I always considered myself an independent person. But as the youngest child growing up in a 95% white suburb of California, my understanding of what “independence” meant was about as deep as my understanding of “diversity”. In other words, it was very limited.
My class schedule was dictated by the pressure of college applications. Which after-school clubs I joined was slave to the limited ability of my parents to be everywhere at once. The Saturday cartoons I watched were up to my older siblings, who easily wrestled the remote from me week after week. Even the clothing I wore and the slang I used was due to the friends I hung out with.
I thought of myself as independent, but my very identity was dependent on the hometown I inhabited for the first eighteen years of my life, as well as the family and friends that populated those years. I was about as independent as a golden retriever puppy.
I guess there was some part of me that was aware of this; some part of me that longed to break out of the suburban box I’d lived in my entire life. Which, on some level, is probably part of what drove me to defer my college acceptance for a year and fly to Africa after graduation. I spent the next five months traveling and volunteering in South Africa, Ethiopia, Turkey, Thailand, and India.
It was somewhere around month two, living alone in a small village in Ethiopia when I started to discover my own independence.
At first glance, my newfound independence was apparent. No one knew where I was spending the afternoon or telling me what time to be home, or even how to get from one place to the next. One day, I decided I wanted to visit the city. Only, I didn’t speak the language and had no internet connection. So, I walked to the bus station and started asking every bus that drove by “Addis? Addis?” Eventually, I caught a ride to Addis Ababa.
When traveling solo, you are forced to rely on yourself. You are forced to make your own decisions and, surrounded by unfamiliar places, people, and languages, the only thing you can count on is your ability to figure out where you need to be, what you need to do, and how to make it happen.
But the kind of independence you find solo traveling goes beyond learning how to cook pasta in a hostel kitchen when the only available appliance is a frying pan. When traveling solo, you discover an independence not only in how you live but in how you define yourself.
One night in Ethiopia I lay in bed for hours, just staring at the ceiling. My loneliness was crushing, and I felt I may lose the ability to speak if I didn’t find someone to talk to soon. For eighteen years I had lived in a solid, unchanging community, surrounded by friends and family who claimed to know me better than I knew myself. Now, suddenly, I was a solo traveler. No one knew me. When I walked into a room, no one had any expectations regarding who I was or what I brought to the table. I was a stranger; in their eyes, I could be anyone. And for the first time in my life, I had to decide who I wanted to be.
It was there, in that unfamiliar territory with no one to tell me who I was or wasn’t, that I discovered the independence to finally be me.
About the Author
Sarah Dittmore, the Director of Operations at True Nature Travels, is always seeking a new adventure. When she’s not barefoot hiking in the mountains of Peru, kayaking around an island off the coast of Italy, or camping in a rainforest in Costa Rica, Sarah writes about her adventures on her travel blog, Autobiography of an Adventurer. Join her as she travels the world and documents the wild and wonderful things she discovers along the way at www.autobiographyofanadvent