Jul 22, 2017
By Sonya Stephens
Independence may have a definite, universal definition as “free from the influence, control, and support from others” but for me, and I’m sure others, it has personal meaning as well. Because I found myself again in traveling, I define independence as being content with being free from the influence and support.
I was bitten by the travel bug as a 16-year-old high school student on spring break, school-chaperoned trip to Edinburgh, London, and Paris. I was HOOKED. I kept a journal of my trip and about 8 months ago, while packing to move into my smallest apartment yet (because downsizing means more money for travel) I found the journal, read through it and laughed at my younger self but I also realized how astute I was and how big my dreams were as a 16-year-old girl. I wrote at the end of that 1998 trip “I hope to come back many times before I am 25!”
Well young Sonya, you did, two more times by the age of 22. In fact, I celebrated my 22nd birthday, twice, in Bologna, Italy and in Dublin, Ireland, on a 2003 trip. I had so much fun and self-discovery on those trips. I planned them all for myself and 3 friends, each time, three different friends on each trip. I learned to negotiate with friends, book flights and hostels online back in the early days of the internet, and how to mediate arguments amongst friends. On one trip I even got very ill on the way over and we navigated ourselves to a doctor in Geneva, Switzerland and I explained what I thought I had and my friends and I pooled our resources to pay for the doctor visit and a prescription for me. I did all of this without a cell phone too! I was independent and travel savvy from an early age.
Then, I graduated from college and moved to Chicago for graduate school – which I did not finish and afterward, I entered a period that I like to call the Dark Ages, where I was latched on to the first person who paid me any attention and I let that relationship last way too long. During that long relationship (almost 9 years) my heart ached to travel and I was very jealous of any friends who were traveling the country and the world. I tried to hide it, but it was difficult for me to be happy for others when I was so unhappy with my own situation.
Why am I retelling this long-winded story? Because the proverbial light at the end of my tunnel came in late 2012 when I ended the relationship. I started sorting myself out, got out of a lot of debt that had acquired in that relationship (a story for another day), and started rediscovering previous passions. By the end of 2014, I was just itching to travel again and I had a friend who had inspired me to run another marathon since my last one had been in 2006. I decided to register for a race in a foreign country and stay there for a week in addition to running a race.
In August 2015, I traveled to Reykjavik, Iceland and ran the Reykjavik Marathon. It was my first solo trip and the first time I’d left the United States for a vacation since 2007. It was long overdue. I was a little nervous about going somewhere on my own, but I honestly could not have picked a better destination for my first solo trip. I was out of my comfort zone, talking to other travelers, talking to people in restaurants, bartenders, talking to locals about their city, just basically being my true self, exploring a corner of the world and loving every second of it.
It seems cheesy to say I had some kind of awakening in Iceland, but it’s true that I did. The place felt magical and otherworldly to me. I didn’t mind wandering the streets by myself, eating alone and reading a book while I did, or talking to strangers when I’d had too much alone time. For me, independence was getting myself back and realizing that I create my own life and destiny. Travel did that for me. Since then, I’ve been making an effort to travel at least once a year internationally on my own and personally, I’ve made it a goal to visit forty countries before my fortieth birthday mid-2021. Traveling makes my heart happy, feeds my soul, and it fuels my independence in a way that nothing else does.
Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Inspiration 2017 Travel Writing Award and tell your story.
About the Author
Sonya lives in Chicago with her 11-year-old Italian Greyhound named Rocco. Her first love is travel, but when she is not exploring the world, she can be found flying through the air on aerial silks, running, or checking out the food and drink scene in Chicago with her friends.