At twenty, I was prepared to conquer the world. By thirty, I’d discovered the world wouldn’t be conquered quite so easily, but I could live with that. At forty, I admit, I was beginning to feel out of the mainstream. My friends and I joked about reaching the "invisible stage" – that state of mind wherein the constant focus on youth sometimes makes one feel practically invisible.
Looking back over past decades, I realized I've made major, life-changing decisions at age 20 and again at age 30. My fortieth birthday was no exception. I needed a new quest; some way of testing myself. I believe that we all need to step beyond our self-imposed limits, whether age 20 or 90. The challenge could be anything from finishing a law degree to taking up painting to climbing Mount Everest.
Nothing too extreme for me, however; my quest took the form of a simple journey, the further away the better, and I wanted to go alone. Or did I? This inner struggle lasted for months. I hashed and re-hashed every possible reason why I should go by myself. Yet, underlying it all was the big Kahuna: Did I really have the intestinal fortitude to go it alone?
I set up a rough budget of US$850. Could I do the trip within that amount? If not, I’d stay home. After about thirty phone calls, I found an inexpensive airfare to Barcelona, Spain. The more I discovered about this Spanish city, the better the whole idea sounded. The pieces were falling into place, yet I was still scared.
My adventuresome self cheered me on, while my conservative self said the plan was far too risky. Doubts assailed me. You can't speak a word of Spanish. . . . what if you get the flu, break your leg or get mugged? The "what-if's" went on and on pecking away at my self-confidence like hungry vultures. At last the adventuresome side won.
I arrived safely in Barcelona on a sunny March morning, made my way correctly to the subway stop, then I got lost.The guidebook said the hostel was a fifteen minute walk from the subway but neglected to give specific details or mention it was a steep uphill walk. My bag seemed to grow heavier with every step. I was already exhausted after the long flight and lack of sleep. The first two people I asked for directions spoke very little English. I chided myself for not getting more precise directions before leaving home. I burst into tears.
I'd come all this way and was probably within sight of the hostel but couldn't find it. Several choking breaths later my guardian angels provided three backpackers lumbering up the hill. Realizing they must be hostel bound, I pulled myself together and followed them the rest of the way. Easy. Lesson learned.
The hostel itself was a welcome blessing. Once a private mansion, the surrounding grounds held lovely exotic plants and palm trees. But the true high point of the first day was meeting Lucy from Nairobi Kenya. Lucky for me, the hostel put us in the same four-bunk room. Lucy and I were close in age but with one major difference: Lucy was confined to a wheelchair. Not the least daunted by her situation, in fact challenged by it, Lucy got around Barcelona by taxi. Although she had a husband and two children back home, Lucy flew alone to Spain three times a year to sell African craft-works. I'll not soon forget Lucy and the wonderful inspiration she gave me. Among other things, she'd won medals in the disabled Olympics and helped to build her own house. I felt privileged to meet such an extraordinary, self-confident woman. Lucy never let a wheelchair stand in her way. Her courage and firm resolve to travel alone made my earlier apprehension seem trivial by comparison. If Lucy could cross continents and deal with language problems, so could I. Lesson learned.
Hostels are by nature congenial places. By the second night I made two more friends, Gary, a 49-year old from Scotland and his 20-year old nephew, James, from England. Without trying, I became their impromptu tour guide. They were unsure about venturing into the subway, so I offered to show them the ropes. Unfortunately, during our first excursion into the underworld of the subway, Gary thought his wallet was stolen. One minute he was maneuvering through the turnstile and the next he was screaming at the top of his lungs, "me wallet's been lifted, me wallet's been lifted," in his thick British accent. A stab of guilt lodged in my chest.
Both Gary and James instantly looked to me for guidance. Me the indecisive, nervous Nelly! I sought directions to the closest police station. But as we turned to go, I saw a group of school girls in matching blue skirts hovering near the turnstiles. With great relief, I saw one of them waving around a man's wallet. What luck! Gary got his wallet back, intact. Evidently, it hadn’t been stolen, only lost momentarily – thankfully. First appearances can be deceiving. Lesson learned.
The return trip home had a few hitches, a canceled flight and a tedious 23-hour day. But, would I do it again? Absolutely. I learned a little risk is a good thing, because in taking the chance we gain strength.