That first time traveling alone can be daunting – a new location, a life left behind and no idea what the future holds. Yet not many people share these stories of the hard moments. They shout from the rooftops about how they’re travelling the world and living the dream. In this post, my guest writer, Mary Hood from the wonderful blog Inner Compass Travel shares the truth about landing in Buenos Aires, the mental struggle to do even the basics like eating and a few potentially embarrassing zipper moments along the way.
Here’s Mary’s story about her…
First Time Traveling Alone
There’s nothing unique about someone going on a journey to “find themselves”, to discover the meaning of life, to reconnect with a part of them that they lost, yadda-yadda. Stories like Eat Pray Love makes it seem like the easiest thing in the world. You realize you’re unhappy, you travel, and suddenly everything is fine. But these epic stories that are passed down to us, written in books, and turned into movies always seem to be missing a few key ingredients in “finding yourself”: fear and insecurity. People want to be uplifted, inspired—they don’t want to hear you whining. But sometimes it’s necessary to see the whole picture and not just the happy ending. What happens along the way? Were these people not scared to leave everything and go off by themselves? Was there no trace of insecurity, depression, regret? I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m a little out there, but am I really an anomaly? ‘Cause I was scared shitless.
Before my trip, I was a fairly confident, out-going girl. I had a lot of friends, and was usually the ridiculous one in my group, always entertaining everyone. But I was one of those girls who couldn’t go anywhere alone—not even to the bathroom. Working in a restaurant, I always half-admired, half-pitied those women sitting alone at a 4-top table reading a book over their salad. Gasp! Eating out alone? My mom always told me I was way too concerned with what other people thought about me, and she was absolutely right. That’s why traveling alone was the most uncomfortable experience of my life. But if you are looking to grow and to evolve, it’s impossible to avoid uncomfortable situations. Discomfort breeds change.
So here I am. Now what?
This was my view from my window my first day in Buenos Aires, my first day alone. The dismal gray clouds invading the entire skyline, closing in on me—it’s understandable how I was a little bit depressed. I was going through a separation with my toxic ex-husband and running away from it all. Knee-deep in an unfulfilling, all-consuming relationship, I had lost my identity. To make a long story short, I was a mess. So here I was, alone for the very first time in a new place.
Although I knew it was important for me to be alone at this juncture in my life, I felt so isolated, and I kept wondering what everyone was doing back in Atlanta. Were they having fun without me? Did they miss me? I was so consumed with missing everyone and everything that I wasn’t giving Buenos Aires a fair shake. The first few days I sat in my room, writing poems, skyping friends, and wasting time on Facebook. What have I done?? I thought dramatically to myself. I had built this trip up to be my big debut as a newly single and free woman, and I was too overwhelmed to even leave my room.
Follow your Heart (and your Stomach)
I was starving. I sat on top of an old metal bunk bed, tracing the swirly pattern on the dusty brown and gold blanket with my fingers. Swinging my legs back and forth over the side, I knew it was time to get out and find some food. I had been in Buenos Aires for a full 36 hours and had yet to leave the hostel. My ration of melted granola bars and peanut butter crackers was waning and my stomach was starting to feel like a black hole collapsing in on itself. It was so empty, I was actually nauseous.
48 hours go by and I was literally down to the last crumbled up packet of crackers. This is ridiculous, I thought. So I grabbed my purse, checked the zipper of my fly (something I do religiously ever since an embarrassing moment in Middle School), and walked out into the hallway. The elevator was one of those old timey ones, with the wooden accordion door that you manually shut. It smelled like an old book from the thrift store, one with yellow pages and cryptic messages written out in the margins. As the elevator stopped on the ground floor, I was too preoccupied practicing my Spanish in my head to look where I was going. Head down, I ran right into a lady carrying her luggage—
“¿Qué hacés pelotuda?” She snapped at me.
“Ay, perdón, perdón” I mumbled as I edged past her, face turning red. Walking towards the door, I noticed the guy working behind the front desk was laughing at me, shaking his head. He could probably smell my foreign-ness. Was it that obvious? Did I look weird? Was it my clothes? Maybe my Spanish? I was so paranoid, way too focused on what strangers thought about me. Screw them, I thought. I am smart, and I am beautiful, and I am a good person. Pushing the door open, I checked my fly one last time for good measure and started walking in search of the nearest supermarket.
I was so fucking proud. My arms were about to pop out of their sockets from the weight of the several heavy bags of groceries, but I was elated. I did it! After asking several different people how to get to the supermarket, immediately forgetting what they said, and stopping another person—I found it. Those big, beautiful, automatic double doors never looked so welcoming. I made my way slowly through the store, already anxious for the inevitable conversation with the cashier in the check-out line. What if they asked me something I didn’t understand? What if someone laughed at me? (I’m serious, y’all, I was that worked up.) I tried my hardest to push those thoughts out of my head, focusing instead on how far I had come. Then before I knew it, the awkward situation was over, and I was making my way back to the hostel—already more confident. My first little victory: Mary-1, supermarket-0.
So I had some food now. I had gone out on my own. This was a good start. But there’s only so much time you can spend sitting on your bed alone, eating dulce de leche out of the jar before you start to feel a little pathetic. It was time for the next challenge.
Contrary to Popular Belief, Friends Do Not Grow on Trees
I had no idea how to make friends before I went to Argentina. I’ve had the same group of friends since I was 5, and couldn’t for the life of me remember how to go about making new ones. I’m pretty sure they don’t fall out of the sky or grow on trees, so how do they happen? Do I just go up to people on the street and ask them to hang out with me? Do I start conversations with people on subways? Hand out money? I was at a loss. I was in Buenos Aires with an internship to teach English, and figuring (praying) that there must be others like me—painfully shy and holed up in their rooms—I contacted the director of the program.
Help me find friends! I pleaded. No, not really. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but she gave me the email addresses of two girls staying in the same place as me. I emailed them both, nervous, feeling like I was back in my Middle School cafeteria, walking in slow motion towards the cool girl table, unsure if they were going to invite me to sit there or not.
One of them responded quickly, and invited me to grab some lunch with her and two friends she had met. Lunch turned into sight-seeing, sight-seeing turned into drinks, and drinks turned into great friendships. I still keep in touch with all of these girls, and one of them has become one of my very best friends… and all because I took some initiative, faced a potentially awkward situation, and reached out.
The Art of Being Alone
Those first few days were hard. Eventually I met some great people and made some lasting friendships, but ultimately I had to learn how to be okay by myself first. Then, I wasn’t just okay with being alone, but I actually enjoyed it. Before I knew it, I was feeling more alive than I ever had. Walking up and down the streets of Palermo or Recoleta alone, getting lost in the mass of people, my individual rhythm syncing up with the group, I felt like I belonged. I had let go of all of my fear, all of my insecurities. I didn’t mind getting on the bus by myself or asking the driver for directions. If he didn’t understand me, fine. I would try again. I didn’t mind small talk, and even looked forward to it, anxious to meet people and make new friends. Buenos Aires changed me, and I will be forever grateful. I was a shell of a person, not sure where I belonged, not sure how to move on from an emotionally taxing and abusive relationship. Traveling alone saved me, and it’s an experience I think everyone should have at least once. But give it some time! Being alone is an art, and like so many other things, requires practice and patience.
All that time alone gave me a new perspective and made me painfully aware of my issues. Damn girl, you have got to get a grip, I remember thinking the fourth consecutive time I checked my zipper or checked my reflection in my phone to see if I had spinach in my teeth. I tried to channel my mom, the queen of zero-shits-given, and what she would undoubtedly tell me: “If they notice your fly is unzipped then they are looking way too close…” And she’s right. I learned that when you are traveling, you are bound to make mistakes. You are bound to say the wrong thing, bound to embarrass yourself or stick out. And that’s okay. Once I learned to get over all of my insecurities while I was alone, I enjoyed life like never before.
There is something beautiful about being alone. Your thoughts and opinions, beliefs and convictions are never so clear. Sometimes other people’s wave lengths interfere with our own, and sometimes they can even cancel them out. Every so often we need to take time to be completely alone—to remember who we are, to reveal the things we struggle with, and to ultimately overcome them and grow.
“You only grow when you are alone.”– Paul Newman
Mary Hood: Spanish teacher gone rogue. Lover of languages, travel, and good books. Addicted to Argentine Rock, coffee/tea (depending on the day), and tattoos. In between planning her wedding in Switzerland and saving up money to start traveling full-time, Mary and Victor like to take pictures and write for their blog Inner Compass Travel.
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