Most international students have to take a flight, or even several flights, to reach their destination in the U.S. By the time we become seniors we are professionals at packing suitcases, navigating airports and making it through long flights. Very early in my undergraduate career I learned how unpredictable traveling can be, and got some lessons that have stuck with me every time I’ve traveled since.
One of the first big lessons about traveling that I have learned over the years is that I should always bring rolling luggage. Carrying handbags makes it so difficult and time-consuming to get around the airport. On top of that, I often lost time by mixing up terminals and going to the wrong place. Now I know to stay calm and even when someone working at the airport directs me to a place I should always double-check the airport signs.
However, even when you are careful, things that you don’t expect happen. Sitting on my first transatlantic flight, I learned that we would be arriving in New York a few hours late because of an additional engine check. A few hours of waiting should be fine, I thought, until it turned out that we had to wait an additional hour, which meant that I wouldn’t have enough time to catch the connecting flight that was taking me to my destination.
When my plane finally landed in the U.S., I ran through immigration and customs, baggage claim, and several terminals to reach my connecting flight, which was set to leave in thirty minutes.
I finally arrived at the right terminal, only to learn that my connecting flight had been canceled due to bad weather conditions. I was stuck in New York City until the next day. It was my first time alone in a foreign country on a different continent, and I found myself struggling to stay calm.
A lady working for the airport handed me a voucher for a hotel room for the night and mumbled something about which train, subway, and then bus I would have to take to get to the hotel. My mind reeling, all I could say was, “Could you repeat that?”
After taking a few minutes to calm down, eventually I got it together and went to find the hotel.
As I dragged my two suitcases and carry-on bag behind me, I was approached by a person who offered to drive me to wherever I was going. He certainly wasn’t a taxi driver – taxis are only available from the official taxi line and they’re not allowed to approach you on the streets. Rather, I got the sense that he was someone who had sensed my vulnerability and was more likely to steal my purse or suitcases than to get me to the hotel. I told him someone was waiting for me, which was a lie, but it discouraged him from bothering me. I finally found my own way to the hotel without any more trouble.
In the morning I went back to the airport and took three other flights, without incident, to get to my final destination.
This experience, my first journey in the U.S., was a big influence on the attitude I now have towards traveling. I know that wherever I am and whoever I am with, I can always solve whatever unexpected situations arise.
Even after many years of moving back and forth between two continents, my desire to travel has not ceased. This spring semester I am enrolling in comparative a study abroad program that will take me to places in three different continents, namely New Delhi, Dakar, and Buenos Aires. The goal of this journey is to foster a better understanding of the interconnected social, physical, economic, environmental, and political systems that affect each city. Although I have learned that the key is always flexibility, I still have doubts about how prepared I am to face the challenges that the travel experience could bring.
However, although I have now been to more than twenty airports and feel confident in handling the practicalities of traveling, there are some aspects of traveling I still find challenging. Flying to me always symbolizes saying goodbye, because when I travel I’m always leaving something or someone behind, and leaving a place I am accustomed to for one that might be completely new, unknown, and unpredictable. No matter how many times I fly, the question, “Should I have stayed?” still crosses my mind.
This nervousness about the unknown will never go away, but it’s part of the excitement about a new adventure and the great things that the new places will bring. The uncertainty of traveling gives you a unique kind of confidence that will assist you throughout your whole life. Making it through the challenges all by yourself makes you more mature and responsible , and even when everything goes wrong you learn that the journey is as much of an adventure as the destination.