While most of my friends preferred to go to commercialized tourist hubs on our college breaks, I often found myself planning trips to the middle of nowhere, literally. There is something so captivating about going to a completely foreign land all by yourself.
Perhaps it is the luxury of being in control of every second of your life, for those few days. Perhaps it is the thrill of not knowing what lies ahead, of discovering life with every step that you take.
After four years of staying abroad and traveling to even more countries, I would not have chosen to craft my journey of life any differently. Traveling solo taught me very valuable lessons that could not possibly be learned from any textbook.
1. Independence is easy, really.
Stuck in the airport on an overnight transit while the check-in counters are closed until the next morning? You learn to gulp some espresso shots, find a free Wi-Fi, and watch a movie or two until the sun rises, just in case all your possessions are robbed away while you doze off.
Once you are a more seasoned traveler, you learn the art of half-sleeping. Bending your body at the right angle with your luggage tucked neatly between your back and the wall, with your backpack as a pillow and handbag as a bolster, definitely requires some skills. Your body also learns to not fully sleep, thereby being alert to the surrounding sounds while still getting some rest. No matter what crisis the trip throws at you, you learn to adapt and rely on your own to hands to fix the situation.
2. If you don’t know, ask.
My friends find it hilarious how often I tend to get lost as a new driver. Yes, even when I am using Waze. However, no one can deny how good my sense of direction is when I am on foot at a completely new place. I am so used to walking everywhere when I travel that I can find my way around almost anywhere when I am reliant on my own two feet.
Whenever I am not sure which direction to go, I just need to hop into a café or bookstore to ask for direction. If you are friendly enough, the locals would even recommend a nice local restaurant to try that is along the way. Help is always there, all you need to do is ask.
3. Strangers can sometimes be the kindest.
Remember when you were a kid and adults told you not to trust strangers? Well, I have learned to take that advice with a grain of salt. When you are in a new place, you only have strangers to rely on for anything and everything.
I will not forget the times when I was stuck outside on cold wintery nights and strangers welcomed me in for a cup of hot chocolate. Nor can I forget that time I was in transiting in LA and was absolutely out of cash. I ordered pretzels and realized that the store did not accept credit cards. There I was, absolutely hungry and at lost for what to do next. The cashier gave me a warm smile, and said, “It’s ok Miss, this is on me. Have a good day ahead”.
Instances like these reminded me of all the good that exists out there despite all the negativity that we tend to see.
4. Stop and smell the roses.
Time seems to really slow down when you are traveling by yourself. You can wake up at whatever time you want, eat at any hipster café that grabs your attention, and even just sit at the beach with a novel for the whole day!
No one will be pressuring you to go to overrated tourist spots that you are not even remotely interested in. No bosses or professors bombarding you with work or email. It is just you by yourself, taking every second as it comes, breathing in the fresh air and experiencing how good it feels to live life at your own pace.
It is during moments like these that you learn to appreciate how much beauty there is in life. Most of us are so engrossed with taking the next item off our To-do list that we often forget to appreciate the beauty that surrounds us. Whenever you find yourself running at a crazy pace trying to do ten things at once, remind yourself to slow down for just ten minutes and simply appreciate life as it is.
5. Get out of your comfort zone.
I had to do a lot of things that I would never have imagined doing during my volunteering trips abroad. In Borneo, I was out in the forest assisting with research from 7am until 6pm daily. Of course, the forest does not come with Western toilets, so we all had to do our business in the bushes. This would have appalled me a few years ago, but you have to do what you have to do.
In Belize, I would wake up in my hostel in the middle of the night to cockroaches crawling all over me. On the first day, I almost broke down into tears. Second day onwards, I got so used to it, I barely noticed it anymore.
In Kenya, I climbed up a mountain that I never thought I could conquer. When you travel by yourself, you realize that this trip was your choice, and therefore, it is your responsibility to face whatever comes in your way throughout the visit and try new things. It is often too easy to stay in your cocoon of comfort when you travel with friends or family!
Whenever a girl says that she wants to travel alone, she often gets a lot of resistance from her loved ones. Your family is understandably worried for your safety, as the crime rate is on a rise all over the world.
However, I would confidently say, the benefits of traveling solo far outweigh any potential disadvantages, provided you plan your trip after a thorough research on the location and travel program. I hope that each and everyone that reads this article will give it a shot and see the difference it makes to finally take the leap of faith!
Written by Iswari. Iswari is a small town girl that defied the odds to obtain a fully-sponsored education at Cornell University.
She is now back in Malaysia, tiptoeing around reverse culture shock while trying to remain sane in the corporate world.
Sociable yet private, detached yet faithful; she is a paradox.
Iswari’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/iswari.nallisamy
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