I’m often asked about my thoughts and feelings once we embarked on our indefinite international adventure. People always want to know what becoming a backpacker is really like. Neither of us had ever went backpacking, or even left the country before embarking on this journey, so we had no idea what we were doing. I decided to share this journal entry I wrote as we were flying to Panama, our first country on this adventure. These were my thoughts on day one of becoming a backpacker:
After many months of planning, packing and getting rid of our things it is finally time to begin our adventure. After a night in Ft Lauderdale, Florida we are officially heading out to travel abroad indefinitely! I am so excited, anxious and in disbelief. This is really happening after so many daydreams and so much preparation.
The day began with us learning we were not eligible for online check in for our flight to Panama City, Panama. In Jarrell’s optimistic mind it meant they were more than likely going to inform us of our complimentary upgrade to first class. In my pessimistic mind it clearly meant we would not be allowed out of the country without a cavity search. Per usual, the truth was somewhere in between the two, we could not fly into Panama without purchasing an exit flight. A problem, but one with a quick $228 solution: buying two one-way tickets back to Florida within the 60 day foreigner stay allowance. We had 24 hours to refund the tickets so we were advised to refund them as soon as we make it through immigration. I can already foresee that this journey will include many more sketchy improv moves. Jarrell categorizes it as critical thinking, a skill he believes mediocre living kills. I agree.
As I sit on the plane heading into my first country outside of the States, I am beyond anxious. It’s more of an uncomfortable nervous energy that is lingering until an inevitable amazing triumph replaces it. I would think this is similar to the feeling Lebron James felt when he attempted his first slam dunk in the NBA. I have dreamed of this moment for as long as I can remember. I know I am capable of succeeding at this task, I’ve been preparing for it for what seems like my entire life. However, the fear still exists. The fear that something terrible may happen, I lose my footing and come down on my ankle awkwardly. Maybe I completely miss and everyone watching laughs. Usually the fear is forced out just as quickly as it creeps in.
This time it was a beautiful older Panamanian woman holding the broom. She was sitting in my seat and ended up sitting next to me during our flight. As I write this I realize I have not learned her name, but I am sure I will never forget the way that she made me feel. She walked me through my first conversation in another language, asking me if I spoke Spanish. This was the one question I was actually prepared to answer. I only got to the third lesson in the first chapter of my online Spanish courses and felt overly confident with my capability of saying, “Si! Pero, solo un poco. Estoy aprendiendo”, which means, “Yes! But only a little. I am learning.” I decided against saying that earlier in the line waiting to board the plane when a young woman with two small children turned to ask me if I spoke Spanish. I immediately regretted saying, “No.. Sorry”, thinking of the many hours I spent repeating my most impressive Spanish sentence. So, I decided to shorten it. “Solo un poco”, was how I replied to the woman sitting next to me on the airplane. It made me feel more hip, but apparently it made me seem way more advanced than I actually was. She started speaking Spanish at a pace that seemed a mile a minute to my ears, “No entiende”, was all I said before we both burst into laughter. She called my bluff. We found a way to communicate through a Spanglish hybrid, which I enjoyed the same way you enjoy your first bike ride. I was very excited to actually be riding, but the butterflies in my stomach were circling that excitement at a rapid rate.
Leaving my comfort zone is the most awkward pleasure I’ve ever experienced. I feel like I am living someone else’s life, this can’t be real. The truth is closer to the opposite. What I was doing before was not meant for me, that was not my life. I deserve these butterflies, this uncomfortable feeling of doing something new is my life. Definitely not easy, but I think I like it. I enjoy fumbling through the completion of my first customs paperwork not knowing what the hell I’m doing, looking over at my neighbor’s form like I’m cheating on a science test in high school. She eventually filled it out for me. She is the first friend I’ve made along my journey and I adore her. She looks a lot like my grandmother, with her long black hair pulled into a ponytail exposing her soft, spotted skin the color of a Bit-O-Honey piece of candy. My great grandfather was from the Guna tribe of Panamanian Indians, that reside in The San Blas islands, so I’ve pretty much decided she is either my great aunt or 3rd cousin.
The very moment that I begin to wonder if these butterflies will ever leave my stomach I hope that they don’t. An immense amount of growth and development is required to produce butterflies, so their mere existence is a miracle wrapped in a blessing. I am honored to house these butterflies. I commit to taking great care of my beautiful butterflies that are just so excited to be out of that small, dark cocoon. I’m officially becoming a backpacker.
This article was originally published at the beginning of our journey, in October 2013. I have decided to republish it as a reminder, to myself and CYH readers, to embrace abandoning your comfort zone.