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

The Atlanta Airport felt striking and cool, the first real air conditioning I’d felt in months. It had that hospital sort of cleanliness, the sort of sterile you’re grateful for if trying to avoid germs, but resentful of if on no sleep and in search of a decent meal and a hot shower. I stepped through the gate into the fluorescently lit, Starbucks scented terminal, and became immediately aware of my appearance. I looked and probably smelled like a foot, hair matted, skin leathery-tan. My clothes and duffle bag were marked by dust and dirt, and my sandals were hanging on by a thread (three, to be exact). Not mentally prepared to return home to the states, (financial limitations dictated the end of my travels), resentment washed over me as I followed the herd of haggard travelers towards the always-ominous line to Customs. 

You know that gut feeling you get when you’re a teenager and about to get in trouble? Like when you get 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 going to buy 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 explanation as to how you would not return a smile to a friendly human. As I studied his actions, I inferred that I - a then 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 a scent of youthful idealism (a blend of palo santo and body odor). He carried a clipboard with a white-knuckle grip, a subtle air of pretentiousness, and a not-so-subtle pride for his position of power. 

The line moseyed along as I smoothed out my hair, as though that would help me appear as though I held some of the same values as this Border Patrol Officer - things like pensions and using the term “riff raff” and taking regular showers (indoors, with soap!) As I approached the front of the line, I smiled sweetly, but not too much. I was called up and the officer asked where I was coming from. Nervous but not sure why, I responded sort of shakily.

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

Shit, I thought. Already giving away too much. He definitely knows I don’t shower inside.

“By yourself?” He responded, with a dramatic, bobble head sort of side nod and more eyebrow sass than I knew older white men were capable of. By being honest about my, you know, free will to travel, 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 a professional, spiritual, emotional, self discovery-filled venture. Cringe-worthily cheesy but true, this was my “Eat Pray Love,” a somewhat impulse driven, yet intuitively goal oriented, transformational quarter life soul search. It was both 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. Weighing the pros and cons of the situation, 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 come from a poverty-stricken, third world country to the overly abundant, “land of the free,” my place of birth and citizenship, where I was, at least by Officer Eyebrow’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 ONE ELSE HAVE TO DO WITH MY WILL TO TRAVEL?! I CAN TRAVEL! SEXISM! OPPRESSION! WHITE FEMINISM! I’M AWARE OF MY PRIVILEGE TO TRAVEL! THIS IS GETTING CONFUSING! 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 ..…  SEXISM!!!!!!!” …..Etc, etc, the rabbit hole ensued.

But instead of speaking with my inner voice, I tried to play 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 his 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 can afford to deal with this microaggression. 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 instructed to sit and wait, in this “No Exit”-esque white walled room.

I felt guilty even though I’d done nothing wrong. I felt a bit 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 wondered about that feeling, was it guilt? Gratitude? In the “Land of the Free,” I felt wildly unwelcome, and more than anything, sort of sad to be home.

As I sat in this large and empty room, alone save for a row of folding chairs and the two officers behind the desk twenty 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, bored, but content enough with my routine and stability. It appeared as though I had what everyone wanted, checking all the boxes on the college-job-marriage-kids American Dream life plan. 

The truth was, though, something had been nagging in me to get out of all of it. My whole life I had always done everything right, for the most part, often blindly following directions and allowing everyone else to take up space in the room before I did. I was always a decent student, went to a good college, got internships that turned into jobs, friends that turned into family, boyfriends that turned into partners with plans. I stayed put. I was nice to people. I worked hard. I was exhausted always, which our culture treats as a sign of success. But I knew something was missing, and my gut wouldn’t let me forget it.

Unsure of what that gut feeling was, I did know that I loved meditation, and always have. After college I got deeper and deeper into practicing yoga. I loved what the poses, and especially the breathing, did for my mental health. I loved how it made me feel like myself, especially when I didn’t necessarily feel that in other parts of my life. I loved the metaphors in the poses, how they symbolized real life situations off the yoga mat, 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 in every part of my life. I wanted to explore that, and grow and share and teach it and keep learning from 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 spiritual 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 either 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 to move about the world, I suppose. And yes, some are privileged to many freedoms which others are not, and yes, I’m aware of my abundant privileges. There’s that confusing guilt, again.

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 mobility and following my instincts made me “brave” and “admirable” and at the same time 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 felt. My sense of guilt and anxiety, whether truly warranted or not, increased rapidly. Just because authority was treating me like I’d done something wrong, my reaction was that maybe I did. I began worrying that drugs had somehow made their way into my baggage. The two officers continued to sit in looming silence. I waited, accepting that they were in charge of judging 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.

When I was eventually called to approach the desk, I was prepared to play the game once again. I stood up straight but not too 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 tried to pull off that tricky balance of humility and professionalism, a balance many women are familiar with perfecting. I answered their questions simply but fully. 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 move about and luckily, I was familiar with microaggressions and was prepared to navigate them with the resources my mom and aunt and sister and cousins had taught me, the same ones taught to them by their mothers and aunts and etc, etc.

And now, I get to write and reflect and share and listen. I get to use my voice, choose my path (whether less traveled or not), and I get to keep going, despite some road bumps, a few backhanded compliments, and the most sass I’ve ever had the privilege of witnessing. Still, I get to keep trekking - one torn sandal in front of the other.