Feeling the Fear and Doing it Anyway: Traveling Solo
“You’re so brave!” people often exclaim when they hear I’m preparing to embark on another solo international trip. They add that they could never do that: never fly to a foreign country alone, stay in hostels, attend a retreat with a group of strangers. My response to them is always the same.
“I’m not brave!” I insist. “I’m terrified!”
It’s true: the prospect of solo international travel both invigorates and horrifies me. I’m a travel-obsessed scaredy-cat who chooses to practice the way of Susan Jeffers and her famous book, to Feel the Fear . . . and Do it Anyway. Why? Because the payoff is worth it to me; my memories of hiking along the coast of Portugal and zip-lining through rainforests in Costa Rica are priceless. I look at pictures of myself in those places and marvel, I did that, didn’t I?
But that doesn’t mean I don’t spend the several weeks leading up to a trip as a raw bundle of nerves, lying awake at night cursing myself for yet again being under the delusion that I’m brave enough to fly in a winged metal tube across vast seas to a strange land on my own. That will be me this coming January, as I prepare to board a plane bound for Quito, Ecuador on my first foray into South America. I will be there for five days alone before meeting up with a group for a women’s adventure retreat in Cotopaxi.
Here are the thoughts that will run through my head on replay in the days leading up to that trip: What the hell was I thinking when I booked this? Am I crazy to go to South America alone? How do I think I’m brave enough and capable enough to do this?
I curse myself for yet again being under the delusion that I’m brave enough to fly in a winged metal tube across vast seas to a strange land on my own.
“Of course I’m brave enough and capable enough to do this! I’ve done this before!” I’ll blurt out loud to those disparaging thoughts bombarding my brain – because deep down, I know I can handle it.
My first experience with international travel required at least a measure of bravery and capability from my college-era self. It was 2005 and I was preparing to attend a Shakespeare summer study-abroad program at the University of Cambridge in England. Two days before I was scheduled to fly out, my mom woke me to tell me that the London subway system had been bombed (I would be flying into London to get to Cambridge).
For a moment I thought, there is no way in hell I’m going over there. And then a minute later, it was there is no way in hell I’m not going over there! I’ve prepared for and looked forward to this for months – nothing can stop me!
So I went. I flew to London with two other students from my university, traveled to Cambridge, had an amazing three weeks there, then spent 10 days traveling alone in London and Dublin. I rode the Tube in London every day, often spotting charred areas of tunnel and bombed subway stops closed for rebuilding through the windows. It was less populated than usual then, which I only realized when I returned to London two years later and found the Tube crammed with sweaty commuters in a way it hadn’t been that summer of ‘05.
I felt the fear and did it anyway, and it was delightful to be back in London.
Was I more courageous than the people who opted not to ride the subway after those bombings? I’d say it was more that I was a naïve 20-year-old who didn’t know better. But I do feel a teeny bit brave now when I recall that, I’ll admit.
And how about when I flew to London again this June, less than two weeks after the London Bridge attacks? I was initially a mess about the prospect of going over there so soon after that act of terrorism. I even spent a frantic couple of hours researching the possibility of changing my flight plans (I was to spend two days there before attending the Switzerland writing and hiking retreat with Pink Pangea – which I highly recommend!). But then I resolved no, I did this as a 20-year-old; I can do it again. And I did. I felt the fear and did it anyway, and it was delightful to be back in London, taking in its theater, eating top-notch Indian food, browsing the bookshelves at its multi-leveled Foyles at Charing Cross Road (a book-lover’s heaven!)
Here’s the thing: will I really be alone for those five days I’ll spend in Ecuador before meeting up with the retreat group? My experience traveling abroad alone tells me no, not really. I will be amongst strangers, but I will not be alone. I’ll forge alliances with people I meet, however temporary. I’ll absorb acts of kindness granted by strangers – because strangers are always there to grant kindnesses when you need them most while you’re traveling.
Like that lady in the train station in Switzerland witnessing my confusion at a changed train platform during my journey from Zurich to Mürren, and gesturing at me with her cigarette-bedecked hand (because, I learned, you can still smoke in train stations in Switzerland) to follow her, and me hoping I was understanding what she was getting at because she was speaking to me in German and I don’t speak German, and yes: she was a benevolent soul leading me to the correct train platform. I felt immensely grateful for her.
And how about that time in Lisbon when I decided it would be a good idea to walk to the hotel where I was meeting the hiking group I was joining, and I got lost, dragging my suitcase all the way up that steep street in anticipation of my destination only to find I was wrong and to have to shuffle back down, sweating, my case bumping along awkwardly behind me? That sympathetic police officer pointed me in the right direction – and when I proceeded to get lost again (tricky Lisbon streets!), that man who was presumably the owner or manager of another hotel navigated me to the right spot. It was awkward, I’m sure, for him to field a request for directions to a rival accommodation, but he handled it with class; his assistance was indispensable during my time of need.
I know it will be this way for me in Ecuador. I’ll disembark from the plane in Quito, a mixture of staggering exhaustion and amped adrenaline after hours of travel, and I’ll be graced by the goodwill of strangers as I bumble through customs and locate the car that will take me to my hotel. They will answer my questions with patience. They will suffer through my broken Spanish. They will make my experience wonderful, so that afterwards, when I’m home and someone declares how brave I am for traveling alone abroad, I’ll respond: “I’m not brave; I’m just willing to trust that it will all work out – as it always has.”