I wouldn’t trade what I did for the world.
On the morning of January 15, 2019, I woke up after a night of karaoke and crying at my local watering hole to embark on a journey that would surely change my life. It seemed like an ordinary day; I had been out late the night prior with friends, I woke up in my own apartment, I went to my local coffee shop to order my double espresso, and I took a quick shower. Ordinary day, right?
I stared at my Bushwick short-term sublet apartment for the last time, made one final attempt to sweep the glitter off the floor, and put my giant backpack on, ready to hit the road. I toppled over when I put the bag on, and thought, “How the hell am I going to do this for the next few months?” With a bank account full due to years of working / saving, I decided to splurge one last time and take a taxi to Newark airport instead of dealing with the misery that is New York City MTA (especially with the equivalent of a small child on my back).
“I’m leaving today to travel the world,” I told the taxi driver, almost like a naïve kid from Oklahoma about to move to New York to “make it big.”
“Cool,” he said, clearly not giving a damn, which reminded me why I love New York. One of my favorite quotes is,
“New York is the perfect place to have a mental breakdown, because you could be crying in public, and literally no one would care.”
He dropped me off, I asked him to take the epic photo of me in my sequin glitter pants and giant bag on, nearly with my middle fingers in the air. Then… that was it. He was the last person I had fully communicated with before leaving for the biggest adventure of my young adult life: traveling the world for six months solo.
I arrived to the airport four hours early because it was during the government shutdown, meaning TSA employees were not getting paid and everything was expected to move at a slower pace. Well, fly out of New Jersey on a Tuesday afternoon, and let me be the first to tell you, even during a government shutdown, it was nothing compared to the chaos that is always JFK. I was through security in about forty minutes, meaning I still had close to three hours before boarding a flight to LAX. Fun side note; I gave the TSA employees a good chuckle when I walked through the metal detector due to my pants being sequins; they had to “search” my entire lower-half.
What better way to send myself off than treating myself to some classic American grub? I grabbed a burger and a glass of California chardonnay, binge-watched “The Office” on my laptop and treated it like any other day. I arrived in Los Angeles for a brief layover before finally jumping on my overnight flight to Pape’ete, Tahiti, French Polynesia. I texted my parents as I boarded the flight, not knowing when I’d properly have service from there on out, and off I went. That was the beginning of what would not necessarily change my life, but change my outlook on just about everything.
I can go country by country and give you a proper run down (and one day when I release my memoir, I will), but for now, I’ll spare you some of the in-between details. I traveled to a total of 27 countries in my six months (minus one if you don’t count Hong Kong, plus two if you count the additional times I returned to Italy) which many would say is rushing. What I say is everyone has their own style of travel, and to each their own. After all, Cassie de Pecol traveled to all 196 sovereign nations in eighteen months, and managed to break the Guinness World Record of not only being the only documented female to travel to every country in the world, but to also be the fastest to do it. While other people such as Sal Lavallo took over thirteen years to complete his journey of visiting every country in the world. Some people I met spent six months traveling to six countries, I spent six months traveling to twenty-seven. Once again, it’s all up to you.
I decided I wanted to make it an ultimate bucket list adventure since I wasn’t sure if I’d have this vast level of freedom at any point in the future. This led me from tackling crazy adventures such as road-tripping through New Zealand to scuba-diving the Great Barrier Reef to climbing Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. (Tip: if you are thinking of doing a bucket list adventure verses a wing-it-as-you-go backpacking adventure, save A LOT of money and do research beforehand to grasp an idea of costs). Now that I’m back in the USA, I can whole-heartedly say despite at one point becoming incredibly burnt out, I don’t regret the way I traveled, and if I could do it again, I would.
Being alone for six months straight never fully meant being alone. Everyday, I had to find ways to communicate with mere strangers. Now that I’ve returned, people often ask,
“What other languages do you speak?”
and aside from a decent knowledge of French and a semi-grasp on basic Italian, I only fluently speak English. However, I always made an honest effort to learn key phrases as I think it’s essential to responsible tourism. It’s selfish to assume that everyone will understand you (and I can’t tell you how many times I heard people complaining that “no one speaks English.” We ain’t in Kansas no more!). People often ask if I ever got lonely; truthfully, yes, but only once or twice. I prefer to travel alone and treasure my alone time to a degree that may be slightly higher than the average folk. My loneliest hours were when I lived out of my camper van in New Zealand, and when I rented an apartment in Tokyo for the entire month of April. However, with each of those lonely times came an incredible amount of emotional shedding. I was forced to face demons that I usually can distract myself from. I was forced to heal from some past trauma, and forced to let go of some things I had subconsciously been holding onto. It was painful, but it was necessary. Overall, those lonely times shaped me more into a stronger human being than many of the other experiences.
I learned how important it is to challenge yourself. I look back and can’t believe I managed to climb Kilimanjaro and live alone (well, with a guide) on a mountain in Tanzania for six days straight with no cell service. I cannot believe that a New Yorker who only received a driving license at age 25 road-tripped on the left side of the road in New Zealand, meaning I lived and cooked out of it too. I still can’t believe I survived India as a solo female traveler, dodged a total creep in Cambodia by Irish-exiting, managed to overcome a horrific panic attack at a fish market in Tokyo, and confide my life problems into a Dutch man I just met after getting ripped off by a cab driver in Romania.
When I was out in the world, I felt I was meeting a lot of like-minded people; people who wanted something unconventional; families who sold their home to globetrot, college students who were on holiday between uni sleeping in hostels and partying into wee hours in the morning with strangers, couples or a pair of best friends who decided to backpack southeast Asia for six months. I will say, I did not meet plenty of other solo female travelers (a few, though!), and regardless, I always felt welcome by the nomads I met. This all gave me a fear of coming back home and not feeling understood. It convinced me I had found my true calling which was jet-setting and being a person without a home for as long as I could go. After all, I had already given up nearly every possession other than the necessities to embark on this journey; wouldn’t going back be regressive?
My last stop in the trip was Portugal, but prior to that I was in northern Italy for about a week. While Italy had never failed me before (in fact, my personal slogan is, “When everything in life fails you, there’s always Italy.”), this time around was a little different. I was running out of money, and while Italy’s beauty is never tiring, I was finding it hard to be in the moment and dare I say, getting bored. The ticking time bomb of going back home weighed over my head which added to my anxiety-ridden psyche.
I arrived to the Milan airport for my direct flight to Lisbon, only to learn it had been cancelled. With little cash left to my name and mentally getting through each day by the skin of my teeth, this led to a panic attack at the airport and a feeling of utter loss and confusion. I have had several cancelled / delayed flights throughout the trip, but this is the one that pushed me over the edge. I was tired from five and a half months on the road, and all I wanted to do was get to Portugal and enjoy my last week of the trip. I realized I was the one who decided to do this and it’s solely up to me to fix my own problems. I found a somewhat affordable flight from Milan to Istanbul to Lisbon, and with little hesitation, grabbed my Chase Sapphire Reserved card and booked it. Once I finally arrived to Lisbon, I opted to skip out on all major sight-seeing and treat it as a true vacation. I can whole-heartedly say that I imagined my last day of the trip being a cry-fest, and while my emotions were certainly high as I sat there and reflected, I was ready to come back to New York.
So, what has it been like since being back? What is it like to walk around with all of these memories that are simply mine for the keeping? I have had to do a fair amount of decompressing. The first two weeks were an incredibly rough transition. Everyone wanted to know what my trip was like, and because I had posted every single day on Instagram while on the road in order to properly document the entire journey, the last thing I wanted to do was talk about it, but it felt selfish to keep it from curious crowds. My suspicions did ring true that I now see things I used to prioritize in a dimmer light, such as overworking myself and choosing who I spend time with. It has been easier for me to say “No” to things that I don’t deem worth my time. I have always been known to bite off more than I chew (um, hello, I went to twenty-seven countries by myself in six months!), and I’m now learning it’s okay to slow it down.
I had no plan when I came back in regards to what I would be doing for both housing and income. I am fortunate enough to have loving parents and stayed under their roof in Upstate New York for two months while taking up their couch binge-watching Netflix, cooking homemade meals, and spending quality time with my dog. I was fortunate enough to pick up some shifts at my old bartending job in Manhattan, and when I was in the city, I was also fortunate enough to be offered anything from a spare room in Queens to sharing a bed with a friend in Harlem to sleeping on a couch in Brooklyn. I had mentioned earlier that I thought I had finally found “my people” while on the road, but I can now assure myself that my people are in New York City. New York carries a special kind of aggression that is both hard and soft, impatient but loving. I carried that hardcore New York aggression with me throughout the world because it’s engrained in my soul. But it only works in one place, and that is New York City (I won’t lie, it works a little in Italy, too).
Aside from, “What was your favorite place?” (which is impossible to answer, but my go-to is “I love Italy for its comfort, Japan for its challenge, New Zealand for its beauty”), the most common question asked is “What are you going to do now?” Well, that’s a great question! The world is indeed my oyster. I have an insane amount of freedom and yet part of me still feels trapped. Sometimes, too much freedom can be overwhelming because the road curves in so many ways ahead of you. I can run off to Italy and get my Italian passport (a plan that is indeed in the making, but won’t happen overnight). I can stay in New York City, take a few steps back to take a few steps forward, as in rent an apartment, pick up my old bar job back, and go back to school to finally finish my bachelor’s degree. I could live in Upstate New York and bum off of my parents couch until I fully know what it is I want. Or I can buy another one-way and find a way to gain decent income while being on the road. I took two-three months to process what it is I wanted, and truthfully, I still have no idea. I did a lot of soul-searching on my six-month journey, and I know a few things now: I know I will never be tamed and will never stop wanting to fill up my passport. I know I always need a creative outlet, whether it be writing, singing, or photography. I know cooking is the most therapeutic thing for my overly-active brain, and it helps me stay in the moment. And I know I love my dog who I had to leave behind for six months to travel.
The truth is, I knew all of these things before I left, but they got smudged under the surface of everyday life. I got lost in bartending, I got lost in emotionally unavailable men, I got lost in too many tequila-induced late nights with friends. Coming back and being more confident with what I have not necessarily learned, but been reminded of, led me to giving New York another shot for now. I can’t up and leave my dog to move to Italy (I could find a way to take him with me, and when I do, I’m out!), and in all honestly, I missed New York. Sometimes it takes walking away from a good thing to realize just how great it is. Before the trip, I had become so burnt out. I was giving my heart away to all of the wrong people and numbing myself with cheap wine. I had convinced myself that New York broke my heart, and I would never come back. But, even on my first day back, I felt something I hadn’t felt in six months. I felt home. I have decided to accept the comfort that I feel in New York City and run with it. I am finally finishing my degree, I rented a studio apartment in Brooklyn, and I spend just about every night playing ball with my dog (sometimes cheap wine is still there, I won’t lie). I have reunited with my old band and have been working on an album, each song written in a different country, and I have cut ties with anyone who makes me feel less than human. I have babied myself when I need to (advice from my therapist) by snuggling up the fleece sloth blanket my dear sister bought me in my darkest hour. I believe the most important lesson I have taught myself is that it’s okay to say no. This is something I’ve struggled with for a while. I used to make the joke, “I’m drowning but everything’s fine,” because I would dive in head first into every situation without thinking. I try to use my brain before jumping now, and while there will always be a few setbacks, it has drastically improved my mental well-being.
Life on the road seemed glamorized via my GoPro selfie shots (the dangers of Instagram!), but it was hands down the most challenging thing I’ve tackled up to date. I loved it, and I wouldn’t trade what I did for the world (literally, the world), but I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss some form of stability. Right now, I’m working on what makes me happy, and finding a balance between my nomadic lifestyle and having a home base where I can decompress. Yes, I’ve searched flights to any and everywhere since being back (Tonga, Brazil, Iran, Jordan, Mozambique, Ivory Coast, you name it; I’ve searched it) and I’m sure I’ll be tackling some new countries as soon as my bank account allows it, but until then, I’m enjoying living a somewhat normal life after six chaotic ones, because despite the beauty of the world… there’s just no place like home.
Kaitlyn traveled the world for six months, and has lived in New York City for ten years.