Indagare’s Hannah Small shares her inspiring story of loss and self discovery through an 11-month solo travel journey that took her through Asia, Australia and the Middle East.
This interview is Part I of a new Indagare series on Solo Travel. Check back in future e-Newsletters for more, including tips for traveling alone, plus our list of ideal destinations for the solo traveler.
“My parents raised me to have an amazing sense of adventure. When I was little, we rented a camper and went to Mesa Verde in Colorado, and I thought it was the coolest place in the world. We were constantly hiking, exploring museums and dreaming of far-away places. From a young age, I was taught that curiosity was a beautiful thing, and it was my job to follow it.
My eyes were opened to the world’s endless possibilities when my oldest sister, Rachel, traveled to Israel when she was 17, an impressively young age. She organized it all on her own and one day, hopped on a plane and flew across the world, where she trekked through the Negev desert, swam in the Dead Sea and visited the national army. It was so inspiring to me. Traveling so far away, by yourself, was unheard of in our community. She was a regular trailblazer.
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I visited Rachel in Paris several years later when she was studying abroad. Together, we strolled through the old streets of the Marais, wandered into gilded cathedrals, explored the ever-mysterious Catacombs and stayed in a tiny, creaky-floored hotel on the Left Bank. It was magical, and I remember thinking, I never knew this feeling existed. Traveling, on the heels of my older sister, ignited something inside me. That was the start of everything for me.
Rachel was diagnosed with cancer when she was 21 and, after months of fighting, passed away. I was 15. During the time following her death, I suffered a tremendous loss of faith. Nothing made sense to me, and nothing mattered. I felt like I didn’t ‘get it’ anymore.
Several years later, we went as a family to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain and spread Rachel’s ashes. There, admiring the beautiful archways and mesmerizing tiles, I could hear her voice in my head from years prior, saying, “You have to go there one day.” She said. “It will be one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see.” And it was.
In college, inspired by the legacy Rachel left behind, I studied abroad in Cape Town. It was the first time I felt right again; I felt alive. Experiencing the resilient energy of the city, climbing Table Mountain and exploring the downtown art scene brought me to a world that made sense: a world where my sister’s spirit existed.
After I graduated from college, my dad sat me down and asked what I wanted to do. “Name it, and we will support you,” he said. I told him I wanted to travel, craving the euphoria I had experienced in Paris and Cape Town. So I took the plunge and began the planning process. I tried to find travel companions, but to no avail, and I knew, deep down, I had to do it on my own. I was craving a certain validation: I knew this would be the thing that would make me feel proud.
While I had a general idea of my route, I made a conscious decision not to plan too much. I had become fascinated with Southeast Asia, and I knew it was an easy place to meet people. So I started there, with a one-way ticket to Vietnam and no set itinerary.
It was terrifying to land in Vietnam and be by myself. My feet hit the tarmac and I thought, What have I done? In the taxi from the airport, the driver asked, “Scared?” and smiled. During my first few weeks, I experienced incredible self doubt, wondering whether I could really pull if off. But with a lot of grit and a bit of luck, I found myself completely autonomous–and completely happy–during what would become a crazy, exhausting and amazing, year-long adventure.
With only a backpack, I traveled throughout Southeast Asia, India, Australia, New Zealand and parts of the Middle East. I slurped noodles at hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Saigon; dined in local homes in rural Malaysia; took a boat ride on the Bosphorus in Turkey; saw the lights of Mumbai at night; skydived along the glaciers of Queenstown; and made lifelong friends. I found such happiness in realizing: I got myself here. I remember looking around and thinking, for the first time in a long time: everything makes sense now.
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I saw my sister everywhere–in the smiles of others, in the kindness of strangers, in the vibrant colors that surrounded me. I embarked on this adventure focused on the world’s harshness, but instead was confronted with its incredible, untouchable beauty. Little by little, I was healed: by the markets of India; the food in Thailand; the waterfalls of New Zealand; my jolly cab driver in Sri Lanka. I like to think that my sister’s death left a hole in my heart, and traveling planted flowers around it.
During my travels, I learned so many important lessons that I still hold dear. First, I found that the most present, and most capable I am is when I am traveling alone. Yes, it takes so much work to make it happen. Things go wrong, flights are missed, monuments are closed, and there are many tears along the way. But it’s more than worth it. Everyone sees the sites and temples, but what you remember is how you got there, what you did and the people you met. By traveling alone, this feeling is maximized. Being autonomous is blissful; everything feels more exciting, and more special, when discovered solo.
On one of my last nights, I was taking an overnight train in India, and I was thinking of Rachel. She was the reason I was there, in the middle of a country so far from home, feeling more accomplished than I ever have in my life. I looked out my window, and out of nowhere, fireworks erupted in the starry night sky. I smiled: I knew she was next to me.”
This interview is Part I of a new Indagare series on Solo Travel. Check back in future e-Newsletters for more, including tips for traveling alone, plus our list of ideal destinations for the solo traveler. Contact Indagare to plan your solo travel journey.