I was just 17 ½ and freshly out of high school. I was impressionable especially when encountering trailblazers, the weird ones the ones that thought and dressed out of the box. In my junior high school creative writing class, I met a girl, not just any girl but one that had a huge personality for her tiny 4’10” frame. She spoke four languages, was born in Panama and had traveled extensively. She was smart and curious and a free spirit. Her character was forged in cement, and she was sure of what she knew, sure of what she wanted and she had no qualms going after it. I wanted to have a life like hers, different from the norm. I drank her words like the finest of wines and aspired to be like her, courageous, worldly and totally autonomous.
One day during lunch break, she casually mentioned that she was heading to Europe for the summer holidays. I drilled her on how, where, with whom, etc. ”Alone.” was her only reply to my questions that fired at her like a machine gun. That was all I needed to hear. I went home that night and thought about it. Why not me? What is stopping me from doing the same thing? I had a small savings stashed under my mattress and could sell my only two valuable possessions, my racing bike and my Rossignols.
Between creative writing class and biology, I stopped by the local travel agent and secured an open-ended ticket to London. Why London? No other reason other than it seemed like a good place to begin. And so it was. With my backpack on my shoulder, my passport and $1000 in my pocket, I boarded the plane to London. I never gave it much thought how my adventure would transpire or what I would do once I arrived there. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter.
Despite the 17 hours in the air, the flight seemed short. I couldn’t sleep. I was too excited and spent hours walking up and down the aisles making new friends. I befriended an Englishman and learned that the Sterling Pound was the currency of the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom was the same as England. I think that he was a bit concerned about my naivety, so he took me under his wing and drove me to a decent neighborhood to find a cheap guesthouse which became my home for months.
I quickly learned the importance of looking right before crossing the street, keeping my eyes lowered while riding the tube and most helpful of all, understanding the enigmatic word ”the loo”. Day one, I enthusiastically I spanned the city far beyond its borders. At least, that’s what it felt like.
Dusk came quickly. I stopped in my tracks and looked around. At that moment, reality kicked in. I was alone, entirely alone in this faraway foreign country. I knew no one; no one knew me. Nothing looked familiar. I was lost. How did I let this happen? Fear embraced me and stole my senses. I looked up at the immensity of the sky and mapped the brilliance of the stars above. I heard a whisper from inside, ”It is O.K. You aren’t lost because you never knew where you were going in the first place. So allow yourself to wander, weave in and out of the cobblestone streets, get lost again and again and discover the novelty of the present moment.” This advice is some of the best that I have ever received.
Having a plan, following a map, gives direction and provides us with a stable framework that paves our path. If the moment is ripe, we can try out our sense of faith, spread our wings and strengthen our muscle of surrendering to what presents itself without attachment to the outcome. There is something inexcusably exciting about adventuring into newness and not knowing what you will find, or what will find you. It can be scary, and it can be exhilaratingly awesome.
One serendipitous moment after another became my reality for 14 months. I learned a lot about other cultures, people and above all myself. This expedition was one of personal growth and, like Pema Chödrön wisely points out, embarking on a journey, whether it be to Europe or some other faraway destination or one of personal transformation, is always thrilling until that precise moment when we realize that we are utterly alone.
This moment is when we lean in a bit more and remember, whether you are a pathfinder on the road of growth or trailblazing through South East Asia, you are never alone, and, you can’t get lost if you don’t know where you are in the first place. So my advice- if you have the time and a sense of adventure, get lost and enjoy the art of trailblazing without a map. You might just end up finding yourself.