I was flicking through an old travel journal while packing the other day and I found this passage. I wrote it when I was 20 and terrified to be embarking on my first international solo trip.
Well, I guess my journey has started. I am feeling so much – anxiety, excitement… a headache from blubbering at the airport. It hasn’t quite clicked that I’m on my way to South-East Asia alone – what was I thinking?! I am sure the panic will ease and I will get used to the idea over the next 24 hours… I keep thinking, ‘What have I forgotten? Have I sorted out everything at home? Can I actually do this on my own?’ But I know that I will enjoy it if I just let myself relax, go with the flow, stop overthinking it and learn from it all.
Reading this transported me back to my state of fear and trepidation before taking that flight. It also reminded of how little I knew about travel before that trip, which was a turning point for me in so many ways. It fortified my passion for travel, adventure and all things new. It showed me that the world is both generous and greedy, kind and cruel. And, most importantly, it taught me how to get to know and trust myself. Turns out, I actually could do it (and enjoy it) on my own!
Despite my resilience in the past, those anxious thoughts have been all too familiar in recent days. I still struggle to let go at times – to not overthink it. So, to reaffirm the value of past experience, I thought I would share some key lessons from my travels so far, knowing that these lessons will inform adventures to come and lead to so many more lessons in the future.
Your gut knows best: I learnt this lesson the hard way. Despite many instinctual alarm bells warning me of a not-so-okay person and situation, I allowed myself to reason away my fear, only to find myself mugged, scared and alone in Vietnam. As clichéd and obvious as it may seem, for me this big lesson was strengthened with the hindsight that my ‘gut’ had screamed no and I had ignored it. Since then, I honestly believe I’ve saved myself a lot of trouble by listening to my gut instinct on the road. I’ve learnt to trust that sometimes there are things that you can just know, even if the mind hasn’t figured it out yet.
Trusting people feels good and is often necessary: Although there are always going to be those people who try to do the wrong thing by you, I’ve always found it really important to remember that people are generally good and trustworthy. Having faith in someone without logical rationale is a really important thing to be able to do, especially when you’re in a country with a foreign language, culture and without a support network. It can be as simple as taking a bus with nothing more than a point of a finger to guide you, or leaving your possessions in someone’s care, or hopping on the back of a Moto and praying the driver knows how to get you to your plane on time. So many times I have found that trusting a stranger can be the most rewarding human exchange you have in a day.
Always carry electrolytes when travelling: This was another lesson learnt in a unpleasant way. It basically involved an intestinal infection, days without taking in food or water, a country with significantly less-developed medical facilities than home and a notable shortage of electrolytes. I often think back to that time and give thanks for the medical advancements we enjoy here at home. So much of the world simply does not have the fortune to access basic Western health standards, and when travelling in such places, it is always best to be prepared for the worst. I learnt not to underestimate how easily the body can perish without simple things that we take for granted here in our stocked and sanitised little world.
You will learn more if you listen: Although a relatively shy person, when I first started to travel I would try to fill my desire for cultural insight by asking a lot of questions. While this is certainly useful in the right time and place, I have since learnt that just listening – taking in the words and gestures and cultural exchanges, hearing the cultural speak through all your senses – can provide such profound and unexpected insight.
Alone doesn’t always lead to loneliness: The question I’ve most often been asked by friends about solo travel is, ‘But, didn’t you get lonely?’ My immediate response to this has generally been, ‘Yes sometimes, but I’m used to my own company’. A more considered response may admit that loneliness is part of life, but thankfully it’s only fleeting once you realise it’s just a state of mind. After getting used to bits of loneliness here and there, I found myself feeling more free and empowered by the realisation that I could choose how I felt about being in my own company. That was a pretty important lesson for me.
So here I am, years later and about to embark on a longer travel adventure to Europe with my wonderful partner. I am sure it will be full of new challenges and lessons and I can’t wait to throw myself out there again.
I’m sure you’ve all had plenty of travel lessons of your own and I would love to hear about them. Please share some of your stories by leaving a comment below.