“The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.”
Augustine of Hippo
When I came home work one night and decided I was going to buy a one way ticket to Ireland by myself, I had no idea why but for the reason that wanderlust and the love of travel was so ingrained in me.
I realized that it was really now or never – when am I ever going to be young, single and have this kind of freedom again? When people asked me why I did it, I couldn’t think of any other answer but this: “Because I can.” Because I have the freedom to, because there’s a whole world out there to marvel at and explore in, because buying experience is more important than buying things.
As months turned into days and my departure date was slowly creeping on me, I felt absolutely thrilled, but also absolutely nervous. It was like I was about to skydive off a plane and I was holding onto the door for dear life. I had planned everything I could plan – I did copious amounts of research on each country and city I was going to as well as read many articles on solo traveling, I had my itinerary all planned out for each day I was there and I was on a rigorous financial plan. However, no matter how prepared I was, I felt scared. I was going to travel the furthest I had been in my life (a grueling 24 hours) to a country that was literally on the other end of the world from New Zealand. It was a continent I had never been to before. I knew no one there. I was a solo female traveler, and I was going to have to figure everything out for myself. The day came, I boarded the plane, and I flew.
Now I am back from my travels, all I can say is that my experience was truly wonderful. Aside from traveling all around Ireland, I also went to Berlin and Prague. I was inspired by the rugged and proud landscape of Ireland and it’s kindly people, the raw edge of Berlin, and the bohemian beauty of Prague. I was mesmerized by it all. Most of all, it fueled my already burning passion to travel the world even more. I have a full-blown love and insatiable thirst for it, and I decided it was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life along with The Lilac Road.
Along my travels, however, were also challenges, character forming decisions, and difficulties as a solo female traveller. I’ve learned so much about myself and about the world, and these are some of them:
1. I’ve learned that I can stand on my own two feet. As someone who takes pride in being independent (it is a curse disguised as a blessing), I still had nagging doubts about whether I could do this on my own. It turns out that I am more capable than I gave myself credit for. I can carry a 25kg suitcase on a cobblestone street for half an hour in 4 inch heels. I can figure out Berlin’s highly complex transport system without speaking German. And I can eat alone in restaurants without feeling awkward (“Table for one” was part of my daily vocabulary!).
2. But I’ve also learned to ask for help. Being independent also means I can be very stubborn. I hate asking for help, even from my best friends. I’ll refuse to do it, sometimes even when I’m in deep trouble. Traveling by myself forced me to take down my pride and ask for help when I needed it. It’s true when they say that if you don’t ask, the answer will always be no. Contrary to my belief, and to my pleasant surprise, people were always willing to help a stranger in need.
3. I’ve learned that we are all human. I did a black cab tour of Belfast and learned of the conflict between the British Protestants and Irish Catholics. They could not live with each other. They went to separate schools, took separate public transport and lived in separate areas. There were numerous peace walls looming across the city to keep them from attacking each other. The cab driver invited us to write a message of peace on one of the walls, and I couldn’t think of anything but to write, “We are all human.” Sometimes we forget that no matter what religion, skin color, race or gender someone is, everybody is essentially a soul. A soul who loves something deeply, who has lost something dear to them and who has dreams of their own. Whether in Auckland or Belfast or Berlin or Prague, everyone is a human with hopes, losses and dreams, and we should treat everyone as such with as much kindness as we can give.
4. I’ve learned that you will get lonely, and that’s okay. Even for someone like me who values space more than company and draws her energy from being alone, I did get lonely on my travels. A traveler once wrote that the first few days of first-time solo traveling is the worst, and it was true. I was jet-lagged in a foreign country knowing no one, and I had also fallen quite ill with the flu, so I was achingly homesick. There were times that I found something funny and wished there was someone there to laugh with. There were times I’d be in my apartment room by myself craving someone to talk about my day with. There were also times I wanted to go out and experience the nightlife in a city but chose to stay home instead for the lack of a friend. Things do get lonely, even for the most isolated person, and that’s all part of the journey. If anything, it makes having company that much more sweeter.
5. I’ve learned that your attitude is everything. One day in Berlin, as I was rummaging through my bag, I realized that my passport was missing. I turned my room, suitcase and bag upside down in frantic fear. It was gone. It must of been stolen or dropped while I was overwhelmed and busy figuring out the complex transport system at the airport the previous day. I sat down and thought to myself, “Okay, I can do two things: I can either cry about it and panic, or I can accept that it has happened and start fixing this issue.” To my surprise, I didn’t cry or have a moan about it, but went for a walk to calm myself instead. When I told my German friends, we couldn’t help but have a laugh. I went to the police, got my passport photo taken and contacted the New Zealand embassy where I applied for an emergency passport. I also had to pay $300NZD. As a traveler on a budget, it could have ruined my whole week. However, I realized that it was just money, and money was always meant to be made again. When something goes utterly wrong in your travels (and no matter how carefully you plan, something will always go wrong), you can either swim against it or move with it. You can choose to let it dampen your spirits and make you miserable, or you can accept that life is not in your control and, more often than not, the best thing to do is just to accept it has happened, keep calm and carry on. You may not be able to control everything that happens on your travels, but you can always control one thing, and that’s your attitude. You have the power to turn a situation into a pity party, or you can see it as a great opportunity to begin at parties with the sentence, “This one time in Berlin…”
6. I’ve learned that we will always rise to meet a challenge. I’m the kind of clean freak that is a little terrifying to be around (just ask the people I’ve lived with!). So, it was natural that I was anxious to stay in hostels (the nightmare stories I’ve heard about them!) or go without a shower. But you can and you will, because you were naturally born to meet challenges and rise above them. You can travel for 24 hours without sleep and somehow manage to find your way to your apartment without a GPS in a foreign city. You can sleep in a hostel with 8 other people, no matter how dirty or sweaty the hostel is. You can put yourself out there to meet new people, even those who don’t speak the same language as you. You can go without a shower for 36 hours and be perfectly okay about it. You may think, “I would never be able to do that!” But trust me when I say, you have more inside of you to handle these challenges than you give yourself credit for.
7. I’ve learned that not everyone is out to get you. Prior to my travels, I had read numerous articles that dramatically recounted the story of how someone was kidnapped, mugged or beaten up while backpacking across Europe. I began to fret a little and made sure I took as many precautions as possible, but while I was traveling, I realized that there was room to relax. I walked home alone at night, I talked to strangers, I dressed nicely and had all my personal belongings in a handbag. But, I also made sure I walked in lit up streets, I always used a GPS instead of a map to avoid looking confused, I ignored any kind of street harassment and I walked around confidently (I actually got mistaken for a local many times!). While it is very important to be cautious and have good common sense, it turns out that the world isn’t out there to get you. I’m the type of person who believes humans are inherently good people, and that at the end of the day, if your in trouble, there’s more people who are willing to help than those who are not.
8. I’ve learned to stay more present. When you see something like The Cliffs of Moher in Ireland or look outside your window to see Prague Castle in her beauty, it forces you to be present in the moment. There were times when I was reflecting on the past or planning for the future that I couldn’t appreciate a moment for all it could hold. I had to make an effort to bring myself back to my body. I would take a deep breath and I would say to myself, “You’re here, you’re here.” Once I was present, the moment was magical and unforgettable. Being present is a rare gift, but when you are living in the past or worrying about the future, suddenly life starts slipping between your fingers. Traveling was a great way to practice being present and enjoy each and every moment for all the beauty it held.
9. I’ve learned that there’s no other joy like coming home. As much as I love traveling and even though I was sad it had come to an end, I couldn’t help but feel excitement and joy the moment I got on the plane to come back to New Zealand. I was thrilled to see my loved ones again, and sure enough, the moment I hugged them it felt like I was finally home. Nothing quite beats having a homemade meal, fresh laundry, a hot shower and a clean bed to sleep the jet lag off.
“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.”
Benjamin Mee, We Brought a Zoo