Guilt Trip: My Story of Coming Home, and the the Not-So-Subtle Stigma of Solo Female Travel

The Atlanta Airport felt strikingly clean and cool, the first real air conditioning I’d felt in months. As I stepped through the gate into the flourescently lit, Starbucks scented terminal, I became uncomfortably aware of my appearance. I looked and smelled like a foot, hair messy and matted, skin tan and leathery. My clothes and duffle bag were marked by dust and dirt. My torn sandals were hanging by a thread. Not quite mentally prepared to return home to the states, (I had run out of money and had to end my travels), a slight resentment washed over me as I followed the herd towards the long line for Customs. 

You know that feeling you get when you’re about to have a less than pleasant interaction with an authority figure? Like getting pulled over for speeding and you just know you’re not getting out of the ticket? Or trying to use a fake ID as a teenager, and you just sense that the doorman isn’t buying it? That’s how I felt as I approached the always intimidating Border Control desks and the stern looking Customs Officer at the end of my line. I watched him as he curtly interrupted travelers mid-sentence. I almost admired his staunch commitment to frowning. I wondered if he was a sociopath, if that was the only way someone could not return a smile to a friendly traveller. As I studied his actions, I inferred that I - a 25 year old woman, clearly not your most conservative looking gal, and clearly traveling alone - would have little in common with this white, southern, 70-something-year-old Border Patrol Officer. I carried with me a yoga mat and youthful idealism. He carried a clipboard with a white-knuckle grip, a subtle air of pretentiousness, and a not so subtle affinity for his position of power. 

The line moseyed along as I smoothed out my hair, as though that would help me appear like I valued the same things as this Border Patrol Officer - things like 401k's and regular showers. As I approached the front of the line, I smiled sweetly, but not too much. I was called up and immediately asked where I was coming from. Nervous but not sure why, I responded shakily.

“Guiones, the North West coast of Costa Rica, for about a month. Then I travelled around for a few weeks. ”

“By yourself?” He responded, with a bobble head sort of side nod and more eyebrow sass than I knew older white men were capable of. 

By being honest and carefree about my, you know, free will to move and think independently, I knew I’d blown it. 

I’m not sure why I didn’t say what I was actually in Costa Rica to do, which was to complete a yoga teacher training. I’m not sure why I didn’t describe my trip as the responsible, education and career goal oriented venture that it was intended to be. Instead I told him what it truly ended up being, not just a business venture, but an all-out adventure. Cringe-worthily cheesy but true, this was my “Eat Pray Love,” an impulse-driven, transformational quarter life soul search - a destructive shattering of my steady, routine filled life, in trade for one of passion and necessary newness.

This didn’t go over well with Officer Eyebrows. The brow continued to furrow with steadfast vengeance. I could feel his judgment, (hatred, maybe?) for what and who he thought I was. Then the question came; the gut wrenching gem of this whole interaction:

“Your father let you travel to South America alone?” He asked, Southern drawl and all, reiterating his lack of approval and confirming my fear that this was not going to go well. I decided against correcting him that Costa Rica is actually in Central (not South) America. All things considered, I figured I’d let him have this one.

Ironically enough, the least free I had felt in months was in this very moment, the moment I returned home. I’d returned from a poverty-stricken, third world country to the overly abundant, “land of the free,” my place of birth and citizenship, where I was, by this authority figure's standards, not allowed to travel as an adult without my father’s permission. My home country was frigidly air conditioned, unnaturally lit, and alarmingly unwelcoming. 

My head swirled with typical reactions to this micro aggression. My inner voice screamed silently, with more sass than even Officer Eyebrow’s eyebrows, things like “MY DAD DOESN’T OWN ME! WHAT DOES ANY MAN HAVE TO DO WITH THIS?! I CAN TRAVEL WHEREVER I WANT! SEXISM! OPPRESSION! WHITE FEMINISM! I’M AWARE OF MY PRIVILEGE TO TRAVEL BUT THIS STILL SUCKS! RAPE CULTURE! PRIVILEGE AND POWER! POWER AND CONTROL! THIS IS COMPLICATED BECAUSE I'M WHITE! … Fuck, I’m probably going to be detained and miss my connector ..…   ....   .... RAPE CULTURE!!!!!!!” 

But instead of speaking with my inner voice, I played the game. I attempted to tell him what I assumed he’d want to hear, which was something between parasol-twirling passivity and a blissful receptivity to mansplaining. I decided though, that I’m a white woman of privilege and lucky to travel at all, even with this hiccup at Borders. I mumbled some combination of a nervous giggle and an “oh, you know, let’s-brush-this-off-and-move-on” sort of declamation. 

As I expected, he looked down and shook his head (just at me and my whole existence, I’m assuming), marked something on my boarding pass, and the Officer behind his desk promptly directed me to a separate, private room. There I was told to sit and wait, in this “No Exit”-esque space of anxiety.

I felt guilty even though I’d done nothing wrong. I felt scared even though I was supposed to be home, safe. I felt awkwardly aware of the fact that I was white, and that this would maybe, or likely, be a different experience if I were a person of color. I felt wildly out of place and unwelcome home to the “Land of the Free.”

As I sat in this uncomfortably large and empty room, alone save for the two white male officers behind the desk 20 feet in front of me, I thought back to my life before this trip. A few short months prior, I was working a full time job in the nonprofit sector, living with a nice boyfriend who treated me well, in a cute little Boston apartment, sort of bored, but content enough with my routine and stability. It appeared as though I had what everyone wanted, checking all the boxes of the college-job-marriage-kids "American Dream" life path. 

The truth was, though, something had been nagging in me to get out and explore. I had always done everything right, for the most part, often blindly following directions. I did well in school, went to a good college, got internships that turned into jobs, friends that turned into family, boyfriends that turned into partners. I stayed put. I was nice to people. I worked hard. I was exhausted always, which our culture (-at least the Northeast-) treats as a sign of success. But I knew something was missing. Something in me needed to leave and travel and see what’s up outside of our country and outside of my box-checking, comfort-zoned life. 

I did know that I loved meditation, and always have. After college I got deeper and deeper into yoga. I loved what it did for my mental health, and how it made me feel like myself, even when I didn’t feel like that in other parts of my life. I loved the metaphors in the poses and how the sequences told stories. I loved how yoga created a visual representation of my brain and habits. I loved how it made me calmer, more focused, and more aware of things outside the yoga studio. I wanted to explore that, and grow and share and teach it. I wanted to feel always how I felt when I was in that yoga, compassion and clarity-filled headspace. 

So I chose Costa Rica because of the world-renowned yoga teacher training in Nosara, but maybe I also chose Costa Rica because it was far away. Maybe I was simply running away, from boredom or monotony or lack of fulfillment. I do know that I was following my gut instead of societal rules, and what I found down there was important. It was real life, and it was not the privileged fantasy many of my peers and acquaintances judged it to be. 

When I told people about my plans to quit my job and go to Costa Rica, the reactions I received were varying. Most at least pretended to be supportive, but many seemed to give backhanded compliments, insinuating that I was privileged, spoiled, or reckless, despite my “bravery” and “admirable courage” for “following my heart.” 

Some were encouraging or resentful, I couldn’t often tell which:

“Wow, how brave of you for following your dreams so impulsively!”

“I wish I could travel to exotic paradises!”

“Wow! Not many people can just up and leave like that…”

“Do it now, before you have kids and all your hopes and dreams die!” 

“You’re such a free spirit!”

That term, that awful, awful “free spirit” term, always felt to me patronizing and problematic. It seems to imply that one who is “free spirited” is privileged to have access to this rare form of magic, aka, freedom, I suppose. And yes, some are privileged to many freedoms which others are not, and yes, I’m aware of my abundant privileges.

Still, every time I hear the phrase “free spirit,” I think of how Western culture fosters and forces the box-checking life path, and frowns upon free will, risk taking, and any sort of critical thinking, deeming it "radical." The free spirit is frowned upon. At its worst, it’s quarantined - such as in spaces like this customs detainment room. At its best, it's unfairly judged and condescendingly labelled.

Sitting here, waiting to see which generalized archetype these Officers would brand me with, I thought about how I, and so many others, travelled cheaply despite what people thought. I found the lowest rates for hostels and camping options. I took public transit. I chose tuna and cornmeal and cheap beer over eating out. I hustled for bodywork clients and taught yoga to vacationers for extra cash. I wondered why people thought traveling like this was reserved for the rich. I wondered why pursuit of happiness, mobility, or following instincts made me “brave” and “admirable” and so, so isolated. I wondered why this was rare, as a citizen of a country that boasts the pursuit of happiness as a natural born right.

The more I thought about my travels, the more cage-like this room appeared. I felt increasingly guilty, irrationally anxious. Just because authority was treating me like I’d done something wrong, my reaction concluded that maybe I did. I began worrying that drugs had inadvertently made their way into my baggage. My unfounded guilt grew via a knot in my stomach. The two officers continued to sit in looming silence. I waited and waited, and accepted that they were in charge of deciding whether my passion and work were worth exorcising my will to travel. Silently, (because using my voice had not served me well at Customs), I asked so many questions.

Keeping my inner voice just that - inner, I once again played the game, this time a bit more smartly. I was called to approach the desk and stood up straight, made eye contact but not too much, and assumed the role of the the sweet woman (girl?) I figured they wanted me to be. I came off responsible and career oriented. I told them about my education and business oriented, well planned, and highly organized venture teaching and traveling in Costa Rica. The interaction went smoothly, and I did make my connector flight to Boston. I did get to return home to my family. I did get to travel and cross borders and I am grateful for my privilege and ability to do so. 

I also get to write and reflect and share and listen. I get to use my resources, choose my path (whether less travelled or not), and I get to keep going, despite some road bumps, some good old fashioned patriarchal micro aggressions, a few backhanded encouragements from peers, and the most sassily raised eyebrows I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing. Still, I get to keep trekking - one torn sandal-clad foot in front of the other.