I used to be someone that couldn’t walk to their locker by themselves in middle school. In high school, if I was meeting someone, I sat in my car until they arrived. Even in college, I looked for a friend for every activity from gym classes to the library.
I was never good at doing things alone. I always knew this about myself but I chose to embrace it rather than cower over it. It made me who I was.
I used to consider myself a shy person, the type of person that will look down if you’re trying to make eye contact in the hallway and avoids confrontation at all cost. The type of person that’s hard to get to know until I let you — but once I do, I’m happy to let all of my walls down.
I always thought of myself as inhibited and reserved but somewhere along the line, I grew out of it. I wasn’t as afraid of my own company as I used to be. I found that I had more confidence and was brave enough to take the world on my own.
The first thing I did when I arrived in Portugal shocked me: I took the bus. I didn’t take a cab like I did in New York City, where I was afraid of the subways. I decided to save the 15 Euro for something better and took my chances. I found my way to my first hostel experience that morning, safe and sound.
I made friends just one hour after checking in. I was intrigued by the idea of a hostel and thankfully, it was nothing like the horror movie of the same name. I quickly got myself together to start my adventure. I wandered without a map while watching the Portuguese navy set up from the Praca do Comercio.
It was that afternoon that I ate alone at a real restaurant for the first time. I chose it because it had WiFi, but the Wi-Fi didn’t work. So instead, I enjoyed my food slowly and killed a mini bottle of wine myself. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be and I patted myself on the back as I left wander into the hills of Alfama, sans map. (I later learned that everything was a straight shot from my hostel but I felt lost and that was the important part.)
Getting lost alone in those windy and narrow streets was a dream. Finding the landmarks and witnessing magical views just by following my intuition was far more appealing than analyzing a map.
I saw almost everything I wanted to see on my first day and I was proud of myself for walking 35,000 steps alone to do it. I fell in love with Lisbon that day and I knew it would have a permanent place in my heart. Choosing my own plan, charting my own course, and picking the time to do it all made me feel more alive than ever.
That evening, we had a family hostel dinner and my list of friends grew. We all went out together and we danced and sang our way through Bairro Alto’s bars. That was until I locked eyes with a handsome foreigner and continued on another adventure that led to me watching the sunrise from a club on the beach at 7 AM.
I’d never felt more spontaneous in my life.
I allowed myself a three-hour nap after returning from the club before jetting off to my next excursion. This time I had to figure out the metro system and I applauded myself for getting to Belém without a hitch. I rewarded myself with delicious food from a food truck and laid down on the steps in front of Belém tower while a jazz concert played in the park behind me.
I saw monuments, towers, monasteries, and I continued to reward myself with the town’s delicacy pastel de nata before heading back to the city center. Everything took my breath away as I walked around, smiling without needing to know where I was going and learning to be OK with just taking a ton of selfies.
My list of things I wanted to see had been 75 percent checked off in less than 48 hours and I did it all with meager planning — a direct contradiction to my normal uptight and nervous personality.
I realized I saw more when I was carefree. I realized I felt and I lived more when I let go of expectations and routes.
And I realized all of that by being alone.
A last supper, a last view, and a last day of 35,000 steps took me to the end of my trip. I was beyond sad to leave but I promised it that I would return to Portugal’s cobblestone streets.