When they strapped in my ankles and perched me on the edge, I was shaking. Three …Two … One …
I plunged into seven and a half seconds of the most intense sensory overload I had ever experienced. Complete terror turned into utter euphoria and resulted in one of the most significant moments of my life.
In that moment, I realized that I was capable of pushing my body’s limits and that it’s something that’s actually worth doing. I realized what was possible and became instantly hooked on the rush of having new experiences.
Little did I know at the time that facing my biggest fear was what would ultimately lead me to traveling to every country in the world, and out of 196 countries, I have only found myself in real, physical danger one time.
I traveled to Yemen as a photographer for a Norwegian author who was writing a book about the least visited countries in the world. On our last night in the country, I woke up to the sound of gunshots outside of my hotel. I jumped out of bed and ran to the window to see that there were 50 or so men congregated in the parking lot, yelling and pushing each other around, with six cars with flashing headlights blocking the only exit.
With no security in sight, I grabbed my phone to call my contact in the country, who didn’t answer because this was happening around 2:00 in the morning. I could hear voices outside of my hotel room even though I knew that we were the only people staying in the hotel.
That was the first time I had ever heard a fully automatic weapon discharged. I literally ducked and looked around the room realistically looking for the best place to hide.
In that moment, there was nothing I could do but sit with my fear of potentially being kidnapped, until eventually, all the men disappeared, and I could cry myself to sleep after the adrenaline wore off.
The next morning, I called — I talked to my contact in the country and asked him what had happened the night before. He responded with, “Oh, that? That was just a wedding party.”
Since Yemen is an Islamic country, they do not drink alcohol, and one of the ways that they celebrate is by shooting guns. Basically, what this means is this scariest thing that has ever happened to me while traveling was only scary because I didn’t fully understand the culture.
The fun didn’t stop there.
Getting out of the comfort zone that I had created around myself mentally would prove to be an even greater challenge and would require me to develop an entirely different aspect of my character. We are creatures of habit. We are most comfortable with things we can easily understand and predict.
We fill our lives with routines. We wake up, go to class or work, eat our meals, maybe work out and go to sleep at basically the same times every day. We surround ourselves with the same stable relationships for years.
We try so hard to live up to other people’s expectations of us that sometimes we let our passions take the back seat because ultimately we don’t want to become isolated from our society.
After I traveled to the first hundred or so countries, the destinations became more and more obscure, and I stopped being able to talk my friends and family into coming with me.
If you’ve never traveled for an extended period of time by yourself before, it might be hard to imagine what it’s like to spend days in transit on airplanes, in airports, just to end up in an empty hotel room by yourself at the end of the night.
After months of this for me, it resulted in intense loneliness, which was something I didn’t even realize I feared because I had been sheltered from it my whole life.
At the peak of my time spent alone, I found myself in the tiny island nation of Tuvalu, in the south Pacific with a population of only 11,000 people. I spent four days in the capital, Funafuti, because that’s how often flights go in and out of the country. There was no Wi-Fi, no cell reception, no connection to the outside world whatsoever other than a small post office, which happened to also be the country’s number one tourist attraction.
When I thought that I would be spending my time in Tuvalu completely alone and without any distraction, I noticed the only other foreigner on the island. She was a kindergarten teacher from the South Side of Chicago who also happened to be traveling to every country.
We bonded so quickly and deeply over all of our shared experiences that we ended up going from complete strangers to traveling to Fiji, Tonga, Chad, Central African Republic and Saudi Arabia together.
From the seven and a half months I spent traveling alone to 50 or so countries, I learned how to be alone without being lonely, and this did wonders for my self-confidence, but it also completely changed the way that I think about the people in my life.
Now I have an appreciation for the time that I get to spend with the people that I care about the most in a way that I used to take for granted, before I knew what it was truly like to be alone.