There is one very powerful limitation we all face every day: Ourselves. When we make a decision on our future we usually think about finances and security. When we go through life rather frictionless by following the given path, we feel as if we do ourselves a favor. In my opinion, it is all in our minds.
As humans we tend to feel insecure about ourselves, sometimes more, sometimes less. Being part of a society, we need its societal rules and norms to guide our life journey. However, there is not just one way of living and one best way to make decisions. I believe, following the given, we just recreate standstill. However, now it is time to break through old patterns and become a creator.
In the past five years, I have overcome my own limitations, again and again. Now, I want to empower you to do the same. Let me tell you my travel story and how I explored the world until now.
My first trip to Costa Rica, pura vida!
Everyone’s story has a start. My personal travel story starts in Costa Rica. Doing this traditional backpacking trip, was the first time I left the European continent. Moreover, it was the first time to engage with an entirely new culture. I was only 18 years old and in the first year of my undergraduate. What I did not know before, was how much I would enjoy the spirit and mindset of the Latin American people.
I visited Costa Rica with a very good friend of mine where we arrived without any itinerary or plan. We just followed our desires and took the days as they came. Obviously, we were both overwhelmed by the sheer beauty and the welcoming and generous culture.
On this trip, we met other travelers telling us stories about their long-term travel adventures. Boys and girls both went solo for several months, just with their backpacks and some cash. I remember the fascination I felt for their stories. From this moment onwards I knew, I had to go on solo travel as soon as possible and it had to be in South America.
After all, my Costa Rica trip was the beginning of everything. Back in Germany, I started working twice as hard, saving as much money as possible. My big goal was ahead: To go on a solo trip after I finishing my graduate degree. I sold my car, started working in a nightclub, as a tutor, as a student assistant. In the end, I even put myself through the pains of waiting tables at a German Oktoberfest replicate. I literally worked my ass off to make my dream happen.
An unexpected journey to Australia
Then, life happened and everything was turned around. Shortly before I should have finished my bachelor’s degree, I got the opportunity to work for the German diplomatic service in Sydney, Australia. It was a hard decision because I had to postpone my studies and my South America trip. Further, to be able to pay the high expenses in Australia, I had to spend much of my savings. However, it was a such great chance that I decided to move to Australia in 2017.
Thus, my first solo trip was not to South America, but to Australia. After living and enjoying the Sydney lifestyle for a couple of months, I wanted to explore this faraway country further. On my trip, I discovered Melbourne, the East Coast of Australia, and the Northern Territory. Within amazing weeks I visited gorgeous beaches, tropical rainforests, spotted wild animals, and enjoyed the nightlife of small backpacker towns.
However, the most interesting experience for me was visiting the Northern Territory and study the Aboriginal culture. There is much to learn about the history of Aboriginals in Australia and the political and societal hurdles they face until today. This was one of these moments: When you realize what you really enjoy about traveling: Experiencing culture, tracing history, and debating politics.
Towards Indonesia and Bali
With mixed feelings, I left Australia and arrived in Indonesia. For me, it was the first time traveling in an Asian country. Indonesia is somewhat the exact opposite of Australia: Chaotic, lively, colorful, loud, and full of people and cars. Again, I realized how much I am interested in observing Indonesian culture. Talking to the local people about their lifestyle and learning about the country’s complex history and society felt truly inspiring.
For weeks, I was hopping from island to island, experienced Muslim culture in Lombok and Java, and Hinduism in Bali. Close up, I observed tourism destroying the authenticity of a place. In the unvisited places, I felt like an exotic stranger. In the end, I took a lot of time to reflect on myself and the part I was playing in the tourist industry.
One experience influenced me immensely. In Java, I climbed the active volcano Mount Ijen, a dangerous and exhausting overnight track to make it inside the valley and see blue flames popping up at night. After a long wait, we started the day with the MOST beautiful and EXTRA sunrise of my entire life. While the experience itself was amazing, afterward I had to assess my touristic footprint and the choices I made because I was traveling on a low budget.
Climbing mount Ijen in Java
Falling into the trap of a cheap tourist agency, I paid approximately 70 Euros for this experience, joined by a group of ten people. When we asked our tour guide, who managed to bring us safely to the destination, he told me he was paid ten Euros in total.
There is another very sobering fact about Mount Ijen: Indonesian workers remove sulfuric stones from the volcano, endangering their life and their health to earn as much as a few cents per kilogram. When I found out, even my tour guide had to climb this dangerous route with 90kg of stones on the back, I was shocked.
Was this the contribution I wanted to make?
With these truly markable experiences, I came back home and started to refuel my bank account to prepare for my long-desired South America trip. It took me some six months and I booked my flight for the twenty-first of January in 2018 directly to Mexico. In fact, I did not make any travel plans, just signed up for a membership with workaway. Having packed my backpack and acquired a strong mosquito spray, the trip was sealed. Three days prior to departure, I started panicking and having nightmares of being robbed, sick, and miserably lonely. I went anyways.
Mexico, Cenotes, Mezcal y Aguacate
Mexico overcame all my dreams, and I had the absolute most stunning three months. I visited the Cenotes, the underwater lagoon and river system unique to Mexico. Rapidly, I learned about the influence of tourism and corrupted politics in Laguna Bacalar. One of my trips included a journey to the Mexican Zapatistas in San Cristóbal de las Casas, which are communities far away from tourism.
Enjoying a laidback life on the most pristine surfing beaches, living without internet and proper electricity or running water at the Pacific Coast of Mexico. I surfed in the water next to wale families, experienced turtles laying their eggs at the beach. Gifted with the most beautiful starry nights, I had the best dreams of my life.
My last stop in Mexico should be its capital, Ciudad del Mexico. Again, I was overwhelmed by the crawling business of the city, its diversity and magnificent lifestyle. The city is so beautiful that you easily oversee the true beauty, which lies in the artistic, political, and progressive people of Mexico.
Particularly young Mexicans are heavily involved in politics: Women fight for gender equality; civil organizations fight for sustainability and unions for their economic empowerment and against corruption. Influenced by this very positive energy, I left Mexico to discover one of Guatemala’s most ancient and colonial cities, Antigua, and a few hours away, Lake Atitlán.
In the city of eternal spring, Medellín
And then, I arrived in Medellín, Colombia. What a city! It is such a vibrant place, it feels like everything is happening in Medellín, and at the same time, you feel like living in a bubble. In fact, this bubble is reflected in Medellíns surroundings. The city is a huge valley, surrounded by mountains and natural parks, it is a truly secluded treasury in Colombia. Medellín is one of those cities, that combine everything and attract a very diverse crowd from all over the world.
The history of Medellín has been one of the most dangerous cities of the world during the bloody drug war under the name Pablo Escobar, I learned fast is something to be treated with more sensitivity by tourists. Many arrive in Medellín only to visit Escobar’s self-acclaimed prison, his old house, or the place where he died. Somehow people have this positive hero affection for this controversial figure, maybe because of Netflix and distorted storytelling.
Talking to paísas, the local name for Medellín’s citizen, I truly understood why this hype around the drug lord is rather cynically perceived. Rather than follow Pablo Escobar’s bloody traces, it is interesting to talk to the people who experienced the drug war and the development of Medellín since then.
I met a policeman who was fighting the drug gangs, people who lost family members in the conflicts. Talking to people who benefitted from the money that Escobar shoveled through the barrios, was inspiring as well. After all, I realized that visiting a place is much more about who you meet. It is about the personal relations you make and the support you give by showing interest. Ticking some list or following some highlights itinerary, is not my style.
Studying in the Netherlands
Coming back to Europe after six months felt like I just had awoken from a very vivid dream. To finish my university career, I moved to the Netherlands. But the memories of my trip, the people I met and the stories I took into my heart did not vanish as easily. On the other hand, I had to follow a study plan and write half a thesis, half a Ph.D. project to satisfy my research master’s requirements.
Missing the far away, I chose to study the relations between the European Union and South America. Looking back now, it was the best decision ever, but I also did not really know what I was getting involved with.
A research journey through South America
Thus, I spent the second year of my studies in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. This time, I was not just traveling, but I came with a purpose: Understand the society, the politics, and the economic situation in those countries. Interview relevant civil society actors, policymakers, and high diplomatic officials.
This was the most challenging task I have ever committed myself to. Honestly, looking back. I don’t know how I managed to speak Spanish fluently within 4 months and travel among three countries. During these months, I interviewed more than 27 policymakers directly connected to important decision-making processes and enjoying South America at the same time.
Without the generosity of South American people and the help from friends, a family of friends and people I just met, it would have been impossible. And then I arrived in Brazil. Again another language, a different culture, and new hurdles to face while trying to make my way into the Foreign Ministry of Brazil.
Falling in love with Brazil
A lucky coincidence meeting a Brazilian in Buenos Aires, who invited me to stay with his family in Brasília, turned around my trip again. Fortunately, the people I met were able to connect me with important interviewees for my thesis. I managed to write an original, well-researched and profound analysis.
I came to investigate policies, but what I found was something else. A different way of life, a diverse way of perceiving the world. Quickly I started to reflect on myself, my culture, and my heritage more than ever. Moreover, I was able to define privilege in a totally new way, and realized how lucky I am, just being born in a politically stable environment. I learned about the scars of colonialism and the perceptions of South Americans on Europe. Further, I was welcomed with open arms and found long-lasting friendships.
The pandemic and the travel stop
The last month, when COVID-19 started to slowly make its way to all corners of the world. I knew I had to go back as soon as possible to finish my thesis. I literally cried every day. On the one hand, because I felt so happy and so positive about my experiences, on the other hand, because I knew I had to go back. Initially, I wanted to finish my thesis and immediately come back, start my first job in Brazil or Colombia. You might foresee what crossed my pathways: The pandemic, which did not allow me to travel and as well smaller my chances to find a job in South America to an absolute minimum.
And here, I am now.
So, what is the moral of the story?
Let me give you my most honest advice. First, before I left for Costa Rica for the first time, I never considered myself a traveler. I did not think I would be able to travel for months by myself. Until the day I went on my first solo trip where I realized it is exactly what I needed.
Learn about yourself
Second, traveling around so many cultures and meeting people from all over the world taught me to be more open, more reflective, and more self-respectful. In a situation of discomfort or under unknown circumstances, you get to know yourself better.
Our daily life is based on habits, we follow the same paths and the same patterns because we are used to them. But it does not mean that this is how we are, or even that those habits are the best we can do. Putting ourselves out of the comfort zones, we experience ourselves better and we discover what we are able to.
Traveling automatically means we change. However, in the most positive way, because we constantly learn. We stop being stuck in one place, with one idea about our personality. With a single imagination about the things we like and the way, we perceive the world. Every one of us is far more than what we show to others. We have millions of facets, and we can only discover them if we let ourselves. So, my advice is to not stick to the same routines but to open up.
Take a risk
Thirdly, my advice is to take risks and not let yourself be driven by fear. I have always been a person, that liked to grow by challenging tasks, but even I had my limits. If I am honest, many of the decisions I took in the past years were a mix of spontaneity and passion.
Like many, I have taken because I wanted to do the right thing. Looking back now, every decision I took because it felt like the right thing to do, left me in a corner and put me two steps back. Every decision I took because I had a desire to do it, even if inexplicable sometimes, was a liberating experience. After all, it brought me so much closer to developing me positively.
Sometimes, all we need is some push, might it be from others or from ourselves. Let my story be your push, to do something extra, to follow a new hobby, or to try something new.