Photo: Aleksandra Suzi/Shutterstock

What It's Like to Travel Solo at 16

by Joseph Foley Oct 29, 2012
Joseph Foley invites us into the mind of a conflicted teenage traveler.

IF THERE’S ONE THING this article is about, it’s freedom. It’s not about this city I went to or that place I went to. This article is about the freedom to travel alone at 16, and the desires, independence, and love of life this freedom has taught me to embrace.

I’m a 16-year-old from the Boston area. This past year I managed to persuade my mother to let me go on some trips alone. I did everything on my own: staying in hostels, flying on planes, figuring out train and bus routes, and visiting the tourist attractions.

I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. Besides the now-and-then social awkwardness and, on a better note, the obsessive passion it gives me to explore and learn new things about the world, I don’t think it’s a game-changer for my travels. I don’t let it hold me back. At school, it’s a different story, but travel-wise, I believe it’s a benefit. I could write a whole article about this, but that’s not my focus here. It is one of my important characteristics, though, so I wanted to mention it.

I’ve been on four trips now. One to Washington, DC, one to Scotland, one to San Francisco, and one to Iceland. Each was important to me in its own way, but as I said before, that’s not what this article is about.

When I first stepped off the Amtrak Acela train on my trip to DC, I felt, for a few very short seconds, a “wow” feeling I’d never felt before. I had been excited about doing this and that in Washington, DC for a few weeks. But for those seconds, I felt an emotion that will always remain in my heart. I felt a heartwarming pride as I realized just how important this trip was for me. It felt like a rite of passage.

Then there was the volcano hike I did in Iceland, which showed, more than anything else, the importance of perseverance. The trail was slippery. One wrong step could’ve led to a fall into a canyon. It also became extremely windy, with sleet pummeling our faces, but we kept going up. Me and the other tour group members persevered and made it to the top.

During a long layover in Dublin, I walked the streets at 6am. None of the museums were open, so I aimlessly wandered, taking in the feel of the early-morning city. The experience taught me how travel isn’t about ticking off this sight and that sight, but rather something to immerse yourself in, to simply experience walking down a street in a foreign country.

The freedom to travel has allowed me to visit castles and museums, climb glaciers and volcanoes, take in the landscapes in some incredible national parks. But to be bitten by the travel bug and have it become an obsession is not only a blessing — there are curse aspects as well.

Through travel, we realize how much we could do if we had the time and money. Yet it’s always beyond reach. In my case, I have to go to school. If I didn’t, and if money were no object, I could book a flight anywhere and travel all the way across Europe and Asia. Instead, my next trip isn’t for a few months. I understand that I’m very lucky to go on so many trips, but it still seems like a long time to wait.

I know that my perspective is way off.

Which brings me to my next point. Frequent travel gives us a horrifically warped perspective. We are well off as young travelers, and what do we care about? While there are many kids in third-world countries for whom it takes three months to earn enough money to buy basic necessities, such as shoes, which we take for granted in the Western world, all we want is a ‘nice trip.’ Even if it’s not luxury travel, it still leads us to feel entitled to these trips, and to take them for granted.

I’m sure I’ll never truly understand the extent of how sickening this is to so many people. After all, I’ve never experienced life in a third-world slum, so I can’t ever truly understand. But I know that my perspective is way off. Things happen regularly for me that many could only dream of. As I write this, I realize that should be enough for me to be happy.

Whatever I do with my freedom, I’m still a privileged Westerner who takes that freedom for granted, even as I take advantage of it. I do feel this is unfair to those in poorer situations, and I’m willing to acknowledge my guilt in that. If I could have only one wish granted, I would wish that more people in the world could travel like me. [Feature photo: roberthuffstutter]

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