A woman's journey about traveling alone. By Ilana Brown.
Most people associate the word alone with lonely. After days, weeks and months of traveling alone, lonely is not a feeling I could say I have ever had. Others may think traveling alone must be boring, scary, and isolated, but it’s quite the contrary. You are forced into the strongest, smartest, most vulnerable, and adventurous version of yourself. You learn that in order to survive, you must have confidence - confidence in your choices, actions, external messages and internal thoughts.
At 26, I decided it was time for a change. I didn’t know exactly what I wanted, but it was something else - something life altering and crazy— something to make me proud. I don’t exactly remember what was going through my head when I decided to Google “places to backpack,” but I do know most of it was filled with fear, confusion, and anticipation. I was faced with two options at this point. I could dream my life, or I could live my dream. I decided the latter.
I quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Chiang Mai. I contacted a volunteer agency, committed to a two-week program, and hoped I would be able to acclimate myself to the environment enough that I'd stay and continue on. Traveling alone was not what I wanted. Yes, I wanted to travel, I wanted to explore, party, learn, and for the first time, grab life by the reins and GO. I tried reaching out to friends, family, strangers, or anyone I was able to reach through social media, asking them to travel with me.
When I came to the realization that no one was quitting his or her job to travel at that time, I was bummed. I decided to take on the challenge; primarily because I wanted to prove to myself I could travel alone. I figured if I could actually do this, even if it only lasted two weeks, I’d be stepping so insanely far out of my comfort zone that I may just learn a thing or two about myself and overcome this fear of being “alone.”
I had countless excuses not to travel. There was not enough time. I needed to look for my next job. It was too expensive. I had no one to go with. I was too scared. People will think I’m crazy. These ended up being the reasons to travel. There is always enough time to do what is important to you. There’s always another job. Money is made to spend on whatever makes you happy. Solo traveling is the most rewarding kind. Being scared is invigorating. And anyone who thinks you’re crazy for following your dream is boring. Boring is something I will never, ever be. So, I hopped on a plane.
THE UPSIDE OF THE SOLO SIDE
As I walk into the hostel in Cartagena, Colombia, I am welcomed by the familiarity of friendly strangers, backpackers hung-over from the night before, and although I’m sweating, confused, exhausted, and I’ve never been here before, I feel both home and alone.
This was now the second time I left my job, packed up a backpack with little notice, and shipped myself off somewhere. I had a basic plan – book a hostel in Cartagena on the first night, and 2 weeks later, end up in Bogota for my flight home to start my new job. What happened in between would be unplanned, and hopefully be adventure-filled enough to feed the travel bug once again. The word “plan” doesn’t need to exist when you’re alone.
You have the freedom to do as you please, 24 hours a day, and the flexibility of being able to hop on to other travelers’ journeys, and hop off when you want. Whatever flimsy itinerary you create is entirely your own, and you get to do, see, and learn the things you want. There are no limitations. You just follow your heart because there’s no one else to follow.
However, the people you meet while traveling alone tend to be the most rewarding part. Every hostel, restaurant, beach, or bar is a new group of friends, where people tell stories about who they are, and what they want out of life. Some people you click with immediately and travel around with, others part ways. When the time inevitably comes to say goodbye to what feels like your momentary soul mate, it’s sad. But you smile, walk away, and place them deep in your heart with the rest of your travel mates.
THE TRAVEL BUG WITHIN
I’ve always had the travel bug. For me, it’s a painfully exciting nugget that sits between your stomach and your heart, and the only way to please it is to travel—but not all travel will do. The nugget doesn’t like resorts, and oddly, it doesn’t like massages for more than $3 and fancy restaurants that much, either. The nugget likes adventure, chance, strangers, and improvisation.
My dream is to travel more. It’s always been to travel more, and always will be. I was sick of reading blogs about other people traveling. And although at that point I had seen so much of the world compared to most people, I had also seen so little of the world relative to what is out there. I, personally think it's one of the most important things you can do for yourself. Travel. And travel alone. There is so much out there to explore. At these times, I’ve had no choice but to embrace the environment, the cultures, and people I’m with. The safety net of familiarity and routine disappear, and yet a strange sense of fearlessness, confidence, and willpower takes over.
OVERCOMING YOUR FEARS
Overcoming a fear, any fear, is the greatest gift you can give to yourself. Suddenly you believe what your parents, teachers, and those fairly tales have told you all along… you can do anything. And when you do it alone, you have no one else to attribute the successes to, or blame the failures on. I learned how to trust myself and follow my intuitions. I learned how to define myself at a time in my life I felt others were constantly defining me. I learned I could be who ever I want when I travel, and yet I’ve always only been the realist version of myself.
It was a version of myself I never really knew. A version of myself that had no responsibilities, no manicures, no one to answer to, no martinis to drink, no silk shirts to dry clean, and no bills to pay. I lived in northern Thailand for two weeks at an orphanage for children with HIV, rode elephants as transportation, partied harder than I knew was possible, ate the best curries in my life while I watched cockroaches crawling on the floor, went SCUBA diving, helped catch, kill, and cook a chicken on a mango farm in a small village, had to get my mouth x-rayed at a decrepit dentist office in Cambodia, overstayed my visa, ate lunch with a local women in northern Vietnam while teaching her English and learning about her life, modeled for a Colombian fashion brand, got on an airplane without a ticket, and had other experiences I will never forget, and likely would have never fallen into had I been tied to another person or plan. And while I met people all along the way, some of the most brilliant and intriguing people I’ve ever encountered in my life, I did it alone.
It’s not all beach parties, new friends, and cheap delicious food, although when you stick a backpack on and explore, that’s a good portion of it. However, there are times when you'll get stuck in the middle of nowhere and you'll be hungry, tired, and in a place where no one speaks English. Sometimes you'll miss your bus to the next city, have a stomachache for a week and find the Imodium bottle empty. It's not until you've experienced those travel hardships that you appreciate a rock hard bed in a hostel and a cold shower. But when the incredible moments happen, all of those shitty, annoying moments become part of the adventure that you love so much. Every instant, good and bad, suddenly becomes part of the life-altering, unforgettable experience. I can confidently say during those times, I learned a whole lot more about life, and fallen in love with the diverse and cultural world we live in.
The experience of traveling alone is an emotional and spiritual trip, testing your limits constantly, and opening your mind to things that never existed before. It’s not easy to snap into the mindset of living in the moment, living with a backpack, living with strangers who quickly become friends, and making wherever you are “home” in an instant. It takes bravery, trust, and gratitude. Time grips you in a new way and you learn to be present. Living in the moment is a genuine feeling that anyone is lucky to truly experience, as if nothing before that moment in life matters, and nothing after that moment will matter. Just right here, right now is all there is - taking all the energy you have in your heart, mind, body and soul, and giving it to the moment you’re in, the person you’re with, the beauty you’re surrounded by, the adventure you’re living, and the story you’re creating.
Life is just a story anyway, and we’ve all been given the power to write our own.
TIPS FOR TRAVELING ALONE
Have confidence -- in your choice to travel alone. You’ll quickly learn to gain the confidence while actually doing it.
Embrace everything -- Whether it’s food, culture, strangers, uncertainty, you will learn how kind and how cruel the world could be, and you’ll increase your tolerance to all situations. Keep your heart, mind, and soul open at all times.
Be you – because there’s nothing to prove to anyone.
Be aware of your surroundings – which is an obvious message for safety purposes, but also be aware of the way the world operates when you’re not in the comfort of your own home. It’s fascinating.
Love – people. People are gentle, compassionate, and helpful and the world is a much better place than we all give it credit for. Be vulnerable and let the world show you what a loving and caring place it can be.
Realize – I wrote a blog every day. You can meditate, exercise to think, or just pinch yourself. But writing helped me become conscious to how real every day was. Traveling alone can often feel like a dream because it’s so unfamiliar and bizarre. It takes a conscious effort to internalize that this is your life; amazing and real.
Have fun – because that’s what life is about. And if you can figure out the ingredients to create your own fun, it’s a recipe you’ll have forever.