Before I left for Spain, I’d written, “I hope I find a reason to not come home…. But I’m also terrified that I’ll find that reason.” It seems I was feeling stagnant, ready for change, wanting something big to show up in my life and blow me away, but also deep down I knew that I wasn’t the type of person to leap into the unknown or to take chances. An interesting dichotomy that I was aware of, and yet unable or unwilling to fully address. Yet.
It’s November 2008, I’m barely a week into my third decade, and I’m alone in a foreign country. More than alone, I’m lonely. Making my way through Spain I’d seen and done some amazing things, but without someone to share those moments and memories with, there was a spark that was lacking and the novelty of travel was wearing off.
I got off the bus in Lisbon, Portugal, too disoriented to be charmed by the cobblestone streets. I didn’t speak a single word of Portuguese, and I didn’t know which direction to head to find my hostel. Also, my last few hostel experiences had been less than ideal – they were cold, both physically and emotionally. I was tired, a little under the weather, and missing human connection. I’d come up with a plan to stay a couple nights at the hostel in Lisbon, then head north to Porto where I was looking forward to staying in a home with a local CouchSurfing host.
I arrived at the hostel, thanks to a kind man who saw I was lost and walked me all the way to the door, and quickly realized that things were going to be different. As I entered the lobby there was someone coming down a stairwell, who took one look at me and disappeared back up the stairs. Odd. I checked in and as I turned around the guy from the stairs handed me a drink – my first caipirinha – and said, “Follow me.” He showed me to a room with an open bunk, “Leave your bag here, come on!”
He took me to the common area, and a dozen other travelers all looked our way: “Hey! What’s your name? Where are you from? Come join us!” This. This was what traveling was meant to look like.
I dipped a cup into the communal vat of sangria, joined the massage train, and a couple hours later found myself laughing in the streets as we explored Lisbon’s night life.
A very young backpacker who’d been staying at the hostel for a while was our unofficial guide through the narrow streets. He was impish and impulsive, too much of an open book to be charming, but still intriguing. I quickly learned that he was the type of guy who didn’t think twice before jumping in with both feet. By the end of the night he’d asked me to marry him, and I had no doubt that if I agreed he would have immediately swept me into his joyous whirlwind, which would have blown us to the nearest chaplain’s office, then off onto some wild adventure.
I was awestruck. I’ve always been overly cautious and yet I’d been yearning to break free, do something wild. I didn’t accept his proposal that night, or the next few nights when he continued to ask. I did spend more time with him, more curious than anything, and he truly lived his life immersed in each moment. It was fascinating, and totally foreign. However, I soon realized this usually meant he was doing what felt best for him, regardless of the people around him. He was open and caring, but totally unfazed by most social norms or potential consequences, and that made me uncomfortable.
I realized that I didn’t, in fact, want to live my life like that. I’m rational, and sensitive to people and situations around me, which I (eventually) decided are strengths, not weaknesses. Sure, I still wanted to learn to open up and embrace opportunities, but in hopes that it would bring more connection and intimacy into my life. Despite this guy’s fascination with me, I felt in no way connected to him. Apparently a willingness to make sweeping split second decisions was not synonymous with commitment. I no longer envied his carefree being. It’s funny how much relief you can feel, when you realize that you actually like yourself the way you are.
There were others in our makeshift group of new friends who were just as interesting: a couple of American girls with hippie names, a sweet Australian girl traveling solo, a Portuguese guy and girl who it was unclear whether they worked at the hostel or just enjoyed the atmosphere, a trio of Aussie guys who were traipsing through Europe, and a handful of other fellow nomads.
I never made it to Porto. My couple of nights in Lisbon stretched to over a week, and I didn’t leave until I was in danger of missing my flight from Barcelona back to Calgary. Even then I didn’t want to go – by that point there was a very specific reason why.