Remember the fear of sitting alone at lunch in middle school haunted you on the first day at a new school? Who will I talk to? Who can I belong with and feel safe with? Who can I explore and share memories with?
Hopefully you learned through your middle school lunch experience that finding a new table to sit with meant a whole new group of friends and all the valuable qualities that each of them contributed to your life. Would you have met them if you continued to share a table with the same group of kids since kindergarten?
Travelling solo is similar to facing the wild safari of a tween-filled cafeteria. You enter into a foreign land, strange food, you’re not sure where the cool places to sit are, and there is definitely one kid who is going to try and steal your lunch money. You have to keep your wits about you, be confident and believe in your newfound freedom. Preparing yourself mentally is one of your best strategies that will increase your chances of surviving, without losing a cent of your lunch money.
Here’s the good and the bad of going on the road alone.
The growth that you will experience while travelling by yourself is mind blowing. Maybe a recent break up has you looking for a new start or you have an urge to prove that you can tackle an adventure like this alone, whatever your reasoning for going solo overseas, you will have so many chances to develop as an individual, emotionally, socially, economically and culturally. Your maturity will be honed far more than when travelling with the safety blanket of your hometown crew as you brave the unknown on your own. This is an opportunity where you can exercise full control of your decisions, which also means full responsibility when something goes wrong. It is a chance to experience life on your own terms as you learn to really listen to your gut feeling when it starts kicking you hard, though that might be the sketchy street food you knew you shouldn’t have eaten earlier.
“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark
Social liberty is one of the biggest reasons I prefer to travel alone, because without a partner or group to hold you back, there are limitless chances to meet new contacts that can show you experiences you could have never known existed if you had stayed hidden under the safety blanket of your buddies. It may be intimidating at first; especially if you don’t speak the local language, but chances are you are heading to destinations that other travellers also have on their radars and they are probably just as willing to meet a new friend in a strange world. Even if you don’t speak the local language, if you’re determined enough, it is possible to befriend locals and try and find out the best waterfalls or hole in the wall restaurants to check out. Every meeting of another soul, local or traveller, is a chance to hear someone else’s story, to make a new friend and to make a connection that can inspire, support or impact your life in a major way. Even if you left home alone, you might find a whole new group to hang with for a night, a new travel buddy for a week or maybe even the love of your life!
Maybe you’re not great at thinking on your feet, or you just really like being organized- so you plan out your entire trip down to the last minute of your departing flight back home. Well, the truth is that something is going to throw a wrench in those plans at some point. The mishaps that happen on the road are infinite, but solving each puzzle is part of the fun- Your flight gets cancelled, the hostel you were planning on staying at overbooked and now you have no room, the exchange rate isn’t what you thought it was going to be or maybe you took the wrong ferry to an entirely different island. Having a back up plan is always a good idea; in particular a back up budget can be very helpful, one used specifically for emergencies, such as buying a new flight ticket for the plane you just missed. Improvisation is a life long skill that will serve you well in almost any environment or situation, and contributes to your independence and maturity.
As the master of improvisation, MacGyver says, "I've found from past experiences that the tighter your plan, the more likely you are to run into something unpredictable." (For those of you who don’t know MacGyver, take some time to Google the man who embodies improvisation)
You have complete autonomy to do whatever you want to do without having to worry about what your travel buddy might say or what the group has planned to do. Explore the world freely, letting your true passions be your guide to exotic restaurants, new friends and adventures that are purely your own indulgence. Exercising this freedom does take some courage as you are pioneering your own journey without the support from a trusted companion but you’ll eventually get used to having your way and explore the empowerment that comes with it. If you had plans to stay in Bangkok for a few days, but actually found yourself craving a quieter existence, you can just as easily pack up your pack and catch a night bus that very night if you so chose! Just as well, you can lengthen your stay if you have found a place you consider paradise, without having any whining or complaining that you aren’t sticking to the plan. Join a rock climbing camp, learn how to surf, even change your plans entirely and end up moving to a new place because you are so fascinated by the language- the beautiful thing is that it’s all up to you.
If all you have is a pack on your back and an itch in your feet, let that passion to explore take you as far as you can possibly go. This was the day that I decided to rent a motorbike on Koh Lanta and head down the coast in search of a bungalow. It took me about two hours before I found one, but it was precisely what I was looking for and along the way I found an old sea gypsy fishing town, homemade hammock shop and wicked tattoo shop!
When you’re on your own, its very likely you will find yourself getting lonely without your friends to share the amazing experiences with. Living in a society that thrives on instant gratification, you’re never truly alone as long as you have access to Wifi, and because of this constant connectivity, it is increasingly rare that people know how to be truly solitary. The independent lifestyle of solo travel can begin to show you just how much you value company, while at the same time teaching you how important it is to have alone time. Being alone with your thoughts lends you the quiet space to reflect on where you’ve been, what you’re doing right and what you want to change from here on out. It also lets you take a look at the world around you rather than focusing on your friends, because simply observing is one of the best ways to absorb the culture around you. Grab a cup of tea and a local treat, set yourself up at a café on the street and just people watch, what you’ll learn just from viewing life happen is amazing.
“Your true traveler finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty-his excessive freedom. He accepts his boredom, when it comes, not merely philosophically, but almost with pleasure.” – Aldous Huxley
I feel that the majority of people find this to be the reason they don’t travel alone, strength in numbers right? To an extent, being seen as part of a couple or a group can help protect you from scam artists and other tricksters looking to prey on jaded and vulnerable single travellers, but sometimes being part of a clan can increase your chances of being selected as a target. If everyone is wearing the latest Bintang singlet, ordered the most colourful and ridiculously large fishbowl cocktail and is singing deafeningly, you’re all a walking billboard for criminals looking for an easy scam to pull, but when you’re alone, you can disappear into a crowd as just another passer-by. As long as you’re not wearing a big backpack, holding a map up to your face like it’s a pair of glasses or have your camera hanging around your neck, blending in and keeping your wits about you is a great way to travel under the radar. It would be wise to stay in public places with lots of people and good lighting, as well as double-checking the hours of operation at your accommodations for the evening, so you don’t end up having to fend for yourself in the dark.
Another security precaution to take while traveling alone is to have at least a rough itinerary of where you would like to go and communicate that with someone else, even someone back home so at least someone has an idea of your whereabouts if anything were to happen from you. Solo travellers make excellent targets because there is no one else to account for them, or their belongings, so if something was to happen to them it would be much less obvious. Trust is a gut feeling that you must listen to, because sometimes the friendliest people you meet abroad are trying to appeal to your loneliness and are actually scam artists luring you into a false sense of trust, until you ask them to watch your bag while you run to the bathroom and you come back to an empty spot.
Now get out there and try it!
Travelling alone is one of the most amazing experiences you can gift to yourself and even if it is only for a short time, the development that will occur within you is colossal.