Some might call me fearless but I was terrified when I first started traveling alone. For years, I enlisted my husband and daughter and friends and colleagues in joining me for weekends and sometimes entire months away in places as far away as Greece and as close to home as Carmel.
I usually had only a handful of objectives in mind when deciding on travel plans: Sunshine, entertainment, gorgeous scenery, and delicious food. Satisfying the five senses among the company of others was my primary concern.
Roughly two years ago, however, my daughter left for college. Unmoored in her absence and uncertain of where life would take me next, I suddenly thought it was critical to take a trip by myself. I embarked on a six-week, solo adventure to Bali to reclaim the woman I was before I became a mother and rediscover my spirituality—and, I hoped, my sanity.
The Allure of Spiritual Vacations
I wasn’t alone in my wish to take a vacation that would provide spiritual direction. According to the Wall Street Journal, there’s a generational bent towards nondenominational spiritual trips: It’s one of the top seven vacationing trends for baby boomers.
From visiting “power vortices” like Sedona and Point Lobos, California to taking part in yoga retreats in India, boomers like me are hungry for guidance and spiritual enrichment, and spend approximately $157 million a year on trips.
“Seeing life, and ourselves, in new contexts and from different perspectives is…one of the abiding gifts of travel,” the Wall Street Journal explains.
Bali is famous for providing visitors with transformative experiences that allow people to see themselves in new contexts, and as soon as I set foot on the island, I lifted my head to the sky and said a silent prayer. Anchor me, island, I said. Teach me about myself, and teach me a new way to live.
The Land of One Thousand Temples
Taking a solo trip to the coast of California was one thing; taking a trip alone to an Indonesian island thousands of miles away from home without friends or family was another matter entirely. A number of concerns slammed through my mind as I landed in Ubud:
Would I be safe?
What would I do in case of an emergency?
Would I feel too overwhelmed by the language and customs to embrace my spirituality?
Most importantly, how would I fare being alone for over forty days?
The spiritual lessons the island and its people offered were immediately felt. Bali is often referred to as the Land of One Thousand Temples, and deservedly so. Shrines outnumber houses, and the devotion Balinese have for the divine seeps into every aspect of their lives. I quickly found that it wasn’t uncommon to see Balinese workers pause in the middle of the day to offer their prayers. Many wake before dawn to prepare food and bouquets as gifts to the Gods. Their faith is steadfast, and they rejoice in expressing their gratitude to parts of existence that remain unseen.
The majority of the population practices Balinese Hinduism, and their faith in karma pilots their behavior. To face the repercussions of possessing negative thoughts or committing immoral actions in this life or the next has created a culture of people who are modest, trustworthy, honorable, and sincere.
Doubt and cynicism breed uncertainty and suspicion, just as hope generates positive outcomes. If I could believe in my competence to persevere through this transition—of becoming an empty nester, of reawakening the spiritual side of myself I’d abandoned, and learning to be at ease in solitude—then surely the universe would have confidence in me too.
Loneliness Is a Myth
It didn’t take long to realize that I would be safe in the traditional sense, and that I could reawaken my spirituality if I approached it with an open mind and allowed myself to be inspired by the Balinese people who surrounded me. Falling prey to loneliness, however, was a markedly different challenge.
Over the course of the six weeks I spent alone in Bali, I became acutely aware of parts of myself I’d long been too busy to examine. Most notably, I realized that I was calm and collected while I was engaged with other people around the island or experiencing some form of external stimuli, whether it was indulging in a massage or dining on exotic fruit.
The moment I was alone and unengaged in an activity, though, I panicked. Shouldn’t I feel lonely? I asked myself. Shouldn’t I be doing something?
Spirituality and finding comfort in solitude are intricately linked. The more I adopted Balinese spiritual practices—whether it was prayer, meditation, yoga, or martial arts—the more contented I began to feel in my own presence, and the less I felt a need for finding consolation in sensory pleasures. Fear subsided, and peace crept in, as light and transparent as air.
The Souvenirs that Endure
I left Bali no less brokenhearted by my daughter’s departure for college but fortified with the knowledge that my faith would follow me wherever I went, and that I could not only tolerate being alone but rejoice in it. My solo spiritual adventure spurred others, each one more challenging and eye-opening than the one before.
I traveled to Kenya, Mexico, Italy, Yugoslavia, and more. In each new place, I experienced the pull between wanting to satisfy my spirit and relieve my loneliness with earthly delights, and the desire to find fulfillment in silence, solitude, and stillness. The latter required a depth of patience and discipline I often worried I didn’t possess, but the rewards in discovering that I did—and could use them to achieve a stronger sense of self—were richer, more meaningful, and lasting.
I hiked the highest peaks and dove in the deepest waters—all within myself—descending and emerging more aware, more appreciative, more alive. And in each new place, I was reminded anew that we can be in a beautiful location and still be lacking, or in a squalid room and experience heaven.
The Abiding Gifts of Travel
As we age and experience everything that comes with it—from saying goodbye to children as they set out to live their own lives to adapting to altered physical states—we seek answers both in spiritual dimensions and the inner angles of ourselves.
After long lives of external accomplishments, we look towards sacred places to realize a sense of inner completion, and to learn the comfort and necessity of being alone.
The beauty of it all is that we mustn’t always travel far to seek answers. The solutions we find abroad or in our backyard have been there all along: They reside within us. We just must be quiet and still long enough to unearth them.
Lauretta Zucchetti was raised in Florence, Milan, and Pavia, Italy. She is a writer, motivational speaker, career and life coach, and the co-founder of Africa Hope Alliance, an organization that provides assistance to impoverished villages in Kenya. Lauretta’s writing has been featured on Thank the Now, SoulFriends, and A Band of Women, and is forthcoming in Literary Mama and Crone: Women Coming of Age. Her award-winning essay, “Mothering Mothers, and Finding Comfort in the Branches of an Empty Nest,” will be published in A Band of Women’s anthology, Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God: 71 Women on Life’s Transitions. She lives in Northern California, plays drums in a band, and recently wrote a memoir about her Italian childhood.
Check out some of her writing on her blog:
She also has a couple retreats coming up in Bali and Italy:
Transcend, Transform, Thrive: A Retreat for Women in Bali, June 2014