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It was not long after my 18th birthday when I typed “cheapest flights to Europe” into my computer’s search bar. Four days later, I stood in the middle of Madrid, Spain with only a backpack on my shoulders and an unreadable Spanish map in my hands.
I found my spark for traveling as a middle schooler at a 100-year-old theatre in the middle of nowhere. Watching Walter from “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” leave his unsatisfying life behind to discover the zest of traveling ignited a feeling inside of me that has yet to subside. That day, I promised myself that, as soon as I could, I too would leave the familiar and see as much of the unknown as possible.
Of course, with age, I grew to see just how unrealistic it was to suddenly drop everything and explore the globe like Walter had. However, the feelings of wanderlust still lingered inside of me just as strongly as they had when I first saw the movie. I decided that I was going to do whatever I could to make my dream more realistic.
Most of my high school years were spent running cash registers, scrubbing syrup off tables, working at drive thrus, washing dishes and putting boxes on conveyer belts in warehouses. Although I had other financial responsibilities and college payments lingering in the near future, I made sure that some part of every pay check went into a special savings account just for traveling, even if it was only a few dollars. After a few years, I had accumulated a substantial amount.
As the final year of my childhood neared to an end, the realization that I was finally approaching the freedom that came with adulthood dawned on me. I spent the next few months attempting to intricately plan my trip, but I never felt like my plan was developed enough to follow through with it. Eventually I decided that such an unpredictable and unfamiliar thing like traveling abroad could not be planned. So, one day, I decided to simply go for it … and found myself in the heart of Spain.
All of the excitement and warmth I had felt about traveling drained from me as I deboarded the plane in Madrid. Standing amongst thousands of people who were speaking a language I did not understand, I looked to signs for answers — only to find that, of course, those made no sense to me either. Resisting the urge to buy a ticket for the next flight home, I hopped onto a bus and hoped for the best.
After getting off at a stop that seemed like it was in the center of the city, the reality of my situation hit me. Everyone back at home was asleep due to the time difference, and, even if they were awake, I could not figure out how to get my phone data to work anyways. I had not slept in over a day, yet knew that I could not check into my hostel for eight more hours. It sunk in that I was truly alone and without a place to go. I was cut off from every place and person I had ever known. It felt akin to waking up on another planet. It was then that I realized that I had made it to my unknown.
I did not experience the euphoria I thought I would. I walked around with no sense of direction, panicked and with tears in my eyes. I eventually wandered to the Royal Palace of Madrid where I saw people resting on the grassy area of a park. Not knowing what else to do, I laid down on a bench and using my backpack as a pillow, fell asleep with tears rolling down my face.
While this first day felt like a nightmare that I wanted to desperately escape, I did not feel this way for long. That same day, I began to meet people just like myself in hostels and on tours. Slowly but surely, I started to develop roots everywhere I went, and things became much less frightening. I pushed myself to get through the next hour, then the next day, then the next week, until suddenly I was doing it. In fact, I met my goal of staying until I ran out of the money I had budgeted, making it through 11 countries in a few months.
My journey was nowhere near smooth or perfect. I once got on a train to the wrong country after a layover at a small station where nobody spoke English. Another time, I unknowingly booked a hostel in the heart of a city’s prostitution district. However, going on this trip was one of the most valuable things I have ever done. It made me develop a sense of wonder, independence and love for adventure that are strong within me today.
Although this experience has taught me enough things to fill up this entire newspaper, one of the most important lessons I have learned is being comfortable with myself.
Traveling alone forced me to rely on myself in every aspect of my life. All of my needs were to be met by me and me alone. While this was overwhelming for someone who had yet to move out, I grew accustomed to this eventually. Since my travels, this has allowed me to take more risks and to try new experiences, as I now trust myself to make sure I am alright no matter what I do.
Journeying by myself has also helped me to be content with my own company. I saw some of the most incredible sights of my life, yet, I had nobody to share those memories or moments with. Instead, every thing I did and every place I saw was for my own enjoyment. This, in turn, has forced me to see the beauty in even the smallest moments of my own life, even if nobody else is around to see it.
Being a high schooler, I was often not only the youngest person in hostels and tours, but I also could not relate to the people I was with since I had not had any real adult experiences yet. Due to this, even when I was with other travelers, I usually felt alone. While this was isolating at first, it forced me to focus on my own thoughts and to not rely on the company of others to feel happiness. This had made transitioning to new phases of life like college or the isolation of the pandemic much easier.
Overall, traveling alone has changed my values and my approach to life completely. I feel less afraid to seek out new adventures, no matter how big or small, and I am content with doing things alone.
Although traveling far away is an opportunity that takes privilege in many ways, especially financially, finding adventures to go on alone can shape your life in unimaginable ways. Even if these unknown places are a new park in your city or a restaurant in the town next door, try taking these trips alone sometime.