7 Lessons Learned Traveling Solo at 18

Before I set off on my travels, I was so fearful of the unknown. I kept searching the Internet trying to find information on 18 year olds traveling the world alone. I came up empty on almost every single search. I was scared to embark on a path that seemed nonexistent everywhere I looked. Especially in the United States, traveling in third world countries, alone and at a young age, is almost unheard of. After spending 4 months of solo backpacking through Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, I want to share the 7 most important things that I learned taking this journey.

1.) The world is not a place of evil kidnappers and dangerous dragons.

I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, but I cannot emphasize it enough. At least 99.99999% of things that happen in the world go unreported. It just so happens that the minute percentage of events that the media chooses to broadcast is usually violent. I’m not saying that there is no danger in the world; there is, and you need to be aware of where that danger is. But that should not stop you from traveling. When I told people I was traveling to Guatemala, I got a lot of responses along the lines of “Oh goodness, be careful!” or “You’re nuts, kid.” While both of these responses may have been somewhat justified (to a certain extent), they implied on a whole that Guatemala is a dangerous place. Yes, Guatemala City (GC) is one of the world’s most violent cities, but it’s not like everyone’s after you, waiting to kidnap you. Not at all. You just need to be aware of which zones are unsafe and use common sense, i.e., don’t walk alone at night, and don’t flash jewelry or other expensive gadgets. It’s the same with every other city in America. There are areas that you should avoid, and as long as you do that, chances are you will be fine. I traveled to multiple locations in Guatemala, and met some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I’ve ever met. And yes, I did have to go through Guatemala City a few times, but never once felt as if my life was in danger.

2.) Happiness is not limited; Even the poorest people on earth can choose to be happy

This aspect of my travels probably had the most significant impact on me. Our culture has a perception of “happiness” that puts emphasis on possession. Whether it is a flashy car, a prestigious degree, having sculpted abs, a model wife or 8,042 followers on Instagram — these things are what many of us picture as the essential “keys” to happiness. While you can definitely have these things and be happy, they are not in and of themselves going to ensure happiness. During my travels, I lived in a town where the cost of my flight ticket was more than the salary that most locals made in a year. They live in tiny huts with tin roofs and have no electricity or air conditioning or cars. Many of them don’t have work and have no idea where their next meal is coming from. Yet they were happy. You could see it on their faces and the faces of their children. The kids were obsessed with playing soccer, and didn’t care that they were in battered shoes and playing with a raggedy ball that barely bounced in a courtyard filled with cracked concrete. I met travelers from all over the world, ranging from rich to poor. Some lived out of their cars in the United States, others without a home at all, simply wandering the earth with a backpack. What I noticed among all the happy people I met, from those in rural villages and orphanages to those in developed nations and nice homes, is that the people who are happy choose to be happy. They are focused on what they do have, not on what they don’t have. They don’ t think, “The grass is always greener on the other side” because they are concentrated on the green grass beneath their feet. I’m not trying to depict extreme poverty as acceptable or say that all poor people are happy. Neither is true. I’m trying to emphasize the fact that the people on this earth who are happy, for the most part, choose to be so. There is psychological research that backs up this notion. [1]

3.) Living it is different than learning it

Before I set off on my journey, I read countless accounts of people saying stuff along the lines of “you don’t need to travel the world to learn about other cultures and ways of life.” This is completely true, because you can learn about anything by reading books or watching documentaries. But living it implies experiencing something firsthand. Living it implies stepping out of your comfort zone and beyond the bounds of your current perception of how the world works. Living it implies approaching the world with an open mind, letting go of what you think and accepting the reality in front of you for what it is. You can read about people living on a dollar a day, but you will never know and truly understand for yourself what that is like by simply studying it through text. I became fed up just reading about other ways of life. It just wasn’t enough. But living in a rural village, spending a week in the jungle, camping in a tent on a deserted beach, living in a spiritual community and on a raw plant diet were all drastically different than just reading about it. I learned by living, not the other way around.

4.) Traveling alone does not equal lonely traveling

While I agree that traveling alone is not for everybody, there is a common misconception that traveling solo translates into constantly being by yourself. This cannot be further from the truth. Solo traveling is what you make of it, just like any other part of your life. I chose to strike up a conversation with a local in Lake Atitlan who ended up showing me his family’s home and Mayan customs. In Costa Rica, I chose to introduce myself to some travelers in a hostel and ended up hiking to an incredible waterfall and creating unforgettable memories. It’s like going to a social event. If you see a cute girl or guy, you can choose to talk with them. They could end up being your future spouse for all you know, but you would never know unless you took the courage to start chatting with them. Or in the classroom, you can decide to talk to the person next to you who seems interesting and they could turn out to be your best friend. It’s really the same with traveling, the same with anything in life. You get out what you put in. As long as you approach every person and situation with an open mind and a smile, the sky is the limit. Traveling alone actually accelerates personal growth. There were moments when I was forced to put complete faith in others, and as a result, I experienced kindness and generosity that was totally unexpected. I learned to love and appreciate being by myself and with my own thoughts. I gained independence and confidence by learning to navigate on my own and not rely on others to guide me (I have the absolute worst sense of direction, by the way.) I had tons of time for incredible self-reflection, and had many self-realizations as a result. In my opinion, traveling solo is the best way to travel. You learn about yourself as much as you learn about the world.

5.) Less is actually more

I spent my time traveling with 5 shirts, 3 shorts, 1 pair of swim trunks, and 5 or 6 pairs of boxers and socks. I carried with me a few other essentials such as toiletries and medication, and anything else that seemed necessary and could fit into my 50-liter backpack. I traveled on a shoestring budget, spending as little as $50 a week for food and a place to stay. No, it wasn’t the Ritz Carlton, but I found that the humble abodes I stayed in helped me to truly appreciate the culture and way of life of the towns I visited. Also, I had the freedom to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, simply because I could pack up my belongings in a minute. I met people who had sold their houses and cars so that they could travel and get rid of their mortgage and car payments. They said they have never felt more freedom in their entire lives. This is another aspect of my travels that made me question how our culture operates. As a society, we are constantly bombarded by advertisements to buy more shit that we don’t need. “Buy this product, and your life will become 50 x better!” “You absolutely need this product!” For those who have the financial resources available, many of us end up acquiring so many things that we never end up using. Clutter is overwhelming and leads to stress. Having more things means more responsibility. I realized that experience and relationships outweigh any potential benefit that a luxury item can have. With just a backpack full of clothes for 4 months, I realized that my focus was rarely on things, but more on experiences. It allowed me to focus on what I truly value, relationships and interactions with people from all over the world. By adapting this mentality, I’ve become more grateful for what is in my life and have more time to focus on what I truly treasure.

6.) There is not just one way to live

For a long time, I believed that my life was on a prescribed trajectory. I presumed that there was one way in which I was supposed to live and do things. Well, traveling totally changed that misconception. I was struck by countless differences, minor and large. Women in Guatemala carried heavy baskets on their heads instead of carrying them with their hands. I didn’t sleep with a pillow for almost 2 months because no one else did or even had one where I was living at the time. Tortillas often took the place of silverware. A Guatemalan man living in the jungle had no idea what deodorant was, and was bewildered at why I rolled a white stick underneath my armpits. Many things that I found strange, other people found normal. And vice versa. Apart from just small differences, I met people who lived drastically different lives than the one I did. In Costa Rica, I stayed with a man who only ate raw fruits and vegetables. Nothing cooked, not even vegetables. No meat. Yet, to my surprise, not only was he fit and strong, he was bouncing off the walls with energy. I met a man who, every night, went off into the remote mountains of Lake Atitlan where some of the world’s most destitute people lived, to help heal the sick and the poor. He slept from 5 a.m. to about 8 a.m. and was full of energy. Along with experiencing different ways of life, both locals and other world travelers shared with me their stories, habits and cultural formalities, many of which differed vastly from those of where I come from. Neither they nor I are necessarily living “rightly or wrongly.” It’s just different. And, from an equally important perspective, it’s also different for each person. This observation was liberating for me. I realized that people, even those with little educational or financial resources, have the power to take their life into almost any direction they want. There is no life “rulebook” dictating how you have to live.

7.) Stepping into the unknown can be life changing

At 18 years old, going to Guatemala on a one-way flight, by myself, with just a backpack, no cell phone and almost no knowledge of Spanish scared the shit out of me. But it also excited me beyond words, because I knew why I was doing it and why I had to do it. With no plan really, I arrived in Guatemala and had to get from the airport to a rural town that was 9 hours away by bus. Even with the language barrier and being stuck on a one-way road for 8 hours, making it a 15-hour journey, and arriving at 3 a.m., I eventually made it to my destination. It was accomplishing tasks like these that brewed in me a new sense of self-confidence that I didn’t even grasp at the time. But going beyond the limits of what my mind deemed as “possible” empowered me in a way that nothing else had before. I realized that taking the first step is definitely the hardest part of any major life decision. Despite all of the challenges I faced on my journey, the action of taking a leave from school and booking my flight was the hardest part. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” I would never have learned the things I did, or found the confidence I have now, if I had not taken a leap of faith, which removed me from my comfort zone. By persevering through fear and doing that which is perceived as impossible, only then do humans begin to realize how truly powerful they are.

[1] Carolyn Gregoire, This Is Scientific Proof That Happiness Is a Choice (The Huffington Post: 2013), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/09/scientific-proof-that-you_n_4384433.html