3 Things I Realized While Traveling Alone
“If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection.” – Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fear.
The first time I left the U.S. on my own was for a twelve-hour flight from JFK to Hamburg. Two weeks before flying, I had a Skype interview with a cruise hiring agency who told me I was hired. One day after that they sent me my flight details and told me they’d see me in Germany. Those two weeks were a whirlwind of packing, goodbyes, and hitting all my favorites for one last time. On the flight, alone and in the dark, I realized I was the only person I knew who had accepted a flight ticket from strangers to fly to another country without any idea of what was on the other side. While that thought scared me, it was also exhilarating. This was it. I had jumped off the cliff.
Fortunately, this leap was one of the best things I had done for myself, ever. I spent the next three years traveling around the world, another thing no one I knew had done. I asked strangers to take pictures of me, tour guides for coffee recommendations, and locals for directions. Alone. While this idea might terrify many, the secret to traveling and getting the most out of your experiences is to go it alone. Here are the 3 things I learned while on my own:
1. You can (and should) do anything.
Some people say, “I learned to do anything.” That’s not true. You can do anything, no learning required. You can hike the Grand Canyon. You can navigate Rio de Janeiro. You can ask directions from a farmer in Portugal on how to get to the train station when neither of you speaks a common language. You never will do any of these things until you realize you can. Doing them might make you feel awkward, stupid, frustrated and hopeless, but once you do them you can feel the pride of navigating the world alone.
If you are tempted to wait until you can travel in a group, leaning on other people to do these things for you, you will never realize you can do them. Travel alone and you will soon find you don’t need other people, which is an entirely liberating prospect.
Don’t learn how to do anything. Know you can do anything. Don’t let the lack of other people stop you.
2. Never say no.
Eat the dessert. Order from the street cart. Go parasailing. Fear is a terrible reason not to do something. I can think of so many things I held back on because I was afraid of something. I didn’t take as many pictures as I wanted in Santiago because I was afraid of having my camera stolen. I didn’t eat that chocolate fondue in Como Chocolate Para Agua because I was worried about being thin. I will always kick myself for these missed opportunities.
I can think of nothing that I did and really regretted. Even that time I ate pho in Vietnam and became closely acquainted with several toilets became a fond memory after [a lot of] time. Doing is always better than not doing, even when the consequences might be counter-intuitive. I spent way too much on a car tour of Tahiti, but I got some amazing photos I know no one else got. Even though I lament what I lost to do these things, what I received in return was more valuable in the long run.
Here’s where traveling alone comes into this: the things I didn’t do were because I was listening to other people in my group. I did more things when I was out alone with no one to influence my actions. I lived life fuller when not caving to other people’s guidelines.
This brings me to my last point:
3. Don’t listen to what other people say.
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“What happens if you get kidnapped?”
“You’ll get mugged if you go out there!”
“Oh, there’s nothing there, it’s such a boring place. Don’t go!”
“Why go out, it’ll just rain anyway!”
I used to hear these things from other people all the time when deciding if I should go someplace or stay and sleep. These thoughts come from our cautious side, our self-preservation, or just our negativity. If it isn’t the voice in our head, it’s the voice from your neighbor. We should not listen to these voices.
If I had listened to what other people said, I would never have left Michigan. There were always people telling me that I wouldn’t/shouldn’t/couldn’t do something and only I was telling myself to go for it. People will always be ready to discount your desires for your life. If you want to take these leaps and really live your life, you need to stop listening to others.
While I am definitely not an authority on living life to its fullest, after all, I still have many regrets, I am somewhat of an authority on traveling alone.
Learn from my experiences, skip all the doubt, and just head out on that dusty trail to see what happens. Take that leap.