During my life, I felt lonely quite often, and I didn't like it.
As a child growing up in a violent household, I never had a place I could really call home or a family to rely on. I couldn't wait to leave home, which I did at 21. Over the years, I was always surrounded by good friends - but even knowing that I had the best friends I could wish for, often felt lonely. Sometimes I didn't want to bother my friends with my problems, felt disappointment, or believed that friends could never be enough, and that only a romantic relationship (which I'd never had) would make me feel I really wasn't alone.
Those emotions came and went. Sometimes I felt like I belonged to some group or the other, other times I felt that I belonged nowhere. I enjoyed being on my own - I always find things to do - but I also wanted deep connections, and those I had never seemed enough.
Three years ago, I left my home country on my own, taking a one-way flight to Europe. I'd traveled solo before, but this time was different. For 14 months, I hitchhiked between places where I knew no one before arriving, sometimes even places I'd never heard of. I kept finding myself alone at gas stations, by the road or in a city center, with the odd thought that not even a single person knew where I was at that very moment.
There were scary times and sad times. I often found myself worried about a ride that wasn't coming or uncomfortable in my tent on a cold night. It wasn't all easy and beautiful, but I have never felt less alone than I had during this journey.
In the 22 countries I traveled through, countless people have helped me. Some picked me up in their car, gave me directions or advice. Others hosted me in their homes, not only giving me a place to stay, but also allowing me a glimpse into their lives. The police officers I met were often helpful (and one Italian policeman insisted on giving me 20 Euros to pay for public transport, even though I was planning on hitchhiking). I also received a lot of help from friends at home and strangers online - but most of the problems I solved on my own, facing the world in real time.
Many times, I arrived at a new place - whether a hostel, a stranger's home, a workshop or a lake shore - and within a day, or even a few hours, there was already someone nearby whom I knew a little bit, someone I wanted to get to know better - a temporary friend.
Hundreds of times I stood by the road when one driver, instead of driving past me, stopped, picked me up, and made me feel comfortable and safe. I often enjoyed every moment of the conversations we had, until, to my slight regret, I had to leave the car and hitch on to my destination.
I learned that even if I find myself alone in a foreign country, without a common language, a charged phone or money - I will be able to reach any destination I choose.
I started feeling that wherever I am in the world, all by myself, there will always be people around who will be glad to help if we happen to meet, sometimes even without me asking for anything.
I can easily feel lonely when I have expectations - when I want another person to keep me company or to act in a certain way, when I expect to be surrounded by people when I'm not, when I count on having close friends waiting for me everywhere I go.
But when my only expectation is to arrive at a new place and to be there - whether alone or with people I might meet, and when I know, at any given moment, that eventually I'm bound to meet a new friend somewhere - it's hard to feel lonely even if I want to.
This is what I miss the most when I'm not traveling - the instant connection with a stranger that can happen anytime, anywhere, without anything apparent in common, simply because those two people happen to be at the same place at once and are willing to make a friend.
And this is why the way I love to travel is never about fancy hotels, rented cars and frequent flights. It's about the people I'm yet to meet anywhere I'll go. It's about those fleeting moments, when I'm in a stranger's car on my way to a place I've never visited before, or raising my thumb with a smile, having no idea what's going to happen - and feeling completely at home.