Solo Travel

The Day I Just Got On A Plane Going Somewhere

Was I being irresponsible? I could just pick from the list and go somewhere else. Anywhere else.

A mom picks a place to travel after canceled plans
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I was supposed to be on a flight to Nairobi for a press trip. But I made it to the Cleveland airport three hours late after a sudden midwestern snowstorm, which derailed my connection, and I found myself in JFK, frantically trying to rearrange my plans — until I finally just quit running and threw in the towel.

I called my kids’ dad to let them know what happened. He told me to just come home on the next flight back to Cleveland. As the people around me came and went, I scanned the list of outgoing flights with my duffel bag, camera, and laptop at my feet. I could return to the snow, the duplex that needed renovating, and the two toddlers I’d watched on my own for 10 days straight.

Or…

I could do the thing I’d always wanted — something that you used to see on ’90s movies, before the Internet and online booking. Here I was at the airport with my bags packed, time off from work approved, babysitter arranged, standing in front of a departures board. I could just pick from the list and go somewhere else. Anywhere else.

I looked at the flights again with renewed hope. Japan caught my eye first, but it was still closed to Americans due to COVID-19. The next name on the list: San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I’d visited a decade earlier, and I lucked out and caught the San Sebastian Street Festival. Was this the same sort of fate? COVID-19 restrictions for Puerto Rico had just been eased. My bags were already packed for warmer weather. I checked the cost of a flight to San Juan and the cheapest was about $200. The cost to return to Cleveland was $500.

I shifted my feet as people checked their bags at the counter nearby. Was I being irresponsible? Surely, my travel insurance would pay for the flight back home or I could try to catch the next flight to Nairobi. But the press tour was a safari, so I’d have to find my way out of the city to catch up even if I landed in Nairobi the next day.

Those 10 years ago, I had missed going to see the bioluminescent bay in Puerto Rico because I had been a hungover 23-year-old staying in a hostel. After drinking at the San Sebastian Street Festival with my sister, I couldn’t be bothered to wake up early enough the next morning, even though I had really wanted to see the glowing plankton.

There are only five bioluminescent bays in the world and three of them are in Puerto Rico. It just so happens that the best time to view the glowing effect is during the new moon, which was only a few days away.

I got on the plane.

I used to want to travel and never settle down. In my prime, I could hike 10 miles a day in the Rockies. At that time, I dreamed of teaching English throughout Asia and Africa and writing novels in a hammock. While I had always wanted kids, I had anticipated traveling with them to faraway places. Then reality took hold: difficult pregnancies, sick relatives, and a pandemic put all those things on an indefinite hold. Even solo trips screeched to a halt.

I jumped at the chance to reconnect with my pre-baby adventure travel ways, booking hostels and lacing up my hiking boots. Almost immediately, I had to make a few unsettling concessions. I was no longer young or fit enough to blend in with college kids and their tireless lives. Clearly a matron and no longer a maid, I acknowledged this new frustrating fact about me — and booked private rooms. Still, I avoided the other thoughts that hung over the edge like the skin over my C-section scar.

But, inevitably, those whispers surfaced in the silence of the night when I would return to my (now) private room and undress in front of the mirror. I did not like the way pregnancy had changed me. I sagged with exhaustion and the years of serving up pieces of myself; of my body and my dreams. While I was building up everyone else, I had become soft and compliant. Yes, I had been ready for some of motherhood — the stretch marks, the sagging breasts, the sleep deprivation. Other parts were tepidly accepted: weight gain that did not decrease with diet, arguments that increased with my spouse, and the difficulties finding adequate child care.

On my last night in Puerto Rico, the whole place plunged into darkness after a circuit breaker failure caused an island-wide blackout. I rose from my bed when I heard the disgruntled groans from the partygoers at La Factoria across the street. Grabbing my Canon and a flashlight, I went out onto the second-story balcony of my Old San Juan AirBnb and opened the shutter, taking long-exposure photographs.

Eventually, a generator for the bar kicked on and a yellow light melted from an open window, illuminating a young woman on a date. Like in a picture frame, she perched on her chair glowing against the darkness that surrounded her. I would never be her again, I thought.

I snapped a few more photos and then leaned on the stone railing. The night was humid and sticky on my face. I rubbed off the sweat that was collecting under my breasts and looked at the young woman again. Was I ever like her?

Even before kids, I was never the person to stay out late or sit at a window seat with my back to the door. So while it’s true I cannot become who I once was, I can still become who I want to be. Now, if only I can figure that out.

In July, I will start at my beginning. I will head to Italy to find my great-grandmother’s birth certificate. Already, I have learned that the women of my maternal line have a penchant for leaving; leaving husbands and parents, homelands and families.

Maybe we’re just the types to go searching for something better or somewhere else to call home — even if we don’t quite know what we’re looking for.

Aja Hannah is a writer, traveler, and mama. She’s the author of two books and hundreds of articles on diversity, equity, and sustainable travel. As a Society of Travel Writers active member, she takes press trips that prioritize travel that has an eco-tourism angle or human-first focus. She believes in the Oxford comma, cheap flights, and a daily dose of chocolate.