Travelling solo on Koh Lanta, Thailand
I’m surprised I haven’t written this post before. Years and years ago (five years ago!) I wrote a post detailing tips on travelling solo, and last year I wrote a post on the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my lifetime. I’ve also written other posts like this one – what travelling has taught me, and why travelling makes us happy – but nothing specifically on solo travel.
So why now? Why, after nearly ten years of solo travel, do I feel the need to reflect on what exactly I’ve learned from all of it?
Well, to start, I finished the rough draft of that book I said I was writing. At nearly 80,000 words, it’s something I’ve been working on for the last year, although in reality, I’ve been working on it for years. The book hinges on the travelling I’ve done over the past decade, and if you ever want to reflect on what you’ve done in your life, or analyse it in great detail – or even better, have other people analyse it in great detail – oh my God, write a book. It’s terrifying and embarrassing and humbling, and, above all else, it’s fascinating and, dare I say it, fun.
In the Okavango Delta, Botswana
In writing this book, I had to go way back (shit, it really is way back) to when I was twenty-one years old, still an anxious and very sensitive young woman. Though I was living on my own, in a different city from my parents, I’d never really taken a huge leap of faith. Deciding to travel on my own through Europe was what I needed, and what I wanted. It unlocked a new side of me, showed me who I really was. Over the next ten years, I’d visit nearly ninety countries, fifty-two of them on my own (for at least a portion of the trip).
I have to admit that I’ve shied away from the solo female traveller label that so many travel bloggers represent, mostly because I didn’t want any label. I’ve written about feeling lonely on the road (written after a particularly self-pitying spell in Guatemala) and also about when I don’t feel like travelling solo (written after I realised I was going to break up with someone, and was feeling sad he wouldn’t be my future travelling partner in crime). After completing this book, though, and realising what has really defined me in my life, I kept returning to this idea of solo travel. Like, oh right, holy shit, I really did travel around the world on my own. Sometimes I feel like it was someone else who did all of that, someone else who backpacked around Central America or scuba dived with sharks in Indonesia or spent nights sleeping on sacks of lentils in the Himalayas. And as much as I hate labels, there’s no denying that solo travel has made me who I am today. There’s no denying that solo travel has taught me a hell of a lot about life.
Travelling solo has taught me to trust myself. When you first set out on a solo trip, it’s only you and the open road. Sure, you will most likely meet a lot of people along the way, but you quickly learn to listen to your intuition. After years of solo travel, I trust that I will make the right decisions in life, both when faced with an emergency or when faced with a decision that requires more reflection. Ok, maybe not the right decision 100% of the time, but at least the best one for me in that moment. Travelling solo has taught me to be more quick-minded and to take better note of my surroundings, which in turn has made me a more resourceful and aware person.
Cape Town, South Africa
Travelling solo has taught me how to be confident. This ties into the point above. I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been timid in my life – let’s just put it this way, I once dressed up as Sonny Bono and sang “I’ve Got You Babe” in front of my entire school – but travelling on my own taught me how to be confident, really confident, as in, I’m not faking this. It’s taught me to be brave, and to do things I may have been too scared to do if I had just stayed on my couch in Canada. It taught me how to take that leap of faith, again and again, and that even if I didn’t quite know what I was doing, I’d have the confidence to figure it out on my own.
Paragliding over Pokhara, Nepal
Travelling solo has taught me how to interact with others and make new friends. As I mentioned above, and as I’ve mentioned multiple times on this blog before, even if you set out on a solo trip, it’s rare to actually stay on your own (unless you’ve planned it that way, or prefer it that way). You meet so many people on the road that I personally struggle to remember most people’s names. I’ve met most of my closest friends and almost all of my previous boyfriends when travelling – there’s something about the shared desire to see the world that brings people together. I love it when I walk into a hostel and see people of all nationalities connecting and laughing (and not on their phones… but don’t get me started on that). And forget about the other travellers, what about the local people I’ve met? I’ve shared such joyous moments with people from around the globe, and always been blown away by the amount of compassion and generosity most strangers have offered me. Every single person you meet knows something you don’t know. I love that.
Travelling solo has taught me how to be better at relationships. I’ve been very open about my failed romantic relationships on this blog – *cough* and even my failed flings *cough* – but the truth is I’ve had extraordinary connections with all sorts of people, romantic or otherwise. I believe that I’ve changed for the better over the years, becoming a lot calmer, less sensitive, and more open-minded (though I can just picture my first ex-boyfriend and my most recent ex-boyfriend getting together and being like, “Dude! She did that to me, too!”). I’ve created stronger friendships, gotten closer to my family, and had a lot more success while dating. You may be giving me major side-eye right now – yes, I’m single – but the truth is I’ve had much better relationships recently than I did years ago, even though the recent ones haven’t lasted nearly as long. Why? Because I’ve learned when to walk away before we dragged each other down too far. I didn’t have the confidence or the independence to do that in the past. While I can also credit maturity for this, I have to give props to years of solo travel, too. And oh yeah, all that time being on my own while travelling? It’s taught me how to love being single even when I’m settled in a place for a while.
Travelling solo has taught me to accept my emotions, even the bad ones. I think it’s a bit false to only talk about the good sides of travelling – life isn’t all never-ending adventure and cocktails on the beach (just ignore my Instagram feed). Travelling also brings sadness, anger, homesickness, and just about every other unfavourable emotion you can think of. I’ve written about how sometimes travelling sucks before, and it’s true – sometimes it does suck. What I’ve learned over the years is that that’s ok. Sometimes life, whether you’re travelling or not, really does suck. Accept that sadness and let it push you to be stronger. Accept that grief and turn it into something more powerful. We all have down days, but travelling solo has taught me not to run away from them, but to embrace them and learn from them.
Hiking in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Travelling solo has taught me to never take life for granted. After leaving my relatively sheltered life in Canada, I very quickly learned how lucky I am. I’ve met travellers who hate being called lucky – “I worked hard to get where I am today!” – but me? Yeah, I’m really fucking lucky. I’m lucky to have been born in a country that fosters education, provides health care, encourages creativity, and keeps me safe (and ditto for my current home in the UK). I’m lucky to even be able to hold the whisper of wanderlust on my tongue, to even imagine that I could travel the world on my own. Ok, perhaps fortunate is a slightly better word, but I vow to never, ever take the life that has been given to me for granted.
Tayrona National Park, Colombia
Travelling solo has taught me to trust in other people. One of the greatest things I’ve learned from travelling is that most people want the same things in life. They want to be happy and healthy, and they want their families and friends to be happy and healthy, too. We all work and laugh and love. We all bleed the same blood. And the truth is, despite the endless barrage of bad news in the media, most people around the world are good. Most people will help you out if you’re in a bind, and most will go out of their way to do so. I’ve met people from all walks of life who have opened up their doors to me (or their arms, or their bottles of whiskey, or whatever it is that I needed at that moment in time). While not every single experience I’ve had has been peaches and cream, for the most part the human race helps itself out, and I love that about us.
The Himalayas, Nepal
Travelling solo has taught me to experiment and try new things. I’ve done things I could have never even dreamed I’d do: learn languages, scuba dive, surf, take cooking lessons, paraglide, hike mountains, ride horses, and so on. It’s almost as if travelling solo has given me permission to test out these sides of myself, allowed me to play.
Scuba diving in The Gili Islands, Indonesia
Travelling solo has taught me to have fun. It’s not that I didn’t have fun when I was younger, but… oh who am I kidding, I’ve had way more fun in the past decade than I did as a teenager. Because I’ve had to throw myself into strange situations, I’ve experienced ridiculous rushes of adrenaline, laughed my head off with people I just met, and hey, let’s face it, I’ve gone to some of the best damn parties in the world (Burning Man, Songkran, Full Moon Parties, etc). It’s not even the big events that have provided me with the most fun, however; solo travel has taught me how to find fun in almost any situation, and taught me how to quickly form bonds with other people, so that even a couple of beers around a picnic table can be both entertaining and stimulating. Before I went away on my own, I didn’t enjoy parties very much, nor did I consider myself to be very social, but travelling solo taught me how to loosen up and go with the flow. It also taught me how to love tequila, so… there’s that.
Sand boarding in León, Nicaragua
Travelling solo has taught me to be independent. This one’s a give-in, I know. When you’re a solo traveller, you can only rely on yourself. There’s nobody else to check to make sure that there’s a bus from A to B when I need it, nobody else to set an alarm to guarantee I get up in time for my flight, nobody else to depend on when times get tough. Growing up as a kid in Winnipeg I was a real homebody, and I hated the idea of being away from my parents for very long. Solo travel gave me the courage and freedom to be completely self-reliant, and now I know there are few day-to-day situations I couldn’t handle on my own.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Travelling solo has taught me about the world. Before I went travelling on my own, I never really knew how the rest of the world lived. I’ve seen amazing, beautiful things, but I’ve also seen things that have shocked me and saddened me: poverty, illness, and prostitution, to name a few. I’ve learned about different religions, cultures, and histories. I’ve learned different languages, foods, customs, and manners. Mostly, though, I’ve learned just how little I really know, and it has been an eye-opening, humbling experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I believe that you can learn this even if you travel with another person or in a group, but there’s something about seeing this on your own that really brings it home (no pun intended).
Machu Picchu, Peru
Travelling solo has taught me who I am. Please don’t roll your eyes right now. I know, I know, I make fun of those “you need to get lost to get found” people, too. But the truth is that solo travel has made me the person I am today. I am no angel – I’m stubborn, I can be combative when under pressure, and I am a terrible procrastinator – but at least I recognise these things now, and can actively try to become a better person. While on the road I discovered that I actually quite like who I am, flaws and all. Travelling solo has made me all of the things I listed above: confident, independent, and more resourceful. I think I’ve also become friendlier, more open-minded, and more curious. Being on my own taught me to have faith in myself, and, most importantly, to like my own company. There have been many, many days and nights spent completely on my own, and while I’ve been lonely at times, I’ve never given up. Solo travel gave me that strength.
You can stop retching now. Sorry.
Travelling solo has taught me that, in the end, everything will be all right. I’ve always liked that saying: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.” Shitty things have happened to me. I’ve been heartbroken and sick and lonely and unbearably sad. I’m not going to pretend that these things compare to tragedies on a larger scale, but these are the things that have clouded my personal experiences. Travelling on my own, however, has taught me that life goes on. Sometimes you get your heart broken. Sometimes you get fired, or you feel frustrated or afraid. But tomorrow is a new day. Even if you’re at the depths of your misery, know that there is a world out there waiting to be explored. Even if it feels scary and tough, sometimes putting on your backpack and walking out the front door is the best thing you can possibly do, even if you’re just going to the corner store for milk. Get out there and see what happens. It might just change your life.
Just about to cycle down Death Road, Bolivia (pre-accident)
What I wrote in 2010, on the cusp of my solo travels around Southeast Asia, the Subcontinent, Central America, and South America:
Travelling alone can be very difficult, lonely, and frustrating, there’s no doubt about it. But if you are even considering it, it probably means that you are willing to accept those facts and realize that the pros will definitely outweigh the cons. For me, travelling solo is exciting and challenging, and an amazing way to meet people and to see and do things you might not do if you were with someone else or a group. The trip you take will be exactly the trip you want to take; you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. It is, in a way, completely self-indulgent, but it is also a way to learn so much about yourself and about the countries you’re travelling in.
I remember someone telling me, “It’s better to be alone than to want to be alone.” If you are considering travelling solo, all I can say is go, go, go. You won’t regret it.
On my last solo trip, where I attended the Valentia Island Festival in Ireland on my own. It was pelting with rain, I was freezing, my shoes were full of mud, but goddamn it, I met a bunch of people and I had a great time.
Have you ever travelled solo? What did it teach you? If you haven’t travelled on your own, would you like to?