“Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou.” I say the words so quickly there isn’t room for the breath.
My friend Dan looks over at me and smiles. “No problem, it’s my fault you’re running late anyway.” This makes me stop. He is, after all, correct.
Currently, Dan is barreling down the freeway, attempting to get me to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport on time to catch my plane to England, the first leg in my around the world trip.
I’m terrified. I’m a 20-year-old solo female that’s skipping my college graduation to go gallivanting through Europe, Thailand, Australia and Fiji for three months.
“Dan,” my voice is unusually high and pinched, “I don’t want to go.”
He looks at me like I’m crazy. “Courtney, you’ve been talking about this for months. This will be an amazing trip. You’ll be fine.”
I nod. I am not convinced. He pulls up to the curb and pulls out the rucksack I packed in the wee hours of the morning. I vaguely wonder if I’ve forgotten anything important.
Dan gives me a hug. “Have fun.”
I turn around and walk inside. Although I wait in security lines for almost an hour, I make it to my gate with ten minutes to spare. Calmed, I sit in my assigned seat, peer out the window and take a deep breath. It’s only then that I realize I don’t know where I’m going once I step off the plane in London.
The idea to go ‘Round the World (RTW) occurred to me on a jaunt to New Zealand a year earlier. There, I was first introduced to intrepid RTW adventurers.
Initially, RTW travelers appeared a different breed. They dressed in a mishmash of clothing picked up on the road – fisherman pants from Thailand, “Mind the Gap” t-shirt from England, a safari hat from Tanzania. I strained to hear them recount war stories of holidays abroad and watched them cook elaborate dinners in hostel kitchens.
Their backgrounds were varied. Some had quit their jobs, others had taken time off school. A few had sold all their belongings. Many camped to save money. All lived out of a backpack and hadn’t seen their family in months.
I was in awe.
After mustering up the courage to talk to a few RTWers, I started to gain confidence. I learned that they, too, were once like me, disciples of the ten-day vacations and perhaps a semester study abroad. The more they talked about the places they had been, the people they met and the things they learned, the more I wanted to go.
After a few days, I left New Zealand, and forgot about going RTW for awhile. However, in February, I learned that I had enough credits to graduate from college…a full year early. Unable to afford grad school, I suddenly found myself in the position of wondering what to do next. The economy was poor, jobs were scarce, and I wasn’t even old enough to rent a car!
While staring at some pictures, I found myself idly thinking about my semester abroad in Australia. On a whim, I went online and checked ticket prices from Chicago to Sydney. As expected, they were more than $1,000 – a bit expensive to visit someplace I’d already been. But, I thought, what if I went somewhere else and then stopped in Australia on the way? I went to an online search engine and typed in ‘Round the World Tickets’. I instantly came across a website that specialized in RTW and independent travel called BootsnAll. I visited their trip planner, entered in a rough RTW itinerary and came up with a price for my trip. In a matter of minutes, going RTW became a viable option. Sure, I couldn’t go for a year, and I didn’t want to sell all my belongings, but I could still get the experience. I bought my ticket a week later.
After months of bragging to my friends during the day and tossing and turning at night, I finally found myself, ticket in hand, Eurail pass in my bag, on my way to England. For many travelers, there is a sense of freedom that comes with the departing of a plane. Taking a solo trip around the world is like having a fresh, new start to your life every day. No one knows you. No one knows where you’ve been. No one knows where you are going. And no one cares. Travelers are the ones who embrace this mindset as an opportunity to grow and learn. Tourists are the ones who look at the pictures and pretend they understand.
I arrived in London around midday. After a few days of visiting family, I set off to Barcelona, befriending an Algerian refugee at the airport. In Spain for a vacation, Sofianne and I spent the next few days smoking, sipping coffee and seeing the sites. I quizzed him about Algeria for hours, learning about its history, the people and why he left. Life in Algeria shocked me; even more startling was my lack of knowledge on world events.
Sofianne was the first of many travelers who taught me about life in other countries. There was the physical therapist who left Greece for better schooling, the South Korean women who wanted to explore Europe by herself, Irish ex-pats making a living in Luxembourg and hundreds of Canadians, Brits, and Australians that pointed out subtle cultural differences between themselves and Americans.
I spent seven weeks in Europe, sleeping on trains, meeting travelers and visiting famous churches. I camped in the Swiss Alps, floated in rivers, danced at festivals and allowed myself to be flooded with the sights and sounds of Europe in the summer. I traveled by myself and with people I met. I changed my itinerary more than a dozen times. I was addicted to travel.
I had my share of setbacks, too. I didn’t want to be traveling anymore when I found myself lost in rain with a heavy backpack, or when I couldn’t find a place to spend the night. As a lone female, I found myself on guard constantly, wondering who I could trust and who I should avoid.
As my European adventure drew to a close, I rested up for a few days in London before jetting off to my next destination, Thailand.
“I told you, I’ve never been there!” I half-yelled, half-whimpered to my taxi driver.
“Where you go? Where you go?” He replied, equally as frustrated with the scraggly-looking passenger in his backseat as I was with him.
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.” I sighed, and settled back into the seat sticky with my sweat. I looked at my watch. I had been in Bangkok for less than an hour.
Transportation in Bangkok can be dangerous, overwhelming and, if you’re not careful, a scam. Despite all the warnings and all my precautions, I had still ended up in an unmetered taxi leaving Bangkok International Airport. Not only was I paying twice the going rate, my taxi had also broken down on the side of the freeway. And, as I was just learning, my driver didn’t know where he was going.
After a few tense minutes, I repeated the name of the place my friend was staying while he worked in Bangkok. This time, I must have said it correctly because the driver glared at me and whipped the car around before unceremoniously plunking me off in front of an apartment building and speeding away. I gathered a key from the front desk, thanking the attendant with my eyes and a smile because I was too tired to speak. After a glorious shower and dinner with my friend, I felt ready to take on Thailand. Although Bangkok overwhelmed me, I enjoyed the laid back pace of nearby Ko Samet and took the opportunity to spend some time alone and rest up for the second long leg of my journey, through Australia.
Before my journey around the world, I had only visited six countries. After living in Sydney for five months, I knew what to expect in Australia and I looked forward to celebrating my 21st birthday with my friends there. Besides, I was broke, and I needed a place to stay.
Returning to somewhere you once lived can be a surreal experience. Although many of the buildings remain the same, most of the people you knew have gone and you no longer have keys to the apartment you called home. While attending school in Australia, I was carefree. Now, my time on the road was rapidly decreasing and I had to start thinking about the real world that awaited me at home.
I traveled sporadically throughout my five weeks down under, returning to the places I loved and taking friends up on their offers to see other parts of Australia. For the most part, though, I stayed in Sydney, filling out job applications, writing and wondering what I would do when I returned to the real world.
When I finally left Australia, I was prepared to return to the real world. But before I had to give up my life on the road, I had one more week to explore, experience and learn.
Fiji is the start and end point for many travelers on their round the world adventures. The lapping of the waves and the laid back pace of the islands nurtures the spirit. The serene beauty seems to be the perfect backdrop for the proud road veterans to give advice to those just embarking on the adventure. I took the opportunity to spend my week there soaking in the sun, listening to the exchange of stories and writing in my journal. As I got ready for my flight back to the States, I smiled to myself as I donned my Thai fisherman pants and cheap t-shirt. I may never be a true road warrior or vagabond, but at least I’ve taken my first steps.