To me, really travelling solo is not when you latch on to a group or another person – although this inevitably happens when travelling alone – but rather when you travel and experience things solely by yourself, whether that be climbing a mountain, watching the sun set or crossing borders.
For many people the idea of true solo travel is a real challenge because we’re not used to our own company. It can make us uncomfortable; bring about too much thinking time; make you face yourself and your fears alone. But wow, once you step beyond that, there are a whole host of reasons why you should give solo travelling a go. At least once.
This is probably one of the biggest reasons people like to travel solo: not to have any restrictions on one’s route, destination or timescale. If you truly stick to solo travel then sure, it can work, but moments when you meet up with others quickly brings in the need for some compromise. It’s about balancing your needs, I guess. After a lot of time travelling alone, I’m now looking forward to doing some travelling with others again. But it’s on my terms. If I get along with some people, then great, we’ll travel together. If not, I’m happier by myself.
When you travel with others, you spend a considerable amount of time looking at them and listening to them. When you’re by yourself, you have no distractions and can really enter into the moment and fully observe the sounds, smells, sights and other people’s social interactions. I really experienced this when I was in Plaza Foch in Quito after I’d been tipped off about a flash mob dance. I heard excited chatter and the music suddenly kick-in, I saw people prickling in anticipation, I watched smiles spread across faces, and I felt the surge of the crowd. Would I have been so fully in the moment if I was with others? I don’t think I could have been.
Think about it. There’s a small group of friends or a couple at the next table. They look like they’re close and having loads of fun. How likely are you to join them? Or there’s a solo traveller propped up at the bar leafing through a guide, occasionally looking up and chatting to the barman. More approachable? The majority of us do want to share time and space with people. That person is probably more open to meeting others, to chatting to strangers. So yes, travelling by yourself makes it easier for others to approach you, and easier for you to approach others. Is anyone sitting here? So where are you heading? Easy peasy.
Whether that be tours, bus tickets or hostel rooms. When there’s just you to think about, you can be totally flexible and fit in with whatever is available. It can also mean cheaper deals.
You learn to put yourself out there. In Raglan, New Zealand I was walking home from a night out with some friends when I heard some music and spotted a little gathering on the beach so I wandered over and crashed the party. They didn’t mind at all. I met some lovely people. I never saw them again but it didn’t matter. It was a fun night. In Byron Bay I invited myself along to some surfing sessions with someone I hitched with, he introduced me to some of his friends and as a result my time spent there was even more social and local. Grab opportunities and don’t be shy. It’s key. And it then becomes natural to talk to strangers and access things you might never have otherwise come across.
I know for sure that if I had been travelling with some friends, particularly male friends, the idea of belly dancing would have been met with an absolute ‘no’. Because I was travelling alone, when the opportunity arose, I just went for it without being persuaded otherwise by anyone else. I felt a bit silly, of course, but had such fun too.
When I left South America for the first time, I thought ‘yep, I got on a plane by myself, turned up in Quito with little idea of what I was going to do and managed to safely survive over three months of crazy bus journeys and random experiences’. Not everything was solo, but a lot of the big stuff was and I managed it alone just fine. It felt great. On a smaller scale, climbing up to the Virgin Mary statue in Baños, Ecuador after a weakening bout of parasites also felt like an achievement. Had other people been there to gee me along, it would have undoubtedly felt different. In a bad physical state, my mental strength pushed me onwards and upwards. And again, it felt good. I guess it’s the sense of not needing to rely on others.
Find me someone who doesn’t have the odd niggle, self-doubt or emotional baggage to sift through. I want to know their secret. Most of us have some stuff that we push to the deepest recesses of our mind while we’re busy getting on with normal life, but every now and then something triggers a thought or a memory and we realise that there’s some unfinished business. Time by yourself can give you the breathing space to confront some of that crap. It’s not like it’s a good thing to keep lugging it around through life. (Too much time lost in your thoughts, however, might just drive you mad.) I remember one moment walking along a section of the Inca Trail in Peru where I went on ahead of the group to give myself that space. The beauty of the place and the physical action of walking all helped me to process some stuff. And I could let it go. Result.
Time travelling alone is the perfect opportunity to do whatever it is that you’ve been putting off forever. When I’m travelling by myself I feast on books and movies that I’ve been meaning to get around to in ages. I write in my diary, update my blog and put together articles. And sometimes I write letters.
There is no one special to share and remember those moments with, no one to care for you when you’re sick, hitchhiking is more dangerous, going to the toilet with your backpack is a bit of a chore and, particularly as a female, you may get approached by some right weirdos.
Overall, I love to share experiences with other people and I can get pretty flat when I’m too isolated. But equally, I value moments by myself. It keeps me sane, helps me to feel balanced, gives me space to think about and question what’s important to me and whether I’m on the right path.
At some point in your life, if you haven’t already, give it a go.
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