How Travel Healed Me After Divorce — and Made Me Fearless in My 50s

In her new book, "Brave-ish: One Breakup, Six Continents and Feeling Fearless After Fifty," travel writer Lisa Niver explores the ways traveling across six continents helped her heal and start anew.

<p>Courtesy of Lisa Niver</p>

Courtesy of Lisa Niver

For years, I dreamed of being among the Buddha statues at Borobudur temple in Indonesia. When I finally climbed to the top level, I looked out and saw the blue sky above, the green fields around us, and the carved, bell-shaped stupas surrounding me. How could I be in such a peaceful, historic place fighting with my partner again about the same old issues? I wanted to return to Israel and Italy to see friends and family, to explore Ireland and Iceland for the first time … and he did not want to put any of my choices on our travel list. I was feeling hopeless.

I could not see a way forward; I had to make a leap. As Ray Bradbury said, “Jump, and you will find out how to unfold your wings as you fall.”

My divorce was a devastating breakup which became the catalyst for life-changing adventures. When I was first separated, I was crying non-stop, but slowly I conquered my personal demons and emerged stronger, wiser, and ready to embrace new travels.

<p>Courtesy of Lisa Niver</p>

Courtesy of Lisa Niver

Through a series of 50 introspective challenges and global travels, I explored my passions — from salsa dancing to ceramics — and confronted my fears, jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. I went to every kind of therapy I could find and reinvented myself by embracing the unknown and conquering 50 challenges, one tiny step at a time.

Each challenge pushed my limits a bit more — and to tell the truth, it wasn’t easy. I quit countless times, but I ultimately found personal growth, resilience, and confidence. I went from heartbreak to triumph on my journey by healing my mind, body, and soul.

Related: Anthony Bourdain Reflects on Using Travel to Deal With Heartbreak in Touching, Resurfaced Interview

Healing My Body in Utah, California, and Ireland

As a child, I had many accidents. I believed I was just clumsy. In fact, I had eye issues which were not diagnosed until my divorce. I committed to a year of vision therapy at 47, while mostly everyone else there was seven. Many of my challenges involved trying athletic things again … with quite a few lessons and tears.

Growing up, I skied but had never felt confident on the mountain. It was a true highlight to ski at Deer Valley with Fuzz Feddersen, the Olympic aerialist. Not only did he guide me all around the mountain, but he also complimented my skiing abilities. While I will never compete in the Olympics, I did ski with a champion, and I was finding my own way to mark my progress.

After a women’s ski clinic at Kirkwood Mountain that included the bucket list item of being snowed in after an epic storm, I was invited to Pumps on Pedals, a Lake Tahoe women’s bike weekend. I refused to even consider it. As a child, I landed in the hospital after an accident and believed that I hated biking. When my friend offered to do it with me, I reconsidered. Mountain biking at Northstar Lake Tahoe turned out to be my proudest moment. I was scared (actually, terrified). I wore so much padding and “armor” that my father could not pick me out in the photos. As I raced down a blue (intermediate) slope with my two instructors, I felt the wind in my hair, the sun on my face, and my smile was from ear to ear. I did it.

<p>Courtesy of Lisa Niver</p>

Courtesy of Lisa Niver

While in Kilkenny, Ireland, I had a lesson in hurling, an ancient Irish sport that is a cross between hockey and lacrosse. After being the kid on the playground who could not play tetherball, I had never been anxious to try anything sporty ever again. However, I did learn to cast or throw the silotar (ball) with the hurley (stick). The team said I was doing well. For me, it was a win to even agree to a lesson. I slept in my jersey that night, I was so proud. I had played one of the oldest sports in the world.

My world was looking up — right up to the sky, because next, at Ashford Castle, I learned falconry. Walking in the forest with a bird of prey on my hunting glove was unbelievable. Someone trusted me with Joyce, a six-year-old Harris hawk. I listened carefully to Tommy’s instructions and sent Joyce into the sky. She sailed away and came right back for the treat that Tommy added to my glove.

Next up, I had a lesson in skeet shooting from another Olympian, David O'Loughlin. He taught me about the clay pigeons, the rifle, and how to shoot. With his excellent instruction, I was able to hit most of my targets. Dr. Brodney was right, if I worked on my eyes, I would be better at sports. My visual retraining paid off and my eyes were so much better.

Healing My Soul in the Galapagos

At summer camp, most kids hoped for a special candy treat secretly snuck in their trunk. As a precocious reader, one year my mom sent me with a book about Darwin’s expeditions. It was a dream come true when I sailed on Ecoventra, a Relais & Chateau yacht, throughout the Galapagos Islands. I had waited for decades (since that fateful summer camp!) to see my first blue footed boobies. The best thing about this trip was I learned that there are red footed boobies and Nazca boobies with orange feet.

My favorite thing about traveling is that there is always more to discover than I originally imagined. We snorkeled one day with many sea lions (who were quite curious about my video camera), as well as several penguins, and I just loved the way they wiggled in the water.

<p>Courtesy of Lisa Niver</p>

Courtesy of Lisa Niver

Our days were filled with activities, from kayaking to hiking, and of course, there was incredible food and accommodations. I had worried about what would happen when I traveled without a partner, but in fact, his anxiety and worries were more of an anchor than a buoy, and I was much happier to be back on my own.

Everyone talks about how nature can heal the soul. It’s true: I lived it. Swimming with endemic marine life, seeing the birds I’d longed to see since childhood, and living well on a luxury ship brought me back to myself.

Healing My Mind in Iceland

While I was soaking in the hot waters of Sky Lagoon in Iceland, after the coldest plunge, I learned the Icelandic phrase Þetta reddast, which means, "Don’t worry, it will all work out." I had been so concerned when I left my marriage that I would never travel again, laugh again, or stop feeling like a failure. Plunging into these contrasts seemed fitting in the land of fire and ice, as everything does not have to be so very hot or cold or work out all at once. Learning to see the grays and not only the black and white, while soaking in the hot and cold, reminded me it is important to reassess. Leaving my marriage was not a failure; staying would have been a failure to take care of myself. Just like when we travel, sometimes we must adjust our plans to have a nap, slow down, or learn about a new way or direction.

I truly believe in the transformative power of travel. For me, returning to travel after leaving my husband — and Asia — helped me heal and grow. Seeing life even briefly from someone else’s perspective truly helped me recalibrate and re-evaluate my life moving forward.

<p>Courtesy of Lisa Niver</p>

Courtesy of Lisa Niver

My challenges were diverse: I was able to hula hoop with villagers in the Solomon Islands and the Maasai Mara in Kenya, and walk around an active volcano in Vanuatu. I met remarkable individuals who believed in me even when I did not believe in myself. I found inspiration and a renewed zest for life. I was worried that ending my marriage would end my adventures … but all I had to do was turn the page for a new chapter.

Lisa Niver is the author of "Brave-ish: One Breakup, Six Continents and Feeling Fearless After Fifty," and an award-winning travel expert who has explored 102 countries on six continents. 

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