Travel changes you. It changes you subtly and slowly and tremendously, and when that change is done, you can never just go back to your old comfortable self and tell yourself, ‘Well, that was fun, but that’s enough.’
One of the most fundamental reasons we keep returning to the road is not to find new places but to find ourselves. We get addicted to that rush of self-improvement, that feeling of standing on our own two feet with the ability to say that we’ve come further than we ever thought possible, both in miles and our minds.
As my time in South America neared its end, I found myself reluctant to leave. Sure, I was happy to be seeing home and friends and family again, but something strange bound me to the places I’d been to, and I couldn’t shake South America off my shoulders. Reflecting back on my trip, I realised I hadn’t felt like that since my first big trip to Australia, when I was still wet behind the ears and semantically in my teens.
One of the ways travelling in South America changed me was to make me more confident in myself. But how, exactly?
1. I learnt to carry myself.
As soon as I walked into the bathroom in my new apartment, I noticed something in my face had changed. Had I lost weight? Surely not; I’d been on the cozy Peruvian diet of 3,000 different kinds of potatoes for the last few weeks. It took me a few nights to see what was different: shoulders back, head held high, I carried myself differently.
Back in Brazil and slightly freaked by the horror stories of danger&destruction my friends kept telling me, I had adopted a way of looking like I knew what I was doing. Studies have shown that people who walk confidently and with a purpose are less likely to get robbed than those that slump, hunch and look scared or lost. I guess it’s one of those things where you can trick your mind into thinking that if you’re acting confidently, surely, you must be confident in reality, too. Fake it till you make it, right?
I gained two things from employing this strategy: I didn’t get robbed, and I came home with a confident posture.
2. I broke up with my boyfriend.
OK, I’m not encouraging you to take such drastic measures as to break up your relationship just because some crazy Finn mentioned it in passing. This step could be letting go of anything that is just not good for you anymore: a toxic friendship, a boring job, that perfect childhood dream you’ve been chasing in vain for far too long.
The decision to break up with my long-term boyfriend kept me up tossing and turning and dramatically sighing while staring into the distance for many, many nights and days, but after I did, I felt relieved. Not immediately; immediately afterwards I was sobbing in a hostel toilet and listening to my girls Taylor and Ariana and Adele as loud as my headphones would allow. But it was the right decision since I realised that while being in that relationship, I had become a shadow of myself. (Not to the fault of my ex, I should mention – he was a great boyfriend and continues to be a friend to me.) When I started the relationship, I was very insecure of myself, and I found myself hopping through loops and bending over backwards to make him happy, even if that meant at times compromising my own happiness.
As I travelled on, a quote from Taylor Swift’s album 1989 (someone make it a drinking game how many T-Swift references I make in this blog) kept popping into my mind:
She lost him but found herself, and somehow that was everything.
3. I turned my travel journal into a travel diary.
I’ve always kept a travel diary (and you should too!). Partly because it’s fun to browse through it later, partly because I keep forgetting the names of food I’ve eaten, people I’ve met and places I’ve been. (I’ve sometimes found myself five minutes deep into a fascinating travel article before realising I’ve been to the place that the author is describing.) But this trip I turned my journal into a full blown cringe-inducing, pathetically overemotional teenage emo diary.
And guess what? Turns out having an outlet for your emotions is actually good for you. Shocking, I know. Writing a diary is like talking to a friend that you know can never let you down and only wants the best for you. I have the habit of getting too tightly wrapped in my darker thoughts, but as soon as I started writing down all the insecurity and heartbreak and sadness (and, in turn, all the bliss and love and unapologetic joy) that I felt, I found that I could process those emotions in a more mature, rational way than before.
Being able to process my thoughts and feelings awarded me with a better understanding of myself.
(Am I starting to sound like a self-help book yet?)
4. I was surrounded by like-minded people…
Let me confess something real quick here: I probably have more Facebook friends from my first backpacking trip than from all the trips after that. It doesn’t mean that I made a ton of super great friends on that trip – it only means that I made friends with everybody. (Five years later, I’m in touch with three of them. They’re also all German. Coincidence or conspiracy?) As I’ve travelled more, I’ve started to value the company of people that I actually have a great connection with. Don’t get me wrong; I’d say that I can get along with most everyone. But as an introvert, it soon becomes exhausting trying to maintain friendships that are based on the basic travel questionnaires when the only thing we have in common is that we’re located in the same place at the same moment.
Nowadays I often choose my own company over that of somebody that makes me feel anxious to small-talk, just because I’m supposed to. When you surround yourself with fun, empathetic, understanding people, the good feeling you get with them radiates to your whole being.
The people I made friends with were smart, adventurous, interesting and full of stories. Maybe I have got better at picking the right people – maybe South America draws in that kind of a lot.
5. …and I spent a lot of time alone.
Any self-help guide will be quick to praise the advantages of spending time by yourself, and it becomes increasingly more important if you also happen to be introverted. I’ve had quite a few people call me an extrovert, but they have also not been there to witness as I bury myself into my apartment for three days straight without even dreaming about talking to another human being and loving every moment of it.
Spending time alone is so important, whether you’re travelling or at home, and whether your alone time consist of an hour every night or weeks at a time. I ended up spending a lot of time on my own on my trip – sometimes by choice (see previous point), sometimes because it felt difficult to connect with travellers that seemed very grouped up, once even due to a mistake a travel agency made when they put me on a different tour than my friends. It was a great chance for me to get to know myself after all of the changes I’ve gone through this year and learn new ways of shutting up those little mean voices that sometimes tend to take over when we spend too much time inside out own heads.
6. I wore my style.
There’s a lot to be said about vanity, especially when you’re traversing the world with a wardrobe that consists of two t-shirts and one pair of jeans (that have that little hole in them from when they got caught up in a screw of a top bunk but you haven’t been bothered to try and find a new pair because buying jeans sucks). Backpackers tend to dress down. I took issue with this especially when I was travelling in South East Asia. While other girls were rocking beach hair and untouched skin, I felt stupid waking up fifteen minutes earlier just to put on winged eyeliner.
There is nothing wrong with low-effort style while travelling; similarly, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with wanting to make up a little. It’s not as much a vanity thing as a comfort thing. I feel most comfortable in my own skin when I’m dressed up as myself: winged eyeliner and daring lipstick, cute boots and my army-green coat. Looking good on the outside makes me feel good on the inside (and, obviously, vice versa!).
It was great to live and travel in places where I could wear my everyday face. It made me feel a lot more connected to the place, almost as if I was a local living there.
7. I stopped worrying about my body type.
OK; saying that I TOTALLY stopped would be lying. I think body positivity and acceptance of your own (perceived) physical flaws is a life-long uphill battle. My personal hill, though, grew a little less steep this year.
I noticed it as early as during my first week in Brazil. I seemed to be absorbing confidence from the gorgeous Brazilian women around me. When they went to the beach, every one of them wore a tiny bikini, no matter how skinny, curvy or big they were. Of course claiming that Brazilian women don’t worry about their bodies at all would be absurd, but it’s all about appearances, right? They seemed confident in themselves, so I looked on and took notes.
During my time in South America I barely worked out. I tried to eat healthy, although often that conviction fell through with local food. I mean, pasta, rice AND chips in one meal? Totally reasonable. I still didn’t feel worse or better. I went on dates and flirted with boys like crazy, and soon realised there were so many kinds of pretty I shouldn’t worry about mine since it was always going to be enough for someone. I also went hiking; and after the toughest days I was sore and tired but in awe about how far this little body could really carry me. Maybe I started seeing my body as a functional thing as much as an ornamental one, and that helped immensely.
8. I found motivation.
For the first time in months it felt like I was actually doing what I wanted with my life. I was on an adventure that I had chosen for myself. I was going after things I wanted, and as I was recuperating from the stress of the previous few years, I found motivation again.
Wondrous landscapes inspired me to write more prolifically than before, and I came back with tons of new ideas for the blog. Ambitious people I met on the way made me say, ‘I want to be like that too’. A good break from my normal 25-hour-a-day-life helped me reconsider my priorities, and I returned home with the motivation to finish my degree and tackle the daunting MA thesis that had been making me nervous for months. More than that: I chose a topic that I knew would challenge me, just because I was sure it was a challenge I could face.
(Disclaimer: it’s now 1 a.m. on that Sunday and I have to wake up in five hours for work. Probably shouldn’t be advertising my new-found motivation since I haven’t even touched my thesis in a week.)
9. Finally, I managed to travel by myself for two months.
It wasn’t my first stint of solo travel. Over five years, I’ve gone solo on four continents in a dozen countries, and going on a trip alone has never phased me much. However, over the past few years I had done all my longer trips together with my then-boyfriend; the longest I’d been alone had been two, three weeks. I faced my two upcoming months of solo travel bravely and brazenly, and as I did, I remembered again why I loved backpacking so much.
Travelling solo gives all the power to you. You’re the only person responsible for your choices and your happiness. You can decide to tag along with travel friends or head the opposite direction without anyone telling you that you can’t – it’s the ultimate form of freedom. And as you trudge your way through all the little trouble that the road throws your way, you suddenly find out that you can, in fact, survive all of it on your own. It gives you a sense of accomplishment like nothing else. You become your own hero.
Writing about the positive effects of solo travel would be a whole another (or twenty other) post, but that’s the bottom line. If you have the means to go and the guts to go it alone, please, try solo travel at least once. Maybe it’s not for everybody but you might be surprised when you find that solo travel fits you as snug as your backpack.
I feel like I should end this piece by saying that I’m not encouraging you all to rush to book the next ticket to Lima or Rio or Bogota (wait, no, actually I am – South America is dope and you should all see it). These are all realisations I came across in South America, but mostly because South America was the right environment for me to clear my head. For others it might be Thailand, or Kenya, or even their home town. Everyone has different places of self-discovery.
For me, travelling in South America presented with the right mix of challenge and familiarity, of struggle and achievement. All the while I knew that whatever I did, in the end I would be fine, because the landscape around me would look after me. The cities in breathtaking altitudes, the creative, fun people I met, and the adventures I only dared tell my mum about afterwards – it all felt like home, and that’s why it was easy to believe that in the end I would be all right.
Thanks for reading guys! I was going to write that all the love is appreciated since personal posts are always the most difficult ones to publish… but then I realised I don’t pretty much publish anything else. Guess it’s not that difficult after all? Or maybe I have just become confident enough to publish posts like this without a second thought… get it… confident… uhhhh.
What experiences have made you more confident about yourself? Or what positive effects has travelling had in your life?