19 Life Lessons from a 19-Year-Old Solo Traveler

I’ve dreamt of adventure ever since I learned to read and of solo travel in particular ever since fifth grade. We did a project on all the different biomes of the earth and I pictured myself exploring each one, hearing the tropical birds for myself, watching the desert stretch in to the horizon, scuba diving so I could breathe like a MERMAID and see all of the beauty that the world has to offer. So when, out of nowhere, I came home with a plan to put off college for a year and travel to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama for five months, no one should have been surprised. Yet they were— more scared than surprised really and, if I’m being honest, I was scared too. Sometimes I would just sit and think about Every. Single. Thing. that could go wrong. But here I am, home safe and already thinking about my next trip. Before I left, I had some goals; solidify my Spanish, do some good deeds, and see some beautiful things but mostly I was just looking for the answers to questions I hadn’t thought to ask yet. I write this article not because I think I’m some kind of sexy genius sent from the heavens to tell you how to live your life—I’m writing it simply because I think that I found a few of those answers. Some of this stuff I started learning long before I first set foot in Guatemala (from my grandma, my parents, and my sister) but my experiences abroad really brought those ideas into reality.

                                                                                                             Indian's Nose, Guatemala 

1. Smile, say hi, and introduce yourself.

 This is easier said than done (especially if you’re like me and have some of that fun little thing we call social anxiety). I found it was a little bit easier when traveling, seeing as I might not ever see these people again, but there were times where these simple words were stuck in my mouth and I just couldn’t unstick them. There were also plenty of times that I forced a greeting out and something awesome happened as a result. Sharing a muffin with a Nicaraguan family on the bus, taking way too many selfies with some Guatemalan teenagers in a marketplace, going on a last minute trip with some friendly person from the hostel (this happened way too many times to choose a specific example). Saying hello isn’t that scary after all. Try it every once in a while and life will get a lot more interesting.

2. Be curious.

Ask questions and actually listen to the answers. Then, question the answers. Read. Go to museums. Wonder about stranger’s lives, but try not to stare. Look up at the stars or down at your shoes, but whatever you’re looking at, really think about it. Try to learn a new skill and don’t give up if it doesn’t click right away. Don’t try to be smarter than anyone else, but do try to be smarter than you were yesterday.

3. You are capable of much more than you think you are.

Don’t discourage yourself. You are capable and you are powerful.                                                             

4. If you think you’re wise, you’re wrong.

The minute that you accept that you don’t know anything, your mind opens up to whole new realms of possibility, especially when you’re in a foreign country. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. And that’s okay! Leading to my next point…

5. Get comfortable with uncertainty!

The unknown may seem like a place full of danger, but it also holds beauty you never imagined. Before starting off on my trip, I left the task of downloading music onto my phone until the last minute and, because technology really isn’t that reliable, I found myself in the airport without a single song to distract me. Clutching my notebook and staring off into space, a distinct “What the hell am I doing?” feeling came over me. I had done my research, but I had no idea what was really going to happen when my feet first touched Guatemalan soil. Later on in my travels, nearly every time someone asked me “So, where are you going after here?” I just shrugged and smiled. If you ask any honest person what they plan to “do” with their life, most will start with a shrug or an “I don’t know.” Nobody really knows anything for sure, so it’s okay if you don’t either.

6. There are many more similarities between people than there are differences.

It’s important to recognize, respect, and learn about these differences. Just remember: most human beings need and want the same few things. These needs—food, shelter, love, laughter—are in our DNA. A British billionaire, a Nicaraguan businessman, and a single mom from the U.S. have a lot more in common than you might think. Break down those barriers that try to tell you that we’re separate. Because we aren’t.

                                                      Taking selfies with some teenagers in a marketplace in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala

7. You are a tiny insignificant speck in this huge universe.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. Okay, the phrase: “The world doesn’t revolve around you” might give you war flashbacks to arguments in which I’m sure you were completely right, but it’s true, don’t you think? Just think of the words "one in seven billion” or try to count the stars in the night sky and you’ll feel a bit small. But if you let it, this can be a freeing thought. Why not live the life you want to live?

8. Every action has an impact.

Everything that you do causes change. You’ve probably heard the story of the butterfly effect before, but here it is again just in case; a butterfly flaps its wings, causing a few air particles to move, which sets off a chain of events that causes a hurricane on the other side of the world. Little changes cause medium sized changes, which cause big changes. Even if you don’t believe in the theory, you have probably experienced how a smile or a kind word from a stranger can completely flip your day around. Sure, we are tiny little people in this great big universe, but those tiny little things we do matter, sometimes just to the other tiny little people close to us and sometimes to something much bigger.

                                                                                    Our Lady of Assumption Cathedral, Granada, Nicaragua

9. Don’t try to be better than other people.

Just try to be your best self. The minute you try to impress or belittle someone, you stop seeing that person and start hearing everything they say and seeing everything they do as a reflection of yourself. You’ll stop connecting with the person and start connecting with your ego. I noticed this ego thing in myself on my trip, especially when talking to people who only had a week to travel or people who were impressed by me traveling solo at a young age. However, it’s the conversations where I asked more questions and explored ideas without trying to be right that stick out in my mind. There is no “better” or “worse”, but there is a “connected” and “disconnected.” Try to focus less on being “better” or “cooler” than other people and you’ll start to feel more connected to them.

10. No plan is the best plan. Except when it’s not.

Don’t tie yourself down all the time. Stay open to spontaneous ideas and opportunities! Just be ready to adapt to the possible changes or imperfections of said ideas and opportunities. I never used my first aid kit for myself, but I helped a few friends who got scraped up, contracted urinary tract infections, or found themselves with major stomachaches while we were adventuring. Even so, 99% of the time nothing went wrong with making decisions on the spot.

11. Trust yourself. Trust people. Trust the world.

When I say the word 'Honduras' some people get this twitch in their face and I know what they are thinking of: crime, death, corruption, DANGER. I can almost see them shutting down. But if they trusted the world and people’s general goodness just a little bit more, if they went to Honduras themselves and met the kind people and saw the beautiful countryside, they would understand.

12. Stop and listen.

Whether it be an odd person you just met, a chaotic marketplace, or an unexpected rainstorm, sometimes it’s good just to listen.

13. Make good times, emphasis on the good.

Try to be in the moment. Whether you’re washing the dishes or climbing Mt. Everest, whatever you’re doing right now is the most important thing you’re doing right now. No need to rush, or you’ll miss it.

14. Keep dreaming.

This is kind of hard when you’re trying to be in the moment too, but from daydreams to nightmares, the things your mind keeps wandering to are important. From needs and desires that should be pursued, to fears that need to be confronted. Never ignore your dreams. Especially the ones that fill you with hope.

15. Play!

Ever wonder why some kids seem smarter than adults? It’s because they know what’s really important. Having fun, entertaining every idea, and exploring. Everything you do doesn’t have to have a clear, greater importance. Personally, I have my best ideas when I’m not taking myself seriously or I’m just straight up goofing off. Life is a game that no one wins; it’s the playing that counts.

                                                                                   Tree hugging in Cathedral Grove Forest, Vancouver Island

16. Every great story starts with a risk.

We’re talking healthy risks here. These are the things that aren’t deadly but will scare you to death anyway. Asking a beautiful person to coffee, trusting someone you just met, skydiving— sometimes a risk is what it takes. It’s okay if you have a comfort zone, but there should be an unlocked door or window you can slip out of from time to time.

17. Mo’ money, mo’ problems.

Hold up— there are a lot of people in the world, a lot of people in your hometown probably, struggling with poverty, hunger, and homelessness. So in some cases, more money would definitely mean fewer problems. What I mean is, once you have all the basics covered, being rich isn’t going to make your life perfect. I scrimped and saved for my trip, but even once I was traveling, I found that the best experiences came free or cheap. Luxury does not equal happiness. When I arrived at a free camping site in Montezuma, Costa Rica, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was greeted by a friendly group of Costa Rican artisans who invited me to eat with them. I tried my best to keep up with their rapid-fire Spanish, stuffed myself on mangos from a nearby grove, and slept in a hammock beachside under the stars. Money can buy basic comfort and stability, but after that if you want it to keep making yourself happy, it’s best to spend it on experiences or give it away.

                                                                                      Sleeping in a hammock in Montezuma, Costa Rica

18. If something you want to do is difficult, it makes it that much more worth doing.

My third time ever attempting to surf, I found myself angry crying. I considered quitting for the millionth time. The ocean was pushing me every way except the way that I wanted to go, my technique was awful, my nose was full of saltwater, and I was sure that the local guys on the shore were laughing at me. I started swearing, first to myself, then at the board, then at the ocean itself, which drowned me out so other surfers nearby didn’t notice the little blond girl having a mini meltdown. Somewhere between curses, I started to feel better and afterwards I noticed that the only person who was angry with me was me. I felt calmer, but too exhausted to continue and once again considered quitting for the day.  I noticed another learning surfer catch some whitewash and realized that when the wave first hit her, she kept paddling for a few seconds then stood up. All this time, I had been trying to stand just before the wave hit me. I tested her technique and within a few tries I was standing up almost every time. I stayed outvuntil everyone else went in for dinner, then I stayed longer. It wasn’t the success itself that made me so happy, but the fact that I hadn’t given up. Afterwards, I started advertising swearing as the secret to surfing. Though the real secret is recognizing the difficulty of the situation and recognizing your own ability to overcome it. And swearing.

19. In order to really learn something, you have to experience it.

So get out there and have some experiences. Go for a walk with a friend and try to find something cool you never noticed in your town. Strike up a deep conversation with someone on the city bus. Do that thing that you have always wanted to do. Travel! Please, please travel. Let me know what you find. 

                                                                                                       Tajamulco Volcano, Guatemala

(All pictures taken by the author.)