Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
8 am on a warm Monday morning. I am stranded somewhere in rural Italy with no phone, €3.33 in my pocket, no water, no clue what to do.
I do not speak a word of Italian and there is no one around who might have a language in common with me. My bag, although minimal, contains almost everything I own and is growing heavy. I am jet-lagged, dehydrated and have eaten once in the last 48 hours. On a grassy sidewalk, I almost step on a dead rat, lying belly up in the sun. A shaggy dog runs up to a gate and when I go to pet him, he indicates that coming any closer will result in the loss of a finger. I limp on, reminding myself that at least my day is going better than the rat's.
As I tried not to panic in that seemingly hopeless situation, I knew that I could have been back in England. I could have been in bed with a book, reading about life but not living it. I could have been in my comfort zone.
I was, however, deep within my discomfort zone. Somehow, as always, I made it out of the situation. I found my way out to the opposite side of Verona, to the burnt umber building where I am staying now. I dumped my bag, waited an hour for a bus then began exploring. I took the wrong bus back and got lost again in a dark mountainside village. The next day I had gotten the hang of the buses and spent it in a castle/museum hybrid, looking at Medieval religious art.
Travel can be uncomfortable. It's scary to wander the world alone. To try to communicate in a new language. To figure out the technicalities of transport. To stay in the homes of strangers and hope they will be kind. To take trains and buses late at night, wandering foreign streets in search of a certain address. To not be bored in dull situations.
Sure, we can make it comfortable. Plenty of people stay within their comfort zone when traveling. We can plan everything in advance, stay in hotels, take taxis, go on tour guides, let someone else decide.
Or we can use it as an opportunity to push yourself out of your comfort zone. To be terrified, lost, confused, alienated and then to use our wits to get out of that situation. To be changed by the process. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, 'a mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.'
My travel heroes are Jack Kerouac and Patti Smith. In Just Kids Patti described arriving in New York alone: no one expected me. Everything awaited me. Each time I arrive in a new place, I remind myself of those words. The lack of expectations or commitments creates total freedom to explore everything. Kerouac reminds me that travel can be gritty, uncertain, confusing. I think of his reckless nature and remind myself to enjoy even the rough moments.
I have been using this trip to force myself out of my comfort zone. The pressure makes me dig deep and find the resources to overcome doubt. For example:
- Taking boats. This has long been a fear of mine for no real reason. Whilst visiting Versailles, a new friend and I rented a little boat to row on the lake. It was a beautiful day and from the lake we could see the palace in all its glory. For about 10 minutes all was well and I was getting the hang of rowing. Then the wind picked up and I lost control of the boat, crashed and had to be rescued. Despite the inevitable conclusion, the choice to make myself uncomfortable was the important part. When visiting Venice yesterday I had no option but to take boats (for those who haven't been, there are canals instead of roads. ) After a trail run, it was a lot easier.
- Public speaking. Like 99.999% of people, this scares me more than anything. I have managed to avoid it since school when I did debating. Three weeks ago I gave a TED talk and faced the fear. Somehow, despite not sleeping the night before from nerves, I made it through it.
- Speaking to new people. I am extremely shy and prone to isolating myself. This has been a big problem whilst travelling - I even spent a full month alone in the countryside. Couchsurfing has proved to be the ideal way to trample the urge to isolate myself. So far, I have met some wonderful people through the site. I have learned a lot about different countries and cultures. For solo travellers, I cannot recommend the site highly enough.
- Being comfortable with walking around, hanging out and going to cafes alone. A lot of people find this element of solo travel off-putting. Still, it is necessary. The alternative option is to sit in your room or to stay at home with familiar people. I have learned to rely on my own company. Sure, there are times when I have sat alone in a cafe and wish there was someone to share the moment with. Most of the time, I secretly love being able to do what I want, selfish as it sounds.
- Using a newly learned language. It can be nerve-wracking to speak a foreign language to a native speaker. The risk of making mistakes and being laughed at it always there. Italy is very much out of my comfort zone because I arrived not speaking a word of Italian. Not one word. France was easier as my French is good. And guess what? Sometimes I get laughed at. Most of the time I make mistakes. It's normal. But sometimes people do not realise and switch to English. Sometimes I had full conversations with people in Paris without them guessing. I am proud of myself for trying and for sometimes succeeding.
My subsequent realisation is that we have far more control over discomfort than it seems. Irrational fears are an unconscious choice. The only way to widen the borders of our comfort zones is to leave them.
Unlike Patti and Kerouac, my travels are not some era-defining journey. I am not creating a movement which will change the world. They are, however, my travels and mine alone. Mine to enjoy, to embrace, to spin in whichever direction I choose. I like Ed Buryn's perspective on long-term travel: time becomes the only possession and everyone is equally rich in it by biological inheritance. Money, of course, is still needed to survive, but time is what you need to live. So, save what little money you possess to meet basic survival requirements, but spend your time lavishly in order to create the life values that make the fire worth the candle.
It was uncomfortable to move to England as a child. It was uncomfortable to embrace minimalism and discard most of my possessions. It was uncomfortable to leave university. It was uncomfortable to resume blogging after my long hiatus. It is uncomfortable each time I post an essay here. It is uncomfortable each time I head off to a new place alone.
I cannot say where things will go in the future. For now, I choose discomfort over comfort. Time over money. Freedom over security. Flexibility over luxury. Creativity over certainty. It is scary at times, always worthwhile. The more I push myself to be uncomfortable, the more good things happen as a result.
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