Don’t sound like you know anything and are bestowing any wisdom—It taught me I knew nothing- just be honest
The first time I traveled by myself, I didn’t know where the Prague was on a map. I just knew that I had to leave. I had always felt a strange pull towards travel. For as long as I tell, there was no day I lived without that feeling. I grew up in a small town where most people settled down after high school, but the call of the unknown was as clear as a French horn in the distance telling me it was time to hunt.
It was an irrational curiosity that could only be consoled by the purchase of a plane ticket. However, this is not a novel feeling. It is one that has lead humans to discover every landmass, from the outstretched continents to the loneliest of islands.
We have always been travelers. And, now, it was my time to go.
The first time I left the states and after months of planning, I still didn’t know what to expect, let alone how I would pull it off. I tried to choke back the tears that scratched in my throat as I parted from the only soil I had ever known.
But after 30 countries, thousands of miles, and innumerable stories, traveling alone has had the most positive impact on my development. More than college. More than falling in love.
Although these experiences were powerful, I struggle to type them out to you. These changes aren’t like borders with clearly defined signs that indicate you are entering a new country, a new state. It’s a gradual growth, one that only occurs by taking overnight bus rides, talking to strangers, and falling asleep in strange spaces over and over and over again.
If you are debating on whether to travel alone, know that you will not return the same. You will experience a metamorphism only the brave embarks on but that everyone should try.
Your trip will not be defined by the souvenirs, pictures, and passport stamps, but by the conversations you had, the new perspectives you saw, and the story we are all connected to.
I cried harder when I had to return and couldn’t wait to get back out there.
Once I was back home, it was easier for me to see how I was different, but still hard to diagnose what had changed within me. Here is a short and ill attempt at describing some of the shifts that you will experience once you board a plane with a one-way ticket.
1) You Become Fearless
No matter how well you planned each day, ride, or adventure, there will be times where no matter how well prepared you to think you are, the world will still blindside you.
Like the time I was stranded on a highway in Mexico for 8 hours with only one water bottle. Let me back up.
I was traveling from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, which is roughly an 8-hour bus ride. We drove away from the arid landscape, with felids of agave sprinkled like candies on a cake. The rocky terrain began to smooth out as we reached closer to the coast. The bus began to ride along the edge of the country with the Pacific to our left and jungle to our right.
As we turned around a bend, the bus stopped in the middle of the road, and I looked up from watching Like Water for Chocolate on my mini-laptop. Some traffic, but nothing to worry about. I continued to watch the movie and sat in anticipation for that lurch forward of our journey onward. But that feeling never came. I looked up an hour later and the bus was nearly empty. Everyone was outside.
I tucked my belongings away and got off the bus. Everyone in the surrounding vehicles were also out of their cars and were walking along the outstretched line of buses, cars, tractor trailers, and vans.
Protests were intentionally blocking the passageway ahead with no sign of letting vehicles through. We were stranded for hours under the blazing and cancer-inviting sun.
You don’t anticipate these situations or know how to prepare for them. But it gives you an opportunity to witness who you are and how you will respond: will you rage over the situation and collapse into despair or play cards & share sugarcane with the bus driver in the shade of the bus as you wait it out?
This is one of many times the world has been rough with me, but I became stronger from it.
I’m not scared of anything now.
2) You Witness the Extreme Kindness of Strangers
I was often warned to be weary of strangers. However, my trips have always been based on the benevolence of complete strangers.
One of my favorite examples (for there are too many to count) was the time I was in Dubrovnik and a female couchsurfer, about my age, had agreed to host me. However, she still lived with her parents and she didn’t want to say we met on the ~* internet *~ so we agreed to say that we met while I was studying abroad to appease her folks.
She was working when I got into the city and had her father pick me up from my ride from Montenegro. This tall, silver fox zips through the bus station and has me hop on the back of his electric blue Vespa. I wrapped my arms around the waist of a stranger as our bodies undulated up and around the inclining road that leads us to their modest one-story house.
Her parents had me sit down in their two-person table and immediately feed me a giant salad of soft cheese, greens picked from their garden and fresh olive oil. Between each crunch, the father tells me the story of how they lived through the Croatian War.
He points to the 5×5 bathroom only a few feet away from us and said, “We lived in that space for months. We had to smuggle my wife out to Split to give birth to my daughter (the female host I had yet to meet).”
It was hard to swallow.
I had a limited understanding of what Yugoslavia was, let alone able to comprehend a genocide that was comparable to the Holocaust. He opened up the cabinets and about his family’s forbearance and fortitude during the fall of the Soviet Union, the economic ruin after the war, and the rebuilding of their country while he offered me a bowl of freshly made fig jam and butter cookies; flavors so rich with intention and kindness I can still taste them. I had known him for less than an hour.
It was a lot to digest.
They had a simple living, had been through immense suffering, and still cared for me as if I was their daughter. They had no incentive to help me, but insisted on feeding me, driving me around, and allowed me to stay with them indefinitely.
It is easy to argue that these are people who are naturally inclined to help strangers and that they are exceptions to the rule.
However, I would dispute that and make the claim that this kind of kindness was experienced beyond my hosts. I wish I had enough limbs totally the myriad of people who grabbed my wrist and pulled me in the right direction when I was lost, local bakers and mothers who shared their secret recipes with me, and the shopkeepers who offered tea and expected nothing more than conversation.
People are proud of their homes, and they want to give others a good experience of it. Their nation is an extension of themselves, and they wouldn’t want others to think poorly of them.
3) You Get to Experience the Rich Diversity of the World, From the People…
Travel disrupts your sense of normalcy. How breakfast isn’t always pancakes and bacon but can be seaweed and rice, millet and plantains, or a shot of espresso with a cookie. It adjusts your perspective like a lens on a camera.
I stood in awe as I admired the opinionless glass blowing in the Czech Republic, to the geometric patterns that lined the walls of the Alhambra in Spain, and the molded gold jewelry that laid across the chests of ancient American tribes in Colombia. We were resourceful with what we had around us but still expressed the same fundamentals across cultures with the underlying desire to be understood.
That desire is heard without words.
Our interpretations of the world are as varied as our species, and it is a blessing to see a fraction of it.
…..to the planet.
You also bear witness to the diverse shapes our earth takes. Our earth can switch and turn on a dime, from arid deserts bleeding into lush rainforests, from quiet wetlands surrounding rowdy volcanos.
Although you may get 100 likes on an Instagram post, that hopefully shouldn’t surpass the extreme pleasure of experiencing complexity the natural world has to offer.
I had the same feeling when I boated around the islands of Greece, walked through the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest, or swam through a sea of bioluminescence on the shores of Panama. It is a moment when I am fully present and see the complex world around me.
The noise of my own problems are muffled, and I recognize my minutness. I become humbled by the intricacy and unintentional beautify the earth beholds. It’s a feeling that begins at the base of my pelvis, bubbles all the way up, and pours out of me like a boiling pot filled with more water than it can hold. I’m too overwhelmed and in love with the world to keep my shit together.
4) While Experiencing the Underlying Fundamentals of Humanity
I was amazed by how many taxi cab drivers I was able to make laugh as they drove me through a town or across a border, and I am speaking across cultures here. They were typically older men who had been living in their area their whole life and had such different perspectives on how the world works.
No matter how different their culture was from mine, I would always dig for some commonality, even if it was just extending empathy over long work days, as they navigated through the well-known streets of their city. I was able to do this all over, from Mexico to Morocco, Scotland to Peru.
As I listened to their stories, I recognized that they too contain similar goals, fears, and desires like mine. A goal to be successful, a fear of wasting time, or the desire to see the world. I began to feel more empathetic because I was able to connect with those who, ostensibly, were obviously different than me. Once I related to them and showed I tried to have them feel a bit more understood, they would open up to me. I heard heart-wrenching stories and the best place to get tacos. There is no disadvantage to expanding your empathy, which is a skill that becomes finely tuned while you travel.
5) You Actually Don’t Know Anything
Woof, this one is hard for our egos to swallow.
We feel like we need to know everything! Especially now in the age of the internet, people will scoff at you for not knowing something.
However, you can jump on a plane with years of schooling, a master’s degree or Ph.D. and still be dumbfounded by how little you actually know about the world.
Here is a simple (and embarrassing list) of things I didn’t know before I traveled:
- Where the Czech Republic was on a map (or the locations of countries in general).
- The Incan Empire was larger than Rome’s ( by a long shot).
- That Great Britain is different from England and different from the United Kingdom and different from Britain.
- That America took most of Mexico without asking (and then overthrew a ton of Latin American governments 100 years later).
- How to properly eat pasta.
There should be no embarrassment around not knowing everything and no one should be held to that expectation.
Let the world humble and soften you.
Every time I return home and am asked: “What did you learn?”
I reply, “Less than I knew before leaving.”
Adrien Behn has self-produced Strangers Abroad, a travel+storytelling podcast. Strangers Abroad is a series of conversations she had with strangers that she met while backpacking throughout Latin America for 5 months, overlapped with her personal stories about being a woman who travels alone. The podcast aims to focus on the self-growth and eye-opening experiences that happen to individuals when they travel abroad. She is a travel writer, live storyteller, and intense pie baker. She desires to hit every country before she dies ( with modern medicine, she still has plenty of time).