I’m 24 and since I was 16, I’ve been away at least once a year, for anything from 3 nights to 9 months, alone. I also go on trips with friends, but I make a point of regularly going solo.
When alone, I’ve been met with various reactions, but they tend to fall into two broad camps:
Awesome, that must be really fun! (Wide eyes, look of interest, wants to hear stories)
Really? You’re on your own?! Why?? (Raised eyebrows, expression of slight distrust, thinks I’m weird)
Both are totally valid. In fact, depending on what’s happened that day, either can feel completely (sometimes painfully) justified.
It’s rare that I forge a friendship with someone from the second camp. And, if they get me on a bad day, their reaction can feel like a gentle kick in the Ass.
As I look to the year ahead, and think about the trips I’ll inevitably make alone, I’m offering myself a small reminder of why it’s necessary and important to me. Just in case I need a little push.
But more than that: I’d like to share my reasons for travelling solo with those who might fall somewhere in the region of camp number 2 — and hopefully do it a little more coherently than I would if I were standing in a hostel kitchen with my hand in a jar of shop-bought pasta sauce.
So, here they are: the seven reasons I travel solo.
1. Because I can do things my way
I can wander off. Stay. Go. Change my mind. Follow a whim. I don’t have anyone else’s preferences, needs or feelings to bear in mind and carefully balance against my own. I can be utterly selfish and not feel bad about it. For most human adults — typically surrounded by and attuned to the needs of children, parents, friends, colleagues, clients, pets — this is a strange and wonderful luxury.
2. Because I can see what ‘me’ really looks like
With no one around who knows me, I’m in my own little social vacuum. Stripping out the group norms of my social circles — those silent rules of engagement, shared experiences and in-jokes that quietly guide our day-to-day interactions — leaves nothing left except… me. Sometimes I like what I see there, sometimes I question it, and sometimes it comes as a surprise. Either way, exposure feels interesting and important.
3. Because new friends are everywhere
It’s seriously noticeable how much more readily people will approach someone who’s sitting alone and strike up conversation. I’ve chewed coca leaves with a Pahadi people, played cricket with a Malayli, shared my books with a Bengali mother-of-two, and been taught to surf by a Tamilian farmhand. I don’t believe any of those moments would have happened — or certainly felt like such rich, colourful moments of connection with these travel mates— if I hadn’t been sitting by myself.
4. Because it shines a light on the kindness of strangers
I’ve learned that the quickest way to see the best of humanity is to make yourself vulnerable. I’ve found myself in hot (make that cold) water more times than I’d like, and every time been rescued by a warm-hearted and generous stranger. Regular reminders of why I should have faith in humanity sure is good for the soul.
5. Because it keeps me present
Other people are distracting. That can be awesome, and being connected with another person is one of the great joys of life. But walking up hills, through city streets, and along beaches with no conversation to be had other than the quiet mutterings and observations that happen inside my head gives me the headspace to take more in. Colours seems brighter, sounds louder. I’m more aware of what’s around me.
6. Because it’s scary
Some days, anyway. I’m not always as gung ho as I could be. I’m easily scared when lost (which happens a lot), and not being able to communicate in the local language can make me feel painfully vulnerable. (More on how I tackle that here.) But — and I’m desperately trying to find a way to say this without resorting to tired cliché— my comfort zone doesn’t feel very good if I stay there too long. Being in scenarios that send me marching (or reluctantly crawling) into vulnerability, uncertainty and discomfort is utterly crucial to my wellbeing. It’s what brings me to life, and keeps me there.
7. Because it reminds me that I can
The knowledge that I need no-one other than myself is the source of my deepest inner reserves, Other people — those who help in a crisis, or become road trip buddies, or share small moments with me around bowls of coca leaves — become a wonderful added bonus that I feel real, conscious gratitude for. But strengthening the quiet voice that says ‘I’ll be OK’ is an important gift to keep giving myself, for as long as I still need to be reminded.
There will always be moments of discomfort: when I have to take a selfie (I still cringe) because there’s no one else there to take a picture of me atop some famous waterfall; when I’m lost, skint or otherwise up shit-creek and wish I had someone to laugh instead of cry with; or when I’m having a down-day and there’s no one around who knows me. But the difficult moments are what make the reasons above all the more important and true for me. And it is these seven reasons which have propelled me towards the intense, grounding, connected experiences that sit like bright beautiful splashes of colour on the weird patchwork that is my twenties-so-far.