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Embracing Solo Travel



Whenever I talk about traveling, past or future, a moment of pause and surprise comes after the mention of me traveling alone. “Isn’t that scary?” People ask. “Is that safe?” “Doesn’t that make you nervous?” “Don’t you get lonely?”… The short answer is no. Traveling somewhere new, experiencing a new country, culture, and language is inevitably unsettling, even with a travel companion. But I have full confidence in myself and my ability to handle any challenge that comes my way. It is not always easy, but it is always rewarding, and like anything, the more you practice, the better you get at it.

So what was the first trip I ever did by myself? I’m so glad you asked…

It was early summer 2011, about 6 months post college graduation. I had been struggling to find purposeful work. The last 4 months of firefighter testing and interviews had come to an end. I had made a decision to start studying to become a personal trainer. But in general, I was feeling lost. I was frustrated at myself because I had sworn that as soon as school was done, I was leaving the country to explore the world before I started working, but here I was still at home. I had been trying all along to organize trips with friends. They all talked the talk, but once the details were finalized, nobody wanted to put their money where their mouth was. I tried multiple times to find someone who would commit, but ultimately failed.

And then one episode of Wheel of Fortune changed my life.

It was part of the nightly ritual to watch the show with my mom, and on this particular “college night” episode, they ran a few ads for their sponsors, of which one was GAP Adventures. Small group trips for solo travelers. As soon as the show was over, my mom and I were on the computer looking into it. They had destinations in Europe, Asia, Central America, so many options… but my mind was made up on one, and only one. Africa.

I slept on it that night, and the next morning we were at it again. I wanted to go ASAP. I was ready. It was a one-month camping trip, starting in Tanzania and working it’s way down the East coast through Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and South Africa. There was only one problem, the next trip wasn’t leaving for almost two months…. My heart sank. It wasn’t soon enough. I was kicking myself because I was too late for the group leaving Tanzania in 11 days, the application for that one was closed already…. that is, before we called and pleaded to see if I could wiggle my way into that group.

Commence 10 days of chaos. We were on and off the phone with the coordinator, who was frantically organizing my flights and making arrangements for the last minute add on. I was at the clinic the very next day to get a series of about 6 shots and vaccinations that were required a minimum of 10 days before I landed in Tanzania. There were days and hours of research (thanks mom) and many trips to REI. I packed, consolidated, and still completely over-packed with pounds of the most heavy duty mosquito repellent on the planet.

It was a whirlwind of events and planning, but just over a week after its conception, I was passing through security at SeaTac Airport, waving goodbye to my mom as I rounded the corner and immediately started to breakdown in tears, wondering what the heck happened, realizing I had never been on a plane by myself, let alone out of the country. I quickly collected myself, put on a brave face, and continued on. 40 hours from then, my little propeller plane would be landing in the middle of a dirt field on the island of Zanzibar. I would be picking my bag up off the floor of a tin shed and stepping out the other side completely alone; putting my absolute trust in the man who drove up in an unmarked white car and offered to “taxi.” I was completely ignorant to what I had gotten myself into, but had no choice now but to jump in with both feet and find my way. I had no idea the adventures that lay ahead of me, the people I was going to meet, the eye-opening experiences I would have, the things I would learn about myself, or the love for travel it would instill in me.

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I will have to save details of this trip for another time, but I will finish by saying, I sat down last night and read through my entire journal from that trip for the first time ever. The writer that I am today cringed a bit as I caught myself thinking come on Jen… you could have done better than that! But I still had moments of humor and thoughtful insight that shined through. As I read one of my final paragraphs that I wrote on the plane ride home, I applauded myself for my 22-year old wisdom, and was reminded that even to this day, this is one of the main reasons I embrace solo travel; I feel empowered.

“Being in Africa has reminded me what it’s like to be fully happy. To be challenged, thinking for myself, building relationships, and not having to worry about being judged. I have had the freedom to be around people who know absolutely nothing about me. It has given me the chance to discover and redefine myself. It has been an opportunity to learn and embrace my strengths and weaknesses, and to be proud of who I am, my values, and how I do life.”



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