The Best (and Worst) Things That Ever Happened to Me Traveling - This American Girl

This American Girl


Do you ever find yourself getting caught up in the “worst case” scenarios?


Obsessively analyzing the probability of what may or may not happen? Doing everything you can to ensure that nothing goes wrong? Feeling nervous to chase after a dream because you wonder about the potential risks?




I used to be like that. And then I left to travel the world.


Traveling on my own through developing countries I realized that I didn’t always have the ability to avoid disaster. I didn’t always have control over my circumstances. Paradoxically, that lack of control made me feel more powerful than ever. I could let go of the obsession and let life happen.


I believe that even when I feel completely out of control, what I encounter in life occurs as a result of the energy I bring into the world. This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with risk protection and that it’s your “fault” if you encounter tragedy.


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Rather, the point is that I take responsibility for what happens to me in life. I choose to live with a foundation of trust, rather than in anticipation of danger. For the most part it works out for me. I’ve been gifted with beauty far more often than pain. When I have experienced pain, I looked for the lesson, and found the beauty beneath it.


Travel, just like life, doesn’t have to be scary. It can actually be the most beautiful, liberating, experience that exists.


So today I’m laying it all out there, the best and the absolute worst things I’ve endured in over three years of travel. My hope is that reading them will show you that even in the scariest moments, you have nothing to fear in this world.


pavones beach jumping


Best: I Overcame My Fears


Traveling on your own through developing countries, you’ll likely be faced with fears every single day. Communicating with people when you don’t speak a word of the language for instance. Or learning to ride a motorbike in the remote rice terraces of Indonesia. Jumping off of waterfalls with locals in Morocco. Getting lost in crazy over-stimulating cities. Sleeping in dorm rooms with absolute strangers. Encountering bugs the size of small cats.


On the road I’ve been faced with every fear imaginable. Instead of running from them, I worked through them. I stuck it out through the hard times, I pushed myself outside of my comfort zone, and I empowered myself to believe that I could overcome it. What I discovered, is that none of the things that once scared me… were actually scary.


This realization has granted me so much more possibility in what I’m capable of achieving and how I’m capable of living.


surfing playa guiones


Worst: I Almost Drowned


Growing up near the Atlantic shore, I was no stranger to big waves. As a kid I ran into the ocean whole-heartedly, allowing the waves to tumble me back onto the shore. Back then I had no fear.


As I got older I developed an ego about this. I ignored red flags and friends who warned me about rip tides. I carried that attitude with me to Costa Rica, notorious for strong currents. On my second trip to Costa Rica, playing out in the waves alone when there were flag warnings, I nearly drowned. I got caught in a rip tide and couldn’t make my way back in. I grew so exhausted from swimming that I actually decided to just let myself drown. Fortunately, the beach had a lifeguard, who came out and rescued me.


Since then I’ve learned the difference between fearlessness and ignorance. If you treat the earth (or anything) with disrespect, it will eventually catch up with you. Now I revere the ocean, heed its warnings, and practice moving in harmony with the waves, rather than fighting them. In general, I strive to balance fearlessness with humility.


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Best: I Learned to Relax


Before I walked barefoot in the jungle, lived in a house with tropical critters, and rode my bicycle to “work” in a bikini, I was what many people called “high strung”. I needed constant stimulation, had trouble sitting still, and I fell apart when things didn’t go as planned.


Then Costa Rica squeezed the stress out of me. I witnessed another way of life called “pura vida.” Where people truly lived the words “don’t worry be happy,” and any problem could be solved by jumping into the ocean. I surrendered to a slower pace, one closer to the rhythm of nature, and for the first time in my life I felt relaxed.


The more I travel in developing countries, the more I learn to relax. I’ve witnessed that whether I run out of water in the jungle mid shower or get sick on a 36 hour 100 degree bus ride, stressing about it is never the solution. The key is letting go of what you cannot control and finding happiness anyway.


Being able to find peace and contentment when life doesn’t happen the way I want it to, is the single greatest life skill I’ve gained.




Worst: I Was Scammed. And Scammed. And Scammed.


When you travel, especially on a budget in developing countries, you’re bound to get scammed. It doesn’t matter how savvy you are, there will be times when it’s completely beyond your control.


For instance, crossing the border into Cambodia from Laos and Thailand. Most of the borders into Cambodia are notorious for scams, which involves everyone from bus drivers to tour guides to government officials. They’ll overcharge you, convince you to pay extra for a different bus, and do whatever they can to get more money.


In Central America I’ve also had plenty of transportation scams. Most notably with taxi drivers, who have done anything from drive me around in circles to quote me an inflated exchange rate.


I’ve been overcharged, manipulated into playing card games, bait and switched in Morocco, you name it I’ve seen it. As a white American girl traveling on her own, I’m an easy target. The good news is, I’ve never truly been in danger. Usually it has simply involved an unpleasant argument, a longer journey, or paying a few more dollars than I should have.


The scamming may be inevitable, but there are ways to minimize the damage. Over the years I’ve developed some basic guidelines. I always research the local scams before I arrive in a country so I know the game that’s being played, I make sure to know the local currency and exchange rates, I feign confidence with strangers, and when I encounter a scam that’s unavoidable I do my best to not let it upset me.


For more tips on how to handle scams, read my posts How to Survive a Taxi Ride in Latin America, How to Travel as a Woman Alone in Morocco Without Going Insane, and I Scammed a Scammer in Phnom Penh.


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Best: I Became Independent


Before I started traveling, I often blamed others for the limitations I felt in my life. I blamed my friends for not being more adventurous or available. I blamed my boyfriend for not being more open and loving. I blamed my family for raising me to be who I was. I blamed everything outside of me for my unhappiness.


Traveling on my own I had to take responsibility for anything from how I would find my way across a country on a chicken bus to where I’d be sleeping that night. I realized that I alone determined how my day, and ultimately my life, would unfold.


I learned what made me happiest and I took the initiative and the responsibility to make it happen. I acknowledged that my happiness and my life was up to no one but me.


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Worst: I Ran Out of Money


When I decided to commit to a life of travel, running out of money was my greatest fear. And it happened to me. More than once.


Like the time traveling in Southeast Asia, when I was working as a freelance writer and didn’t line up enough gigs. Consequently I found myself on an island with only $30 in the bank. Or when I completed my Yoga Teacher Training and hadn’t worked in a month and had a negative balance.


It wasn’t easy, but running out of money has been the best thing that ever happened to me. For one, it pushed me to hustle. It reminded me to not get too comfortable. It challenged me to start adding more value to my creative endeavors. More importantly, it showed me that even my greatest fear wasn’t actually the end of the world.


Ha Long Bay


Best: I Saw More Beauty Than I Knew Existed


You can never fully prepare yourself for the magic of seeing a sunrise over the ocean on a deserted island. Or watching the landscape change while riding in a long tail boat across the Mekong river. Or flying through glistening rice fields to a karst mountain and discovering a pristine cave pool.


You can never fully prepare yourself for the generosity of people who apparently have nothing. The locals who earn a dollar a day yet invite you to share their meal with them. The strangers on the bus who genuinely try to help you when they see that you’re alone. The children who call you their sister and play with you on the beach.


You can never fully prepare yourself for the beauty of the world. Witnessing it first hand is the best thing that has ever happened to me.


san blas boat


Worst: I Was Stuck on a Tiny Sailboat With a Drunk Captain


Few situations are as uncomfortable as being seasick on a tiny sailboat with eight other people in the middle of the story sea with a drunk captain. Despite the many warnings, I took the notorious sailing trip from Panama to Colombia through the San Blas Islands. We were out at sea for five days with no refrigeration, no shower, and a captain who perpetually drank and smoked weed.


But I did survive, and I was able to practice meditation on a new level. I managed to stay calm despite enduring incapacitating motion sickness. I also learned enough about this backpacker right of passive to give my readers the best advice in my post How (Not to) Sail from Panama to Colombia.


san blas


Best: I Realized Happiness


Like many people, I once attributed my happiness to my outside circumstances. If I had a great boyfriend, then I would be happy. If I had the career of my dreams, then I would be happy. Consequently, my moments of happiness were fleeting.


Since traveling to Costa Rica, I’ve realized that happiness is far more expansive than I once thought. Happiness can actually be experienced in every moment. This idea is embodied in the national mantra of Costa Rica: “Pura Vida.” Directly it translates to “pure life,” but it is used to express much more than that.


When the sun is shining, you’re having fun with friends, you’re falling in love, and you’re riding the high of the wave, you absolutely say Pura Vida. But you also say Pura Vida in your moments of greatest struggle. When it’s pouring down rain, you’re fired from your job, and when you’re heartbroken, you still say Pura Vida.


Pura Vida means choosing the path of happiness regardless of your circumstances. That happiness exists eternally. That happiness requires simply turning within and acknowledging that happiness is not only a choice, happiness is your true nature.


For more on Costa Rica, check out my ebook The Ultimate Guide to Costa Rica.


Generosity in Cambodia - 25


Worst: I Got Food Poisoning… A Lot.


I like to travel adventurously, and a big part of that means eating adventurously. However, with a sensitive immune system from a lifetime of Western medicine and antibiotics, I got food poisoning… a lot. We’re talking unable to keep anything down on remote tropical islands and in crowded hostels in developing countries. A couple of years ago it got so bad that I wondered if I would have to stop traveling.


Then I discovered an extremely effective probiotic beverage that I could make a continuous supply of while traveling, for free. Read more about what kefir is and how you can make it in my post How to Travel the World and Never Get Food Poisoning.


Even chronic food poisoning ended up being a blessing. It introduced to me the world of holistic health and wellness. Now I eat, live, and feel healthier than I ever did before I left to go traveling.


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Best: I Found My Tribe


How many of us go through life with people around us, but lacking true connection? Despite my outgoing personality, I struggled with cultivating and maintaining friendships for most of my life. I often felt left out and wondered if I “fit in.”


On the road I discovered so many other misfits. People who defied convention. People who marched to the beat of their own drum. I befriended yoga teachers, healers, nomads, surfers, all kinds of people on a quest to discover more in life and more in themselves.


Today I have inspiring friends all over the world who come from all different perspectives. More than that, I have a tribe of like-minded individuals who support me.


Bocas del Toro


Worst: I Got Bitten by a Wild Dog


The only time I’ve needed emergency care in over three years of travel was when a wild dog in Thailand bit me. Even this situation could have been avoided. I couldn’t get a good wifi connection at my hostel, so I decided to walk over to a restaurant on the beach in the dark. With my laptop open, the screen blinding me, I accidentally stepped on the dog. Terrified, he bit me multiple times.


How could this have been avoided? If I had been more mindful and aware of my surroundings, rather than distracted by trying to get wifi, it would not have happened. Though even this emergency wasn’t all that bad.


I went to a 24-hour clinic, got the rabies vaccine, and after about 6 courses of treatment over the following month I only spend $250. That cost was without having health insurance or travel insurance and it hardly broke the bank.


Cat Ba Island


Best: I Discovered My Life’s Purpose


As humans we’re blessed with the incredible privilege of discovering the meaning of life. Though sometimes that privilege can feel like a curse. I remember feeling unsure about what I should be doing with my life. I knew that my purpose extended beyond working in a cubicle at a Marketing company, but I didn’t know how.


Leaving to go and travel the world was the first step I took onto the right path. Since then, the world has continually revealed the meaning of my life. What I mean by this, is that I’ve discovered how I can experience the greatest bliss and use my unique gifts to better the world.


If you’re hoping to do the same, check out my post How to Figure Out What the F*&K You Should be Doing With Your Life.


San Jose


Worst: I Endured a lot of Sexual Harassment


Let me start by saying that sexual harassment happens everywhere in the world. It’s an unfortunate manifestation of fear. I believe that when men sexually harass women, it’s because they’re afraid of their own femininity and in turn try to dominate all femininity.


Nonetheless, there are certain parts of the world where sexual harassment seems to be more rampant than others. The places where I’ve experienced the worst sexual harassment include Nicaragua and Morocco, however all of Latin America has a well-deserved reputation for sexual harassment being “normal.”


It does get exhausting, at times even disillusioning. However I’ve never felt like I was in danger, and if I ignore people they usually stop. I’ve also noticed that when I confront the person they usually become embarrassed. The more you can humanize yourself, the less likely the harassment will be.


If you want to avoid it altogether, I experienced little to no sexual harassment in Southeast Asia (with the exception of one man who exposed himself to me and masturbated on the street in Chiang Mai).


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Best: I Fell in Love


People ask me if I’ve ever found love on the road.


I find love on the road constantly. It’s there every time I look out the window of an airplane, when I run recklessly into the ocean, when I taste something I can’t pronounce the name of, when I sit in silence watching a sunset, and each time I exchange a smile with someone new.


The true, lasting love I’ve found on the road is a love for this beautiful world. Mother nature and all of her wonderful gifts are my greatest loves of all.


Bocas del Toro


Worst: I Had My Heart Broken


Mother nature isn’t the only one I’ve fallen for. There have been a few times where I’ve fallen in love with men on the road, and each time I’ve found myself heartbroken. The relationships have ranged from disappointing to disastrous.


I’ve met my soul mate only to realize he was more of a one night. I’ve fallen for someone who told me from the start it had an end. I’ve been swindled by a Latino lothario who even had his sister beat me up one night in a bar.


But I don’t regret any of it.


As much as it hurts, when I’m heartbroken I feel the most gratitude. I experience a rawness that reminds me that I’m alive.


Ultimate Guide to Puerto Viejo - 019


Best: I Found My Home


I may have lived there for most of my life, but Seattle never really felt like my home. I think many people feel that way about the place where they grew up, and possibly even the place where they live now.


Traveling opens us up to different possibilities. We see other ways of living and through that process we become more in touch with what feels naturally good. The more I travel, the more I discover where I truly belong. For me, that place is Costa Rica.


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Worst: I Realized There’s no Going Back


I never planned to be a life long traveler. I thought I’d go to Costa Rica, relax for a bit, and come back to my conventional life. When I kept traveling, I thought I just needed to get it out of my system. Three and a half years later and I’ve accepted that this is in fact my life.


The worst thing that has ever happened to me traveling, is realizing that I can never go back.


I’ll never again live in the states and see my family every weekend. I’ll never again live a “normal” life. I’ll never again call my birth home, my home. The people whom I love more than anything in the world, will never be part of the lifestyle that I love more than anything in the world.


But even the worst thing that has happened to me, is also the best thing that has ever happened to me. Because though there may be no going back, I know that I’m moving in the right direction.


What’s the best and the worst thing that has ever happened to you traveling?


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