They told us that you’d have to get lost in this world to find yourself. I did exactly just that.
At 23, I couldn’t take the stress of life anymore. I was studying for a profession that I wasn’t sure I’d like; living to please parents and meet societal expectations. My heart was a dark void filled with emptiness.
Trapped and desperate, I could hang myself, or live on. Freedom was to chase my fascination of exotic places and wicked legends. I wanted to see for myself how different life could be.
Eight years after my first major depressive episode in school, I was standing on a cliff looking down at the magnificent ancient ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. The Peruvian summer sunlight, mingled with a billowing cool breeze, brushed my cheeks.
I was far from everyone and everything I knew, but learning to savour the sunsets and appreciating my own company.
My first solo travel experience was to Bulgaria, a small country wedged between Romania and Greece in Eastern Europe, opening out to the Black Sea. It was my final year of university, and I was so stressed out that graduating seemed impossible. The four walls of my bedroom and the tinier walls of the library cubicles imprisoned my soul. I had to go somewhere or go berserk in the rigid space.
I had rented an Airbnb in central Sofia, in hopes of a better environment for conducive and uninterrupted studying. Rustic Sofia was cheap, and hosts a lot of eateries serving Bulgarian cuisine of savoury shropska salads, garlic yogurt zucchinis and barbecued meat. Speaking a bit of Bulgarian and exercising caution, I was surprised by the warm welcome from locals. I had a conversation with Bulgaria’s former environmental minister in a vegetarian restaurant.
On another occasion, a Bulgarian football manager sat down with me to practise his Mandarin.
Solo travel instilled in me a confidence I never knew I had. I started chatting with strangers on trains, hostel mates and tour buddies. Surprisingly, fellow travellers are always receptive to help out and make friends. By the end of the trip, I was able to chat with Chileans and joke with them in Spanish!
Interactions with people on the road also showed me different perspectives on things. On the train back to Cuzco from Machu Picchu, I met a 50-year-old American man who was taking his family all around the world. His kids “went” to school online. He wanted to show them that knowledge knows no boundaries.
In Bolivia, I met an inspiring 28-year-old German guy whose steadfastness in life went beyond his years.
I learned that age has no limitations. In Peru, I met a 64-year-old American man who left his home in Hawaii to backpack solo from Mexico to Bolivia, and beyond. He went up Machu Picchu on foot!
I was able to see the world through the eyes of various cultures too. It made me embrace different ideas and thoughts. There is not only one way to approach things.
I was determined to build my character, as well as fuel my wanderlust to truly see and experience this world. I crossed self-proclaimed independent territories like North Cyprus (Turkish side) and forlorn Soviet Transnistria (Moldova), cruised on the highest floating lake in the world (Lake Titicaca in Peru) at 4,500m above sea level and stayed with the indigenous Aymaran people in a village hut. I descended down a live mine in Potosi (Bolivia) and handed its miners dynamite bought from the market, rode horses alongside gauchos (Argenitinian cowboys) in the wild plains, gazed upon the stars in the Atacama Desert (Chile) and rode on an Amtrak train from San Francisco to Oregon, and then all the way Seattle.
Adventure fuels the empty soul. Solo travel made me alive not only by showing me the beauty of this world but by empowering me to see how far I could go.