Sipping the supposedly pristine Fiji bottled water in aisle 4 of the supermarket was as close as I was going to get to those white sand beaches and turquoise water that seem to only exist on desktop screensavers.
Or so I thought.
Fast-forward seven months to January. I am about to board a plane to Nadi, Fiji, and then to Auckland, New Zealand, where I will spend the next six months exploring and working as an au pair. As a recent college graduate with no sense of career-oriented direction, (such a cliché, I know), I opted for independent travel, seeking lessons and challenges that can’t be taught in an office.
Traveling to an island in the middle of the Pacific was daunting in itself, (thanks Lost), but going on a solo vacation to Fiji intimidated me a little bit.
OK, it intimidated me a lot.
The idea of being alone didn’t worry me, if I had to snorkel by myself in the crystal clear water and drink Mai Tai’s solo then twist my arm I would do it, because someone has to. However, what worried me was my lack of solo travel experience. I thought it would repel more seasoned travelers, and I thought that I wouldn’t remember how to make new friends, especially in an unfamiliar space. Thinking back on it now, those concerns seem superficial, but on the nine-hour flight across the Pacific, it consumed my mind.
Arriving in Nadi at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m., I decided that it was game time. Either I was going to sink, or I was going to swim, and I didn’t swim competitively for 10 years to sink and not make any friends on my voyage to Fiji. So, with a renewed sense of confidence, I gathered my overweight bags and went to catch a cab to my hostel.
I strutted, well, let’s be honest, I struggled with my giant bags over to a cab and proudly opened the door as if I was in a Maybelline commercial. Very quickly, I came to the horrifying realization that people drive on the left side of the road in Fiji and I had just swung open the driver-side door, resulting in a very startled cab driver and a very embarrassed tourist.
Minor setback in the confidence department, but I was able to recover.
The cab driver sped through Nadi as if rules, speed limits, common courtesy, pedestrians, etc. didn’t exist and I arrived at Bamboo Backpackers just as the sun was starting to burn off the clouds. Hammocks swayed and reggae music played softly from a radio at reception. Tall palm trees shaded picnic tables, and I couldn’t help but think I was living in a postcard.
OK, I totally was.
Content with my home base for the next week and a half, I went to go check-in. I had barely muttered three words along the lines of “hi can I…” when the woman at reception pointed to a giant sign that read, “No Check-In Until 11:00.” I laughed and shrugged as the lady forced a polite smile, but I could tell that I was not the first person who had missed the sign.
Well, now what? I had four hours to kill and nowhere to put my unnecessarily large bags, but when in Fiji do as the Fijians do, and go to the beach. I wasn’t 100 percent on the logic, but it seemed like a pretty safe bet.
I went to go change into my swimsuit when I overheard some people talking about a daytrip to Natadola Beach, apparently one of the prettiest beaches on the main island. Say no more, I thought. I’m in.
I asked the guide from the hostel what I needed to bring to the beach, and his response was, “whatever you need for the beach.” Genius. I grabbed my swimsuit and some sunscreen and piled into the van with the rest of the crew. Once everyone was settled, I looked down at the stuff I brought.
A carry-on size of SPF 15 sunscreen and some lip balm. Seriously? My skin probably hadn’t seen the light of day since November, and a measly bottle of SPF 15 was going to be no match for the strong southern hemisphere sun. Also, it had just occurred to me that I didn’t even bring a towel. To Fiji. Who does that?
Great, I thought. It hasn’t even been five minutes and these people are already going to know I’m an amateur.
Defeated, I looked longingly out the van window at our hostel getting smaller and smaller, and couldn’t help but think that I wasn’t cut out for this solo traveller thing.
People began to introduce themselves, and not wanting to be deemed the “Debbie Downer” of the group, I reluctantly joined in. We became more comfortable together so smiling pathetically, I asked the group if I could borrow some sunscreen and maybe a towel. No one seemed to think twice about my lack of essential beach items, and by the time we got to Natadola Beach I had four different bottles of SPF 50 sunscreen and a towel.
It only took one glance at the heavenly blue water to know that I was right where I needed to be. Despite my insecurities earlier that day, I realized that traveling by myself was liberating, and I was addicted.
In that moment and the other solo travels I’ve been on since, I’ve realized that traveling does not have a defined learning curve, and there is no set capacity to what you can learn from experiences abroad. You learn to be spontaneous and how to thrive in an unfamiliar environment. You learn to be a raw, fearless and awesome human being.
So, if you’re in aisle 4 of the grocery store (or anywhere for that matter), dreaming of an adventure, go. You’ll laugh, you’ll make stupid mistakes, you’ll get sunburned even with SPF 50 sunscreen, you will embarrass yourself, but you will learn to love yourself and the world in a way you never thought possible.
It is so worth it.