Jessica_Ethiopia1I recently asked my father to define me in one word. He said “diva.” Then, after further pushing from an unsatisfied daughter, he said “doesn’t listen to her father’s advice.”  I wasn’t surprised. Ever since my eight-month stint in Australia and New Zealand in 2006, he has been trying to keep my feet firmly planted on North American soil. Like so many of us, my desire to travel has been inspired by beautiful landscapes, delicious foods, and the wandering, creative, souls I meet along the way. More than that, though, it is fueled by an intention to live life spontaneously, to develop a deep and earnest trust for my instincts and (better sit down, dad) to follow them wherever they might lead me.

2009. I was working in the field of refugee resettlement and wanted to better understand the refugee experience prior to arrival in the United States. I decided to fly to Bangkok, hop a bus to the Burmese border, and track down a contact I had who, I hoped, could teach me and lead me to the information I sought.

Upon my arrival, I panicked. I was alone! I felt lost! Though I had trusted my instincts enough to journey to the other side of the world, I suddenly experienced a serious bout of doubt. Renewing my vow to believe in my gut, I found temporary solace in green curry. And then, less than one week later, I found myself comfortably settled in the town of Mae Sot, in a room with a hot shower, and with a teaching job in a Burmese migrant school.

“In the battle between brain and belly, between thoughts and instinct, belly won.”

schaffer1Though travel was not the purpose of my time in Thailand, I wanted to take advantage of my rare proximity to the Angkor Wat Temples and Cambodian genocide memorials. After struggling to find a travel partner, I decided to go on my own. My instincts simultaneously said “you’ve been in the region for months, you should be able to figure this out” and (with only slight exaggeration) “I am woman, hear me roar!”

And so, one morning, I went. There were both literal and figurative bumps in the road. I was overcharged at checkpoints; I missed connecting buses. During one calm moment, as if my tranquility was palpable, a male, middle aged Australian taxi driver sat down next to me and told me, in excruciating detail, about his sexual escapades all over Southeast Asia. That night, disturbed beyond belief, my instincts told me to sleep with the lights turned on and a chair propped under the doorknob.

Though I had planned on staying in Cambodia for ten days, I left after five.  Despite it being a wonderfully hospitable country, I felt out of place, disoriented, even unsafe at times. The stubborn part of me told me to stay on course and make the most of my time, but a feeling deep inside me told me to return to my temporary home in Thailand. And so I did. In the battle between brain and belly, between thoughts and instinct, belly won.

2011. My boyfriend and I decided we wanted to go to San Francisco but booked the cheaper flights – to Bogota, Colombia – instead. After arriving, we traveled to the city of Santa Marta to book a 5-day guided hike to Ciudad Perdida, the Lost City. Once there, however, we found it nearly impossible to find a tour operator offering trips. Finally, one operator hesitantly said that they would take us, but would have to charge us an additional fee to cover “increasing insurance costs”. They explained that just one day before, one traveler had died and another had been seriously injured when a strong current swept them away as they were crossing a river. If we really wanted to go, we needed to understand the risk. Another struggle between brain and belly ensued. This time, my brain yelled “no!” but my belly told me we’d be safe. We sent casual “love you and miss you!” emails to both of our parents and booked ourselves onto the trip.


Five days and nearly fifty kilometers later, we made it out of the jungle unscathed. The journey was physically exhausting and emotionally challenging, particularly as we crossed the same river that had caused such destruction just days before.  The scenery was incredible, though, and we were fortunate to join a group of eight wonderfully diverse travelers who helped make the excursion the highlight of our time in Colombia.  The experience reinforced that sometimes the best decisions are not made by the rational brain but, rather, by the irrational heart.

“It is crucial that we learn how to identify and trust our own instincts; that we learn to recognize the physiological response inside each of us that can guide us toward the fun and the new and the exciting – and the safety – we seek.”

2013. I found myself with my boyfriend in his native Ethiopia. We began our journey in the northwest then made our way toward Addis Ababa, the country’s capital city and his hometown. We decided to travel by bus so that we would have an opportunity to see the countryside; doing so meant several buses over the course of two days. On the morning of our departure, we were told that a minivan would pick us up at our hotel to take us to the main transport station at 4:00am. At 5:15am, it appeared. We boarded, relieved, and it set off down the unpaved road, into the darkness.

Then, at 5:30am, a tire burst.

A spare was put on.

At 5:45am, a second tire burst.

A second spare – perilous in condition – was put on.

My boyfriend looked at me. We have to get out!

We have to get out?

We have to get out!

And so we did. With all of our luggage, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere.  We started walking, destination unknown.

At 6:25am, a bus appeared. I flagged it down. It was going exactly where we needed to go. We squeezed our way on and as we made our way south toward our destination, we passed the minivan we had disembarked not long before – pulled over on the side of the road with yet another flat tire.


Travel is an incredible privilege that is often fraught with challenge. Do we take the path less traveled; is it safe? Do we veer from our plans to follow the person we just met; is he trustworthy? How are our choices going to impact us; how will they affect the people and communities around us? There isn’t always time to comprehensively assess options, to weigh pros and cons, to consider consequences. There are not always other people around to discuss ideas. It is crucial that we learn how to identify and trust our own instincts; that we learn to recognize the physiological response inside each of us that can guide us toward the fun and the new and the exciting – and the safety – we seek.

To my father, I love you. But I am so glad I don’t always take your advice.


Words and Photos: Jessica Schaffer