The raw rock in my stomach grew firmer as the plane flew higher. I peered out of the window and watched my familiar Finland, my friends, sink further and further beneath me. I was 19. I had flown internationally on my own plenty of times. I had just spent a semester in Russia. But I hadn’t truly traveled alone before. And here I was, on my way to the first of four countries I planned to visit before my summer program began in Berlin. Soon enough, we would be landing in Vienna.
I waited for my baggage and fiddled with my mostly useless, not-smart cell phone. Unable to confirm my plans, I took a breath, stomached the fact that there are no certainties in travel, shouldered my pack and dragged my suitcase out of the airport in search of the metro. Not only was I traveling alone, but I was about to couchsurf for the first time. I began using the site by meeting people in Saint Petersburg several months prior, but now I was stepping into the homes of strangers for the night. Somehow, despite the internal shock at myself and what I was doing, I managed to navigate my way to the appropriate metro stop where my host awaited me.
There she was, waiting expectantly as the doors of the train opened. That was easy, I thought for about three seconds.
But finding my host wasn’t the hardest part. In all honesty, my time in Vienna was a bit of a blur. My brain struggled to keep up with the newness being fired at me from all sides. I tried to brush the layers of Russian in my brain aside in search for the German buried beneath. I met new person after new person—friends of my host and fellow couchsurfers who were sharing the empty apartment our host gave us. We walked the streets of Vienna together, boxed in by grandiose buildings. After Russia and Finland, Vienna felt positively tropical. My body struggled to process the heat as my mind doggie paddled, attempting not to be overwhelmed by all the people, all of the cathedrals and palaces. I skated along with everyone else, trying to keep up. Slowly, though, I was learning to unravel the knots in my stomach and open wider.
One of the many benefits of couchsurfing is that it expands your ability to receive information, experiences, and connections. It does so in the obvious way of showcasing others’ lives as you stay with them. It does so in the exciting way of giving you insider information, rendering guidebooks a bit more boring, a bit less necessary. And it does so in the more subtle way of speeding up your processes. Meeting new people—and sleeping in the same room as them—becomes a little easier, you become comfortable a little faster, and eventually the blur of newness no longer whips by you, for your senses have caught up, you’ve become quicker, more adaptable, and, importantly, more confident. You’re broader, you can catch more and hold on long enough to understand.
Like learning a language, the art of broadening needs to be practiced to keep your mind sharp. For people like myself who tend to be naturally more socially anxious than not, repetition and the reminder that meeting new people can be grand is necessary to bar a retreat into oneself again. Confidence in one’s abilities sometimes needs to be reinforced. Periodically, for this and many other reasons, the time to hit the road becomes due.
I’ll be traveling through a few different countries come August, and for a chunk of time I’ll be alone. Rather, I’ll be moving around alone but I intend to tap into the wonderful world of hospitality networks yet again. I may be using Couchsurfing, but I am also exploring alternatives (perhaps BeWelcome) after reading about the (supposed) fall of the now for-profit Couchsurfing (and indeed, I have been pestered more and more by guys on CS who want me to show them the best bars). Readers, do you have a favorite hospitality network?
The best way to open up is by seeing real lives, not just museums and famous buildings. After returning to the States following this first stint of solo travels that began in Vienna, I was told my confidence had noticeably grown. That was just the very start of a string of incredible travel experiences. But now, I’m due for a refresher. And so, soon I’m off to attempt to broaden myself, yet again, a bit more.