Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Why I love travelling alone

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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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Uncle Miloš whom I met on a Serbian train gave me a bite of his burek


Click-click, repeat

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.
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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.

15 comments:

m2 said...

Great insight, but travelling more and more you will reach a point, if you want to visit more of the countries in the world, where you will not be able to travel alone, especially as a single female under 40s even with visa-waiver countries you might be allowed an entry. Not to mention, that there are many places where you cannot travel without an official guide. But there are many nice places to visit still.

Judging from your posts you have not been to a single place, as of now, with some moderate security concerns, or famous to attacks on single women or travelers, in general. You would be surprised how many of those heavenly islands are not so much safe for single women.


On photography happy, I agree. But from our experience that the more annoying crowd among travelers are those with big cameras thinking/being sure/adamant that there are able to produce the next iconic picture. They are even more annoying than people who light a cigarette without asking whether other people have something against it. They will take the presumable nice places for hours taking different set and waisting time to the ordinary travelers. Thank god that we have visited most of the most famous places with troupes of tourists.

In my defence, we travel as a couple, sometimes take in friends with us, have our own itinerary,(which we always adjust and readjust based on interaction and local specifics) take local tours only when we know that there is no other practical/cost-effective way, take very few pictures mostly with us on them and most of the time observe people, locals, and how they interact.

Cheers,
m2

anjči said...

Dear m2,

Thanks a lot for your elaborate insight.

I have avoided the places with security concerns for solo women on purpose. I am my mother's only child - and, as much as I love travelling alone, I ALWAYS have her worried eyes at the back of my mind. Mexico got her worried enough; I have already planned to visit Rio and Venezuela, which are not the world's safest places - but I doubt I will go beyond those. Thankfully, there are still plenty of picturesque and culturally fascinating spots in the world where I need not be paranoid about losing my camera. Or losing something infinitely more valuable.

Produce the next iconic picture? I doubt an amateur like myself could ever even dream of that. I ENJOY taking photos; the process more than the outcome. If an image comes out remotely nice, I consider it a bonus.

I am sorry about your frustration with wannabe photographers. Well, I dare say I tend not to take the "presumable nice places" (a tree?..) for hours. Everyone deserves a shot. Plus, I prefer searching for alternative angles and shoot when fewer people are around. I have never had any problems "crowding out" fellow travellers.

Many thanks again for the comment ~ HAPPY TRAVELS! : )

anjči

KimberlyKs said...

Anjci,

I like this post a lot! I'm on my first solo trip and hopefully will have some of these experiences. I'm so used to traveling with Clark that I think I've been using him as a crutch. But, I was very proud of myself today with checking in to two flights, getting transportation, and all of that by myself in Guatemala.

This isn't the safest place to travel by myself, so I'll try to meet up with some people when I'm going places. My first day has gone well!

I totally sympathize with you about the photo thing. I like taking my time too. I try to be aware of the people around me and I think most non-photo takers are pretty patient with me. I'd hope I'm not annoying everyone as much as M2 is annoyed...

Great post! Good thoughts!

Anonymous said...

Ani! Loved your story. Feel the same way about solo travel. And I found out a long time ago, that there is no cure for being a morning person.

Just came back from Barcelona, in March I am heading over to Marrakech! September heading over to Portugal. Can't wait!

Love as always!

Danka

Eleanor said...

Hi Anjci,

I really relate to this post, I get the same blank looks of incomprehension - why does this young, not repellant and seemingly nice girl CHOSE to be alone..?! I have grown so much more travelling alone than I would have with others. That's not to say travelling with a partner or friend is a bad thing, just a totally different experience. Once you have survived - even flourished - alone in Africa for 6 months there's nothing you can't do.

Plus, alone rarely means alone, just more opportunity to meet new people, interact with local people and learn. I understand that everyone is different and some people don't feel brave enough to travel alone, even though some say they would like to, but it's so worth it!

Ele x

Anonymous said...

Loved reading your post. As a regular solo traveller I could relate to some of what you said. Certain cultures do think its strange travelling on your own especially in Asia. When last in India I made up a boyfriend for the duration as it was offensive enough that I was a female travelling alone but to be single aswell was a real crime.

Anonymous said...

I have really enjoyed this article. I too travel alone and I'm not in the young travelling bracket but a 70 year old British woman.
I often get asked if I miss having company on my travels to share my experiences with. The answer is no not really, and nowadays with email I can tell my friends what I'm doing anyway.

Nina said...

Hello and Labden Sister!

I can certainly relate to quite a few points you mentioned. Having travelled solo and with friends, I fully know all the pro's and con's of both ways.

I currently prefer to travel with friend/s and succeed in achieving a compatible union, which is easy-going, fun and have similar travel goals. (ps although I do miss the "let's meet sunrise" component in the current team! ;-))

Travelling together certainly makes it more budget and hence affords for more days or fun things to do, not to mention that it becomes easier to check out this or that hotel, or have that moment with nature (wc) without worrying about luggage, just the same as sharing a flat in London gives it advantages and disadvantages.

if and when, life sends me to London, I will apply for an interview!

;-)
Nina, Moscow, Russia
Happy travels!

breakbeat said...

I loved this piece, having travelled solo just the once (East to West Coast USA) due to lack of friends with funds, I found it more enriching than I could've imagined. It made me comfortable with my own company and meant I lost my fear of other solo activities such as dining alone - but yes I was also faced with the 'why would you travel alone?' thing too.

These days i'm lucky enough to have found my almost perfect travel partner, just getting him into the photography side now too ;)

anjči said...

Thanks so much to all of you who have been commenting recently. It seems to be quite a popular topic!

I agree that being in a group makes travel more of a budget affair. Luckily, I am blessed with a decent banking job in London - luckily because I am not forced to hit the road with anyone willing just for the lack of cash. And the most "fun stuff" for me has to do with nature: hiking, walking and cycling. No extravaganza there, so there is always enough money left for a single room in some cheap non-chain hotel. Having a full-time job means that time is more of an issue than money, but this is a different story.

In relation to some cultures finding it strange that a woman travels alone - I couldn't agree more. Indeed, many a time did I "invent" a hypothetical boyfriend "waiting just around the corner". I even wore a fake wedding ring at times. Just to avoid too many questions or unwanted attention.

Yes, many people ask me if I miss sharing experiences with friends as my trip progresses. Why would I? Indeed, there is Internet should I ever want to update anyone. I communicate with people I know very well on a daily basis in London. Surely at least on my holiday I could make it a private affair.

At the end of the day, the biggest problem is that I am getting used to travelling alone. In fact, I have got used to it so much already that it becomes increasingly more difficult to imagine myself travelling with someone else. Which could be something to worry about - in the future.

Thanks again to all of you for reading. Stay tuned - I am planning to write about travelling as a female and affording many frequent trips. At some point : )

Princess said...

Fabulous piece and so very true. I am a solo traveller and enjoy travelling alone to the max. I have travelled through Africa and Asia solo..... I haven't had the courage yet to travel with anyone (and quiet frankly I don't think I will). Keep taking those breathtaking pictures......

crunch said...

Hi! Great piece about how solo travel is just not the same as singles travel. I recently got back from a 2 month solo travel trip around Europe. Although a lot of people I spoke to before embarking on my trip, during my trip and even after I returned called me crazy for doing this alone as a girl, I must say, it was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I would not hesitate to do it again. In fact, I am currently planning my next trip in about 6 months, to backpack, solo, across South America.

It is definitely a wonderful journey of self-discovery to travel solo - you learn so much about yourself when you are by yourself and not being confused by the opinions, interests and comments of others. Not to mention the amazing friends I made travelling by myself - both with locals and fellow solo travellers. Really, one of the good things about solo travel is that company is just a "Hi! What's up?" away, should you choose. Really, people become so much friendlier when they see that you're alone.

Great piece, and I look forward to reading more such articles!

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled across your blog and have enjoyed reading some of the posts. Regarding going traveling alone, whenever I bring up the subject, I just get confused looks. I was born being an independent individual and remember lots of great memories exploring in the bush (grew up on a farm)by myself, then as I got older went to the bars, movies, restaurants, shopping all on my own and I love it... it's so nice to be in charge of just yourself! Is it selfish? Too bad. I can be a great conversationalist in a social setting, but I love my freedom way more :) I also love taking pictures and just drove a 6 week trip to the Maritime Provinces (Manitoba to Nova Scotia and back...Canada) 14000+ kilometers. Took over 5000 pictures. Drove it with my mom but most of the things I saw were by myself as she wasn't interested and stayed in the car (!?!). I would do that trip again by myself any day. Unfortunately in Canada, we do not have the luxury of seeing many countries as our geographic area is so vast. We can drive 8+ hours and still not be at the end of our own province! Europe is great for traveling as every country is so close. Did go to Greece, Belgium, France, Amsterdam and would love to see so many more. One day!!!

Re said...

Hello. I am Renata from brazil. =) I liked a lot of your blog, very nice tips to travel alone. So.. I am from são paulo but I have been in Rio 4 times, I dont think that Rio is too dangerous to someone like you travel alone. but is good if you avoid somethings. Anyway when you decide come to brazil. welcome =)

Jenna said...

I'm just thankful that I have gps trackers when I'm traveling alone. But I'm still a bit wary.

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