I stare out the window of my United flight, the last (and biggest) Super Moon of 2017 is suspended in the early morning light, surrounded in a pastel cloudscape of oranges and pinks and purples.
Below, Belgium stirs. Vaulted roofs, green pastures, tiny winding roads witness to only a few cars play out below me as we slowly begin our descent into Brussels.
It’s been three years since I’ve traveled solo, truly solo, and it feels like nothing has changed when I look down at the earth below.
Only, everything in the world has.
The last time I was solo was in 2014 when I set out for a month to get some western infusion into my eastern life. I took leave from the elephants and exchanged the jungle for hostels, trains and my trusty Kelty, as I traversed select countries in Europe before I ultimately relocated to London half-a-year-later.
I was excited for this trip for about a minute, when I saw the super cheap airfare courtesy of Secret Flying, that took me from Denver to Brussels for a paltry $320.
Why not? I had reasoned with myself when I saw the deal. It’s been a year, and it’s time for that annual panto pilgrimage you promised you’d always do.
So, I booked it.
Because I made a silly promise to myself that first week of January 2015, when my friend Vicky and I sat in the upper deck of New Wimbledon Theatre watching my first-ever British panto, that every year forever ever, I’d come to London to see this very un-American theatrical experience.
But, everything changes.
I was excited for panto, and then I wasn’t.
Dirty secret time: I was never really excited for Belgium.
I’ve been in and out of this country often, but never actually stepped outside of the transit centers. First, I was here in 2002, when I took my first solo backpacking adventure. I needed to fly out of Brussels after cutting my trip short.
Then, in 2010 when I returned for my long-term travels, I found myself in and out of Charleroi numerous times. It wasn’t until 2014 I learned I had butchered the pronounciation of Charleroi, calling it Char-le-roi instead of Cha-le-wah.
Belgium was always a pass-through country, never a must-see.
After I booked my return trip to Thailand for February 2018, I got excited for that. Thailand is home, and I’ve found myself longing for that sticky air, elephants and cozy coffee shops playing Thai versions of pop songs while I bang away at my keyboard. Thailand stole Belgium’s thunder, and I hadn’t even meant for it to do so.
Even en route to Belgium, there was no thumping harder of my heart. No sheer excitement, anticipation.
Until I saw that moon and the European countryside below.
Then, joy filled my body.
On the plane, looking down onto the world splaying out below, I feel a familiarity of adventure. Of discovery. Of the unknown. I never thought I’d find it in Belgium, but I’d never opened myself up to it, either.
When we land and I walk down the jetway to the terminal, that solo travel gene reawakens. I navigate the train, the bus with determination, remembering how that initial frustration of being in a foreign country and not speaking the language transforms into a beautiful story.
As I watch from the train as we pass locals, vignettes of Belgian life pass before me. A woman in an office, at her computer. Two women standing in another office, talking. A man, alone in his office, mobile pressed to his cheek.
They are living their lives.
And here I am, living mine.
I’m far from my world. Far from my desert. From the life I created after I swore up and down I’d never have an American life again.
Funny, isn’t it?
For a brief respite, I’m treated to my former self, a woman with passion, adventure, a different ambition of sorts. For a little time, I check out of my Las Vegas life and embrace my old, traveling life.
The past two years have been a whirlwind. A beautiful monsoon of life and experiences.
I’ve been so stressed and overwhelmed as I’ve grown and clenched my jaw so much that I literally changed my bite, misaligning my teeth.
I took the shooting really hard and got a nasty case of strep in October, following the shooting.
I’ve been so fixated on the growth of my business that I’ve let other things in my life — like my health and wellbeing — lapse because that’s how dedicated I am to living the life I want.
But, that’s not really a life, is it?
It’s wild to think how different my life is now than it was two years ago when I left Madrid. The map displayed on the screen in front of me on the plane reminds me of the proximity of different worlds, far from what I’ve grown accustomed to in Las Vegas. It reminds me how much I’ve grown.
When I walk into the biting winter air of Brussels after a quick nap in a hotel I fell in love with thanks to its street art theme (Hotel Meininger), that old feeling of travel intoxication fills me.
Sure, I’ve got Google Maps telling me where to go, but I’m still wandering, exploring. Open to everything as I make my way to the city center, pausing to take in street scenes, the smell of fresh baked pan au chocolat waft through the air, the people sitting outside drinking and eating, even though it’s freezing.
I make a promise to myself as I walk by historic buildings, look into cozy bars where people sip on their craft beers: I’m going to breathe. I’m going to be good to myself. I’m going to listen to my body, listen to my heart this next week and not push myself too hard. Not be tethered to work. To Las Vegas.
I’m going to be me. The me I loved when I was traveling solo. The me who knew the world was her oyster. The me who constantly reminds herself I can conquer any challenge that’s thrown my way. Hell, I’ve outrun the Turkish mob, I can certainly run a business and maintain my mental health.
Belgium is exactly where I need to be right now.