The tour package I booked through my hostel was supposed to make things easier. Instead of doing it all alone, I’d decided to pay more to have everything booked for me, and even though my wallet was a bit emptier, my mind was so much more at ease.
But of course, when you’re backpacking abroad by yourself, things are never that straightforward.
I was traveling across the island of Java in Indonesia, heading to a magnificent volcano to see the sunrise before moving on to Bali. It included an eight-hour minibus ride to the closest city, then a drive to a hotel near the volcano, then a 3 a.m. Jeep trip to the volcano’s base. It felt daunting, but it was nothing I hadn’t experienced before.
As it turned out, the advertised eight-hour air-conditioned bus ride actually took 16 hours, and it wasn’t air-conditioned at all. Our entire group was irritable, uncomfortable, and angry by the time we arrived at our hotel—at 1 a.m. That left us with a quick two hours for showers and sleep before the Jeeps arrived to transport us to the volcano in the pitch dark.
In my sleep-deprivation and frustration, I wondered why I was even stopping at this volcano, why I had decided to backpack around Southeast Asia by myself, why I hadn’t just flown straight to Bali. The altitude made for freezing cold weather despite it being summertime. I stood in the dark wearing multiple sweaters, a knit hat, and a scarf, waiting for the sunrise and questioning all my decisions.
And then the sun rose. A floor of mist enveloped the volcano before us, a steady puff of pink smoke erupting from its center. The mountains and trees and sky slowly came into color, with a distant hiss of the volcano in the background. Despite cameras on tripods clicking incessantly and never-ending selfies happening next to me, a sense of reverence came over the crowd as we all stood in awe of this feat of nature.
Soon our Jeeps took us up to the rim of the volcano itself, where the scent of sulfur was painfully strong and the fear of tumbling into its center was even stronger. I peeled off layers as the temperature rose and I forgot about my fatigue—here I was witnessing a mighty volcano on an island on the other side of the world. Nothing else mattered. This is why I had chosen long-term travel, away from everything I knew.
It was never my plan to backpack solo for three months.
The plan was to go to Vietnam, teach English for a year, and fly back home. I figured I’d be away for 13 months at the most. Maybe I’d visit nearby countries on my school breaks, if I felt brave enough. Except I didn’t stay in Vietnam.
Instead, I quit my teaching job before I even started, backpacked solo for three months, and then moved to Australia on a working holiday visa. Those three months felt like a lifetime, and sometimes I can’t quite believe the things I saw and experienced. There’s nothing like spontaneously leaving for the other side of the world, alone and without a plan, to teach you a thing or two.
Here’s what I learned:
1People are kind.
I tend to move about the world with a creeping sense that everyone is out to get me—the driver in the car behind me is annoyed that I’m going too slowly, people in the street are judging my outfit, the person who doesn’t smile back must secretly hate me.
And yet, as I left my familiar sphere and ventured out into the unknown, I found that all my fears were mostly unwarranted. People were, in fact, incredibly kind. When I was vomiting for three days straight on a top bunk in a hostel in Indonesia, my roommates—perfect strangers—were bringing me plain rice from the nearby warung (a small restaurant) and vigilantly making sure I drank enough water. They tucked their own blankets around me when I shivered with fevers.
Once I acknowledged my preconceived notions and dropped the armor that I had built up around myself, I began to see myself in others. I began to understand that there are more considerate people than cruel. I began to realize that if you give people the benefit of the doubt, they’re just human, like everyone else.
2The world does not have to be scary.
Just as I learned that people are kind, I learned that the world does not have to be scary. When I first left, I was terrified of everything—from navigating busy Southeast Asian streets to running out of money to being hassled by taxi drivers. I saw potential danger everywhere.
But there was also beauty everywhere. The streets were busy, but I was okay. If I ran out of money, I was privileged to have family members willing to help. I was only scammed by a taxi driver once, and it wasn’t a big deal. What was more profound was the 12-centuries-old temple and the tribespeople of majestic mountains.
The world wasn’t scary at all. I belonged in it just as much as anyone else.
3You’re capable of way more than you think.
When I was a child, I used to be so painfully shy that I couldn’t even speak loudly enough for someone just next to me to hear. I didn’t like being outside of my comfort zone and I enjoyed spending time alone in my bedroom.
If you had told me when I was 8 years old that I’d eventually be riding overnight buses alone in Thailand and climbing mountains by myself in Australia, I would have laughed. Traveling alone is good for so many reasons, but one of the biggest things I’ve taken away from my travels is that I’m way more capable than I thought. When I’m driving a motorbike by myself, get lost late at night, and almost take a spill in the middle of an intersection, I can handle it. When I’m sick alone in the hostel bathroom from a severe migraine, I can handle it. When I decide to move to Australia spontaneously and need to book a flight from Thailand within days, I can handle it.
4It is still okay to be scared, though.
The world doesn’t have to be a scary place, but fear can happen anyway. And I’m accepting that fear is okay.
Things can be unpleasant or painful or uncomfortable. That’s okay…normal, even. In the best situations, things still won’t be perfect all of the time. We’re humans in an imperfect world, and it’s natural to experience discomfort.
I’ve been in some truly scary situations during my travels. I have been indescribably afraid, and then learned from it. One night, I left my hotel room door unlocked as I went to bed in anticipation of my friends coming back a bit later than me, and I woke up to a strange man standing in my room. As his shape became illuminated by the fluorescent hall light streaming in behind him, I had split-second visions of being assaulted or murdered and not being able to do anything about it. In an extreme stroke of luck, he ran off as soon as he noticed me sit up in bed and never came back, but the fear didn’t leave me for quite some time. Moral of that story? Always lock the door. Obvious? Yes. But until that experience, I’d taken my safety for granted.
Fear is a really good alert system, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative thing. Rainier Maria Rilke wrote, “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.” You can recognize the feelings, honor them, learn from them, and carry on. You let them transform you.
5You’re never actually alone, unless you want to be.
I love being alone. And yet, I hate feeling lonely. I strive for the perfect balance between alone time and social time, but life rarely ever works out that way. During my travels, I’ve felt so alone that I’ve sobbed on the phone to my friends back home, declaring that I’d be getting on the next flight back to New York. And yet, as a close friend likes to remind me, those are the times when the person I need suddenly shows up.
I could be sitting in a cafe surrounded by people, feeling dejected and sorry for myself, when I notice a woman speaking with a North American accent. All of a sudden we’re exchanging information on Facebook and realizing how much we have in common. I could be hating my new hostel and wanting nothing more than to be back in the comfort of my childhood bedroom when the guy in the bunk below me asks me to dinner. I could be arriving to a new city in the dark hours of the early morning, exhausted and confused, when I’m able to check in to my room early and introduce myself to my new roommate; a few hours later, we get Thai massages together.
The trick is to be open to connection, to not completely shut down, to still hold room in your heart for what could be. If you can do that, you’ll never truly be alone. Forcing myself to get outside of my comfort zone turned out to be the best decision I’d ever made. I realized that life is so much more than we can even dream it to be.
As Mary Oliver says, here’s to keeping some room in our hearts for the unimaginable. Who’s with me?