As a gift for graduating from high school, Tara Sutherland said her uncle offered her a ticket to anywhere in the world or money.
At the time, she was going to school and planning to get married, so money was the priority.
Since then, her life has changed, and she decided it’s time for a big trip.
After her daughter, Taylor, graduated from Seymour High School in 2021, the two planned to go to Thailand, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they chose Curacao. That was appropriate because Sutherland’s family is Dutch, and Curacao is a Dutch Caribbean island. One of Taylor’s classmates, Brandon Kleber, went, too.
“I have been traveling since I was 12. My first big trip was Hong Kong. I felt like I needed her to experience the same kinds of things that I had experienced because you learn something about yourself and about where you live and the people around you when you travel,” Sutherland, now 42, said.
“For them, it was incredible, and I just watched them evolve,” she said of her daughter and Kleber. “It was a really cool experience before they went to college to see this flower blossom.”
Then in August 2021, Sutherland and her son, Walker, took a trip to Florida.
When she was in high school, Sutherland remembers her German teacher, Olga Otte, telling her “If you come home from a trip and you’re not tired or you feel like you didn’t see something, that’s your fault. You did it wrong.”
In her travels to 15 different countries over the years, she kept that in mind: Go hard, see everything you possibly can, experience it all and immerse yourself in the culture.
Sutherland felt like she did that with her daughter and son. With the pandemic keeping people inside and shutting things down, she said part of her felt like she needed to get out and do something on her own.
“I always wanted to do a solo travel by myself as a female anyway,” she said. “Then I thought, ‘What are you waiting for? If you’re waiting for somebody to tell you that it’s OK, that has already happened. It happened 25-plus years ago. You’ve been planning since then for that solo travel. What are you doing now? Because if you are looking for the right time in life, it’s never going to come, so make it happen,’ and so I did.”
Packing a carry-on suitcase and grabbing her phone and money, Sutherland left on New Year’s Eve and flew from Indianapolis to Chicago to Istanbul, Turkey, to Cairo, Egypt, to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
At 9 p.m., she left for a three-hour bus ride to Saint Catherine to meet a Bedouin, who would take her to the top of Mount Sinai. She wanted to take a pilgrimage to the summit so she could see the sun rise on the first day of the new year.
Experiencing sleet, snow and rain along the way, Sutherland was near the top when she got violently sick. With the help of her Bedouin, though, she made it the rest of the way. She was given a wool blanket and some hot tea before she slept in a hut for two hours.
When she woke up, Sutherland said she felt like a completely different person, and she saw the sun starting to peek through.
“That was the moment that I waited for,” she said. “That was what I didn’t realize at the time would be the highlight of the trip because it was so emotionally overwhelming. … I thought, ‘You know what? If you can do that, the rest of this trip is a breeze,’ and it truly was after that point. It was like everything from that point on was just a bonus.”
After spending the night in Cairo, she flew to Luxor, Egypt, and stayed in an Airbnb. With the help of a driver and a tour guide, she visited temples, saw people traveling via horse and buggy and camels and watched as people farmed sugarcane, mangoes and oranges.
Going back to Cairo, Sutherland said the culture shock was real. It was very hustle and bustle and loud, similar to New York City, and there was a mix of camels, horse and buggies, people pulling carts of food, buses, taxis and cars on the roads.
Just outside the capital city were the pyramids, including the Great Pyramid of Giza, and the Great Sphinx of Giza.
“I can see them from the city and I’m like, ‘Wow! They are just right there,’” Sutherland said. “The size makes them feel like they are right there because they are enormous. When you stand next to them, you really do feel like a speck of sand. We don’t have that kind of history here (in America). To stand next to something that has been there for so long and has stood through so much, if you’re not humbled, you should be.”
Despite being claustrophobic, Sutherland said she made it through the tour of the pyramids and tombs, where in many places, there is only 4 or 5 feet of space tall and wide.
Outside, she took photos while reared back on a horse and while standing on the back of a camel and participated in camel racing in the desert.
Her next stop was an unplanned trip to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where she said it was the complete opposite of Egypt — very organized, clean, glitzy and glamorous.
She reached out to Facebook friends to figure out what to do while there, and one of them suggested going skydiving. One problem: It cost $750.
The friend then said if she sets up an account for people to donate money, they would help make it happen. And they did.
Sutherland reached out to her two kids, and they thought it was awesome and exciting and wanted her to send them a video.
After taking a drive outside of town to the desert, she met a man from Brazil who was going to jump with her, and they boarded a plane for Sutherland’s first skydiving experience.
“It was the most incredible feeling,” she said. “There are few feelings in the world that I’ve experienced, but that is completely next level. The free fall for me, which I thought would be the most terrifying part, was the most exciting part. … There was one scream of fear at the beginning of the unknown. Once I realized that feeling of that free fall, the rest of the screaming from that point on was just bliss.”
They did a spin before pulling a ripcord, which snapped and jerked them upward and allowed Sutherland to take in the view of the sky and desert as she floated toward the ground.
Her final week of the trip was spent in Turkey, where she visited mosques and palaces and immersed herself into the culture.
On her flight home Jan. 15, Sutherland was able to reflect on what all she had done.
“I enjoy learning and immersing myself into the culture, learning about the religion, seeing what the day-to-day life is,” she said. “I don’t want to stay at a five-star resort. I don’t want to do what everybody else is doing. That’s not my idea of what a true experience is. This was more of like a spiritual journey or just to culturally learn and to take myself out of that comfort zone and push myself hard to see what I’m made of.”
She said that’s exactly what happened.
“I feel like when you do that, when you truly allow yourself to do that, you change, you become a person that is stronger, more independent, more confident,” she said. “You lead a more enriching life. You learn to appreciate the things around you that maybe you had forgotten, like the simple relationships you make with people, how you treat people, how people treat you.”
After a trip, Sutherland said some people say they are glad to be back home. While she said she’s a proud American and is very grateful for the opportunities here, she appreciates what she left on her trip.
“That was a simple life. It was simplicity at its best, where these people are genuinely happy in a third-world country because they don’t know what America is like, they don’t know what we deal with every day and what we do,” she said. “People are working so hard every day and pour everything into a job or career, they forget what living really is.”
Sutherland said it was interesting to see what life was like in each place she visited.
Adding to the comment from Otte in high school, Sutherland said, “If you come home and you don’t feel changed, you didn’t do it right. You didn’t completely immerse yourself into their culture. You didn’t allow that to happen. You went there for something else, which is to escape from your everyday life.”
Sutherland said she didn’t go to escape her everyday life. She went to enrich it.
“I want to learn about those things so that I can be a better person, so that I can gap the differences or help bridge the gap,” she said.
In her job as a hospitality support specialist for Cummins Inc., Sutherland teaches customer service, diversity and inclusion, which are among the standards and ethics of the company. So whether she’s at work or talking about her recent trip around the world, she tries to set an example.
“I’m all about encouraging people to get out and see things and do things,” she said, noting it’s important for them to see they are capable of doing what she did. “Nothing is holding us back.”
By the numbers
19,967.4 miles of completed travel around the world
3 countries passport stamped (Egypt, United Arab Emirates and Turkey)
12 flights by plane to various cities
1 flight by skydiving
5 time zones
4 COVID-19 tests
1 spiritual journey completed as a single American solo traveler