Ten Lessons The Road Taught Me.
All nine provinces, ten months, I’ve lost count of how many kilometers, and I can’t even tell you how many strange beds or campsites I’ve been through this year. It feels near impossible to even try and start telling the stories from this trip, the people I’ve met, and the massive range of emotions one feels when embarking on a long-term solo journey.
It was amazing, it was exhausting, and not once have I regretted the choice to leave. This year will forever remain one of the best experiences I’ve ever had (thus far).
In those 304 days, I had a lot of time to grow and learn. It’s cool to think that I now know things that I only know because of this road trip. From Paternoster to Pella, Pretoria to Port-Elizabeth (via Phalaborwa, of course), here are ten things the road taught me
1.The world is fundamentally a good place.
The very first question I received time and time again whenever the topic of traveling alone came up: “Oh, that’s brave. Aren’t you scared?”
I get it, it’s almost always coming from a good place and I suppose it is the default question if one has no experience with solo travel. Yet, I wish more people would realise that there is not much to be scared of.
I (like so many of us) was born and raised afraid. Of strangers, of dark alleyways, of Uber drivers, of pretty much everything. Conditioned to be wary of people with a different skin colour than mine, of the man passing me on my daily walk, the car seemingly following me home. Don’t get me wrong, I do not carry the misconception that the world does not contain dangers. I am all too aware of the cruelty in our society, and I know that those dangers grow exponentially for a single female traveler. Yet, as scary as those things are, the one thing I have always been afraid of more than anything else is a life half-lived. And the only thing slightly less scary than staying at home while adventure is something happening to other people, would be to go.
Now, returning, I can honestly say I couldn’t be happier that I was brave enough to go. I can truly say that people are generally nice, welcoming and there’s still so much goodness left in the world (contrary to what the news channels want us to believe).
2. In fact, traveling solo has taught me to trust in other people.
This one goes hand-in-hand with point number one because one of the greatest things I’ve learned from traveling is that most people want the same things in life. We all want to be happy and healthy, we want our families and friends to be happy and healthy, and we want to have a community of our own. We all work and laugh and love. We all bleed the same blood.
And the truth is most people are good. Most people will help you out if you’re in a bind, and most will go out of their way to do so. I’ve met people from all walks of life who have opened up their doors to me (or their arms, or their bottles of whiskey, or whatever it is that I needed at that moment in time). While not every single experience I’ve had has been smooth sailing, for the most part, the human race helps itself out, and I love that about us.
3. I learned how to live one day at a time, because things are never exactly as predicted.
I definitely painted a pretty picture in my head of what I wanted this road trip to look like before it even started. It all looked so nice, almost to the point of existing as a dream. No hang-ups, work going smoothly, sharing beautifully-shot pictures and high-quality videos, staying as healthy as possible… it was a picture that sat on a high pedestal. Along the way, I realized that this vision I had created wasn’t quite a realistic one.
Things are never exactly as you picture them. Sometimes not as grand and sometimes even better than you imagined. I learned that it’s best to not have any expectations at all, to appreciate the experience for what it is, and take it in second by second. Some of the best moments from this year are the ones that came up unexpectedly.
4. You learn how to trust yourself, like really trust yourself.
When you first set out on a solo trip, it’s only you and the open road. Sure, you will most likely meet a lot of people along the way, but you quickly learn to listen to your intuition. After this experience, I trust that I will make the right decisions in life, both when faced with an emergency or when faced with a decision that requires more reflection. Ok, maybe not the right decision 100% of the time, but at least I trust myself enough to know that it will be the best decision for me in that moment, with the knowledge that I have at that point.
5. The road doesn’t really change you. It takes you back to you.
Travel Doesn’t Change You. You Change You.
Have I become better at minimising? Better at keeping up with a wide range of conversation topics? More open to unplanned experiences? More open to having experiences alone? Better at navigating strange towns and learning directions? Yes to all of the above.
A lot has changed this year as my perspective broadened. I'm more easy-going. I have fewer insecurities. I'm more open-minded to other people's belief systems. But it wasn't traveling that changed me. In truth, there is nothing that traveling itself will do other than exposing you to who you really are. The physical journey becomes somewhat of a metaphor for the journey towards authenticity. A journey that I've come to learn is internal, not geographical.
When you leave your hometown and those you grew up with, you're not only leaving the people behind but also their expectations and pre-conceived notions of who you were before you grew to the person you are now. This is why people think travel changes you when in reality, it only provides the opportunity to act as if no one is watching, to behave how you would behave if you didn’t have expectations clinging to you.
We find who we’ve been looking for back home, that elusive self who so often gets buried beneath a shell of living up to other people's expectations.
Travel to broaden your perspective, to add to your list of experiences, and to learn some independence. But don’t use travel to act like a cure for your personal shadows, I guarantee you it won’t be worth it if that’s the case.
6. You can never outrun yourself.
People forget that when we travel somewhere new, we still bring ourselves with us. All our troubles and insecurities usually get packed in with the rest of our belongings. If you're hoping that a surreal sight will inspire an epiphany, think again. Running away won't magically eliminate the inhibitions you had back before you set out.
Like I've mentioned above, it isn't geography that makes us a better version of us. We have to do that ourselves.
We carry ourselves on the road and we carry ourselves back home afterwards.
7. The people who want to make it work, will.
One of my biggest fears before setting out was losing friends and close connections I took so long to build. My thoughts whilst prepping for this trip were perfectly compiled in an essay I wrote the day after leaving:
“Was I really supposed to be traveling alone?”, “Should I really have cast friendships, relationships and everything I’ve known until now aside?”, “Was any of this what I was meant to be doing?”, “What if this isn’t what I expected?”, “What if I lose contact with everyone back home?”.
But I chose to leave nonetheless and sure, there were some people that have exited my life throughout this year. I grew to be accepting of that. I realised that if they choose to leave, I must let them. Because what's the point of holding onto someone who doesn't want to stay? Hell, after living the life I have this year I was basically opening the exit door for them. For the first time in my life, the biggest reaction that someone leaving brought up, was a shrug alongside an “Oh well, their loss.”
I came to the conclusion that those meant to be in your life will never leave you, and those who leave, were only meant to stay for a season, and that’s okay. A quote by author R.M. Drake explains it perfectly:
"All the people we have met and all the people we have yet to meet, are meant to exist so we can find them. So we both could exchange a set of directions, which will guide us to the next place we are meant to go. And as we go, we must always believe that maybe this could be out last stop. That maybe the next person we meet will not have a set of directions, that maybe they will have more, and that maybe they will offer us something beautiful enough to inspire us to stay."
On the flip side, I returned truly knowing who my people are and I am so grateful for that. Friends and family members who reached out regularly to catch-up, to ask about my current stay or simply just to chat. Not to mention the number of new people that entered my life this year, most of whom will be lifelong friends.
8. We are our own safe havens. As much as we let someone in, there is forever a room that’s entirely meant for just us.
Jessica Fern wrote:
"Being our own safe haven and secure base requires that we first have the capacity to be with our self. To sit, to listen, to be available to whatever arises within us.”
The concept of “home” often came up throughout this trip. It wasn’t until halfway through that I came to the conclusion that the definition of a home “is a place one finds comfort, a place of warmth and contentment. A place where one can be carefree.” That’s when I realised that’s exactly how I feel when I’m spending time with myself. That’s also a place that I’ll never be able to share with someone else- and I’m happy with that. As much as we go through this life with other people, you should never lose that ability to return back to that space within. After all, one has to grow in their own comfort in order to let others in.
9. Traveling solo has taught me who I am.
Please don’t roll your eyes right now. I know, I know, I really dislike the “you need to get lost to get found” narrative, too. But the truth is that solo travel has made me the person I am today. Not perfect or above anyone else – I’m still stubborn, I still turn into an awful person under pressure, and I’m sure I let many people down– but at least I recognise these things now, and I try my very best to take ownership and work through my negative aspects in order to become a better person.
While on the road I discovered that I actually quite like who I am, flaws and all. Travelling solo has made me all of the things I listed above: confident, independent, and more resourceful. I think I’ve also become friendlier, more open-minded, and more curious. Being on my own taught me to have faith in myself, and, most importantly, to like my own company. There have been many, many days and nights spent completely on my own, and while I’ve been lonely at times, I’ve never failed to return to that comfort within.
10. Traveling solo has taught me that, in the end, everything will be all right.
I’ve always liked that saying: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.” Shitty things have happened to me. I’ve been heartbroken and sick and lonely and unbearably sad.
Traveling on my own, however, has taught me that life goes on. Sometimes you get your heart broken. Sometimes you compare yourself to others who have chosen a more conventional path. Sometimes you feel frustrated or afraid. But tomorrow is a new day. Even if you’re feeling miserable, constant movement taught me that there is a massive world out there filled with new people, experiences and opportunities. We’re never really stuck. And I hope to never forget that.
Photographs by Grant Payne.