11:50 pm

Great post. It was my parents that inspired me to travel.

Brenna Holeman January 26, 2017 - 11:59 pm

Thank you, Lawrence! How cool to have parents that appreciate travelling. 🙂

Paige January 27, 2017 - 3:19 am

Happy Birthday Zalie! I’m the big sister in my family, but I had older cousins who were (and still are) infinitely cool trailblazers–including one in particular who did a Europe backpacking trip with friends after college, and another who moved to Boston in her 20s solo (and recently explained to me that she “figured out where things were by unfolding a giant paper map on the street.” I for one cannot imagine navigating my city pre the friendly blue dot on Google maps.) Anyway, I loved hearing Zalie’s story, what an amazing adventurer!

Brenna Holeman January 27, 2017 - 7:27 pm

Oh yes, there were many years of paper maps in my life! That’s awesome that you have such great cousins. Thanks for your comment, Paige! 😀

Katie January 27, 2017 - 2:21 pm

That picture of the two of you as kids is so much like photos I have of my sister and I… (Me 4 years older and protective brunette and her a cute little blonde.) I’m sure I’ve told you before, but I’m so envious of the value your family placed on travel. While we were fortunate to go on little pop-up camper trips around the U.S. (always a blast until my parents began fighting and made everyone miserable), travel just wasn’t prioritized in our home over possessions. So it took me a very long time to forge my path and openly acknowledge that I wanted to make travel a part of my life. I was away college when my parents began their very bitter divorce battle, so I moved home to the pleas of my sister who, at 16, was understandably having a really hard time with it. Eventually I made my escape though, taking my very first solo trip around the western United States. It was an amazing, eye-opening experience and I haven’t been able to squash the travel bug since.

I still wish I’d done more traveling when I was younger, and I probably would have if I hadn’t met the man I’d eventually marry. Would I trade him? No. But I do sometimes wish I’d met him 10 years later. 😉 It sounds strange but I feel, in a way, that my parents did influence me to travel — in the exact opposite manner that yours did. I saw they weren’t happy and yearned for a broader experience, but they just never prioritized it financially. I’m still thankful for the way things “went down,” because it brought my sister and I so much closer together. There’s hardly a day that goes by that we don’t talk, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. She’s my support as much as I’ve been hers.

Happy birthday, Zalie!

Brenna Holeman January 27, 2017 - 7:29 pm

Thank you so much for your comment as always, Katie! It’s interesting to see how our different upbringings (in some ways, though it sounds like we have a lot of similarities, too) still led us both to lives of travelling. And that’s awesome that you have such a great relationship with your sister, too! 😀

veena January 27, 2017 - 4:48 pm

This is lovely. Happy Birthday, Zalie!

Brenna Holeman January 27, 2017 - 7:27 pm

Thank you, Veena! 🙂

Mary B January 27, 2017 - 6:57 pm

What a lovely story, and how lucky you are to have a brave big sister to lead the way (though I’m sure you’ve taught her many things too)! I am the only traveler in my family and that can be hard.

Brenna Holeman January 27, 2017 - 7:28 pm

Yes, I feel very lucky to have her as my sister. Thank you for your comment, Mary, and that’s awesome that you are out there travelling the world. 🙂

Brianna January 27, 2017 - 11:57 pm

This is a really sweet way to honor your sister on her birthday! It makes me think of my own role in my family. I am the traveler, but my younger brother is graduating high school this year and is beginning to express interest in traveling as well. After reading how inspired you are by your older sister, I’m not realizing that I am in a position to have that same influence over my younger sibling. Thanks for sharing!

Brenna Holeman January 28, 2017 - 12:36 am

That’s so cool! I’m sure you’re definitely going to have an influence on him and his wanderlust. Thanks for the comment, Brianna! 🙂

Zalie January 31, 2017 - 5:46 am

The gift of this beautiful post made my birthday all the more special. I love you so much sister xoxo

Brenna Holeman January 31, 2017 - 12:23 pm

I love you too xoxo

Jodi February 6, 2017 - 11:29 am

Love this. My parents were way more supportive of my plan to quit my job and go to Thailand without much planning than I expected them to be. Everyone in my life has been supportive and encouraging, which has made me braver and more confident. Having the support of friends and family, and having them tell you how brave they think you are, and how wonderful they think your plans are, is very, very helpful in accomplishing your goals.

Brenna Holeman February 6, 2017 - 7:34 pm

It really does help so much to have that support – I am so thankful for it. I’m glad that you feel it, too! 🙂

Alyssa January 30, 2018 - 8:41 pm

The idea of travelling (nevermind solo travel!) always seemed like a pipe dream to me. I so looked up to those travelling the world, but I always felt like I didn’t have it in me (I was too shy, or too much of a worrier, etc.). One of those travelers I’d admire was my cousin. At the time she was living in Edinburgh (a place I had always yearned to visit because my grandfathers were from Scotland) and on a whim I decided to book a ticket and visit her. Since she was working, I ended up doing much of my travelling in Scotland on my own (after a mini freak out initially) but it was the one of the most memorable experiences of my life, and has kept me solo-travelling ever since. If it hadn’t been for her, I probably would have never taken the plunge!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.