It’s impossible to catalog all the things I lost while traveling alone over the years. Everything from yoga mats to Nalgene bottles have been left behind at campgrounds or sitting in accommodations while packing up to move to the next destination. Some items I’ve kicked myself for and missed dearly, others, not so much.
To this day I lament the loss of a sunhat I bought for $5 at a souvenir cart in Tulcea, Romania. It was perfect for our day on exploring the Danube Delta on a sun-soaked boat cruising through the reed beds in search of pelicans and herons. It would have packed up in my backpack perfectly, but I left it sitting on the tv in our hotel room the next morning. I didn’t even realize it until I wanted to use it a few days later. Ugh! Even after searching every damn shop during our remaining ten days in Romania, a replacement was never found.Ironically, the big losses turned out to be the things I wouldn’t miss at all. In fact, I’ve been better off without them. You see, venturing out of your bubble into other parts of the world has this amazing way of showing you your own bullshit and helping you throw it in the dumpster where it belongs. Here are three monumental things I lost while traveling alone that I’m happy to leave behind.
Prejudice & Stereotypes
The first time I visited a mosque was in Jajce, Bosnia & Herzegovina, while driving myself around Central and Eastern Europe in 2015. At thirty-three years old, I had almost zero exposure to Islam or its followers other than what I’d seen portrayed in the American media. Situated in the middle of this lovely little town is the Esma Sultana Mosque with its slender minaret reaching skyward. I’d never seen anything like it in person and really wanted to see inside.
Over the years, I’d seen plenty of pictures of mosques, from my husband’s trip to Istanbul and while perusing travel sites, dreaming about new destinations. They all left me wanting to see the ornate interiors for myself. Thinking about going to visit this local place of worship, I was so nervous! I almost didn’t go at all, but my drive to appreciate the beauty and to have a personal encounter with a religion that was so foreign to me won out. To make sure I wouldn’t be offensive to their traditions, I purchased a scarf at the little shop across the street to cover my hair and made sure to wear appropriate attire.
As I nervously entered the grounds of the mosque, I came upon a group of four men standing outside talking. Trying to act like I knew what I was doing (a side benefit of traveling alone -- you can be totally clueless and no one ever has to know about it!), I asked if I could look inside. Most of them looked at me quizzically before the younger, thirty-something gentleman smiled broadly and offered to show me around.
He led me inside and waited patiently, giving me time to admire the ornately decorated ceiling for as long as I liked, before showing me the Quran that had been translated into Bosnian for them. As I wandered the small space, brightly lit with the afternoon sun pouring through the windows, he excused himself for just a moment. I was totally overwhelmed with gratitude as the wonder of this new experience washed over me. The interior was absolutely gorgeous and felt so serene.
Upon his return, he handed me a large bag of Iraqi dates as a gift, thanking me for coming to visit. Some unspoken understanding passed between us in that moment. Somehow, together, we were breaking down barriers that had long existed between our two worlds, even just for the two of us. In that moment, I felt a massive release of any stereotypes of prejudices I never even realized I’d been carrying. It was a transformative moment, to be sure. If you’d asked me what I expected to happen that day, I wouldn’t have an answer other than, “Not that”.
When traveling, there are many encounters that leave me questioning my preconceived notions of a place or its people. In order to keep our prejudices intact, we have to make sure they’re never exposed to experiences that challenge them. Rarely do we seek these out intentionally and, tucked safely away in our little corner of the world where they were formed, we’re unlikely to encounter them by accident. I appreciate when a situation forces me to reexamine any bullshit judgements that have been formed from decades of societal programming. Once exposed, it’s easy to see how ridiculous the narratives or stereotypes are. Of all the things I lost while traveling alone, this one has helped me be a much more accepting person, for sure!
The Need to Control Everything
We humans don’t like the unknown. It’s scary, it’s uncomfortable, and it ruins our plans. Before my first visit overseas, I was much more of a planner and control freak. I wanted to know how everything was going to play out and surprises weren’t really my jam. There’s always been a sense of adventure, but you know, planned adventures.
Every single travel experience has forced me to let go of control and trust that it’s all going to work itself out. There’s always some unexpected situation that arises. Many times it’s the most awesome kind of unexpected, like spending a night drinking homemade plum brandy at a campground in Croatia with fellow campers from Chile, Germany, and Holland. That wasn’t part of the plan, but I’m sure glad it happened, even though I felt like I’d been hit by a train the next morning.
While some of the unexpected situations are less than ideal, like the cancelled flight that left me stranded in the Stockholm airport overnight, it teaches me to be flexible. These experiences have shown me how much choice I do have. While I don’t have control of what’s happening, I get to choose how I handle it. I can freak out and be pissed off or I can make the best of it. A cancelled flight, on this particular occasion, gifted me a new friend! We met while a group of us passengers were talking about what to do once we checked into the hotel the airline set up for us. She and I met for a drink at the bar and nearly six years later, we still chat regularly! (You can check out her work at The Ambitious Explorer.)Though I still find discomfort and anxiety showing up when something unexpected happens, I’ve gotten much better at rolling with it. My travels have taught me that trying to control it all doesn’t work and I don’t miss the days when I’d get twisted by the surprises that are just part of life. It’s one of the many things I lost while traveling alone that I have no desire to find again.
It’s nearly impossible to think you know much of anything at all once you get even the slightest sense of how big the world is. As all teenagers do, and even into my early twenties, I thought I knew what was what. I’m pretty smart, I pay attention, and went to college, so I know stuff, right? Wrong. I mean, a little, but not nearly as much as I thought I did!
When you don’t venture far from the bubble of your everyday life, it’s easy to think you’ve got it all figured out. Let me tell you, when you suddenly find yourself (in less than 48 hours) in a completely new country where you don’t speak the language, you quickly realize you don’t really know shit. Travel will force you to get the fuck over yourself real fast! You’re not a big deal, no one here knows you or gives a shit about all the things you thought were important just a couple days before. It’s a next-level reality check.
Of all the things I lost while traveling alone, this one was probably the hardest. We want to believe we’re important. However, there’s so much liberation in realizing that you’re not! We’re on this earth for a short while and, while we can make a difference, in the grand scheme of things, we’re barely a blip on the radar.
It’s freeing to know that every move you make isn’t being cataloged for the tomes of history and that no one else knows what they’re doing either! We’re all winging it. Does it really matter if you make a mistake like getting on the freeway going in the wrong direction when you leave Prague? (Check. Done that.) No, it doesn’t because no one is watching. No one cares. You just hop off at the next exit and change directions. It’s fine! You don’t have to take yourself so seriously. No one else is.
Keeping Life in Perspective
While there are many things I lost while traveling alone, these are the three that stand out as the most impactful and beneficial to my happiness. Since the day I fell in love with travel, it continues to show me where I still have work to do and also helps me celebrate how far I’ve come in many areas. I hope that you too will lose these things as you set out to see new places and explore new lands. Travel well, my friend.
Share Your Story
What have you lost during your travels? What lessons have those losses taught you? How have they changed the way you see the world?
I love to hear from you! Share your insights in the comments!