When I told my friend about my upcoming solo trip to New York City, she exclaimed,“Oh wow, I wish I could do that!”
I just nodded. I wish I could enjoy spending my free time training for half marathons like she does, but I have made peace with the fact that I hate all forms of cardio and will never derive any enjoyment from it whatsoever.
To me, traveling is just like knitting, line dancing, or any other hobby out there: you do it simply for the pleasure of it.
I love reading travel blogs and daydreaming about perfect, idyllic vacations to exotic locales. I obsess over cheap flight itineraries and unbelievable hotel deals the way a sports fan might over his favorite team. I have replaced morning news with my favorite travel Instagram accounts and text my best friend at odd hours about the latest city I would love to visit.
I even keep up with my Facebook feed to see which of my friends have moved out of town, and which of them would kindly let me stay at their place for a few days.
I live and breathe travel, because I love my life more when I travel.
However, living and breathing travel is exhausting, so I understand that it is definitely not for everyone.
Social media, with its gorgeous photographs and eloquent posts, paints travel as the panacea that will fix our skin, get rid of our split ends and lead us to the love of our lives. I am here to tell you this:
The bloggers, social influencers, and travel agents… they are lying to you.
Solo travel, just like training for a half marathon, is not easy. It requires months, sometimes years of planning. It requires money, time and effort, being adaptable and unafraid of change.
It requires knowing that you will be alone halfway across the world, surrounded by strangers who have no intention or inclination to help you. It sometimes requires being okay with being gawked at, being an outsider, with being a target.
Being comfortable with the ever changing.
You cannot travel for others.
You will carry your whole self with you – and your hang-ups, and beliefs, and morals and opinions… that doesn’t change just because you changed your time zone. I’ll give you an example…
During my first solo hiking trip, my lack of physical fitness came to haunt me. A combination of the midday heat, dehydration, and a punishing pace up the mountain caused me to experience heat exhaustion. As my legs cramped up and my brand-new hiking boots made my feet blister, I panicked.
I was several states away from home, alone, wholly out of my element, and with a group of people I didn’t know. I could only take shallow breaths as I realized that I had to keep walking the rest of the trail, several miles up the mountain, by myself. My group had already left me far behind, and I couldn’t stay in the trail at night.
There are gaps in my memory after this, but I remember walking and falling, over and over again.
Pain as I forced my legs to work past exhaustion. Stopping every few feet to catch my breath. Looking at my empty bottle as if this time, it would magically fill up with water. Feeling clammy and feverish, as if I had caught a bad cold. Humiliation.
Fear that this would be it for me.
Exhausted, ashamed and terrified, I laid down right there in the middle of the trail and took a nap.
After I woke up, picked myself up, and kept going.
Almost four miles later, I found my group leader, who had stayed behind and saved his ration of lunch for me. “You look terrible,” he told me, then forced me to sit down under the shade of a tree, take my sweater off, and eat and drink until I was more coherent. After several hours, as we were very slowly taking the last few steps toward our camping spot, he stopped and pointed at something in the distance.
“We were all the way down there,” he said, “now look at you.”
I looked up.
The most beautiful sunset greeted us: soft, orange sunrays coloring everything in ethereal golds and bronzes. The trees, almost bare in the soft spring breeze, stood proudly, branches reaching up to the sky, their tiny leaves on display. Not a soul around, except for us.
Not even a noise, except for the rustling of the leaves, and somewhere far away, a river.
Right there and there, I finally grasped the enormity of what I had just done: overcome my physical and mental limits, far past what I thought I could, to witness nature in all her glory.
I could not have done that from the comfort of my couch.
I felt strong and capable. I felt like I could do anything.
I smiled at my trip leader, the kind soul who saw me at my worst and yet still saw something good in me. By the look he gave me, I think he understood. I could not have done that for anyone else, except for myself.
You might be thinking: If it’s going to be so uncomfortable and scary, why travel at all?
Because, despite the hyperbole and embellishments, those social influencers are on to something: Travel can teach us tolerance and respect. To embrace life’s spontaneity… but only if you already are respectful of other cultures and have a thirst for adventure.
Change only comes if you are willing to accept it with open arms and a big heart.
Yes, it may be hard.
Yes, you may be scared, and possibly want to cry. But the satisfaction is all the sweeter for it. After all, the most beautiful views are from the highest mountains.
Here’s my advice: You should never travel… for others. Travel for yourself.
Don’t travel to Paris if the idea bores you to death, just because your mom wants you to. Do not go on that cruise just because your best friend begged you to. On the other hand, if you want more than anything to experience Parisian food and tour the French countryside – then go, what are you waiting for?
Pack your bags, you’re in for the best adventure of your life! Sure, it might be scary at first, but I promise you, as long as you are willing to take a bit of risk and step out of your comfort zone, you will be fine.
And no matter where in the world you are, remember you are still you – amazing, wonderful, one-of-a-kind you.
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