Why You Should Travel Alone

I looked around the cavernous room. Wall to ceiling bookcases that were filled with neglected, moldy books written in Spanish lined the room. I plopped myself onto the small, lumpy twin bed accentuated sadly with one flat pillow, unable to take my massive backpack off while standing up. I began to weep. Why am I in Buenos Aires? Why am I alone?

A few hours of self-pitying later, I heard a knock at the door. Sergio, a six-foot-four Swiss hippie with a booming voice whom I would later look back on fondly as my stepping-stone into the next three months of my life, told me to get dressed and be ready to leave in fifteen minutes.  I tried to protest this as it was already close to midnight and I had been traveling for ten hours. “I don’t know what time you go to sleep in Canada, you crazy girl, but it’s probably around the time they eat dinner here,” he refuted. There clearly was no time for moping in a city pulsing with the vitality I was lacking in my own.

Three weeks prior to coming to Buenos Aires, I was sitting at my computer at my first real job out of college working for the Toronto International Film Festival (my dream job at the time) when a sensation of numbness crept up the length of my whole arm. I panicked. I ran to my manager’s office, told her something was wrong, and went to my doctor ready to plead insanity. She told me I was so tense that I was actually pinching a nerve in my neck which was causing the numbness in my hands and arms. I was not going crazy, but my body was physically holding onto my grief. Two weeks prior to this moment, my mother had died from cancer. Not wanting to screw up my chances at this job, I went back to work too quickly after her funerals in both Toronto and Ireland, where she was from. Something had to give.

At twenty-one, I was too young for this. I was too young not to feel reckless, alive, happy and free. I needed to cut the chains of sadness and feeling of duty to be an adult (whatever that means) that I was dragging around. I tried to think of the warmest, most vivacious, passionate, life filled place I have ever heard of – Buenos Aires. The next day at work, I went online, booked a ticket and sent an email to my very protective older sisters to tell them that I was going to Argentina for an indefinite amount of time and I would be back when I was ready. I did not show them that I was afraid and had no idea what I was doing.

That first night, Sergio, my flatmate who I’d never see again, introduced me to all of his friends and asked them to take care of me as he thought I was “a bit too sad for such a pretty girl”. A kind Brazilian boy took me the next morning to get me set up with a cell phone so that I could begin my connected life. I enrolled in a Spanish school. Filled with first day jitters, I eyed the pretty, gregarious gaggle of Australian girls who would soon become my partners in crime. A young DJ from Amsterdam took Sergio’s place as my flatmate and later become my friend and sometimes boyfriend.  He taught me to love Seinfeld and confirmed that I hate nondescript, European techno. I took a tango class and came out of it with absolutely no transferable skills but a date with swarthy, charismatic Argentine businessman who kissed me pressed up against the crumbling façade of my rented apartment. I never saw him again. Perhaps my ratty jeans and t-shirt date attire didn’t scream South American chic.

I knew when I was ready to come home. I found myself sitting by a glacial lake in Patagonia after a long hike alone. It was such a relief to be in my own solitary company as I had met so many people on my travels that I was rarely alone. Like the first night, I wept again but this time it was different. I wasn’t scared anymore but relieved and accepting of everything that happened while I was here. I reflected on my time in Argentina.  In a practical sense, my Spanish got much better, I became more adept at navigating around a large, complex foreign city and I met new friends. I became more independent. In perhaps the less practical but far more interesting sense, I “fell in love”. Twice. I had a brief bi-curious fling with an Australian girl. I drank too much at times, stayed out past dawn and fell naively for the charms of Argentine men. I jumped off the side of a mountain strapped to a Vin Diesel doppelganger in a parasail. I fell asleep in a field in the town where Che Guevara grew up. I got sunburnt. I got lost. Luckily, it took getting lost to find myself again.

If I could beg every young woman (without sounding like I’m giving a valedictorian speech) to do one thing, it would be to go somewhere alone. It doesn’t have to be South America or a kibbutz in Israel or the Peace Corps. Buy a bus ticket, hop in the car, jump on the train and get off at a place that is at least an hour from where you live. Talk to a stranger, take them for coffee, wander around and buy yourself a souvenir.  Get lost for a day. Please don’t take a self-portrait picture of yourself to later put on Facebook so that you can show people how adventurous you are, if you can help it. This precious moment is yours and yours alone and for once something belongs to no one else but you.

Beyond this advice, remember to use condoms, wear sunscreen, look the right way while crossing traffic and if you’re going down south, careful of the tap water, handsome men and stray cats.

Featured image via spaceg.com