When you’re traveling with someone else, you share each discovery, but when you’re alone, you have to carry each experience with you like a secret, something you have to write on your heart, because there’s no other way to preserve it.
– Shauna Niequist
So you’re going solo this time. Cheers to you! Even if you made the decision begrudgingly, as a very last-resort, because you couldn’t find a darn soul who wanted to spend spring break in Kyrgyzstan this year. Whether you’re a seasoned solo traveler or an extrovert who thinks visiting a foreign country alone sounds like the most miserable way to spend money, I stand firm in my belief that there is so, so much to gain from traveling on your own at least once in life. And who knows, you may end up loving it. Here are five not-so-obvious lessons I’ve learned along the way:
People will be weird about you being alone. Where I’m from (Washington, D.C.), people tend to pride themselves on individuality and independence, and treasure their “alone time” more than chocolate-covered life itself. But this just isn’t how most of the world works. When you step into a culture that finds strength in doing life in close community, your solo presence will probably spark some, um, probing questions. Oh, are you here alone? [Yes.] Why? [Well, why not?] Are you – erm – single? [Sure am!] …But, why?? [Ugh. *face palm*] Conversations that continue longer than any decent person should ever have to endure; marriage proposals; concerned safety warnings. Aren’t you afraid? Aren’t you lonely? You can be frustrated or offended by this, or you can see it as an opportunity: as long as you’re respectful and prepared, you both can walk away from the conversation with a better understanding of some cultural differences.
You’re just going to have to ask strangers for photos. Decide early on that you’re going to get over the awkwardness of playing tourist and very specifically directing a stranger to snap some photos of you. You’ll never see the person again. You’ll be much happier that you have at least a couple pieces of evidence that you didn’t just swipe those lovely landscape photos from the internet. And trust me, your mom will thank you.
You can also invest in a camera remote and tripod that will allow you to set up a shot and snap photos of yourself when there’s no one around to help.
Doors will be opened for you. Not literally. Well, maybe literally, which is nice, but not exactly relevant here. I’m talking about doors of opportunity, hospitality, adventure. It’s much easier for someone to sneak you into the restricted section of the castle, offer a home-cooked meal, get you an extra ticket to that show, let you sit co-pilot in the airplane, or give you a free hotel room/safari excursion/lionfish hunting lesson/whatever when it’s just you. In fact, some of my very favorite travel memories only materialized because I was alone. Be bold, be kind, and see what happens – you might be surprised.
Your time is your own. When I arrived in Belize this past summer, I had a whole list of things I intended to do and see – hikes I needed to take, chocolate farms I needed to visit, foods I needed to try. . . . But I quickly realized that all I wanted to do during my stay was scuba dive. Every. Day. For one fleeting second, I felt guilty. There were all these things on the list! All these expectations and plans! I even felt guilty for not spending more time relaxing on the beach, which is perhaps the most counter-productive approach to “leisure” imaginable. Thankfully, I very quickly remembered that literally no one cared how I spent my time in Belize, because I alone created that to-do list and I alone would know if I followed it. I could throw my list in the ocean (just kidding, don’t do that the coral reefs are dying!) and spend my whole entire vacation underwater looking at fish. And that’s what I did, and I to this day have zero regrets about it. Because that’s the thing about solo travel – if you don’t feel like seeing that museum or cathedral or taking that hike or waking up at a respectable hour, you don’t have to, guilt-free.
You will get to know the people and the country better. Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling with friends and family. But for me, travel buddies can sometimes serve as a crutch – something safe and familiar in a place that’s wholly foreign. I know that when I decide to venture out solo, I’ll engage in more conversations with locals and fellow travelers than I would if I had my BFF nearby. You may find that you ask more intentional questions because, on the one hand, this stranger is now your social lifeline, and on the other, you may just happen to be a bit less distracted and a bit more patient with the world around you. Conversations are more likely to turn into a shared meal, an off-the-beaten-path adventure, a history/anthropology lesson, and a new friend. I’ve also found that locals have a lot of questions they want to ask tourists, and they’re much more comfortable doing so in the company of an individual traveler.
You will get to know yourself better. There’s nothing like plopping yourself in a foreign place all alone to figure out what makes you tick, even in the worst of ways. Getting lost, forcing yourself to talk to strangers, having no one else around to make decisions for you, perhaps feeling a little frightened, and even experiencing bouts of tremendous loneliness at times will draw out some deep parts of your heart, mind, and personality that might go entirely unnoticed otherwise. This can be tough and mightily unpleasant. But these are parts of you that you really should dig into and get to know. And learning to sit in these uncomfortable feelings of fear and loneliness, rather than always having an escape route just a text away, can be life-changing. On the other hand, you’ll also probably realize how much fun you can have with just yourself, and that’s a pretty liberating lesson to learn.
Have you ever traveled alone? What are some things you’ve learned, expected or unexpected? Let me know in the comments below!