Ever felt unsatisfied with college? Many young people have. Ever felt unsatisfied enough to drop out, buy a one-way ticket to Guatemala, and travel for four months without a cell phone? 19 year-old author and traveler Jake Heilbrunn is the only person we’ve met who can say “yes” to that question.
Jake wanted more than college, and he got it. Through four months of self-directed travel through Central America, he got an education he could never have found in the classroom – and for a fraction of the cost in time and money.
We asked him to write a post for us to share some of what he learned along the way. Here’s Jake on the five things he’s learned from solo traveling:
Living It Is Different Than Learning It
Before I set off on my journey, I read countless accounts of people saying stuff along the lines of “you don’t need to travel the world to learn about other cultures and ways of life.” This is completely true, because you can learn about anything by reading books or watching documentaries.
But living it implies experiencing something firsthand. Living it implies stepping out of your comfort zone and beyond the bounds of your current perception of how the world works. Living it implies approaching the world with an open mind, letting go of what you think and accepting the reality in front of you for what it is. You can read about people living on a dollar a day, but you will never know and truly understand for yourself what that is like by simply studying it through text.
I became fed up just reading about other ways of life. It just wasn’t enough. But living in a rural village, spending a week in the jungle, camping in a tent on a deserted beach, living in a spiritual community and on a raw plant diet were all drastically different than just reading about it. I learned by living, not the other way around.
Traveling Alone Does Not Equal Lonely Traveling
While I agree that traveling alone is not for everybody, there is a common misconception that traveling solo translates into constantly being by yourself. This cannot be further from the truth. Solo traveling is what you make of it, just like any other part of your life.
I chose to strike up a conversation with a local in Lake Atitlan who ended up showing me his family’s home and Mayan customs. In Costa Rica, I chose to introduce myself to some travelers in a hostel and ended up hiking to an incredible waterfall and creating unforgettable memories.
It’s like going to a social event. If you see a cute girl or guy, you can choose to talk with them. They could end up being your future spouse for all you know, but you would never know unless you took the courage to start chatting with them. Or in the classroom, you can decide to talk to the person next to you who seems interesting, and they could turn out to be your best friend. It’s really the same with traveling and with anything in life. You get out what you put in. As long as you approach every person and situation with an open mind and a smile, the sky is the limit.
Traveling alone actually accelerates personal growth. There were moments when I was forced to put complete faith in others, and as a result, I experienced kindness and generosity that was totally unexpected. I learned to love and appreciate being by myself and with my own thoughts. I gained independence and confidence by learning to navigate on my own and not rely on others to guide me (I have the absolute worst sense of direction, by the way). I had tons of time for incredible self-reflection, and had many self-realizations as a result. In my opinion, traveling solo is the best way to travel. You learn about yourself as much as you learn about the world.
Less Is Actually More
I spent my time traveling with 5 shirts, 3 shorts, 1 pair of swim trunks, and 5 or 6 pairs of boxers and socks. I carried with me a few other essentials such as toiletries and medication, and anything else that seemed necessary and could fit into my 50-liter backpack. I traveled on a shoestring budget, spending as little as $50 a week for food and a place to stay. No, it wasn’t the Ritz Carlton, but I found that the humble abodes I stayed in helped me to truly appreciate the culture and way of life of the towns I visited. Also, I had the freedom to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, simply because I could pack up my belongings in a minute. I met people who had sold their houses and cars so that they could travel and get rid of their mortgage and car payments. They said they have never felt more freedom in their entire lives.
This is another aspect of my travels that made me question how our culture operates. As a society, we are constantly bombarded by advertisements to buy more stuff that we don’t need. “Buy this product, and your life will become 50 times better!” “You absolutely need this product!” For those who have the financial resources available, many of us end up acquiring so many things that we never end up using. Clutter is overwhelming and leads to stress. Having more things means more responsibility.
I realized that experience and relationships outweigh any potential benefit that a luxury item can have. With just a backpack full of clothes for 4 months, I realized that my focus was rarely on things, but more on experiences. Travel allowed me to focus on what I truly value: relationships and interactions with people from all over the world.
You Can Take Your Life in A Million Directions
For a long time, I believed that my life was on a prescribed trajectory. I presumed that there was one way in which I was supposed to live and do things. Well, traveling totally changed that misconception.
I was struck by countless differences, minor and large. Women in Guatemala carried heavy baskets on their heads instead of carrying them with their hands. I didn’t sleep with a pillow for almost 2 months because no one else did or even had one where I was living at the time. Tortillas often took the place of silverware. A Guatemalan man living in the jungle had no idea what deodorant was, and was bewildered at why I rolled a white stick underneath my armpits. Many things that I found strange, other people found normal. And vice versa.
Apart from just small differences, I met people who lived drastically different lives than the one I did. In Costa Rica, I stayed with a man who only ate raw fruits and vegetables. Nothing cooked, not even vegetables. No meat. Yet, to my surprise, not only was he fit and strong, he was bouncing off the walls with energy. I met a man whowent off every night into the remote mountains of Lake Atitlan where some of the world’s most destitute people lived to help heal the sick and the poor. He slept from 5 a.m. to about 8 a.m. and was full of energy.
Along with their different ways of life, locals and other world travelers shared with me their stories, habits and cultural formalities, many of which differed vastly from those of where I come from. Neither they nor I are necessarily living “rightly” or “wrongly.” We’re just different. And, from an equally important perspective, what makes a good lifestyle is also different for each person. This observation was liberating for me. I realized that people, even those with little educational or financial resources, have the power to take their life in almost any direction they want. There is no life “rulebook” dictating how you have to live.
Stepping Into the Unknown Can Be Life-Changing
At 18 years old, going to Guatemala on a one-way flight by myself with just a backpack, no cell phone, and almost no knowledge of Spanish scared the shit out of me. But it also excited me beyond words, because I knew why I was doing it and why I had to do it. With no plan really, I arrived in Guatemala and had to get from the airport to a rural town that was 9 hours away by bus. Even with the language barrier and being stuck on a one-way road for 8 hours (making it a 15-hour journey) and arriving at 3 a.m, I eventually made it to my destination. It was accomplishing tasks like these that brewed in me a new sense of self-confidence that I didn’t even grasp at the time.
But going beyond the limits of what my mind deemed as “possible” empowered me in a way that nothing else had before. I realized that taking the first step is definitely the hardest part of any major life decision. Despite all of the challenges I faced on my journey, the action of taking a leave from school and booking my flight was the hardest part. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” I would never have learned the things I did or found the confidence I have now, if I had not taken a leap of faith which removed me from my comfort zone. Only when humans persevere through fear and do that which they perceive as impossible do they begin to realize how truly powerful they are.
Want more from Jake Heilbrunn? Check out his upcoming book Off the Beaten Trail on Kickstarter.