I think it's hard to understand what freedom really means until it is experienced. It’s one of those terms that have been tossed around so much growing up that it almost loses meaning. As a teenager, we think being an adult is having freedom. As an adult, we realize that getting out of debt (loans/mortgages) will be the real freedom. Then as we age we assume with retirement comes ultimate freedom. Yet true freedom is separate from all of these. True freedom is having not only the ability but the will to make one's own choices. As cliche as this may be there is no greater feeling than knowing the entire world is in the palm of your hands. Some people find that the weight of daily decisions is daunting but for me it was enlightening. For the first time, I could do what I wanted to do for the sake of me.
While backpacking Europe it was entirely up to me when and where I went. I could interact with people or I could sit back and relax. I could catch the next train out of the country or I could post up for just a few more days to soak in the culture. If a stranger and I became friends then I could decide to tag along with them or part ways. It really did not matter, every choice was my choice.
This is by far the most beneficial part of traveling solo. I learned more about myself through traveling by myself than anyone could ever have taught me. It’s the moments when you are lost in another country with no place to go that you really learn who you are as a person and how much of your character is actually you and not just a projection. When you are with multiple people who you are is different than who you are when you are with one person—it varies much more when you know these people. When you meet people you don't know and are surrounded by people who don't know who you are you, it allows for a much clearer view of who you are.
The best way to understand this is to picture yourself with your most outgoing friend. The friend that you have the most fun with because you never know what will happen next. You also become this fun, outgoing, adventurous person when you are with them. It is hard to realize how much of your outgoing fun personality is because of them or yourself? Even if you are naturally an outgoing person being with someone else who is outgoing just spring shots this trait it out of you. When you are with people for the first time who you can really see who you really are and how you really act without the influence of your friends.
When you travel solo it is much easier for you to be spontaneous. You don’t have to consult with your travel buddy. You can do whatever YOU want to do. That is one of the most exciting parts of traveling. Each morning you wake up you have no clue what lies ahead. You jump in the shower, eat your breakfast and head out the door. A whole unknown world lies ahead of you.
I think one of my favorite examples of spontaneity is when I was in Vienna, Austria. I was nearing the end of my travels and I can feel myself wearing out. Several weeks of constant change can be exhausting. I told myself the only thing I wanted to do was stay at the hostel. I didn’t want to adventure. I didn’t want to speak to anyone. I just wanted to do nothing for once. I sat down in the lobby and before I knew it I overheard a group of travelers talking about going to the supermarket. I realized through bits and parts of the conversation that they were all strangers just looking to make a trip to the market together. As they were leaving I had to make a decision. Join them or stay in. Before I had time to think it through I asked them if they would mind if I joined them. Next thing I knew we were at the supermarket planning for a picnic in a park where a giant projector would be playing a movie.
I went from sitting alone in a hostel lobby to being in a supermarket planning a picnic with strangers. We broke bread. We drank. We laughed as we tried to figure out what this Austrian soap opera was about. We talked until the food disappeared and the wine ran dry. We enjoyed each other's stories. This is the sort of thing that can only happen to a traveler. Just picture your reaction if someone overheard you say that you were headed to the supermarket and they asked to join? You would think that they are mad! Who is this weirdo who wants to go grocery shopping with me? But to a traveler, this is just another day in the life of spontaneity!
Somewhere in the back of my head, I remember hearing “change begins at the end of your comfort zone”. It was one of those random things that stayed in my head but never had any actual importance. It wasn’t until I decided to step outside of my comfort zone that I realized the implications. When you are comfortable you are content. When you are content you are not looking to change anything. Some of the times of my life happened when I was doing something for the first time. I mean hell, my first time on a plane by myself was a one-way ticket to Europe. I think that might be the definition of leaving my comfort zone.
I found it is much easier to step outside of my comfort zone when I was alone. There is something about when you travel with others that you focus on what they want just as much as you. It is very easy to use this as an excuse for not trying something new. I think traveling is not just about what you see, but what you do. When was the last time you tried something for the first time?
When people think of traveling they think of adventure. They see it as a feat or an accomplishment. They don’t realize what makes it a life changing event is not what you see or where you’ve been but the people you have met. Humans are inherently social creatures. We can not function properly without social contact. Traveling solo heightens the need for this interaction. At the same time our social guards are let down allowing for friendships to be made in a blink of an eye.
Normally we are surrounded by people that know us and that we know. This makes it very difficult to let our guard down and meet new people. In the back of our head, we are aware that if we reveal something personal about yourself that it may get back to someone else you may know. However, when we travel this fear does not exist. You know. You both know. That this may be temporary. That this is a 24-hour-friendship. You two, or three, or four, may have the best time of your life, have the best conversations, connect on an unbelievable level but know that this is only temporary. There is something about knowing that this friendship is temporary that allows for a deep connection. By the end of your time together you will have felt like you have known each other your whole life. You care for them as much as you would you friends and family. Not only will you remember what you saw and where you have been, but you will remember who you met for the rest of your life.
Being able to travel somewhere without the baggage of who you are can be uplifting for some. A lot of times people spend more time worrying about what people think of them then how they themselves feel. It is very difficult to learn who you are when you are focusing all your time on other people’s idea of you. Traveling solo allows for you to leave some of that behind. You can experiment with different “selves”. Now I am not saying go out there and be the next James Bond or pretend you are Madonna, but to take steps out of your normal tendencies. You can tell those jokes you always think of but never say. Take the lead and see who else follows. Decide to try something that you would never do at home like group dance lessons a hostel is offering.
The goal is not to come back a different person, but to come back with a deeper understanding of who you are. I lived abroad for four months. I traveled Europe for two months and lived and worked in Germany for another two. When I came back I felt like a different person. I still loved all the same things I loved before. I just felt more centered. I was more confident in my capabilities. I knew that when push came to shove I could survive. I don’t think I would have grown as much as I did if I traveled with my friends. I strongly believe that everyone should travel solo at least once in their life. It doesn’t need to be a full-blown endeavor. Just head to a city you've never been. A state you’ve always wanted to see. Just go!
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