Alone and Unafraid by Cassandra Lam

This is Part 2 of a series dedicated to demystifying some misconceptions and initiating honest dialogue around solo travel by sharing some of my personal experiences. Find Part 1 here.

Alcázar in Sevilla, Spain

Alcázar in Sevilla, Spain

I. The Why

Last month's trip to Spain was the second adventure to come out of this new solo traveling habit I fell into. While there were a few hiccups, including a mild panic attack over the incompleteness of my itinerary, there were many noticeable and welcome differences this time around. Sitting at JFK, waiting for my flight to Barcelona, and inhaling my first breaths of freedom - all of it felt good. Maybe even borderline natural. 

By some miracle called TSA Pre-Check, I, for once, was not sweating bullets or fearful of missing my flight. The butterflies in my stomach were fluttering softly out of excitement instead of anxiety. My bags felt lighter this year so I was confident that I had packed just the right amount of stuff (though in a few days, I'd realize how wrong I was). Surprisingly, I was comfortably at ease with the uncertainty before me and inherent to solo travel. All the things that scared me before had transformed into the parts I looked forward to most. 

Funny how that works, right?

When I set out to do Italy solo last fall, there were so many things I was doing for the first time all at once - staying in hostels, navigating a new public transit system (this is a big deal because I'm Californian, we've spent 90% of our lives in the driver's seat in traffic), communicating in a foreign language, attempting to backpack properly, and going out in unfamiliar places as a woman. Naturally, all this newness generated some apprehension. I worried over every unknown, wondered how I'd like being alone, and was concerned that I would never meet people I could connect with. However, when I came back from the trip happier, healthier, and a few pounds heavier than before (NO REGRETS!), I knew it wouldn’t be my last foray.

That first trip to Italy in October 2015 was, in essence, about doing something new that scared the hell out of me. But in a good way. 

2015 was a tough year full of transition and changes. I had just moved to New York in January, started a new job in a new industry, and was attempting to live in the aftermath of a devastating breakup I had left behind. Living in New York gave me a fresh start physically, but the belongings I had shed to get here were just the first of a few layers of things, people, and ideas I needed to let go of. There were consequences and skeletons I had to face, and that's never easy or pretty to look at. In fact, it's really freaking hard.

Some parts of me just needed time, but other parts of me clearly needed more. This became evident when the perfectly type A, pre-planned, structured life I had built for myself, which is normally my environment of choice, actually began to suffocate me. My life felt and tasted so bland. An itch for change pestered me day in and day out. Suddenly, I was eager to strip away the crutches, staleness, and routine that had begun to seep into my life. I was loving New York, but it didn't fix me or fill me. Oddly, it wasn't enough.

I realized that I was unhappy being my same old sad self in this beautiful new place.

So I kept looking outwards for a catalyst to shock me awake. I was hungry to kickstart the process, something to just get it over with so that I could stop hurting. I wanted to be myself again, except better and stronger. But most of all, I craved to live again, free from the series of events that I had allowed to define me for so long.

All of this internal noise made me increasingly curious about life outside the boundaries of my own embarrassingly limited experiences with the world. I had always toyed with the idea of going abroad alone, though never seriously. However, the longer it sat on my mind, the more traveling sounded like the best way to satisfy my curiosity while also giving me space to figure myself out. It began to feel right, if not also timely, to do something unexpected for once.

In surprising ways that I never could've imagined, it worked.

II. The WTF (aka What Solo Travel Is and Isn't)

On Keeping It Real(istic)

First off, I'd like to say that I've never believed that travel is the answer to every problem, and I still don't. Just because a Thought Catalog or Buzzfeed listicle claims that dropping everything to travel is the only solution to a millennial existential crisis does not mean there's any truth to it. In fact, we'd all be better off not relying on Thought Catalog for anything, least of all life advice. At least Buzzfeed is funny!

In all seriousness, I have issue with the consequences of that kind of messaging because it misleads people into thinking it’s the cure all or that their lives are not validated until they travel. At the risk of stating the obvious, traveling to run away (or running away in general) from something will not fix the problem itself. But if you’re looking to work on yourself - whether that means expanding your physical, emotional, and mental horizons, making conscious effort to be more open-minded, taking time off to reset or relax, learning new things, exploring interests or curiosities - then I think travel is definitely one way to go about it aggressively and uniquely.

On Friendships and Impact

Based on my own experiences and those of others I met abroad, I'd argue that it's almost impossible to return from a solo trip unchanged in at least a few fundamental ways. In fact, if you have returned from a solo trip unchanged, I would like you to message me about it! I'm that confident in what feels like fact to me and everyone else I've had the pleasure of speaking at length about this with. There is something about being alone, outside of your reality, in a foreign environment, surrounded by like-minded travelers that serves as a recipe for some magical and unforgettable experiences.

While sharing in new experiences with other people is in and of itself rewarding, I've found that my favorite moments come in the form of honest conversation. Hearing other travelers' life stories is incredibly moving. Yes, if you can believe it, I actually shut my mouth more abroad and turn into a conscious listener because I'm so engaged by everyone else! You quickly realize their struggles, heartbreaks, desires, and dreams are not at all unlike your very own.

Over time, these connections can grow into an amazing global network of friends, all comprised of people you would never have met were it not for the trip. I still keep in contact with some of the friends I made abroad when I was in Italy, some of whom I almost met up with in Germany for Oktoberfest this year! Unfortunately, it didn't work out, but the friends I made are people I'd feel comfortable messaging if I ever found myself in Europe or Australia and vice versa.

Barcelona, Spain

Barcelona, Spain

In my previous post, I mentioned making new friends in Barcelona. David and Tony (the 2 gentlemen above) became my best friends during the 5 days we spent together exploring one of the greatest Spanish cities. We met on the first night at our hostel after David invited me to join in for some drinking games. When we parted ways to visit different cities in Spain afterwards, we all expressed excitement for the next time our paths would cross again (which actually wouldn't be tough since they live in Canada). The magical thing about making a friend abroad is that at the end of your time together, you've already shared so many adventures and laughs. Traveling together really accelerates how well you get to know someone. You'd be surprised at how willingly and how much you can open up to a stranger. Hence the quality of the friendships you make has this special weightiness to it that's incomparable to meeting someone randomly at home. 

On Going with the Flow

While many things will be out of your control, I've found that maintaining perspective, flexibility, and an open mind are crucial to a successful solo trip. More so than all the supplies you can fit into your luggage, I believe these 3 things are paramount to succeeding solo. Why?

Because the only constant is that shit happens when you're abroad.

Somehow, some way, it does and it always will so you should expect at least a few of your plans shifting. You aren't always going to have the best roommates at your hostel. If you think it, there's a decent likelihood that you will even run into really frustrating or outright annoying people. Pickpockets run rampant in many parts of the world, and robberies do happen from time to time. Getting lost is a given at least once or twice. If you're anything like me, you might even lose a few belongings by accident or carelessness so avoid packing anything too valuable or precious. Stuck in traffic and missed your train? You're definitely not the first or last person this will happen to. If you can embrace or at least maintain your cool through all of the above scenarios, the more wonderful aspects of solo travel will happen on their own.

On Discussing Solo Travel Healthily

Last but not least, I firmly believe that the decision to travel solo is one that everyone should make for themselves. When I first started talking about traveling alone, I quickly discovered that many people wanted to warn me of the dangers of solo travel before they could support me. This knee-jerk reaction is natural and understandable, especially when it comes from well-intentioned family and friends. It's also somewhat expected because in the US, the idea of solo travel is still fairly niche and uncommon, especially for women. Nevertheless, it can get overwhelming and frustrating to reason with this perspective

I felt this most acutely when it came time to tell my parents about my plans. When the "I'm going to die at some point anyway!" joke/argument did not go over well, I had to get creative to figure out the best way to communicate my intentions. It wasn't until I realized something pretty profound that I was able to better understand and reason with my parents. Sometimes, the people you love try to convince you not to do something because they could never imagine themselves doing the same. 

I definitely made my fair share of mistakes in trying to talk through solo travel with my friends and family. Hopefully you'll avoid doing the same! Here are some helpful ways to initiate more productive discussions with loved ones:

  1. Try to listen fully and respectfully to what they're saying. Thank them for sharing their concerns.
  2. Be clear about the reasons why you want to travel solo, what makes it important to you, and what you hope to gain. The better you are able to articulate your why, the more confident they'll feel that this is something you've thought through fully.
  3. Show that you've done your research to dismantle their fears of the unknown. Break down the 'scariest' aspects of solo travel and talk through those scenarios (how you would face them, resources you can rely on, ways you will keep in contact, etc.) together.
  4. Offer to provide contact information as necessary to calm worried family or friends. Something as simple as sharing your itinerary or setting up daily/weekly check-in emails, calls, or text messages can do a whole lot of good.

III. The Whoa

In the year after my first solo trip to Italy, there was a lot of internal assessment and shifting, a shedding of my old skin to become my most authentic self. My experiences abroad humbled me and taught me how to be self-sufficient again. I returned surer of who I was and who I still wanted to become. Where I was once unknowingly ruled by fear, I gained clarity and resolve to commit to living out my values daily. This allowed me to return to my life in New York happier as well as noticeably more tolerant, honest, and compassionate towards others. The lessons from this trip opened me up to both myself and the world, but perhaps the most important lesson of all (and indeed, the real work) was in how I could continue the self-discovery at home. 

Some Reasons Why I Love to Travel Alone:

  1. To be unapologetically selfish with myself. When I'm abroad, I make a point to be a little reckless, to practice doing things outside my comfort zone, and to meditate through it all. This process of purposeful self care allows me to reconnect with who I am when I’m not inundated with obligation or stimuli. Sometimes I even discover new things about myself!
  2. To continuously define and come closer to my values. Distancing myself from my everyday life really puts into perspective the who, what, and why of everything that matters most to me. 
  3. To consciously put in the work to know myself in my most authentic skin. Every encounter abroad serves as a test to see who I am and what I'm capable of. Am I a good person not just sometimes, but at all times? Have I learned how to be more patient? How do I react when things don't go my way? How do I interact with people who are different from me? These are just a few questions I can explore through actions or interactions to evaluate where I'm at and if that position makes me happy. 
  4. To surround myself with diversity and experiences from which I hope to grow.
  5. To shed unconscious bias and invisible divisions that can create toxic dichotomies: me vs. you, us vs. them, the United States vs. the world, etc. I find freedom in dismantling my own perceptions and love to hear what people from around the world think. Meeting people from different cultures also reminds me that there are so many things I don't know. It's refreshing to discover that we always have so much more to learn.
  6. To disconnect completely in order to recharge more fully. This is so important, especially in New York City where our lives can easily become defined by work. Doing this means that when I do return to everyday life, I'm excited to dive into the work I love and want to focus my energies on.
  7. To empower myself as a strong, independent, and competent woman who can thrive in all sorts of environments. I hope in turn it serves as an example that women definitely can survive abroad and do adventurous things alone.

Final Thoughts

In contrast to Italy, this year’s solo trip was more about reaffirming what I had first discovered and continuing to push every boundary simply because I can. I wanted to see what would happen if I started saying yes to opportunities and purposefully shied away from any debilitating form of safety. In San Sebastian, this mentality spurred me into spontaneity, something I don’t exercise enough in real life. I signed up for my first surfing class and ended up loving every second. I got my ass kicked by a few big waves, swallowed tons of ocean water, and bore some cuts and bruises. But I felt alive.

The following day, I met a girl from Canada at my hostel and together, we decided to do stand-up paddle boarding. It wasn’t her first time, but it was mine. Standing in the ocean and staring back at the San Sebastian shoreline, I recall wanting to remember how it felt to say yes like this forever, despite the impossibility of that statement. It was inevitable that I would forget the fleeting feeling and the details of the moment.

San Sebastian, Spain

San Sebastian, Spain

But if I can keep doing things that make me feel alive this way, is it not the same?

Perhaps we are supposed to forget so that we can keep forging forward in search of new places, people, or experiences that cultivate this very feeling again.

I think so. 

Chasing Sunsets and Perfect Moments by Cassandra Lam

“You’re always searching for that perfect moment,” David said. 

I cocked my head, processing the words slowly. A group of us, strangers who had become quick friends at our hostel, were perched atop the cross in Park Guell, which is the highest point in the park. The group was quite diverse, comprised of 2 Canadians from Winnipeg, 2 Australians from Queensland, and myself. We had just set up our picnic in time to watch the sun as it began to set. With plastic wine glasses in our hands and mouths full of ibérico ham against a backdrop consisting of gorgeous 360 degree views of Barcelona, we were absolutely ready to live in our collectively co-created perfect moment. 

Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain

Park Guell in Barcelona, Spain

His words rung true to my ears.

This magical moment, accidental in nature, was exactly what I dreamed of orchestrating and sharing with my new friends during our time together in Barcelona. Not the actual picnic itself as that was just the natural thing to do since we all loved to eat anyway... but the bringing together of the right ingredients to create the feeling that something special yet intangible was happening. Best of all, I wasn't the only one who felt it. We all did. Sharing this with one other connected the dots.

The atmosphere was electric with our laughter and joyous spirits. We would end up talking, drinking, and joking around for hours past sunset. Towards dusk, a Spanish musician would set up near us to add sultry jazzy sounds that faded in and out of our group consciousness, as if he knew we needed a soundtrack to our perfect moment. By night, as the city lights of Barcelona lit up, the crowd that had been sitting atop the cross since sunset had quietly dispersed behind our backs. Who knew when they had left? But it was right as we decided to get up to snap some photos of the horizon. It was just in time. Funny how that works, right?

There, as we were, I wished that I could fully encapsulate the hours we shared into a photograph so that we could revisit it over and over in the future. It was hard to imagine a better place to be than exactly where we were, doing what we were doing, seeing what we were seeing. Everything turned out perfect, and that's an outcome you can't really plan for.

“You know, this is going to be that moment we all remember forever from this trip,” David continued.

We all nodded in agreement. In silence, I continued to marvel at the fact that someone who I met just yesterday was already able to get such a clear read on me. It was bone-chilling how accurate it was. It warmed my soul. 

In a few short days, we would all be parting ways to continue on our respective travels. Normally, this would sound sad but in our cases, it lent an extra sweetness to it all. That’s the thing about traveling alone - you come to recognize the beautiful and transient nature of all things, people included. With the understanding that nothing lasts forever, you often find yourself connecting quickly, sometimes quite deeply, with people you may or may not ever see again. Maybe it's the level of distanced anonymity we can retain through brevity of contact? Or fearlessness in the face of a lack of judgment or knowledge of your past? Whatever it is, the friendships you create abroad are open, honest, and have a certain levity as the result of the brief but fun times shared together. These unique bonds can exist without expectation, serving as a welcome breath of fresh air against American lifestyles characterized by obligations and rules.

"Cheers to Barcelona, guys!"

Instead of yearning for what was, we clinked our plastic wine glasses as best we could, savored our time, and prepared for the next adventure to come.