How Travel Taught Me What It Means to Be Free

Have you ever wondered what would be the worst thing that could happen if you traveled to a foreign country?

Lucky me; I didn’t have to wonder — I got to experience it… as soon as I stepped off the plane in Colombia.

And it was the single most important experience of my travels.

September 26, 2012 started out like any other day (albeit a bit earlier in the morning than I would have liked).  I woke up in my apartment in Frisco, Texas, had a little breakfast, brushed my teeth and got ready to start my day.

Then a friend drove me out to DFW airport, where I got on a plane and said goodbye to the United States for the next 5 years.

At 11:40 PM, my flight landed at Aeropuerto Internacional José Maria Córdova, just outside of Medellín, and my international adventure began.

It was… an overwhelming experience.  There was no Starbucks.  The lighting was dim, and the floor was uncarpeted.  I checked my phone — no wifi.  I couldn’t even charge my gear; none of the outlets were grounded, and I didn’t have an adapter!

I mean, I knew I was going to a foreign country and all; I just didn’t expect it to be so… well… different.

But what to do?  Fortunately, I had a hostel room booked already; at least having a project would surely give me something to take my mind off of how unfamiliar my surroundings were.

I found a taxi, and despite not knowing any Spanish, I managed to communicate the address of my hostel to the driver.  Everything seemed to be going OK; I got into the cab and breathed a sigh of relief.  At last I’d finally be able to relax.

Or so I thought.

So… when I said before that the airport is “just outside” of Medellín, I really meant 40 miles away.

And by “40 miles away”, I really meant “40 miles of dark, twisty, foggy mountain road away”.

There I was, locked in a car with a complete stranger – that I had no way of communicating with –  as he drove me quite literally into the unknown.

The last time I went to a foreign country, I stayed in a hotel with an airport shuttle, and everyone spoke English.  What had I gotten myself into this time?

One hour (and a couple of scary turns) later, we arrived in the Suramericana district of Medellín.

Now, before we continue, I should mention that I am a product of US suburbia.  I grew up in houses with yards and subdivisions and cul-de-sacs and “no skateboarding” signs.  The most hardcore security I’d ever seen was a lone police car making rounds every few hours.

So when I saw all the bars, I nearly soiled myself.

I’m not referring to the friendly corner establishments with the alcohol, sports TV and a proclivity for hanging photos of vintage pin-up girls over the urinals.

I mean the inch-thick steel variety covering every. single. window.

There were 10-foot metal fences (adorned with rather unfriendly-looking spikes) surrounding every building.  And across the top of every third fence or so, was a bright yellow sign with a lighting bolt and skull-and-crossbones indicating that the barrier was electrified.

And then I noticed something else.

We were driving in circles.

I couldn’t believe it.

Here I was, in a foreign country – where I didn’t know the customs nor even the language – in a foreign city, in the shadiest-looking neighborhood I’d ever seen in my life, in the middle of the night…

… and now my taxi driver was lost.

Out of habit, I pulled out my phone to check my map, but I didn’t have a Colombian SIM card yet, and I’d already canceled my US cell service, so that was completely useless.!

I was, as they say, completely screwed.

And that’s when it hit me.

Everything that happened to me from that moment on was 100% my responsibility.

There was nobody coming to save me.  There was no safety net.  There was no reset button.

My life was my own responsibility.

If I couldn’t find my hostel tonight, then it would be up to me to figure something out.

Would I try to find a different hostel?  Would I go find a bridge to sleep under?  Would I have the taxi driver take me back to the airport so I could fly back home?

Whatever happened next was entirely up to me.

Nobody would judge my decision.  Nobody would tell me what they thought I should do.  Nobody was going to make me do anything.

In that moment, I was free.

And so – exactly 1 hour into my 5-year journey – I began the process of shedding the person I was forced to be to conform to my culture of origin and rediscovering the person that I always could have been.

Incidentally, my driver did eventually find the hostel; he was just confused by some one-way streets.  We pulled up to the hostel, and I got out — exhausted and very much looking forward to collapsing into bed.

That’s when I discovered that nobody at the hostel spoke English, and there was apparently some kind of problem with my reservation.

604 days later, I am sitting in my apartment in Bangkok, Thailand writing this story.  I still have 3 years to go in my journey, and there are many challenges that await me yet.

But this time, I know I’m going to be just fine.

Before I left my country of origin, I was scared that I was going to fail.  That once I left, I would not be able to make it out there.  That I was not strong or smart enough to succeed in the world outside of my comfort zone.

But you know what?  From the very moment I stepped off that plane, the world forced me to face every one of those fears.

And I won.

What is waiting for you in the world outside your comfort zone?

Title Photo Credit: flickr