I knew I’d be nervous for my first solo, international trip, but I had no idea how bad it would get. I spent the entire seven hour flight—from Philadelphia to London—fighting the shakes, breathing through waves of anxiety, and trying to convince myself that it wasn’t a huge mistake.
Things didn’t improve much when we touched down. I mindlessly followed passengers towards customs, where I was quizzed about my travel plans and employment status back home. The customs officer never cracked, never smiled. She slammed my first stamp into my first passport and wished me a good day. I scampered off to the first bathroom I could find. I took my time trying to collect myself and prepare for a world of unknowns.
Outside of that bathroom, the beginning of my self-designed trip to England and Italy awaited. But I couldn’t avoid feelings of self-doubt and regret. I thought that maybe all those women who told me that they would never be able to do what I’m doing were actually right, and that I was crazy for ever believing that I could. I wondered how much longer I could go without real food and sleep.
Originally, I was supposed to meet my friend Kirsten at the airport and travel with her for the first day. But she lost her wallet and couldn’t meet me until hours later. I made it to my hostel alone, where Kirsten watched my stuff for me as I slept for thirty minutes in the lobby. Later that night, I spent $8 to talk to my mom for eight minutes, and she told me she’d fly me home if I hated it. As I cried myself to sleep, her offer sounded better and better.
The next morning, Kirsten left London to fly back to America for a wedding—talk about bad timing! She left me completely alone, but I soon began to realize that I already had everything and everyone I needed.
I took a bus to Bath after I saw everything I wanted to see in London. As I got closer to Bath, the golden canola fields contrasting with the green hills soothed me. I’m not a city girl, so the new scenery felt familiar. When I found my next hostel on Bathwick Hill overlooking the town, it finally occurred to me that maybe I could actually do this on my own. From the second floor of my restored castle hostel, I wrote in my journal, “Things are getting better.” That night, I ate my first real meal—no more white bread, water, and Pepto Bismol.
The morning before I left Bath, I sat on the steps of the Bath Abbey to write and rest. I spotted a man in a sleeping bag across the courtyard on the damp stone floor. I felt a strong connection to him. I didn’t have a home, either—nowhere on that continent, at least. “Homeless” for the first time, I found my permanent home inside myself that travels wherever I go.
A few days later, my home and I flew to Italy, the part of my trip that I looked forward to the most. It began in Venice, where I got lost on purpose on the meandering, narrow streets. As if by accident, I found Ponte Rialto and had my first Italian gelato—lemon. It made me thirsty on that 80 degree day. I drank water but thirsted for more—more gelato, more Italy, more travel.
The next night, in Milan, I very unwillingly got lost for three hours looking for my next hostel. It would’ve been much longer without an undercover policeman with an iPhone. The streets were getting dark, my feet burnt, and I was just about to cry when I found my way to my leopard-print room.
I left Milan, relieved to get away from the big city bustle. Cinque Terre along the Ligurian Sea immediately relieved all of my hard feelings about Milan. I got off the regional train below Corniglia, the middle of the five villages. A twenty minute hike later, I sat at a wine bar in the outdoor garden seating area. I had bread with pesto and olives from the surrounding hills. I looked down the valley where the ocean waited for me. Afterwards, I followed signs to the sea, down crumbling stone steps, past lemon trees, hillside gardens, and the most relaxed cats. From my spot on the concrete dock, the sun glistened onto my face and into the water before the waves crashed onto the rocky shore. I stared down into the water and oddly thought that if for some reason I fell in and drowned, I’d feel as if my life was complete because of that very moment. I’d accomplished the most important goal of mine. I was alone in Italy, living out my biggest dream. I had fallen irrevocably in love with solo travel.
I spent a few more days in Cinque Terre, letting it work its magic, making it very hard to leave. When I finally did, I continued on to Florence where I listened to the chants of Benedictine monks high above views of Ponte Vecchio. In Rome, I had the best banana gelato while sitting on the Trevi Fountain under a light rain after a long day of sight seeing. Then, I took ferries and buses along the glamorous Amalfi Coast in Southern Italy.
When it was time to fly home, I stepped onto my plane with ease, a more complete person than ever before. I cried when the plane left Italian ground. Now, I’ve been home for over a month. Occasionally, I get sad when I think about how far away my trip seems, or how detached from the experience I sometimes feel. But most often, I look back on my trip with an almost guilty smile—what I did was a little crazy, but sometimes, crazy is good. I grew so much as a person, and now I truly believe that I can do anything. We all can. The key is to stop waiting. It will be uncomfortable. It might make you sick. But what we find along the way—outside and inside ourselves—is worth everything.
Written by guest writer, April Watts, who embarked on her solo journey in May 2010. Check out April’s blog, Idaho Daisies, which features her adventures hiking, backpacking and climbing in Idaho.