The Truth(s) About Travelling Alone Part II
Travelling alone is a lot like life–you’re never actually alone. Meeting people might be one of the best parts of travelling solo but so is the chance to “face yourself”, as a friend of mine describes it. Losing ourselves in our relationships, careers, and responsibilities happens almost as naturally as fine lines and gray hair and it sometimes takes the concerted effort of physically removing ourselves from it all through travel to get back in touch with ourselves or to meet ourselves for the first time.
I started travelling alone about three years ago. I’ve settled here and there, with this person and that person, but I’ve spent a lot of time moving. I wouldn’t say I’ve “found myself” like I am a lone sock I misplaced some years ago, but I’ve definitely discovered dimensions of myself I didn’t know existed before I flung myself out into the world. And I’ve created new ones by stepping into uncomfortable situations as experiments to see what such experiences would ignite in me. Over time, travel has become a bit of a lifestyle and everyday I am exposed to weird and wonderful opportunities to expand my comfort zone, kick fear’s ass, and shake life up.
But solo travel doesn’t have to be a lifestyle or an epic year-long journey into the unknown. It can be as simple as a couple of weeks in an unfamiliar country, but it should definitely present some fairly juicy challenges. Even a country which you’ve visited in the past is going to present some vastly different experiences when you’re on your own. Below, I’ve shared seven reasons why I believe travelling alone is one of the best things you can do for yourself.
Fear touches everyone, it’s our natural response to life. Without fear we’d die. Fear is our body’s primary way of protecting itself–and for good reason–there are things out there that will harm you, just read the newspapers or listen to your parents. My nephews believe that anyone who wants to travel to India actually just wants to die. But, where fear can debilitate us, it can also motivate us to confront irrational fears, like spiders, cockroaches, and rejection, and approach legitimate fears, like physical harm, with caution and courage. It does not have to prevent our freedom or global tramping. The more often I confront fear, the easier it becomes to manage and the more confident I feel in assessing certain risks.
Fear can be managed with three steps:
1) Be aware of and honest about what actually scares you about travelling alone. Your physical safety? Getting lost? Discomfort? What you don’t know? I know I’ve been pretty clever at masking my fears just to avoid them. Observe your fear without judgement. Get to know it, respect it, and then face it head on, approach it slowly but deliberately, or simply let it be. I’m still afraid of that horribly elusive big brother called The Future, who we also call The Unknown. Three months from now looms a big, black hole in my life with a gazillion possibilities. Exciting but also legitimately scary. But I’ve practiced this enough that I am well acquainted with how to manage it. I’ll fill the hole when the time comes. I’m also scared to surf because I’m afraid of big waves. I’ll let that one be because it doesn’t prevent me from doing other things I want to do. There is no courage without fear.
2) Talk to other people who’ve done things you want to do or gone to places you want to go in order to suss out the best experience for you. Ordinary people do some pretty extraordinary things and that can inspire you to take that next step. You can also get some basic information about places that seem inaccessible or too exotic. Read others’ travel blogs rather than corporate sites to get information on places of interest. You’ll likely get more honest, updated descriptions and be able to comment and ask questions.
3) Allow fear to motivate you and then decide how to tackle it. Pick something that scares you and do it, there are few things that stimulate the brain, nervous system, and your sense of capability better than this. Three years ago I wanted to go to India but I was terrified because everyone stuffed my ears with warnings. I went anyways, shaking like a marionette upon arrival. I covered myself from head to toe in a self-designed burka of nearly every stitch of clothing I had in my pack. You can’t be too careful, after all. People still stared at me and my white ankles. Every morning I left my guesthouse to journey through the city towards my volunteer placement I was scared and uncomfortable so finally, I started walking with two men I’d met who were also volunteering. It was a perfect situation and allowed me to continue the experience a little more comfortably. You can accomplish some pretty great things as a result of being afraid, rather than in spite of it.
You’ll become more flexible and decisive.
When I first started travelling I was as flexible as a rock, and as decisive as I am now, which is not at all. But decisiveness is not necessarily active. Not making a decision results in something as often as making a decision does. Flexibility and decisiveness are linked. When you’re travelling you have to be flexible because otherwise you’re going to have a fairly shitty experience when–not if–things don’t go as planned. So are all those little decisions worth it? Decisions become easier when you’re not so attached to the outcome and just accept that either option will be an interesting experience if you can approach it with flexibility. Here in South East Asia, rubber comprises two things other than tires: time and rules. You have to go with the flow in a place that appears to be less flowing and more a sea of arbitrary happenstance. It’s the same way that surfers must go into the wave, rather than resist it in order to ride it (and the primary reason I’m afraid to surf).
You’ll get better at socialising.
You’ll need to do this sometime in order to keep your social skills honed and maintain a position in the human race. You’re also forced into social interactions sometimes, or you might actually want to meet other people. So, at risk of sounding like a keen customer service rep, the best way to do it is with a smile. Open yourself to people. Stop to help people who look lost. If you meet someone who affects you like a charlie horse in your left calf muscle, challenge yourself to find something you like. It will make you a more tolerant and less miserable person. Interact with the locals, even with just a few words. Smiling works everywhere but learning a few complimentary words or phrases such as “beautiful” and “I like pandan plants” are gateways to more meaningful interactions with locals. Or know something interesting about the culture when you arrive. When I returned to Thailand after a few years I remembered that one of the many things I love in Thai culture is the assignment of colours to days of the week, based on the colour of the god that protects that day. I never remember which colour goes with which day so I made a point of asking one of the locals and she was pleasantly surprised.
You’ll learn to take care of yourself.
Loneliness and insecurity will be as intimate acquaintances as past lovers. And like the ghosts of past lovers, they may stay a little while but they won’t hang around forever. You’ll likely suffer more than one instance of intestinal violence, get lost in the middle of nowhere, miss your expensive train, lose your money, have your stuff stolen, and have to say goodbye to special people many, many times. Welcome to the human experience. There’s always someone around to help, except when there isn’t and you must rely solely on yourself. Nothing makes me feel more capable than navigating through such predicaments alone and nothing prepares me quite as well either for confronting future challenges.
You’ll notice more.
This is because you won’t always have someone with you distracting your attention from the surroundings. Of course I love being able to stroll around with someone, feeding each other’s excitement (or distaste) for what we see. I love the conservations such shared observations can lead to. But I miss out on a lot. When I’m on my own, I actively observe my surroundings, trying to make sense of them, or just simply appreciate them.
You’ll find new ways to explore.
Becoming a hobbit is easy when you’re in a new, unfamiliar place, struck by insecurity. The best way to overcome that is to explore at random. Get out of the Old Town wherever you are. See the touristy spots and take some pictures but then move on. Go beyond the boundaries of your Lonely Planet guide. Leave your travel book and map behind. Get purposely lost and then find your way back with the help of the local people. You have the privilege of rubber time after all. When I first started travelling I followed a guide book like it was a recipe for lemon soufflé and then I remembered that I don’t like lemon soufflé. I saw all the great tourist attractions–full of tourists, which is fine sometimes but that allowed me to continue speaking English and to engage in familiar cultural practices and communication. It was like being in Europe but with poor infrastructure, better prices, and Buddhist temples every few hundred metres. Being in Europe is wonderful but it’s not why I came to Asia. Of course there’s nothing wrong with wanting to see beautiful monuments and historical relics. See them. Take pictures of them but get to know the people who built them and the land they were built on.
You’ll become your favourite companion.
You have to learn to live with yourself when you’re stuck with yourself for 14 hours in the third class section of an overnight ferry. You can’t give yourself the silent treatment, or not text yourself back, or yell at yourself for being selfish or moody. Well you can, but good luck with that one in public. Being alone in this big world is an opportunity to learn about and accept your shortcomings and intolerances and develop compassion for yourself. Such lessons are more acute abroad than at home where you may have a support network and aren’t regularly exposed to such worldview-altering phenomena.
And there’s so much more. If you’re contemplating travelling alone, consider South East Asia’s Famous Four: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It is a great part of the world to journey to alone. It is unpredictable, rugged, and adventure-packed, a great place to to wander aimlessly without a schedule, to explore tiny villages and hectic cities, to go on jungle treks and swim beneath waterfalls, experience diverse cultures from one village to the next, and feel almost completely safe on your own. It’s easy to navigate and a wonderful stepping stone to other more remote places. And there is always an opportunity to meet other people on those days you want to be part of the human race.
Photo Credit: Colleen Thornton
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