I’ve watched plenty of friends whose lives have been enriched by the solo trek experience, and when I took a recent leap – quitting a successful job to go on sabbatical – I knew an extended international solo trip would be the capstone of my mid-career break.
I planned for months, down to the right clothes for different climates, best medications in case of illness, optimal luggage to swiftly get through multiple transit points. I worked with a reputable travel agency and arranged for guides at most locations. And a few weeks ago, I set out alone on my long-awaited journey through Thailand, Singapore and Taiwan.
And halfway through my dream trip, I was taken down by a serious and prolonged bout of food poisoning. I was in a beautiful, small beach town in Thailand where infrastructure was somewhat limited, and almost no English was spoken (my Thai guide spoke just enough). I thought I’d brought my entire medicine cabinet with me, but I wasn’t prepared for this.
But if my trip was supposed to be a learning experience, this illness wasn’t going to interrupt my education. This is what I learned from my once-in-a-lifetime journey to the other side of the world:
- You must reach beyond your limits to find them. I thought the real education would come from immersing in a new culture without the comforts of home. But in getting so sick on the other side of the world and having to navigate my way through it, the bigger lessons were so much further outside my comfort zone than I realized …
- Set yourself up for success (and rethink your definition of it). I did so much to set myself up for success. What I didn’t plan for was serious illness disrupting my dream trip. But I’ll be damned if I was going to let it take away this moment for me. And I reminded myself that “fun” wasn’t the point of this ride. My aim here was to push my boundaries and to learn something about the world and myself. And learn, I did. When I put this into perspective, it was hard to see this moment as anything other than successful.
- Discomfort is part of life. Get comfortable with it. I may sound pessimistic, but life has shown me (and, perhaps, you) that I can’t count on smooth sailing for long. Sometimes it completely knocks me off my feet, and sometimes it just shoves me hard enough to remind me it’s always there. The key, I think, is to learn to be at peace with the idea of discomfort without being a total fatalist. Don’t look around every corner in fear of what might jump out at you, but be calm and brave when it arrives, knowing that you’ll likely be ok regardless. Getting sick on my trip surprised me, scared me, angered me. But somewhere deep down I knew I’d be ok. And I was.
- You don’t have to be confident to be strong. Even when life is going well, I am riddled with anxiety. Finding, nurturing and growing my own confidence will be my life’s work. But this trip reminded me that I’m stronger than I think. Just because I don’t see my strength doesn’t mean it’s not here. Hopefully, the more life shows me I’m strong, I’ll start to believe it for myself. And that’s something to build on.
- It’s ok to be inconvenient. When I first got sick, a friend very astutely texted “don’t be shy about asking for what you need.” Like many, I’m all too often concerned about rocking the boat, making someone uncomfortable or shaking up someone else’s day/life/plan on my account. In a moment when I was truly only obligated to myself, I still found I was worried about being an inconvenience. But her advice kept ringing in my ear like the relentless bell I needed to hear. Ask for what you need. Demand it, if need be. Doing so put me on a path to recovery and got me back home to my family and friends. Her counsel served me well, and – hopefully – I’ll hear my own voice say the same next time.
- Be open to the unexpected. The things I thought I would love during my trek, I certainly did (though I missed more than I would have liked). But there were plenty of unexpected gifts during this experience. Practicing living in my own fear and discomfort was one (a hard-earned blessing, as it turns out). The second was falling in love with a country that previously hadn’t even been on my “future vacation” list. Taiwan was part of my itinerary as a suggestion by a knowledgeable friend, and what a treat it turned out to be! Beautiful, welcoming, fascinating. Majestic mountains, pristine coastline, exciting cities. Way beyond expectations. I’m so looking forward to next time.
- Rethink your understanding of once-in-a-lifetime. You just might be more blessed than you think. So your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity didn’t go the way you wanted? If you want a do-over, figure out how to make it happen. Nothing is more limiting that the assumption of scarcity. I can’t wait to return.
My sabbatical has been time to slow down long enough to hear my own voice, take account of my life choices and path, and learn more about the world and my place in it. My solo trek was to be a critical part of that journey. And what an education it turned out to be.