You prepare for the 30 hour flight ahead. Your bags are packed, you’ve ticked everything off your ‘must take’ list physically and mentally 17 times and your ticking them off – as you sit on the plane – one last time.
You have your passport, your wallet and your phone – anything else you can replace when you get there. Let’s just hope that the program people will be at the airport to meet you like they promised – because you’re arriving in Colombia at 10:30pm. Alone. A young white, blonde female. *Gulp*
The engine whirs, the plane shifts to accelerate, you’re pushed back into your seat. As the wheels leave the safety of the tarmac your heart jumps – what the heck are you doing…
This was me, a few weeks ago just before I headed off to Cartagena in Colombia. Alone. But I'm sure it's a scene that many people have experienced.
I'd never wanted to travel alone. But personal experiences that had shaken me earlier in the year saw me hazily diving in to a lone adventure, to volunteer in a country that was a 30 hour flight away.
I felt calm, excited, nervous, scared, sad and every other emotion you can use an emoji for.
Three plane changes and 30 hours later, I arrived. I touched down in the blistering heat - you know the heat where you step outside and instantly drip sweat. Where your lungs feel slightly blocked from the heat, the heat with sticky humidity that forces all of your anxious worries to dissipate because you don't have extra energy to worry - you must use it all to keep yourself cool enough to function. It's the kind of heat I love.
Through the gates and immigration counter I caught my heart in my throat with a slight worry my greeting party wouldn't be there to meet me. I felt like I had grown a second head on my flight over - everyone was staring at me now. The tall white lady that clearly wasn't from here.
My welcome party was there - a Candian woman and a local boy. I could've kissed their grinning faces, but thought that might be inappropriate on our first meeting. I hugged them instead.
Fast forward a few days. You're in a house with 13 other volunteers. You have no air-conditioning, just the constant buzz of fans that focus on each individual bed where you sleep. You're miles away from your family but you feel right at home.
You experience the culture in a different way. You meet the people - both privileged and less so - you learn their language, eat their food, live next door to them. You help them, you teach them and you learn a lot from them. Without them even knowing it.
I am at one of the volunteer projects and I meet a boy. He is dark. Much darker than me. He is fascinated with my skin. He is fascinated that my veins are blue, and that my cheeks turn red. He's fascinated that the colours on my skin are so different to his - dark, dark brown. He tells me of his history. He was a thief, he has bullet holes in his legs. He is 15 years old. He makes me a bracelet and tells me when I wear it, I have to think of him.
These kids - you can barely talk to them because of the language barrier, but you attempt your best Spanglish to connect with them. They just appreciate you being there.
I didn't know what to expect from my experience as a lone traveller - volunteering for three weeks. But I now know it affected me - in such a positive way. And that's why I think we all need to travel sefflessly just once in our lives. Get out of the grind. Get out of the first world problems. Get out of the churn.
I came back feeling more revitalised and invigorated than I ever have from my many many travels. I can't stop thinking about the kids, I want to be back there. But I want to be here too, because the experience put life back into perspective and I want to use my new knowledge and my new appreciation to inject positivity back into the life I have here.
I want to do more that will continue to help those kids - from a distance. And I want to tell you all to do something for someone else. It doesn't have to be 30 hours away, it could be in your own home town. Just give back.
I got a message from one of the program managers in Colombia today. He said, "Quiet Katrina* misses you. She says she loves you like a mother. She always asks when you're coming back."
I just hope she knows I think of her too. And that she knows she (and all the kids) are the most inspirational I've ever met - the kids who have not a lot, some who have nothing.
While we get stuck in the daily grind and plan our next adventure, I urge you to think of travelling for someone else. It'll end up being the best thing you can do for yourself too.
*Katrina is not her real name and has been changed for safety purposes.
What have you done for someone else lately?