As a teenager, I once asked my father during a heartfelt conversation what he envisioned for my future. He replied without hesitation: "All I want is for my children to be comfortable."
Filled with youthful exuberance, I found the statement surprising. At the time, all I wanted to do was to be uncomfortable. I willingly threw myself into situations that pushed my boundaries and forced me to sink or swim. A higher-level math class intended only for math majors? Sure, let's have some fun; how hard can it be? (Answer: hard enough that I had to take it pass/fail to save my GPA.)
But the ultimate way I threw myself into the deep end was through traveling alone.
I started with a school-sponsored study abroad program, and quickly became a travel junkie. In my early 20s, I hopped on planes, trains, boats, and automobiles, conjuring up the cheapest ways to get to the most far-off destinations.
A ticket to Morocco was too expensive, but a flight to Spain, a cross-country train to the Algeciras port, and a ferry over to Tangiers was just about manageable — providing I slept on the airport floor instead of getting a hotel room overnight, that is. I was uncomfortable, and I was happy.
I became addicted to the serendipitous, magical moments that only seem to happen when nobody else is around. In an era when iPhones were still just for the rich and famous and guidebooks seemed to ruin the adventure, I relied on human intelligence to get by, and was rewarded with the sheer joy of experiencing humanity at its best.
In Egypt, I asked to be pointed to the nearest metro and was escorted the entire way. In Israel, strangers invited me to dine at their family homes for Sabbath. In Morocco, I was treated to tea by fellow bus passengers during an "intermission" stop halfway to our destination. In Spain, I shared a picnic at a nearby park with a girl from my hostel.
Slightly awkward and anxious in real life, travel let me shed my skin and try on new, more outgoing personas. It suddenly didn't matter that I was an introvert at home; this wasn't home! I could be anyone. And then I could leave.
The trouble, though, was what happened when I came home. "How was your trip?" friends would ask. It was a perfectly reasonable question, but I just couldn't seem to communicate everything I wanted to say in the socially acceptable 10 seconds I was allotted to answer it.
The quick-and-dirty truth is that nobody really cared.
Eyes would glaze over as I talked about the paralyzed feeling of not knowing whether to give money to the rail-thin children selling trinkets in the middle of the road. Would my money help them buy their next meal or would it just go to handlers, encouraging them to continue the practice of pulling children out of school to beg?
Friends simply nodded and politely avoided rolling their eyes when I waxed poetic about how important it is to say hello to as many people as possible throughout your day. And to mean it. And to look them in the eyes when you say it.
I quickly learned that more on-target answers to "How was your trip?" were things like "It was great, but the food was so spicy!" I mentally pictured a running character-counter keeping track of my statements and made sure I was speaking in 140 characters or less. It's a realization that was both freeing and frustrating.
When I got married, I wondered how traveling would change with a built-in partner by my side, and worried about leaving my adventures behind. But I found there's an advantage to traveling with a partner, whether a spouse or a lover or a friend: Somebody really cares.
I was ready to start building collective memories with someone who cared; someone who would understand all the unspoken complexities of travel that I could never seem to put into words; someone who would be my discussion partner to reflect on what we'd seen; someone who would be my institutional memory.
My latest trips have admittedly been a lot more conventional than my early ones. During my most recent adventures, I didn't do yoga alone on a mountaintop or skydiving above the Bali Sea. Instead, I ate dinner in classic Parisian restaurants, where, I might add, no one looked at me strangely for dining alone.
These days, I'm comfortable, and I'm happy about it. Maybe that's just part of getting older. Maybe fathers really do know best.
For me, being able to share a knowing look together is absolutely worth giving up some of the delights of solo travel. I'm a convert. Whether it's with my husband or with a friend, I doubt I will ever travel alone.
But I do still say hello to everyone. And I always mean it.