Isn’t it hard? That’s the question I often get when people learn I like to travel alone. They say it like they’re equal parts impressed and confused. I wouldn’t want to do it, is the second half of the thought, implied or sometimes said. And I understand where they’re coming from. Plenty of things about exploring Bali solo or meandering the hot streets of Singapore without a travel buddy are tough, especially for an extrovert like me, someone who draws energy from the constant crackle of interaction. There’s no one else to joke with, no one else who can take over map-reading for a while, no one else with whom to share the beautiful sight of a temple or market or gasp-worthy sunset.
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But after several big solo trips, I’ve found that isn’t the hardest part. The tricky thing isn’t the lack of a companion — it’s the constant company of myself. Ever tried meditating? It sucks: Within seconds (or minutes, if you’re lucky), your brain has split into two; one half is sprinting full-speed ahead, gleefully leaping from what you’ll make for dinner to what your coworker meant when she commented on your shoes in the elevator, while the second half comes barreling after like a Jedi Starfighter jet taking aim at the first, oh my god shut up you’re supposed to be meditating right now you are terrible at this, pew pew pew.
Traveling alone is like that all the damn time. The stakes feel high, because you haven’t simply paid for a drop-in meditation at MNDFL; you have paid to be on the other side of the freaking world. You are constantly hemorrhaging money in the service of enjoying yourself, dammit, and observing other cultures and having life-altering experiences. But instead you’re obsessed with where your shoe’s rubbing the side of your ankle, and you’re hungry but finding food sounds like a lot of work, and it’s hot and there are mosquitos and after this you’re going to have to haggle with another taxi driver. But by god, this traditional Legong dance performance is once-in-a-lifetime, and you should be loving every second.
And for a while, this was the worst part of traveling alone. At home, it’s easy to drown out the inner monologue with podcasts and Netflix; not so when you’re chewing your seventeenth solo meal or sitting through yet another silent cab ride. And then I had the revelation that changed everything. I was tired and cranky (with no one to complain to but my own inner sounding board). I’d gotten lost in the heat and humidity, making my way toward some botanical gardens with a sweaty knee-high orthotic boot encasing my right foot and calf. (I’d broken a toe shortly before leaving for Southeast Asia — just try stomping around in a walking cast in 100 degree-heat). I’d paid my entry fee, and I kept reading and rereading a placard next to a cool mineral, unable to focus and upset with myself for feeling upset. Then a new thought struck me: Screw this. Even while traveling, I don’t need to feel happy all the time.
Simple, right? Obvious, in retrospect. But I’d been smothering myself in pressure to enjoy every single second of my trip — an impulse I’d felt on group vacations, too, of course, but it’s different when there are friends around to blame for your crankiness or to shake you out of your grumpiness. If you’re a conscientious travel buddy, determined not to ruin your friend’s trip, you’ll put on a happy face even when you hit the inevitable travel snags, and as we all know, plastering on a smile is a shortcut to actually feeling better.
Which is great! Feeling happy is lovely and fine. But it doesn’t need to be the goal, and it certainly shouldn’t be the expectation, even (especially!) when you’re embarking on the trip of a lifetime. I’ve found I enjoy travel (solo or otherwise) the most when I see it as a means toward self-expansion: Whether I’m immersing myself in a new culture and gaining global perspective or feeling wowed and humbled and wonderfully insignificant at the foot of some awe-inspiring natural feature, I’m having an experience that’ll change me. And having that experience alone can really heighten it; it’s just me, interacting with this unfamiliar place, listening and observing and soaking in it like a bag of tea, minus a buddy to take a new Facebook profile pic of me or borrow my hand sanitizer or ask about the guy I’ve been seeing.
But there’s the other side of the coin, one people should be ready for when they embark on a solo trip: Sometimes you’ll feel bored, or frustrated, or genuinely sad. And that’s OK. Being lucky enough to be on a solo voyage doesn’t revoke your right to feel the full gamut of emotions; if anything, it enhances it.
So, yes, traveling alone is hard. But that’s exactly what makes it so worthwhile.
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