Dear Individual Who’s Afraid To Travel Alone,
Hey! How are you? Your hair looks great today, has anyone told you that yet?
So! You want to travel. You’re in your final semester of high school and planning to go to college, but don’t feel mentally prepared to start yet. Or, you’re about to finish college, and you don’t quite feel ready to be a real adult with a real job. Or, you recently got out of a six-year relationship and want to be somewhere else for a while. Or, nothing dramatic happened, but you’ve simply never been out of your home country and you just want to see what else is out there.
You have an O.K. amount of money in your bank account and an idea of where you want to go, but you don’t know anyone with whom you can imagine traveling, so obviously, that’s not happening, because you clearly can’t go alone. Right?
Yeah, that’s what I thought too.
And no, this isn’t going to be one of those “if you can dream it you can do it” blog posts, don’t worry. I’m aware that the Internet is filled with cute little Pinterest pictures of supermodel-looking girls sitting on a mountain at that place in Turkey with all the hot air balloons–if you’ve spent any time on Instagram, you know what I’m talking about–or gazing out on some landscape involving a waterfall accompanied by big, bold text about how to travel alone is to know yourself or how the world is your oyster or something to that effect.
Most of what I’ve read online about traveling alone (especially for women, but this post is for everyone) either says that:
a) you’ll have the most amazing time and amazing Instagram pictures to go along with it
b) it’s super dangerous and scary and you’ll be alone and sad and scared.
I’ll be the first to tell you that it’s both. You’ll most likely have an amazing time, and you’ll also most likely be sad and scared sometimes. The thing is, traveling alone is like everything else in life. Nothing else is either this thing or that thing, so why would this be an exception?
Even though you’ll have scary and sad and maybe even dangerous moments, what I want to make sure you take away from this is that, at least for me, it was 100 percent worth it.
Before you decide if it’s worth it for you or not, because everyone’s different, let’s rewind back six years for a second so I can tell you my story.
The year is 2011, I’m four months into 19 years old, and eight months past finishing an exhausting, intensive four years of high school, during which I struggled to pass every math- or science-related class I took, drowned daily in a pile of homework, barely slept, and almost never raised my hand. I had plenty of friends, and had no trouble making new ones one-on-one or in small groups, but public speaking was the scariest thing in the world to me. I was too anxious to even show up to a friend’s birthday party by myself.
I had known since the beginning of my last year of high school that I needed a break before starting college, so I applied to a bunch of colleges with the plan to defer for a year once I got accepted, but I didn’t really have a plan for what I wanted to do with my extra year.
I ended up staying home in Santa Cruz, California to work two jobs while all my friends went to colleges all over the country. I really wanted to go somewhere to get better at my Spanish–I had taken it in school for the better part of 13 years, so I could speak pretty decent textbook Spanish (“where is the bathroom in the library? The pen of my uncle is on the green table”), but I had always wanted to be fluent.
My stepdad had gone to Guatemala years before to take Spanish classes, and said it was one of the cheapest countries to do that in, but all the programs I found online wanted you to pay an arm and a leg to only volunteer for two or three weeks. And, I was afraid to go by myself.
One night, my stepdad’s friend came over for dinner and said he knew of a volunteer program in Guatemala called Common Hope, that didn’t make you pay to volunteer and allowed you to do so for 1-6 weeks if you met certain requirements. He also said that plenty of people went there on their own to volunteer, so that once I was there, I wouldn’t be completely alone. I applied for the program, and got accepted to work in their daycare unit. I also applied for (and got accepted to) a language school, which also set me up with a host family.
So, after two more months of working in Santa Cruz, I found myself on an airplane on February 6, 2011, heading to a foreign country by myself for the first time ever. I’d been on two family vacations to Mexico when I was younger, but aside from that, I’d never left the U.S., and definitely not by myself.
I arrived at my host family’s house at nighttime and in a daze and immediately fell asleep. The next morning I woke up super early, ate breakfast with my host family, and stumbled through Spanish small talk.
Check out this excerpt I found from the blogspot.com blog I kept while I was gone to prove to my friends and family that I was alive–it perfectly sums up the minor breakdown I had while trying to unpack after breakfast that day:
after breakfast i kinda freaked out…everyone was at school or work and i had this moment like, what the hell am i doing, im all alone, im bad at reading maps and also directions, i dont have a working phone, i don’t speak fluent spanish, GOD I AM SO DUMB WHY AM I DOING THIS. but then i was like yo broski, this is what you’ve wanted to do all year. this is what they call “diving in headfirst,” and you’re here now, so put your big girl panties on and just dive. (yeah i talk to myself and yeah i call myself broski when i do it.)
so i dove!
and i got lost!
but im alive, hi.
and it was fun!
Once I pulled myself together, I spent a confusing but pleasant morning walking through the town’s cobblestone streets and stopping to look at every interesting statue, garden, or storefront.
I’m not going to lie–my three months in Guatemala started out rough. Over the first few weeks, I dealt with getting ripped off, first while buying a phone to use while I was there and then while buying credit for my phone (multiple times), I fell ill to the point of being unable to eat or stand, and once I ended up on the wrong bus going to the wrong city with no map or phone credit.
When little emergencies happen in the comfort of your home country when your family is right there, they’re easier to deal with. When they happen to you when you’re completely on your own thousands of miles away, you have to deal with them yourself right then and there. And doing that made me way, way stronger.
After a month or so of being in Guatemala on my own, even though I had the best host family ever and a few housemates, I got pretty lonely. Everyone was doing their own thing, and I basically did the same activities every day–volunteer job, language classes–and read a lot alone in my room.
Two months in, my (incredible) Spanish teacher told me that there was another girl around my age from California at the same school who took Spanish classes in the morning (mine were in the afternoon), so one day I went to school a little early, and looked for a girl about my age.
I saw some girl reading by herself in the corner, so I walked up to her and said, “Hey! This is super random, but I’m from California, and I’m here by myself. My teacher told me there was another girl alone here from California, and that’s you, right?”
She said yes, and I asked if she wanted to hang out sometime, since we were from the same place and by ourselves, and she said okay.
24 hours later we were dancing at a club together making plans to climb Volcán Pacaya (one of the many volcanoes in Guatemala) the next morning.
The following morning, as I was ascending an active volcano with a girl I had met 48 hours earlier, she told me I had intimidated her when I first came up to her because I seemed so confident. She said she would have never just walked up to a random girl and asked if she wanted to hang out, and I realized that two months earlier, I wouldn’t have either.
The chick who once had been afraid to go to a birthday party by herself and didn’t talk between 7th and 12th grades was now going up to people she didn’t know, asking them to hang out, and climbing volcanoes with them two days later. Whoda thunk!
The month that followed was my last one in Guatemala, and by far the best. While climbing the volcano, I met a bunch of people from all over the world, and for the next week, we all met at the same spot every night to hang out, play cards, drink wine and go to bars.
In my last two weeks in the country, I had my first experience staying in a hostel–and loved it (at Lake Atítlan), I rode horses at sunset on the most beautiful beach I’d ever been to (Monterrico), I went on a candle-lit cave tour despite the reviews I read online saying it was unsafe, and it ended up being amazing (at the Lanquin Caves), and I visited the beautiful, naturally turquoise pools of Semuc Champey–all with people I had just met.
I arrived back in California on May 5, 2011, a much, much more confident person. That confidence got me through five years of college, that confidence got me my bachelor’s degree in journalism, and that confidence got me to and from 13 more countries since then.
Since that first morning in Guatemala, arriving in a new country has always been exciting, and not scary, because I know I can do it–because I’ve done it before.
Traveling alone gave me confidence that I don’t think I could have gotten from any other experience. There’s nothing quite like showing up to a new country completely alone and having to learn how to navigate the city you’re in by yourself (especially if you’re directionally challenged like I am), getting sick, dealing with language barriers, etc. etc. etc.
Also, it’s waaay scarier thinking about traveling alone than it is once you’re there doing it.
If you wanna go, work work work, save up money for a plane ticket, put ya big girl panties on, and just dive.
P.S. Here are some resources you can use to find people with whom to meet up and do things with once you’re there:
- Gapyear.com discussion board – membership to the site is free
- Tourlina – If you identify as a woman, this app helps you find other female travel companions (and no, I don’t work for them, I just think it’s a great idea)
- Backpackr – This app helps anyone find travel buddies of any gender
TL;DR: Traveling alone can be scary but also so worth it.