Travelling Alone – What I’ve Learnt

Upon embarking on my first solo trip in April 2010, I was, admittedly, a bit arrogant. Having travelled around Europe with two accomplices a couple of years earlier, I assumed the identity of the knowing, weathered traveller keenly aware of the woes that accompanied group travel – growing weary of familiar company, the struggle to make new friends, the relentless need for compromise. Don’t get me wrong, there were good aspects too. In times where we got lost with the added pressure of 15kg backpacks, foiled by the debilitating affliction of monolingualism, there was strength in numbers: the presence of familiar faces from home lifted the weight off the challenges of a new country, culture, language, and public transport system.

At the time of course, I didn’t appreciate these things. Rather, I felt like I had taken the easy, safe route; like walking my way through a 5km marathon, or downing a shot of tequila shot in little sips. I was craving to belt out some year ten German in Berlin without an audience, to find my Venetian hostel on my own, and suffer in silence as I attempted to navigate the Colosseum in 40-degree heat. In short, I wanted the struggle.

Suffice to say when the opportunity arose to travel alone, I was excited. I trawled websites using the search terms “travelling alone” and “woman” and developed a flair for seeking out the information I wanted to hear: That solo travel was the best way to travel: liberating, easy, and that you were “never really alone” as you were always meeting similarly-minded awesome people on a bus, train or hostel room. In short, it is the best thing ever, and anyone that says otherwise was just trying to compensate for his or her timidity of spirit. If you’re a prospective solo traveller, I’m not trying to put you off. But avoid over-romanticising solo travel. I know it’s something I’m guilty of. Here I list a few things I wish someone had told me before I headed off on my journey of a lifetime.

Eating a churro in Lisbon
Eating a churro in Lisbon

1. Travelling alone sometimes means travelling alone.

I set off with the expectation of constantly meeting new people, having new experiences, and hitting the dance floor every night: a hypersocial environment where I’d have to consciously carve out some “me” time. Now, unless you’re some sort of hyper-social maniac (and these people do exist, possibly assisted by an amphetamine) this is not going to be the case, all the time. You will meet new people, and you will have amazing new experiences. But don’t forget that there will be quiet days – days in which you will meet no-one.

I distinctly remember having one of those days upon visiting the majestic city that is Granada, Spain . Upon stumbling across my hostel I was suddenly struck by the smell of fresh paint: the hostel was brand new, multi-coloured and harbouring a distinct lack of clientele. Wandering into my 12-bedroom dorm, I realised I may have been the first backpacker that room had seen.

Venturing into the daylight, the relentless grandeur of the city become all the more frustrating in light of having no-one to share it with. I stared enviously at groups of American tourists, taking photos of my own shoes in defiance of the beauty that surrounded me. My previous motives for travelling alone were becoming increasingly unclear.

streets of valparaiso, chile
Streets of Valparaiso, Chile

What I’ve learnt: It is clear that the main source of my frustration during these times was a discrepancy between some deeply unrealistic expectations and the realities of travelling on one’s own. Before setting off on your adventure, it’s important to get comfortable with the fact that you may be spending long stretches of time in foreign countries with only the voices in your head for company.

One solution is to learn how to embrace and enjoy the time you have alone. It’s a good idea to spend some time in your hometown before you leave. Go shopping alone, see a film alone, sit in a café alone, all the while trying to absorb your surroundings and the people around you. You need to embrace the “alone” part of travelling – read lots of books, listen to good music and most importantly, keep a travel journal (a fish out of water breeds great writing!). Remember, when things get social during travel, they get really social – so embrace the crazy times, and relish your downtime. You’ll thank me later.

2. Slow and steady wins the race

As you make your way across the big wide world, you’ll inevitably come across a flurry of ‘speedpackers’ – the type of traveller that takes pride in their ability to cram as many countries into their itinerary as possible , while exploiting every opportunity to keep you informed of their hectic schedule (“DUDE! I’ve been to 3 countries in the last 10 minutes!”).

San Telmo markets - Buenos Aires, Argentina
San Telmo markets – Buenos Aires, Argentina

What I’ve learnt: While the temptation to zip around a compact continent such as Europe is understandable, the costs often outweigh the benefits. For example, getting on a bus, train or plane every few days is expensive. For the price of a bus ticket from Buenos Aires to Santiago for example, you could’ve funded three more days of mate-sipping on Argentinian rooftops. It may not seem like much of a sacrifice, but the costs of crawling from city to city can punch a significant hole in your back account.

If the financial cost isn’t enough to put you off, the emotional cost might be – travelling fast is stressful, especially when you’re wandering alone. I once went to New Zealand for two weeks. Propelled by a desire to see as much of the South Island as possible, I jumped on a bus every couple of days. One morning, pulling myself out of bed at 5am to catch the bus, I started to wonder why my trip felt less like a holiday and more like an bad job. Rather than spending half of your holiday on a bus – linger longer, make some local friends, learn a new language. It’s easier on the wallet, stress levels, and about 100 times more fulfilling. In any case, you’ve got to save something for next time, right?

3. The world is a much safer place than we’re otherwise led to believe.

Prior to fleeing my home I spent a lot of time agonising over all the things that could go wrong. Getting attacked in London, mugged in Barcelona, kidnapped in Colombia, the possibilities for diaster were apparently endless. My fear wasn’t helped by trawling a certain internet travel forum (let’s call it ‘Lonely Janet’), at which point I was convinced my drinks would get spiked, and was to end up unconscious in a dingy Parisian alleyway.

At one stage during my travels, I was certain that it was my turn to meet my tragic travel fate. My hostel owner had given me directions to the bank – but warned me to take care. Wandering over to question I started to see why– the stray dogs, the gawking men – I immediately felt unsafe. I quickly snuck into an ATM, withdrew my pesos and hotfoot my way out of there. I wasn’t too far from my hostel when I realised a man had suddenly snuck upon me and tapped me on the shoulder, breathing heavily. I panicked – what did he want? Before I could make a dash for it I noticed a familiar piece of coloured plastic glowing in the man’s hand.

It was my credit card. I had left it in the machine. The man had been chasing after me and trying to catch his breath. I was stunned. “Muchas Gracias!” I managed. He turned and head back in the opposite direction while I stood, astounded, in the middle of the street.

Learning Spanish in Argentina
Learning Spanish in Argentina

What I’ve learnt: While I’m not trying to suggest that the world is free from danger, I do believe that the world is a much safer, more accessible place than we are otherwise led to believe. I was reasonably careless throughout my five months in Europe and South America and was never once kidnapped, robbed, or harassed. I know what you’re thinking – I was just lucky. That’s probably true. But considering most solo travellers are, there’s got to be more to it than that.

Buenos Aires, Argentina tango lessons
Buenos Aires, Argentina tango lessons

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Reena Sawyer

After graduating from University, Reena Sawyer spent much of 2010 floating around Europe and South America. Having fallen madly in love with Argentina, Spain and Portugal, she has yet to find the courage to forget them. Currently she is a radio broadcaster, freelance writer and tea-enthusiast based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on twitter @purpletank or her blog at bright colours & soft fabrics.

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