The bus was mostly filled with pre-Contiki friends and lucky for them, a solid foundation to survive the following 18 days. Their lack of inclusion simmered disappointment, spurred anxiety and reinforced inadequacy within me. Contiki was a dive into the deep end of unsteady water and uneven shades of blue reflecting my fractured sense of hope.
Hope that I would fit in, make friends of a lifetime and ride that wave from introversion to extroversion.
These individuals became a collective. There they were, aligned side by side like a field of sunflowers stretching higher than the other. Bright, with shards of energy piercing through each soft petal like the skin of each person. Occasionally there lay a weed in the bunch, the solo traveller or the ones dissimilar to the mass’ placed in a rocky, uncomfortable and nerve-wracking environment. That was me.
Fresh out of high school, only two weeks 18, one large suitcase and a gap year to fulfil. “You have to last the whole year,” I told myself, “no giving into homesickness, no giving up on challenging situations.” I lasted and I survived, one self-challenge to tick off. It wasn’t all smooth sailing. I felt like I was swimming against a wild, stormy current and more often than not, smacked by the dumpers and debris.
Abroad, I didn’t have the comfort zone or the close friends to fall back onto. It was bittersweet. I wanted to flee out of my element yet I needed sanctuary. In a fight to combat introversion I booked a Contiki group tour only knowing one person.
Inherently introverted, I grew out of being shy but still hated being in the spotlight. It was hard to interact with more than 3 people in a group, especially with strangers. I think this was because I felt the pressure to change my personality to feel recognised and part of the extroverts.
But it gets more complicated than this. Travel introversion is the constant battle between needing to recharge alone, but fearing you will miss what’s happening. It’s being out of sync with others, the urge to sleep instead of going to group dinner. It’s withering away with each conversation until you become a forgotten face. It’s the fear of going home regretting not doing more things or meeting more people which spirals you into a state of worry, further mental exhaustion. This was something many people didn’t understand, including me.
Pretty strange contradiction, right?
I figured, you can cruise along the road labelled introversion, or you can take a sharp right and speed into extroversion with a fifty percent chance of keeping up the intense pace or a fifty percent chance of crashing. I went all in, not without vodka, the social lubricant. I started to feel a part of the sunflowers, bright and bursting with energy, keeping up the stamina and pace. A tourist in the day and a party animal at night. It didn’t last very long and the burn out was immense. It travelled with me for a while, but when I stopped trying to morph from a weed to a sunflower, acceptance of individuality, happiness and the gravitation of other weeds emerged, where together we flourished.
Connection and bonding came with the little interactions with individuals during the times between the group pub crawls, dinners and bus rides that made the trip more enjoyable. It was sitting on the balcony at a Hungarian Gasthof watching silly Youtube videos, lying on the grass at the Eiffel tower discussing the strange concept of what’s considered ‘beautiful’ whilst eating a Nutella crepe. It was hiking up mountains in Switzerland and singing our hearts out when we reached the top. I realised I got to know people as individuals, rather than the field of flowers that attempt to outshine one another.
I also realised how essential it is to find a balance between being social and having downtime. Even though it may be more alone time than what others need, it will allow you to be social all the way through the 18-day jam-packed tour.
At the end of the trip I was glad to explore Europe, testing myself in each new city. Instead of packing up my suitcase and setting off on a comfortable boat to see brighter days, I packed my suitcase and powered through on a rickety raft, ferocious waves and all.
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