Once Scared of Leaving Home, Here's How Traveling Alone As a Woman Changed My Life

A traveler learns to redefine the meaning of home by going away on her own.

I am sitting on a log before a crackling fire and ants are crawling up my right ankle. I wonder if there's a snake beneath the log, but focus on shooing off the ants instead. My unwashed hair blows in the barely-there breeze and I sip a Victoria Bitter that would definitely be better if it weren't lukewarm. I look over to see the others: a French couple, two English blokes, a Dane, a German, a Belgian, an Israeli, and me, the lone American. All strangers until a few days ago. Now, we sleep side by side in canvas sleeping sacks called swags and keep a lookout for each other when popping a squat in a hole in the ground somewhere.

It's day three of 10 in the Australian outback, and I'm on a nearly 1,300-mile, four-wheel-drive road trip from Adelaide to Alice Springs. It's also New Year's Eve, so I wonder to myself how long it'll be till we get some sort of party started. But time moves slowly in the bush. Up until now, for so many miles and songs, there was nothing to see but flat, dry land. An occasional emu. Maybe a 'roo. "Look, look!" someone would say. And we'd all turn our heads; the glaring December summer sun depleting our energy with every small shift in neck muscle. Occasionally, we'd pull over for a fully clothed dip in a hole filled with rainwater that we were instructed not to let get in our mouths. If we didn't feel like getting wet, we'd settle for standing in someone else's shadow for a brief bit of respite or drinking warm water made slightly more palatable thanks to a lemon cordial that our guide keeps in his stash.

Then, suddenly, as if plunked down without warning like Dorothy's house in Oz, the Iga Warta Aboriginal camp appeared.

Here, there are showers and tents and a karaoke machine. In about four hours, we'll count down from 10 alongside members of this community — mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, and sisters — and we'll usher in 2001 together.

"Australia was the land where all men originated," said Terri, the camp leader, as he welcomed us the day before. "Therefore, we are all just ancestors returning home. So, welcome. Welcome home."

Collage with Sara Lieberman
Kaitlyn Collins

I hated leaving home as a kid. I'd go to sleepovers, but then find an excuse to skip out early — and by early, I don't mean sunrise the next day. Stomachache, forgot a toothbrush — you name it, I'd somehow get back to my own bed, where I'd drift off to reruns of The Golden Girls instead.

I didn't go to sleepaway camp, either. Come summertime, when seemingly every other girl my age went off to eat sloppy Joes in a mess hall and have their first kiss behind a tree, I stayed back with my younger sister and recreated an episode of Double Dare by fashioning an obstacle course on the lawn, or arranged a Barbie wedding — complete with toilet paper for the aisle.

I did, eventually, try a two-week theater camp a mere 20 minutes away, but would call crying from the pay phone every night and address letters to my parents as "urgent," writing, "I hate this. Please take me home."

Yet, despite all this, and not studying abroad while attending a university that was only a four-hour drive from where I grew up on Long Island's South Shore, I ended up in the Australian outback; a fresh-faced 21-year-old not only outside my native nest, but weaving together a temporary one with little more than a Lonely Planet guidebook, some journals, and a Sony Discman as my closest companions. Untethered to the blueprint and foundation of my original dwelling, I was suddenly the "bride married to amazement," as poet Mary Oliver wrote. "The bridegroom, taking the world into my arms."

Where this audacity and newfound awe suddenly came from, I do not know. But six months backpacking through Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Southeast Asia proved there's nothing quite like facing fears I didn't know I had, nor why. What or where was home anyway? I started to wonder. Is it a place? Is it the split-level I was raised in and rarely wanted to leave? Or is it the people and things and feelings that make up a place or a person?

Right there, in the middle of the Australian outback, I was alone, but not. Right there, on New Year's Eve 2001, homesickness had a duel with wanderlust, and wanderlust won.

Homesickness had a duel with wanderlust, and wanderlust won.

There is a golden retriever sitting next to me, wagging his tail, at a restaurant called Auberge Flora in Paris's 11th arrondissement. He's eyeing my foie gras, but I'm pretty sure, despite being French, dogs do not eat foie gras. Or, maybe they do here, but I'm too new to this town to risk the faux pas of giving him some. The restaurant is empty, save for me and my four-legged companion. But it's only 4 p.m., and I'm there to celebrate an American holiday: Thanksgiving.

The decision to leave New York City for a new home in Paris two weeks shy of my country's most familial, food-based fête may seem a bit odd. But I had the best of intentions, which included "if not now, when" and "it gives me two weeks to find a place to live before the first of December, when a lease might start." If only finding an apartment in Paris as a freelancer and foreigner — without a job contract and regular salary — was that easy. But, at the moment, that is the least of my concerns. The retriever is now being relentless in his attempt to get some of my squash soup topped with salty roasted pumpkin seeds. I look around, wondering who will see me sneak him a piece of bread. I'm in the clear, and we share a moment of thankfulness. Him for the bread, me for the company.

Once again, I am alone, but I am not. I am in a foreign land, and yet I am home.

Image of writer, Sara Lieberman in Paris in 2013
Courtesy of Sara Lieberman

It's been more than 20 years since I spent New Year's Eve in the Australian outback with an Aboriginal community and a bunch of backpackers, and seven since my first Thanksgiving in Paris with the golden retriever. I credit the former for enabling the latter. In fact, it's highly likely I wouldn't be living in Paris right now had I not somehow worked up the courage to board that Qantas Airbus following college graduation.

During the years in between, despite anxiety and doubt plaguing me every time I arrived at the airport alone, I continued to visit various other countries solo — Italy, Guatemala, Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Montenegro, Israel, Vietnam, and Indonesia. And in doing so, I continued to prove to myself that it's always worth it — and, in many cases, even more rewarding than traveling with a companion. I am the maker of my own destiny — deciding the when, where, and how without any arguments or debates, and taking full responsibility for both my wins and losses. I am the forger of connections, be it out of necessity or loneliness, teaching me quickly how strangers can become fast friends. But my truest of true reasons for continuing to go it alone is because of all the inevitable setbacks that will, undoubtedly, strengthen my resilience and confidence to keep going, to know what's possible.

Franz Josef Glacier In Westland Tai Poutini National Park, New Zealand inside yellow frame
Nur Fatihah Ibrahim/EyeEm/Getty Images

I survived a near-drowning on the Gulf of Thailand and skirted being scammed by gem sellers in Bangkok. I broke skin on my shin sliding down New Zealand's Franz Josef glacier and then popped my left eardrum that very same day while skydiving over a giant green field of sheep. I got lost on a hike in Étretat, France, and again in the Golan, Israel. I second-guessed my decision to join a group cruise in Croatia. I ate questionable shrimp on the streets of Hanoi.

I was scared sometimes. But I was also awestruck. I was thirsty for the unknown — for what I'd yet to discover. The next bus ride. The next border crossing. The next hike, waterfall, sunset, or night sky full of stars. The next temporary home of my own making.

Framed image of Sara Lieberman on a hike in Guatemala
Courtesy of Sara Lieberman

Patterns emerged, too. Aside from getting lost on a hike, which is a thing I appear to do no matter the continent, I discovered I will also always spend the first 45 minutes of any solo road trip questioning the speed limit and confused about directions. And I will also, almost certainly, forget something when I leave the tent/apartment/hotel/car/beach/restaurant.

But here's what I also learned: When I'm not freaking out because I can't find my way, once I do, the immense gratification outweighs the distress. Those road trips, during which I white-knuckle it down freeways and winding, single-lane roads, remind me that I should follow my instincts as well as the road ahead. And most of the time — with the exception of a water bottle (always have water with you) — forgetting something, as my mom always says, means I want to come back. That I will come back — and/or that I can probably do without it.

Some women tend to be wary of traveling alone because of the what-ifs: What if I lose my wallet? What if I don't know how to speak the language? What if I miss the bus/plane/train? What if I get sick? What if I get bored? What if it's too dark? I'll tell you: You figure it out. You use Google Translate. You take the next train. You ask for help. You talk to the person next to you. You find the light. You make the light. You do just like you would do at "home."

I've come to realize that the only way to truly understand the concept of home is to leave it. To find a new one by going away.

In all the years and all the countries, it's the close calls and the oops-I-did-it-agains that stick with me most because of the tenacity I gained as a result of overcoming them — as a human and certainly an independent woman navigating the mysterious and sometimes daunting world. These are the experiences that propel me to try another hike on my own or rent the car myself or navigate the French immigration system or open a French bank account or figure out how to get a new couch up six flights of stairs. These are the stories I remember vividly without having to read through old diaries or look through a gazillion photos. Not that those diaries, headphones, and cameras aren't worth the extra carry-on weight. They are the fuel that keeps me going. I "speak" to my journal as if it's a person, apologizing for skipping a day or two. And some two decades later, when I listen to David Gray's "White Ladder" album, I'm immediately transported back to New Zealand's South Island, while Dido's "No Angel" brings me to the rice fields of Bali, and with the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Californication," I am looking out the window of a big green bus called the Oz Experience, bumbling along the Great Ocean Road. Cameras are not only the key to visual memories, but remain the least awkward way to start a conversation — even in the age of selfies.

For someone who was once fearful of going around the block to spend the night at a friend's house, or sleeping in a bunk for eight weeks in the woods, I've come to realize that the only way to truly understand the concept of home is to leave it. To find a new one by going away. To fight the fear of longing for what feels safe and for what I know by thrusting myself into what I don't. From lake huts in Guatemala and bamboo losmen in Bali, to cruise cabins in Croatia and hotels in Tel Aviv, it's only when I'm alone — a passport in my pocket and a good dose of trepidation stuck in my throat — that I start to assess where, and with whom, my true belonging lies. And that is both away in the world at large, but also right there, at home, in the land of me, myself, and I.

Sara Lieberman is a New York-born, Paris-based writer whose work also appears in Hemispheres, Afar, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and more. Her newsletter, Overthinking It, is sent out Fridays and Tuesdays, and she can be found on Instagram @saraglieberman.

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