Some look confused. Some start searching behind me with their eyes. Some ask if friends are waiting for me at the other end. And some even forego the courtesies altogether and bluntly inquire if “the young lady” is travelling alone.
To which I nod. Because that’s what I do. I travel solo.
A lone traveller? You’re not alone
Travelling alone is not as unusual as it may seem. According to travelhorizonsTM, solo travellers comprise 11 per cent of all adult non-business travellers in the US (July 2010). More interestingly, recent research by UK-based Leger Holidays showed that as many as half of their customers choose to travel alone, while 56 per cent “definitely consider doing so in the future”. The trend of going solo is strong in the developed Western countries – possibly owing to a steadily increasing percentage of single adults and one-person households over the past two decades.
As a side warning, travelling solo should not be confused with singles travel. The main distinction is that solo travellers go solo by choice. Singles travel is however all about looking to meet another (single) person or a group of people on the road. The connotation I somehow cannot help attaching to “single” is “single, but would rather not be so”. Solo travel is different. The point here is not eliminating the “solo” bit but rather emphasising the “travel”.
And this is exactly the way I feel. If I had to choose between travelling alone and joining someone else, I would not think twice to prefer the former. Okay, if he happened to be a hot tall blondie sporting a pair of Nordic blue eyes, I would perhaps reconsider. But only for a day or two.
“Poor thing, doesn’t she have a boyfriend?”
The first question that springs to mind is why. Why the heck would anyone travel alone? From friends and random encounters alike, I get asked this question all but too often. Some tourism gurus may argue that going solo will become the preferred way of travelling in the future – but solo travellers are by no means a majority today. An unaccompanied young woman conquering the world with a backpack is certainly not what most people are used to seeing. Hence the widespread surprise my solo appearance evokes on the road.
The memory of my first lone trip four years ago is fresh as yesterday. My ambitious plan to travel overland from Singapore to Bangkok – passing Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Hat Yai, Krabi and Koh Samui – was perfectly doable but admittedly a logistical challenge for two weeks. In vain did I search for a travel companion. For obvious reasons, nobody was rushing to spend every night in fourteen in a different location. Including three on the train. On a slow Malaysian oldie at that.
Many thoughts were running through my mind at the time. I eventually went alone – scared, unsure and hesitant – and came back a winner. Despite my fears, I did not get bored, lonely or threatened for a second. I had an absolute, unrestrained blast of a holiday. Something in my brain must have immediately switched the “travelling alone” to a “fun” mark – and so it has stayed. With some minor unmemorable exceptions, I have travelled independently ever since.
Penang, Malaysia. My first solo trip, not a jiff of loneliness.
SHE travels fastest who travels alone
There are numerous advantages to travelling alone. First and foremost, there is freedom. Freedom, among other things, to plan your itinerary without trying to please anyone else. Many a female friend of mine complain about trips having gone awry because not two of them could agree on a shared activity or destination (boys are generally easier co-travellers – all they want is sit and have beer, bless them). Being on your own eliminates having to go shopping when you’d rather visit a museum, dining posh when you’d be fine with a takeaway or going out when all you really fancy is a quiet evening in.
The latter is a personal sensitive point. A major mismatch between me and the only boyfriend I ever travelled with was the widely divergent biological clock. Many travellers feel almost obliged to stay up till late and sleep till noon to compensate.
The problem with evenings is that I do not really appreciate them. My activity time begins to fade with sunset. The short twilight that follows is lovely for pictures and should be respected – but the dark spell afterwards is a different story. I like to shoot my travel pictures in the light. When darkness falls, the time is to go to the hotel, stick the camera battery into the charger and recharge my own “batteries”, too. Going out in the evening is a possibility, but only on an exceptional basis. What is there to do out there during the night, anyway?
Even better than cosy nights are early mornings. Yes, with a habit of getting up between 5 and 6am, I am an early bird. I love sunrises to distraction. The morning light is possibly the best time for photography – desert shadows are temptingly long; streets wonderfully empty; and your destination more yours than ever. The rising of the sun is like a kaleidoscope of light waiting to be photographed. Now go find a travel mate who’d understand hitting the sack at 10pm and rising and shining again at 5am? I am not even going to try – and rather just walk it alone, thank you very much.
An early bird gets the worm just before sunrise in Cancun, Mexico
Eat, pray… reflect
Another advantage of solo travel is being able to reflect in silence. Many of us – myself included – spend most of our lives interacting with others. Interacting with friends, colleagues, class mates, neighbours, flatmates, shop assistants, taxi drivers and random passers-by. Thinking and silent observation take a secondary seat as every free moment is spent talking. I am not going to speak for others here, but I sometimes get tired of overwhelming oral communication, most of which is excruciatingly mundane but often difficult to avoid.
When I travel alone however, I do not only take a break from active interaction at home – I also have an opportunity to observe the new surroundings without being distracted or talked into somebody else’s opinion. While there are plenty of people around me at any moment in time, it is I who decides whether to communicate with them or not. Try doing that at home or at work!
A fine moment of reflection there, literally
Not quite alone
Having said that, I very much welcome new travel acquaintances, especially the ones indigenous to the location. Communicating with the locals is an important part of every travel adventure and a wonderful “insider” glimpse into a foreign culture. Travelling by myself for years, I have observed that solo travellers are often looked at sympathetically by the locals and seem more approachable than a gang of friends travelling together. Lone travellers are more likely to be invited to share, say, tea or coffee in a local home – and the host is more likely to be open in discussing local lifestyle and customs. Speaking the local language helps but is not essential.
The result can be an invaluable cultural discovery. Would anyone bother flying halfway across the world only to stick to the people of background similar to theirs – while foregoing a chance to get really immersed in an exciting new environment? I certainly wouldn’t.
Uncle Miloš whom I met on a Serbian train gave me a bite of his burek
My passion for photography is not a secret to anyone. Many of us take photos while on the road. For some of us taking photos is a good enough reason to board a 10+ hour flight; I belong firmly in the second group. Last year I foolishly thought I set a personal record having taken 3,000 pictures during two weeks spent in Mexico. Little did I know the “record” would barely outlast two months; I came back from my recent trip to Vietnam with a collection of 4,000. Four thousand pictures. That makes 286 images per day.
The point I am trying to make is that travelling with someone whose hourly rate of captured images is dramatically different from yours can be a bit daunting for both. One would be missing out on the potentially winning shots out of sympathy for travel mates; the other would be wasting an hour watching, say, the sun set dramatically over Dead Sea in solidarity with the keen photographer friend.
What I also tend to do as a photography freak is climb the most unobvious lookout spots – trees, hills, lamp posts, fences, rubbish bins turned upside down – pretty much anywhere to capture that best view. Not all of my friends understand, let alone willingly join in. When I am alone, things are simple though – I nearly break my neck falling off a tree if need be, take my thousands of panoramic pictures – and nobody ever complains it was just a notch too many.
Which by the way it isn’t. I only ever keep the best shots. Really.
It’s all your fault, anjči
Lastly, I find that travelling alone makes me a much more tolerant (and tolerable!) person. When things do not go according to the plan – for example, a hotel is not quite as nice as its website – the temptation to explode and complain is all too great when a familiar pair of ears (read: a travel companion) is around. Especially when those ears are your boyfriend’s and the hotel was HIS choice. Trust me, the “he’s gonna regret it till the end of his days” little voice takes ages to muffle.
Since I travel alone, however, I have absolutely no-one to blame for my own blunders. A few lousy hotels, broken trains, general strikes, smoked-through fellow passengers and cancelled ferries – without a single scapegoat – are enough to lose the habit to complain altogether and become philosophical about life’s minor disturbances. I am hardly ever seen complaining. At least I like to think so.
A general strike? Wait, didn’t we have one last week?
In short, solo travel is full of advantages and everyone should try it at least once. The disadvantages? I promise to describe those in a separate post one day. If I were to pick one, however, it’d have to be dragging my 60+10 litre backpack along when I go to pee. Because there is no-one there to watch my luggage for me, ever.
But even that becomes natural after a bit of practice.