I stood at the gate, trying to control my breathing and clutching my phone for dear life. I felt the familiar cloud of an anxiety attack creeping through my chest.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said, fighting back tears. “What do you think I should do?”
“No way,” my parents both said in the same breath. “This is a choice you have to make. Trust your gut.”
“I need more time,” I told them.
As I looked at the gate, I realized I didn’t have it. I heard the gate attendant make an announcement that this was the last call to board for Lima, Peru.
I took a deep breath.
“I’m getting on the plane. I love you guys.”
I couldn’t hear their response thanks to the super-strong Wifi (nope) at the airport, but I hung up the phone, gave myself a pep-talk, and marched onto that plane just as the anxiety attack hit. I spent the rest of the flight breathing deeply and trying to get myself in check.
This was the ridiculous scene I made at San José International Airport Juan Santamaría in San Jose, Costa Rica. It was ridiculous because I had been looking forward to visiting Peru for MONTHS. In fact, I think there’s a good chance that it was one of the first countries I added to my list when planning my year of solo travel.
So…what the hell happened?
Well, a couple of things.
First, I fell in love with Costa Rica, the destination I visited just before Peru.
I felt comfortable there…sometimes too comfortable. There were moments I nearly forgot I was a 5’2, 26-year-old female with no muscle mass traveling alone through Central America. There were times that I forgot I was an American, traveling with an iPhone, and a Mac, two expensive cameras and a Kindle. There were times I forgot that my US Passport and my credit cards and cash could be seen by someone else as even more valuable than they are to me.
The second thing that happened? I was reminded of all of this.
I was perfectly fine and excited for my flight to Peru until I found myself waiting in a long line at the Copa Airlines check-in counter that morning. I stood in front of a man traveling to Argentina and we got to talking. He currently lives in Costa Rica, but is originally from Peru.
We chatted about Machu Picchu and the other sites I’d hoped to see during my visit.
“Who are you meeting there?” he asked.
“No one,” I said, breaking my #1 rule. I try not to let people know that I’m traveling alone whenever possible (for many reasons).
“Uhhh…you’re traveling to PERU alone?”
He told me that he wouldn’t advise that AT ALL (I’m standing in line at the check-in counter, remember), and that it’s very unsafe for a woman to travel alone in Peru.
He proceeded to give me a laundry list of warnings:
Don’t ever take a taxi by yourself.
Don’t eat at a restaurant by yourself.
Don’t take your phone out in front of other people.
Don’t walk outside at night alone.
And you don’t even speak fluent Spanish? Eeeesh.
I sort of let the warnings roll off my back and let him know that I would be just fine, but thanked him for the advice.
It wasn’t until I passed the security line and sat down in front of my gate that the weight of what he said hit me like a ton of bricks.
Suddenly, thoughts of taxi muggings and phrases like “human trafficking” and “harvested organs” were chasing themselves through my head. I instantly became very aware of the cute outfit I was wearing, of my curled (fake) blonde hair, of my leather jacket and of the iPhone in my pocket. I became aware of the fact that I’d taken French instead of Spanish in school as an act of teenage rebellion, and that I never took that self-defense class I’d planned to take. I became aware of the fact that I was 5’2 and no real match for anyone in a fight.
That’s when the anxiety attack began and I had my moments of doubt at the San José Airport. Even after I made the choice to board the plane, thoughts of booking a flight home in Lima lingered in my head.
But the one who made me keep going? Her name was Sylvia.
She sat next to me on the plane and was kind enough to translate some words on the Peru customs forms for me. She was probably around my parents’ age and we got to talking. She let me know that she was from Lima and the subject of my traveling alone came up, yet again.
“Oh, you’re just going to love Peru! It’s a beautiful place,” she told me.
I let her know about the warnings I’d received from the man in the check-in line. I told her how nervous I was, as if she couldn’t already see it on my face. She laughed and brushed the warnings off.
“Peru is much safer now than it used to be, believe me. Don’t believe the stereotypes. It takes courage to travel alone, and courage will get you far. Be smart and be safe. You’ll be just fine, brave girl.”
I don’t think there were any words in the entire world I needed to hear at that particular moment more than the ones she spoke. I felt at ease as I got off the plane and I proceeded to baggage claim, feeling much better now. Then, Sylvia popped up again with a tap on my shoulder.
“I know this is strange, but I want to give you my phone number,” she told me.
She wrote down her name and number and handed it to me.
“Now, if anything happens and you need help or you need a friend, I’m here. You can call me.”
“Gracias. Thank you so much,” I told her, not quite able to express the level of gratitude I actually felt.
She kissed my cheek and hugged me goodbye. I hadn’t realized until that moment how much I needed a freaking hug. And then, she was gone.
I left for Cusco that night, feeling so much better about my choice. Sylvia’s kindness, and my conviction to get on that plane no matter what, ended up leading to an amazing trip in Peru.
My own anxiety, coupled with the words of a man I didn’t know, had nearly crushed my travel plans…and my chances of seeing this…And this…And this…
And perhaps most importantly, this.
Overall, the experience served as a good reminder about how vulnerable I can be when I’m on the road by myself, and how being a short, white female can put a target on my back in certain parts of the world…even though I soon found that Peru was not one of those places. It’s always wise to keep this in mind when jetting off to a new destination. I now travel with less electronics and a greater sense of confidence.
People would always say I was brave for traveling alone, but I don’t know that I realized how true that was until this moment. It takes a lot of guts to head to a foreign country by yourself and make the choice to be completely out of your element. Looking back on my solo travel days, I feel proud. It was those moments that helped me find my strength and realize just how capable I am of overcoming fear, anxiety, and hyped stereotypes to embark on the adventures I crave.
Have you ever traveled alone? Did you experience any nerves when heading to unknown destinations? Tell me in the comments below!