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I arrived in Porto, Portugal only a few minutes before 11 PM on the first night of my spring break. There I was greeted by a cheery man and the fanciest shared shuttle service of all time: a leather-seated sedan I had all to myself. I guess my flight was late enough that no one else wanted to share. And at only €8 direct from the airport to my hostel, there was no way I was going to complain about the circumstances.
But it was dark and I was alone with a strange man in a country I had never been to before. To say that I was uncomfortable would be a severe understatement. Maybe a few extra travelers in the car wouldn’t have been such a bad thing.
How I Got There
It’s times like these that I really, REALLY hate solo travel. For those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know that it is very rare that I actually travel on my own. I have a boyfriend who puts up with my near-constant travel whims and is happy to come along on most of my adventures.
But sometimes our schedules don’t match up or he wants to go home for a break that I would rather travel during. That’s when I take things into my own hands and strike off by myself.
Such was the case with Portugal. We had two weeks off from class for spring break. Daniel went home. I tackled a new country on my own.
Most of the time, it was freeing and enjoyable and a defining part of my existence as a wanderlust-filled college student. Portugal is a beautiful, breathtaking country with so much to offer. But my first 24 hours there were anything but.
There were no cab kidnapping horror stories, and I arrived at my hostel perfectly ready to go straight to sleep. I checked in and did just that. With only two nights and one full day allotted for Porto, I wanted to get up as early as possible to see as much as I could with the little time I had. So I set an alarm for 8 AM. And then turned that alarm straight off the next morning and went back to sleep.
My Moment in Porto
I couldn’t tell you exactly what time I got up or out of the hostel, but I can tell you that by the time I did the sun was high in the sky and it was straight up g o r g e o u s outside. Exactly what you would expect from Portugal in March, and the exact sort of reprieve from the Scottish winter that I had been hoping for.
I made my way down to the waterfront, winding through back streets and small alleyways and finding myself gaping at the fact that, in one of Portugal’s biggest cities, people still hung their washing out to dry on the balconies.
I sat on the concrete banks of the Douro River, sunglasses on and my feet dangling over the edge, the water ten feet below them. Tourist and working boats alike chugged down the waterway.
When I got tired of sitting, I walked along the river towards the Dom Luis I Bridge and up a hill for a beautiful view over the whole city. As I stood and stared across the city, I thought about how all of the elements for a perfect travel day had aligned: beautiful weather, beautiful views, and endless hours to wander. And yet, they weren’t adding up. I wasn’t happy.
Why I Wasn’t Happy
Maybe it was because, for the first time in 10 months, I was traveling on my own again, and it felt off not to have someone by my side to share my experience with. Maybe it was the fact that I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet and was suffering from a caffeine withdrawal-caused headache. Or maybe it was just one of those days where my own personal mix of depression and anxiety were just going to get the better of me.
It was probably a combination of all of those things, but I had no desire to spend my hours wandering. Instead, I wanted to curl up in my dorm room bed, nurse my headache, and watch some Netflix. And so I did.
I had been out an about in Porto for perhaps three hours, wouldn’t have more than that day to explore, and was instead walking back to my hostel. I couldn’t believe myself. Couldn’t believe that, instead of doing what any self-respecting traveler would and pushing on, I was giving up.
I felt guilty, too. Guilty that I have the opportunity to travel often and I was squandering it. Guilty that I still use my parents’ Netflix account. It wasn’t until a few days later, when I was in Aveiro and having a much better time, that I realized that I shouldn’t be. Here’s why.
You’re Allowed to Be Sad When You Travel
Not everything can be Insta-perfect all the time.
It’s just not possible. Especially when you struggle with mental illness like I do. There are going to be days when you feel sad. There are going to be days when you feel overwhelmed. Or like you don’t want to get out of bed. That’s just a fact of life.
The problem is the added pressure that traveling puts on you for everything to be perfect.
Most of the time, you’ve planned this trip weeks or even months in advance. You’ve saved up all your hard-earned money and planned out all of the awesome things you want to see and do while you’re there. You fully expect the trip to be one of the best experiences of your life.
But then depression hits. Or you get stressed out at the airport. Or the place just isn’t as cool as you thought it might be.
And then you feel guilty because you’re not enjoying this thing that you’re supposed to be enjoying: travel.
So you reprimand yourself because you’re sad or stressed when you’re not supposed to be. And then you get even sadder and more stressed.
It Happened to Me
That’s what happened to me in Porto. I went back to my dorm room and curled up in a ball like I wanted to. But then I thought about all the things I should be doing. And I just felt worse. I had a sick feeling in my stomach the rest of the day in addition to that caffeine-withdrawal headache. And why?
Because I told myself that this isn’t what traveling is supposed to be.
Getting up early. Seeing everything. Not having a moment to rest. Letting the adrenaline do the work.
But fuck adrenaline. Sometimes I just don’t have it. And why the heck can’t I spend a day curled up in bed watching Netflix while I’m on the road? Aren’t I on vacation? Aren’t I traveling solo? And doesn’t that mean that I get to do whatever the fuck I want?
Funnily enough, it does.
So now, when I think back on the afternoon I spent in my hostel dorm room in Porto, I don’t think about how it was an opportunity lost. I think about how I took things into my own hands and did what I wanted to do. Even though I felt bad at the moment, I know now that I did what I had to do in order to enjoy the rest of my time in Portugal. I rested. I recognized my emotions. I practiced self-care.
There is exactly n o t h i n g wrong with self-care. That much I know for sure.
So remember that the next time you’re feeling a little bit down while you’re traveling. It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to do what you want to do, even if that isn’t a traditional travel activity. You’re allowed to be sad when you travel.