In preparing for the infamous, “Tell me about your greatest challenge and how you overcame it” question for an impending interview, I mulled and mused over the range of challenges I’ve tackled throughout my 21 years. I quickly decided that without a doubt, the greatest one was backpacking solo for a short 17 days. For people that live and thrive in the backpacker world, 17 days in Western Europe is nothing. A girl solo? Not a problem. For most people I knew, it was unheard of.
I was terrified right before I left, but I knew I wouldn’t regret it. That conviction was what got me out of the car and on that plane. Beforehand, I was mostly terrified of being lonely all the time, but also of getting lost and not knowing how to speak Spanish or Croatian. It wasn’t until I got on the plane that thoughts of not knowing what to do if my debit or credit card didn’t work or got stolen or if I lost my passport even entered my mind. So much could go wrong.
I landed and got off my plane in Zagreb, enormous backpack in tow. I sat down under a tree with a book and a cup of coffee, intending to decompress and gather myself before figuring out how to get to Trieste. Then, I panicked. Right there, in the middle of this airport court yard, I freaked out. WHAT was I thinking? I have NO sense of direction. I am alone on a different continent. An entire ocean is separating me from everyone I depend on on a daily basis. And I chose to do this! And I’m only 20! I cried for a minute, half out of sheer exhaustion and half out of fear. Then I stopped. I told myself, “It’s okay. Get this out of your system but this sure as hell won’t help so you’re gonna have to get past it.” I collected my things, got on a bus, and my adventure truly began.
The rest of it was incredible – but there were hard moments too. This is what I learned, how I overcame the challenges I faced within this great challenge, and what I took away.
1.) Trust your gut. That was the best piece of advice I was given before leaving America’s shores. You know what’s best for you and when you’re traveling alone, you don’t owe anyone anything. That’s one of the most exhilarating parts – while it can be lonely, no one’s moods or feelings or wants or needs can affect your own. If you meet someone and you’re immediately in your gut scared or uncomfortable, turn around and walk away, no explanation necessary. You have to take care of you.
2.) Take risks – as long as they’re semi-calculated and your gut tells you to go for it. Jump on the road trip. Go sky diving. Walk up to the stranger and ask if they’re going in the same direction as you. Stay out all night with new hostel friends and get up two hours later to see the Parthenon. Don’t go to sleep and watch the sunrise with people from all over the world. Hang out with people that don’t speak English. Say yes to everything, as long as it feels right. It’s worth it and those risks are what add color to the outline of your trip.
3.) Plan ahead, but stay flexible. My parents wouldn’t let me leave the house without a detailed itinerary of where I was staying, complete with addresses and phone numbers. Unlike most backpackers, I booked all of my hostels in advance to appease both my and my parents’ anxieties. I’m glad I did it, but I changed those plans along the way. If I couldn’t get to Sorrento on time, no worries. I cancelled and found somewhere else to stay. If my blisters were too bad to complete the Walk of the Gods hike that I had planned, it was okay – I went to see Capri instead. (I know, my life is so full of hard choices.) It’s good to have a goal and a direction to move forward in, but it’s important to loosen the reigns and change directions when new opportunities present themselves. You’ll save yourself a lot of stress that way. Life does things on its own time so might as well go along for the ride.