I’ve recently graduated from college. The rural Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan has been my home since birth. It’s an area known for its vast, dense forests, waterfalls, immense freshwater lakes, beautiful scenery, and mind-blowing snowfalls in winter. While I can’t argue that it isn’t beautiful, it can definitely feel secluded and even boring from time to time. For this reason, any UP native harbors a dream of one day escaping the chilly forest to visit warmer, more populated, or just plain different areas. A few years ago, I began to feel this urge for myself. Europe was calling me.
Where It All Began
One summer morning, as the sun stretched its rays through my window, I woke up in a panic. I wasn’t sure where the panic had come from. An overwhelming feeling that there was something that I needed to be doing washed over me. It was as if I was behind on a deadline or about to miss a bus. Once in a while, I get the feeling that my life is stagnating – like I’m stuck in some sort of rut, and I need something to change. This was that feeling.
I was in between my junior and senior years of college and decided that perhaps it was time that I take a vacation for myself. Even if it was just an eight-hour car ride through endless, dull farmland in Wisconsin to visit my grandparents, I’ve always loved to travel. I needed the chance to breathe air that was just a little bit different from home; to eat food and see animals or scenery that was different has always been exciting to me.
So, as any good millennial would, I took to the Internet to find myself a travel destination. From the time I was young, I had always told myself that one day I would stand in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, and even Big Ben. I eventually came across a travel company called Education First which seemed reputable. They offered an educational tour through Europe where you could learn the history, tour the cities, and taste the foods of different cultures. Of course, this sounded extremely appealing to me. With the possibility of a payment plan, I was immediately sold. Within 45 minutes of waking up, I had scheduled myself a month-long tour through nine countries in Europe, and I was going to be doing it completely alone.
The Build Up
I spent the next 11 months before my trip bouncing back and forth from excited to terrified back to excited again. I had never taken a vacation by myself. Although I had only left the country once before, and I really had no idea what to expect. The night before I was supposed to leave, I remember trying to talk myself out of going. I told myself that it was okay if I decided I didn’t want to go. The decision had been spur of the moment and that sometimes things seem right at the beginning but sometimes weren’t right in the end. I kept telling myself that it would be okay to change my mind. But the next morning, I woke up, drove to the airport, and boarded my flight, palms sweating the entire way.
That spur-of-the-moment decision ended up being what I consider to be one of the best decisions I have ever made. Aside from the amount of understanding you can gain for others and for the world around you through travel, you can also gain an incredible amount of understanding within yourself.
Freedom is Everything
The great thing about traveling alone, even in a group tour like the one I went on, is that it gives you a greater amount of freedom than traveling with a partner or a group of friends. You have the opportunity to do everything you want to for every minute of your trip every day. The opportunity to spend 32 days absolutely free to learn about, understand, and be immersed in different cultures gave me a better perspective of the world.
I learned that even all the way across the ocean, where people speak different languages, eat different foods, and have different customs, there were still so many similarities to home. It was incredibly eye-opening to learn that even though we seemed so different, we were actually very similar. For me, taking the time to travel made me a much more understanding person. I think that to become more understanding and empathetic, travel can be beneficial for everyone.
Travel is Power
Along with the greater understanding of other cultures, I also gained a boost in self-confidence. To be able to successfully navigate a foreign country and interact with the locals in a way that you know is respectful is something that’s extremely empowering. Knowing that you are capable of achieving your goals in a foreign environment (even if that goal is just finding a restaurant) gives you a feeling of independence and a boost in your self-confidence.
Personally, I think that travel can benefit everyone. Along with providing educational opportunities to learn about culture, religion, geography, or politics, travel can also provide opportunities for self-growth. You can gain a greater understanding of other people and what their everyday lives look like. Though stepping outside of your comfort zone is definitely nerve-wracking, it can provide irreplaceable benefits alongside incredible memories.
by Sara Sands