Although the original version of Ms. Wolf’s quote reads, “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world,” communicating quite a different sentiment from the standalone quote above, I remain intent on choosing to focus on that final part. You see, today I am thankful to live in a part of the world where I am free to go where I may please. The world may not have been built for me, but I am welcome to explore it and I am determined to create a place for myself in it.
Over the past three years, travel has become so notably ingrained in the fiber of my being. As I think about all that I have learned, I reflect on the important lessons that have come not only from experiencing the cultures of over a dozen countries, but also the critical perspective that can only be achieved when crossing the Atlantic – or any other vast space – alone.
We often hear of countries where women are unable to drive or go to school or venture to the nearby market without being accompanied by a man. And here I am, a young woman, traveling across the globe without the guardianship of anyone, man or woman. Although I have not yet truly traveled and experienced a new culture solo, I have made the trip across the Atlantic by myself six times roundtrip (12 journeys) since I turned 19 less than three years ago. To me, and to many young women of the Western World, this seems quite ordinary. However, we must remember that it is not so typical for our female counterparts in other parts of the world. And while traversing through modern airports and climbing aboard airplanes may seem like a peculiar educational environment, I have learned much from the sometimes stressful, always uncontrollable experience of sprinting gate to gate, waiting hours for delays, and searching for WiFi in whichever foreign city I find myself stopping through. See my key three lessons about traveling solo below:
The first lesson that traveling alone brings is “let go.” Traveling alone forces you to relax and let go of what is out of your control – partly because there’s no sense in freaking out and mostly because if you’re alone, you have no one to complain to, and you’ll quickly learn that you’ll grow tired of the sound of your inner voice’s grumbles. While unexpected 9 hour delays may force you to cancel a planned activity and late flights may result in an impromptu round of sprints in a foreign airport, I’ve found that you always make it to your final destination (usually on time, sometimes hours or days late). Traveling alone and letting go helps to make you more comfortable with responsibility and understand that you simply cannot control everything – both in travel and in life.
There’s nothing like standing at the back of a 20-person customs line, waiting to get your passport stamped when you’re already 20 minutes late to boarding, to remind you where you stand in the world. See, when we travel, we all tend to think that we are the only people who have somewhere to go. Somehow, the thousands of faces we see as we’re running from Terminal 1 to Terminal 2, exiting one late flight in a dash and attempting to hurriedly find another, go unnoticed. That is, until you’re standing in customs and you realize you’re all in the same boat; or heading for the same flight to be more accurate. Something about travel and the reality that you are simply not the only human being in this world brings me some much-needed humility. In fact, I quickly find myself easing my stresses and sometimes even sympathizing with my companions in line as I feel this “We’re all in this together” sentiment. But before I can grab their hands and burst into song and dance, I’m moving through passport control and sprinting by them like we’re in the finals of a high school track race. The early bird gets the worm, right? Humility at its finest. But really, when it comes to understanding that so many others share your stresses during travel, it’s also worth remembering how fortunate you are to be traveling in the first place. Travel is exciting and stimulating and messy, and we are so lucky to have the opportunity to experience all of it.
With the groundbreaking realization that you are just a mere 1 of 7 billion humans worldwide and an international airport will certainly not pause all operations to cater to your needs, traveling alone gives you the chance to pause and really take in your surroundings and the people who inhabit them. People-watching has always been one of my favorite pastimes, and there’s nothing like looking around an airport gate and simply witnessing the emotion in the room to entertain you. Whether it’s the sentimental couple off to see their grandchild for the first time, or the eager teenager on her first flight to Europe, or the crying infant and tired parents off to visit family, the people around you are an opportunity for learning and perspective-taking. Something I specifically find fascinating about the people in European airports is the number of infants embarking on long haul flights. While I traveled as an infant to visit my mom’s family in Puerto Rico, I was a rare occurrence (and I wasn’t even flying very far). Perhaps due to the close proximity in which vastly different cultures exists, or maybe thanks to the better handle on work-life balance and “holidays”, Europeans have mastered travel in a way that I can only hope the U.S. shifts toward in the future. As I was sitting in the Oslo airport waiting to board a flight to Copenhagen, I was in awe at the number of languages enveloping my space. I find my innate sense of curiosity (which my mother endearingly refers to as “nosiness”) causes me to open my ears and decipher bits and pieces of conversations in order to paint a picture of the stories of these people. I find the greatest joy in seeing many young women like myself – solo – traveling the world in search of adventure. I look around and invent chronicles for each of them; stories of exploration and challenge and wonder. I design the story of us – the young women who will indeed change the world – and I retreat to my laptop eager to transcribe my thoughts.
While many consider the drama of airports and flights to be a necessary evil, I see them as a rewarding, essential part of the journey. My time in airports and on flights has taught me much about the world and given me an important perspective on travel and adventure. As I read, write, watch, sit, and run during those long-haul trips, I view the world from the in betweens; from the moments sandwiched between countries; from the spaces that belong to no one and to everyone and to me. After all, “As a woman, my country is the whole world.”
Check back in early next week for a post about my fourth trip to Norway and the insights I’ve gathered about the world’s happiest country.