A Girl Alone: The Power of Solo Travel. It’s Not What You Think.
A few moments ago I read a piece by Gabriela Shel on traveling solo (https://medium.com/@gabrielash/why-you-need-to-travel-solo-for-at-least-a-few-times-in-your-life-ee91a271e549).
This brought up several things for me, if for no other reason than in just a few weeks I’ll be journeying to Africa (alone) to climb Mt. Kenya, then ride for a week in Madagascar (alone). In both places I will of course have guides, but this is the whole point of Gabriela’s piece.
Nobody is on that plane with me.
At this age-I’ll be 66 in January- I can’t even begin to imagine traveling with someone else. On my birthday, in fact, I’ll be headed back to Indonesia (alone) for a month.
Next summer I’ll be heading far, far, far north to British Columbia to ride pack horses with a group of strangers in the wild woods. And I mean the really wild woods. No hotels, no nuthin’. No roads, just trails, horses, strangers, tents, and whatever Mother Nature throws our way.
The idea of doing such a thing, as Gabriela points out in her lovely little piece, is that when we head out on our own, there is the promise- often realized beyond our wildest dreams- that there is adventure ahead.
My god. You can’t even imagine.
Two things get in the way of this if we’re not careful: if we travel with others, they distract us from the experience. They often don’t like the same things, don’t want to do the same things (you want to go on a hike, they want to head to the city). They may panic when you lose a ticket or the guide doesn’t show or the bus breaks down on the side of a mountain in a snowstorm. They want to go get cabbaged at the local dive, you want to go to bed early to get up for a dawn camel ride.
These things will happen. That’s the entire point of travel. Learning how to deal with extremity. The shit sandwiches that absolutely, positively WILL show up. They are inevitably mixed in with the gorgeous mountains, the sweet panda bears, the aurora borealis.
But you will be served shit sandwiches. If you aren’t, by my measure, you aren’t really experiencing much.
Those sandwiches are the life classrooms that teach you survival skills, how to build a wicked sense of humor about life, how to stretch your competence into vastly broader areas, and how to handle almost any kind of problem with confidence. Discomfort, by definition, forces us to grow.
To wit: A few years ago I was having breakfast at my favorite Buenos Aires hostel. I was joined at my table by another solo traveler. The young man was 25, Indian. He was utterly delightful. He regaled me with a story that makes this point, and Gabriel’s invitation, just perfectly:
I was standing at the train station in London a few months ago. The train was five minutes late. The woman standing next to me was so angry she spilled her tea all over the platform.
FIVE MINUTES LATE!! She nearly shrieked. She was completely stressed out.
As I stood next to her I thought about all the times I’d had to wait twelve HOURS for a train. A bus. When the flight never took off and I was stuck at an airport for several days. Alone.
Five minutes? It’s meaningless.
This young man, at the ancient age of 25, was already in possession of a level of calm, perspective, patience and humor that the middle-aged woman standing beside him would likely never, ever possess.
Solo travel gave him that gift.
As others have written on Medium, travel brochures lie. They have to. Otherwise you wouldn’t pony up the pennies and head out for the promise of a perfect beach, the fabulous food, the amazing culture.
Those features do indeed exist. But they come with a high price. That price often includes discomfort, delays, accidents, injuries, disappointments (the beach has red tide, gee sorry), substandard accommodations.
In fact, this is the whole point. This is where our best and most hilarious stories come from.
As my young friend from England discovered, the implicit promise of a perfect trip is a nonsense. What you do get is a smorgasbord of experiences, some good, some bad, some amazing, some downright awful. Within that series of experiences you have the chance to learn about who you are, what you’re capable of.
Travel is a superb teacher.
For example, when I go to Bali, I now know that Denpasar is a rat’s nest of overcrowding, bad traffic, constant delays and annoyances. Nobody tells you this when you look at the travel brochures about Indonesia. It is what you get. It’s a long, long trip to the beaches, if that’s your destination. This is part of the price you pay to get what you want. Sometimes you don’t get that either, but what you do get is what you need.
Going solo absolutely, positively guarantees you an education that you cannot possibly get anywhere else. If you have the courage to leave your phone at home (I do, for good reason) or, only use it for the absolute minimum such as contacting your guide or making arrangements locally for your next excursion, you will discover brand new lands.
Here’s what I mean: especially for Millennials, who grew up tethered to technology, remote travel cuts that cord immediately. Therein lies the chance to find out what we really think. Really feel. Explore the vast geography of your heart and soul on your own terms.
There are few greater gifts than silence. Not only that, your brain grows cells when you are deeply, richly quiet. Isolated from the babble of friends, or crowds, or the demands of others to see this, do that, or arguments about how the wi-fi just SUCKS, it’s remarkable what swims into focus. (https://www.lifehack.org/377243/science-says-silence-much-more-important-our-brains-than-thought)
But let’s be clear. You aren’t going to “find yourself.” That’s a specious notion. What you will do is build yourself. Stretch yourself. Experience yourself in all your naked human glory and ghastliness. It ends up being just one whole hell of a lot of fun.
If you fear solo travel because you’re female, please don’t. As you can easily research anywhere on line, there are tons of excellent tips on how to stay safe while traveling alone, most especially while female. I am quite sure that Gabriel has her own set of recommendations. They’re universal. You can find plenty here: (https://solotravelerworld.com/about/)
At the top of that list is to stay sober. For my part, and this is about safety, I don’t drink or do drugs. Never have, never will. That fact alone has often guaranteed me safe passage, especially in places like South Africa or Fiji where a woman out alone at night is an invitation for violence.
For the last eight years (and for four remarkable years from 30–34) I have journeyed solo. I’ve been terrified, tested, and tried. And boy do I now have a backbone. My sense of humor is as limber as a Cirque du Soleil performer.
As a result, these days the idea of heading out alone is a siren call. I bloody well can’t wait for November 6th to roll around. I am off to Tanzania for the fourth time, Kenya to climb a very large mountain, and then to Madagascar to ride horses for a week. I will be immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of my beloved Africa for three weeks solid. I have no clue what I will find.
Shit will happen. Guaranteed. The most important items in my backpack are inside me: Confidence. Competence. Clarity. I train for contingencies, prepare as best I can.
Those innate skills allow me to be in a state of joy rather than fear.
The point, above all, is just go. I’m with Gabriela.
There’s a Hyundai ad running right now which features a family on a road trip (https://commercialsociety.wordpress.com/2018/09/23/hyundai-this-family-takes-a-journey-in-their-santa-fe/). Aunt Tracy is yammering at them on the dashboard speaker about what a pain it would be. The happy family is doing all kinds of joyful stuff (they won’t show the kids screaming and complaining, the inevitable flat, the bad food, the rain, etc.) Aunt Tracy comments near the end that she would go straight from the airport to the hotel and be watching TV.
What an appalling, horrific thought.
You spent hundreds, if not thousands, to go to a new place, and you watch TV in your hotel.
Let me give you a comparison, lest you say, “well, it was raining.”
It was raining, pounding, blasting in Colca Canyon, Argentina, when two men and I mounted our horses at 11,000 feet and began a six-day trip into some of the most breathtaking, remote, and difficult scenery in the world. The world’s second deepest canyon. As I rode my terrific horse with the drops plopping against my hood, I called out to my guide that I couldn’t be happier.
It was one of the most amazing trips I ever took.
Television? Are you effing KIDDING ME, man?
Going it alone is a defining moment in life. As a woman, it has sculpted my heart, my soul, my body and my bones. It has taught me how to stand up for myself, find help when I needed it, how to survive epic injuries, how to make friends in weird places, and how to exercise an enormous sense of humor when all seems lost. I have been there plenty of times.
You don’t have to do what I do to learn many of these lessons. But you sure as hell don’t have to be Aunt Tracy, either.
You only need to get your ticket and go.
The gifts you get are forever.