“Aren’t you afraid you’ll be lonely?”
“Is it really safe for you to travel alone?”
“Why don’t you just travel somewhere else in the States?”
These were real questions posed to me when I announced I wanted to take my first international solo trip to my friends and family. There is a lot of fear of traveling in the unfamiliar – despite Belize being an English-speaking country, many of my friends and family and even (somewhat) acquaintances thought it was strange to be backpacking on my own. In my experience, long-term traveling abroad isn’t as common in the States compared to our European and Asian counterparts. My trip wasn’t by any means an extended stay – I booked my ticket for just a short week.
For months now, I’ve been craving proof of my independence; I’ve always had someone to fall back on whether it was my best friends as an emotional handicap, my parents or sister to bail me out of trouble, or my cousins to lend a patient ear. Although it’s great to have a support system, I noticed over the years I’ve managed to cocoon myself in a web of dependency. If I was ever going to mold into the woman I wanted to be, I needed to be able to stand on my own two feet.
This last December, I was aimlessly searching Google for “cheap international flights.” I stumbled upon roundtrip tickets to Belize for less than $400. Next thing I knew, I was booking my tickets and lying to my parents that I was going with a friend (sorry mom and dad if you ever read this…). I slaved over /r/travel, Lonely Planet, Hostelworld, and Instagram to plan a mock itinerary. By 5 a.m., I was cramming a week’s worth of travel in a backpack and consolidated all my travel documents into a manila folder filled with hostel information, the itinerary, bus information, and budget breakdowns (don’t worry, I cringe at my own neuroticism too).
This trip taught me to throw the itinerary out the window or to at least take it with a grain of salt during the planning phase. My carefully crafted itinerary ended up being more of an abstract idea of things I wanted to see and do. No amount of methodical planning will prepare you for the unexpected. I didn’t consider the delays from Chicago to Dallas, causing me to miss my connector flight to Belize. I didn’t consider the distance between the airport and the ferries to the islands, causing me to travel when it was well past dark.
I learned to be more mindful as a female solo traveler. I found myself in many near misses in Central America: walking around Belize City by myself when it was getting close to nightfall, missing my stop in San Ignacio just to realize there were no buses going back to the city, and nearly getting ripped off in Caye Caulker over lobsters. I was very lucky to meet kind locals along the way that offered a helping hand without the expectation of getting anything in return. I had a man stay by my side during the 20-minute walk from the ferry to my bus stop in Belize City so I would be safe. I had a taxi cab driver give me a free lift back to my hostel to San Ignacio because the buses stopped running. I met backpackers that argued with the restaurant owners to give us the fair price for lobsters. Although being a woman shouldn’t ever stop you from traveling solo if the opportunity presents itself, there ARE precautions you should take while you’re abroad.
(Lobsters @Chef Kareem’s UnBelizeable Lunch)
I learned to be confident in my own risk-taking. The thing about solo traveling is you’re forced to be your most independent self. There’s no one to fall back on if you get lost along the way (although shout outs to my cousin for reassuring me when I was close to missing my flight back home). You have to decide to take initiative to meet people, even if it’s just to ask for directions. There’s no one to push you past your limits – you decide on your own if you want to step outside your comfort zone. Next thing I knew, I was snorkeling with mantra rays and nurse sharks. I was eating one of the best lobsters of my life and getting drunk off Belizean rum with other backpackers. I was going spelunking in the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave and saw remnants of human sacrifice. I was exploring Mayan ruins. I was letting iguanas latch onto my shirt. And I was impulsively doing a border crossing to Guatemala just to realize it was too expensive to shuttle it all the way to Tikal.
(Mayan artifacts in the ATM cave outside San Ignacio)
I think one of the most significant takeaways from the trip was to learn to broaden my horizons. I met so many backpackers along the way that inspired me to be more adventurous. I lived vicariously through the experiences of friends I met that traveled far more extensively than I – from the Dutch couple that was spending the next two months backpacking in Central America “just cause” to the German woman that spent the last half year backpacking through South Asia and carried tattoos from every country she visited to the American couple from Brooklyn that made time to travel every so often despite working 9-5 schedules. Learning to step out of your comfort zone is a great thing: appreciate people that are different from you, find confidence in yourself, immerse yourself in new experiences that will help you grow.
This is the trip that ignited my wanderlust. Two weeks later, I impulsively booked another trip to Iceland. There’s so much of the world I want to experience, and I’ve only gotten a taste of it.