You know those precious, sought-after turning points in life? When one decision or event sets off a whole dynamic experience that influences you later. Well, I could use one. I just graduated and am trying to figure out my next step.
My current lack of direction (and the fact that have no job yet) has spurred me into taking a low-budget trip across the West Coast. Let’s be real. I might not get another chance for a long time.
I’ve been saving up money for this since I got bit my the travel bug last December. I keep thinking about my last trip and how the experience really opened my eyes. It was one of those turning points.
Travel memories from Spain
Two years ago, I was lucky to have a self-discovery moment while studying abroad in Granada, Spain. But I had a mixed beginning to the semester.
I enjoyed my classes. The city seduced me under its spell, which has yet to be broken. I was immersing myself in the language. I wrote a weekly column in Spanish. I discovered my awestruck love for flamenco.
But, having just escaped an unpleasant past semester in Austin, I was also prone to depressed feelings.
What brought me down while abroad:
-My host family was distant and excessively frugal (especially with food)
-I lived at the farthest edge of the city, almost an hour’s walk from the center
While I made friends with a few other international students, I felt only moderately immersed socially with the other students in my study abroad program. I had entrenched myself with a small clique of three girls who didn’t treat me with respect, and who talked about nothing but their sex lives.
I felt guilty, as if I was wasting all of my limited time and money invested to go there. I’m sure part of this was due to my own insecurities and fear of being by myself.
The frustrating tipping point
When planning the trip to Madrid and Lisbon, I had my heart set on experiencing Semana Santa, the Spanish Holy Week. By the time this week approached, everyone had formed their own plans amongst each other. Having no invite (or, when I asked to join, room to squeeze in), I made my own plan with one of the girls I hung with.
Mere days before the trip, the girl ditched me to join the other two in Scotland where, apparently, there wasn’t any room for me where they were staying. She lied about it, too. Mean Girls, much?
At that point, I was fed up. I was depressed but didn’t want to be. I told myself, “Fuck everyone else, fuck this, I’m doing this on my own if I have to.”
Excuse my cliché, but: Best. Decision. Ever.
Lessons from solo travel
I bought my tickets for the appropriate buses, trains, planes, and hostels. I packed nothing but a backpack and a big purse, and I had one of the best experiences of my life.
I met friends from around Europe and the world at my hostels that I remain in touch with today after bonding through explorations and adventures. Everyone was a stranger there, open to meeting new people on tours or mixers in hostel lobbies.
I missed trains; showered less than normal; slept in a hostel lobby couch in Madrid (but charmed the attendants anyway with a thank-you note in impressive Spanish); got insanely lost late at night after visiting the top of an old citadel of a fort in the midst of a spectacular thunderstorm in the meandering cobblestone alleys of Lisbon; and befriended a sweet, elderly couple who re-opened their cafe to shelter me from the rain for some time while watching a Portuguese newscast on prisons. All despite my knowing little Portuguese beyond “hello,” “how are you,” “please,” and “cheese.”
I came back to Granada a changed woman, and I’m not exaggerating. Somehow, allowing myself to flourish independently for even just for those few days, made it easier to break from the old clique and bond with others in the program. This is what I’d been missing…this ability to break through.
After a lovely, sunny Easter mass with newfound friends in the kind of breathtaking cathedral you can only find in Spain, a wise friend replied to my recount of this experience by assuring me that there’s really no such a thing as wasting time in Granada. The time you take for yourself to relax instead of going out, the “growing pains” of adapting and struggling — it’s all an integral part of the journey.
I’m sharing this story because this past year has been a struggle for me in many ways. I may not know where my career is going, but I don’t even feel in touch with myself or the rest of the world around me sometimes.
So, fuck everything else. I want to explore and do my own thing on my own terms. I don’t expect it to be another study abroad, but I know I’ll find something to treasure.
I’m about to dive into a whirlwind, from San Francisco to Seattle to Vancouver to Portland. I’m excited to reunite with a family friend and old friends from my time abroad, whom I hope visiting will help me to reconnect with that positive, independent outlook with which I last left them.
Oh yeah, I also plan on blogging about how to travel on a budget, using my firsthand experiences. No joke.
Upon arrival in San Francisco, I plan on purchasing what will make up the majority of my meals for the next week: trail mix, a small loaf of bread, a box of plastic knives, a jar of PB&J. I’ll highlight my take on what to do, not do, and what it’s like.
At the end of the day, I know what it is that makes this trip reinvigorating: the fact that I’m doing this all on my own.
photo via evaser.com