Last summer, I was fortunate enough to intern with Designmatters. At the time, I was unsure about what to expect, and frankly, I was not completely convinced by the new found popularity of social entrepreneurship. That being said, it did not take long for me to experience, first-hand, just how effectively collaborative entrepreneurial projects can change the world around us. As I left my internship, I acquired an interest in researching the complex social problems in the world today and gauging the sustainability of the measures being taken to solve them. Coincidentally, having just been accepted to a politics and economic development program in Santiago, Chile for the fall semester, I decided to engage in this interest through a 3-week backpacking stint in South America. Carrying the skills I obtained during my time at Designmatters, I was able to participate in a rare, incredible experience.
I was pretty sure the beads of sweat on my palms were trying telling me that I was a making mistake. What started as an hour of procrastination in Honnold-Mudd library last December had now transformed to a daunting reality for the next 3-weeks. At the time, backpacking through South America alone sounded like everything I needed—a break from structure, a break from familiarity, and a break from responsibility. Now, sitting in LAX, it felt like I had prematurely rushed into every college student’s wanderlust induced reverie.
To put it shortly, it wasn’t a mistake. My pre-study abroad 3-week backpacking stint through Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile was incredible. I could tell you it was one of the best things that I’ve ever done, or I could even tell you that I think it will shape a large part of who I will be in the future. Those things would be entirely true. They would also start to read like corny ads for Travel Magazine. So, instead, I am writing to you all about why my trip has led me to be a forceful advocate of traveling solo.
Previous to my trip, I had roughly outlined a brief itinerary. More than anything, it was a slight precaution I took to make my family and I feel more at ease with my ambiguous travels. Yet, within the first few days in La Paz, I stopped looking at it, as I started to realize just how rare it is to be able to disregard a schedule.
Traveling solo frees you of doing anything you don’t want to do. You don’t have to wait around for anyone. If you’re craving Thai food in La Paz like I did, you can navigate around the various empanada stands to find one—even if the end result is a plate of “Pad Thai” drenched in Alfredo sauce. In all seriousness, when traveling solo your schedule is entirely dependent on your needs. You can change your traveling plans to accommodate the advice you received from a fellow traveler on a 20-hour bus ride, or even better, to travel with that stranger for a few days. You are playing by your own rules.
It is inevitable to have ups and downs traveling, especially when traveling solo. There won’t be familiar faces waiting for you, and if you’re looking for comfort through Facebook or Skype, some days Wi-Fi will be nothing more than a distant concept. The fact is that when you aren’t feeling at your best you are your own solution, which at times may mean consciously fighting a state of mind that worked for you back in Claremont. There is no longer Camp Sec, DOS, or an R.A. to talk to if something goes horribly awry, so you learn to take full responsibility for your decisions. You learn to be happy by relying on yourself—something that is getting harder to learn in a world of increased, and at times inescapable, connection.
I met Raquel, an Argentinian Christian missionary, in the midst of a border-crossing fiasco in the indigenous-filled city of Villazón, Bolivia. Noticing that I was visibly flustered, Raquel offered to help me. After an hour of talking to various immigration officers, we sat down. She then asked if I was religious. What followed was an hour and a half long conversation about the purpose of organized religion. At one point, we even debated the issue of homosexuality in the Church where I surprisingly found myself using concrete, personal examples in an attempt to debunk her ideologies. It was the first time I had to debate my beliefs with someone who associated the devil with homosexuality. It was also the most memorable relationship I made. Before I left Villazón, Raquel gave me a New Testament with a personalized note inside, something I will be keeping for a long time.
At first, the ephemeral nature of these traveling friendships bothered me, but in time, I learned that the temporary nature of these friendships make them special. The mutual understanding of its temporality creates an unprecedented openness to every conversation, knowing that there is a limited to share with one another. These friendships are a few days, and if you’re lucky a week, of brief intersection in each other’s lives. Yes, it is short, but it is also incredible.
For the vast majority of 20-somethings, there is something inherently selfish about the time we spend in college—the freedom to study, to discuss, and to engage in whatever with whomever whenever we choose. In essence, our primary task as college students is that of self-discovery, and contrary to what we often see around us, self-discovery does not necessarily have to take the form of a structured 9-5 internship, a rigorous academic class, or even a study abroad program. This is a fleeting period of time where, for better or for worse, it is okay to be selfish. Take advantage of it.