I remember quite vividly the moment I decided to travel abroad for the first time.
I was 12. A letter had come in the mail from People to People, inviting me to travel to Australia for two weeks as a student ambassador with a group of other sixth graders. At first, I set the letter aside without much thought.
In my mind, there was no way I could do something like that. It didn’t even seem like a remote possibility. I don’t think it was even the fear of going, though I was a painfully shy kid, but simply the thought that such a trip was not something people actually do.
Maybe my parents pushed it a little bit, I don’t remember. In all likelihood, my dad encouraged me some, while my mom probably felt she would rather not send her little girl take off to the other side of the globe.
But then something happened.
I was sitting in the family room watching “Home Improvement.” It was the episode where Randy went off to Costa Rica to study abroad. (Until I looked this up, I remembered it as him going to volunteer with sea turtles, but the effect was the same.) While watching the episode, something inside me clicked. People do do this kind of thing. Indeed, I could do this kind of thing.
So I decided I would try it. I went to the information session, and it was hard not to be won over by visions of hopping kangaroos and the colorful coral and fish of the Great Barrier Reef.
After that, there were a number of sessions that we, the ambassadors, were supposed to attend. I think I made it to one or two of them. A few times it was because of weather (it was winter in upstate New York, where I was living at the time). Other times I was so nervous and afraid, I didn’t want to go. I distinctly remember one time driving to the meeting, we had to pull over so I could throw up on the side of the road. In retrospect, I think it was because I was scared more than because I was sick.
It must have been the most terrifying thing I’ve done in my entire life, looking back. I don’t know how, but a kid who was too scared to even go to the group-building orientation sessions — who had never gone to sleep-away camp because she was too afraid —somehow that kid got on a plane with a bunch of other preteens and flew to nearly the farthest possible place from home. No parents, no friends. I didn’t know a single other kid, especially since I didn’t go to almost any of the sessions.
But I did it. I snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef. I cuddled a koala. I witnessed a kangaroo hopping across the road in front of our bus. I watched Aborigines play digeridoos, camped in “the bush,” and sat on the steps of the Sydney Opera House. I ate fish and chips (another big step for a then-picky eater), and I even made some friends.
I’d be lying if I said I came back an entirely different person. I was still shy. But I was changed. The night I got home, I couldn’t stop talking. I wandered around the kitchen chattering like crazy about my trip. I’m pretty sure my parents were surprised at how wired I was.
Then two days later we moved to Ohio and I had to start all over again. It took me almost the entire school year to open up and make friends. But how else would we grow, if not for change and practice?
I may not have become instantly confident, wise and outgoing, but the seed was planted. My mind had been opened to a world of possibilities. In a way, the wiring in my brain had been changed. Suddenly, I no longer saw everything as “something I can’t do.” I saw an array of things that could be done. A huge barrier had been removed from my vision. It was freeing.
And so, when the chance to travel to Spain for a two-week homestay came up my junior year of high school, I went. I was just as terrified, but I did it. Going to live with a host family was pretty much the scariest thing I could imagine.
I was so shy at first around my family, I remember my host dad asking if “something had happened” to me to make me so introverted. I admit I was pretty surprised by that (Am I the first teenager to go to a homestay and be shy and quiet?), but I think it helped prompt a turnaround in me for the rest of the trip.
I just needed time to adjust, to get comfortable. I still do, though the amount of time has grown significantly less. It used to take days, weeks, even months for me to get to a level of confidence in my surroundings when I was young. Now, it’s usually minutes.
Jumping into a big trip will always be scary. Now it’s more of a thrilling adventure, but it’s natural to get nervous. I have to force myself not to over think it. But I have never regretted my decisions to travel, and I have always come back a slightly more improved version of myself.
Related: What is Transformative Travel?
Since those two big adventures, I have been on many, many more. (I even returned to Australia to work for a year!) And many of those experiences have been on my own.
Every time I travel solo, I meet a lot of people who can’t believe what I’m doing. I wonder what they would think if they knew my story. I don’t think anyone who knew me when I was young would have ever guessed that I would one day study abroad in Thailand or spend three months backpacking solo across South America. But I did.
That’s just the thing. There are no barriers. There are no impossibilities. There is only what you let yourself believe. And when you open your eyes to the world of possibilities, it’s amazing how your life can change.
And that, my friends, is how I became a traveler.