Just when I thought I was getting too old to have those college-backpacker, life-changing experiences, I found myself samba dancing down the main street of a South American town, wearing only a skirt and sequinned bra top.
Like a fool, I had promised myself that I would say yes to any opportunity that came my way in this, the first real, non-touristy international travel of my life,. Even when I felt tired to getting stared at and laughed at when I tried to speak, even when I didn’t know where we were headed, even when I felt sleepy and like nuzzling under my covers with a book, I made myself take the opportunities in front of me.
One day, the opportunity in front of me was two high schoolers, saying in Spanish, “We want you to dance in our carnival parade!”
The rational part of me told me to say no. But I had promised myself, promised I wouldn’t join Peace Corps and come down to South America just to wuss out when things got uncomfortable. Dancing in public was, to say the least, not in my wheelhouse.
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But I said what I promised I’d say. I said, “Si.”
“Ok great!” they said. “Just bring us a bra to decorate as your top!”
So now I’d be dancing a dance I’d never danced, in an outfit I would never usually wear out of the house, in a country where I was half a foot taller than the average man and ogled at like a giant.
What else is travel for, if not to discover what else you might do, if you just got on a plane? So many people go somewhere new and just do the same old things. They take a cruise and only interact with the locals at the cordoned-off tourist shops. They go abroad but only to the party hostels. They drink margaritas in Thailand.
Travel can be a great time to learn about yourself, but only if you let yourself be pushed. So when we found the cart selling fried bamboo worms in Thailand, I scrunched up my nose and tried one. When I was adventure traveling in Hawaii and we came to a 25-foot cliff, I disobeyed my quaking knees and jumped. When the groundskeeper at Recoleta in Buenos Aires asked if we wanted to go down in one of the crypts, we said sure.
While keeping safety in mind (that last one was a little sketchy), you have to ask yourself why you’re here. “We all travel thousands of miles just to watch TV and check in to somewhere with all the comforts of home,” says the character Richard in the movie The Beach, “and you gotta ask yourself, what is the point of that?”
In the month between getting asked to dance in the parade and the day of, my stomach cramped up and I barely slept. I studied samba on the internet, but my host sister made fun of me and tried to help me, laughing and shaking her head as I tried.
I was not going to dance well. I was not going to look good. But dammit, I was going to samba in carnival, and I would have that story for the rest of my life.
How we say no
With all the wonderful technology we have around us, it’s easier to slip into little no’s when traveling, without even realizing it. While you’re waiting for the bus next to someone else, it’s so much easier to just check out your phone rather than start a conversation with a local. The questions aren’t always out loud. You don’t always have to say no to deny yourself an experience.
We can just stick to the places we find on Yelp rather than asking around. We can walk around a foreign city listening to our music from home rather than taking in the street sounds. We can stay in when we’re sleepy.
Once, on a trip to Colombia, our Couchsurfing hosts asked if we wanted to go out. My friend Tessa said, “I’m so tired, I just want to go to bed, but I know if I go out, it could be one of those nights you remember for the rest of your life.”
It was the latter, as we discovered our host was a former professional salsa dancer. I will never forget watching her feet tap across the floor like a weightless puppet being held by strings. Later that night, we kind of got trapped in an apartment with an old lady and a rooster, which will be a story I forever tell.
Saying yes doesn’t always end in a “win.” I did not kill it at samba dancing. But I killed it at shoving myself out of my comfort zone. What travel has done for me, and what those years of saying yes did for me, is teach me how to operate amid feelings of discomfort and insecurity. So many people let those feelings stop them at the door. They don’t face them, muck through them, to get beyond who they are to find out who they could be.
For me, traveling was a way to break free from a bad time I was going through. Life was shifting in ways I hadn’t planned, and going out there helped me feel like I was creating my own story instead of just taking what life had handed me. Even after coming home, I continued to say yes, to starting my own business, pursuing my art full time, and setting up my life in a way that will have me growing, the big yes to it all.
Images: Paulette Perhach