This post was contributed by Mekaleya Tilahun.
My whole life has been centered around two things: school and upholding expectations set by my deeply Habesha family. Growing up as the oldest of my 18 cousins in the US and the daughter of two Ethiopian immigrants, I spent my weekends doing things my peers weren’t like braiding my sister’s hair for school or helping my mom prepare Ethiopian food.
I graduated from college two years ago and moved back in with my parents, started a full-time job in clinical research, and used every hour outside of work to study for the MCAT in preparation for medical school. No matter how suffocated and stuck I felt, I kept going, convincing myself that once I got accepted to medical school, I’d feel complete and satisfied; I continued checking all of the boxes, so to speak. After performing so poorly on my exam, I derailed, quit my job immediately, and took on an opportunity to live in Boston for the summer – my first “Shut Up and Go” moment, and quite frankly, one of the best (and only) decisions I have made entirely for myself and my well-being.
Fast forward to January of this year and my life has turned around dramatically since then, as I’d just received my dream medical school acceptance. As humbled and honored as I was to be in this position, I suddenly felt an unexpected personal pressure to make the most of the next few months before starting school. I started panicking and thinking ahead to the months I would spend waiting at home for school to begin, so I planned a trip to Bali with my cousin in March and wanted to take one more trip later in the Spring.
The one thought that screamed louder than the rest was, “What would I think of myself if I didn’t go?”
I asked my friends to join me, but our schedules didn’t line up. Solo travel had crossed my mind before, but I shut the idea down quickly, already convinced through fear conditioning that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I felt fearful, not of being alone, but rather of being judged for being alone. The thoughts that raced through my mind were “What would my family think of me? My friends? Other people traveling with their loved ones? Would they pity me?”. Maybe it was the endless hours I spent on YouTube watching Damon and Jo started having an effect on me because the one thought that screamed louder than the rest was, “What would I think of myself if I didn’t go?”. And just like that, I pulled out my google doc, planned out a tentative itinerary and told my dad that I was going to Spain. As expected, we argued for days about safety and traveling alone “as a woman”, he tried many times to try to convince me not to go. But I stood my ground, offering some room for compromises along the way.
As a loving parent, his concerns were all valid – but they were not mine.
Two months later, I packed my carry on and jetted off to three weeks of unknown adventures. On my first night alone in Barcelona, I felt a familiar sense of mild panic identical to that feeling of your first night alone at college or in a new apartment. I locked up in my hotel room watching my favorite TV shows and listening to playlists to help me rediscover a sense of “home”. I spent the first few days in Barcelona mostly floating in jet-lag induced delirium but absorbing every spectacle of beauty the city offered. I was in love with the inspiration I got from the buildings, the variety of landscapes and the artistic essence in the air. As an artist who lost her way throughout college, this city was paradise for me… maybe it was the sangria talking but I swear, even my thoughts sounded more poetic than usual.
Being alone felt easier and easier as the days went by; the biggest lesson I learned was that I was only on my own if I wanted to be. Over the next three weeks, I explored Barcelona, Costa Brava, Girona, Sevilla, Ronda, Granada, and Madrid, and in every city, I continued to meet people from all over the world – many of them also solo travelers! I was in a trance in Sevilla as I walked the magical streets lined with lovers holding hands and adorned with gorgeous, illuminated buildings and churches. I had my Lizzie McGuire movie moment after meeting a charming Sevillano and touring the city through his eyes. In Madrid, I bounced around from restaurant to restaurant, energized by the liveliness of its people as I stuffed myself with tapas washed and washed them down with vermouth until the buttons in my jeans refused to cooperate.
I remember something that another fellow solo traveler-turned-friend Riley said to me: “It’s unfair to expect other people to get the chance to travel at the same time as you”. I loved the simplicity and the truth of that statement, and that was exactly why I was out there. I might not have noticed it, but I was so easily letting others affect how I lived my life. That being said, there are experiences I would love to share with others, but not EVERY experience needs to be shared. There’s joy in finding adventure for yourself, in visiting places you’ve dreamed about, in waking up every morning and going on your own schedule until sunset, in honoring yourself over anything or anyone.
There are experiences I would love to share with others, but not EVERY experience needs to be shared
I have no plans to let go of that feeling, so I’ll hold onto it tightly. Now I carry with me bittersweet memories of freedom and fumbling around the city with new friends, of forcing my broken Spanish out of my soul and tasting all of the “forbidden” foods my deeply Habesha blood was bound to reject. That feeling of finding myself as I found beauty in the world around me is what makes me want to go out and see what else is out there. But it also taught me that I could search and find beauty everywhere – not only on lavish trips outside of the country, but in every aspect of my life no matter where I’m located on the map.
Meet Mekaleya: A 23-year-old Bay Area native trying to find a way to intertwine her passion for science, art, and travel. On any random day, you’ll find her doing any/all of these things: writing her next story in her favorite coffee shop, listening to Maluma for the 789937th time, having deep convos about human complexity with her bestie Nava, or eating barbecue chips and strawberries on the beach. Keep up with her on IG.