Travel is Like Dessert
Your hand reaches up with a napkin and you dab the thick white cotton across your face, mopping up tomato sauce and the slightest glistening afterglow of olive oil from your sated, happy lips. Around the table the gesture is mirrored by your friends as they wrap up their meals. As you push your plate away the server approaches your table with a smile and says those magic words - "Can I offer anyone dessert?" An extended menu, a polite acceptance. Your eyes dart across the list of delectable delights and suddenly there it is - the perfect combination of all the things you love in the culinary world. Sugar, spice, everything nice. Internally you hem and haw because you think it's a bit much to indulge, but eventually you slap that menu close, hand it over to the server with confidence and say, "I'll take one of the .....". Because gosh darn it, you've got to treat yourself.
And why, dear reader, do you do that? Maybe you're celebrating, or maybe you had a rough week, or maybe you think a little indulgence is good for your soul. Whatever your reason might be, the root of these ideas boil down to one major inherent truth - life is short, so you better enjoy what it has to offer while you can.
It's with this in mind that I often find myself exploring the nooks and crannies of the world on my own. I'm a solo traveler for the most part, and often times it's not exactly a choice I'm consciously making. When it comes to travel, particularly travel outside of the United States and the very limited areas of the globe most Americans feel "safe" within, the honest truth is that most of the people in my life just aren't interested in the adventure of it all. Sure they'll go to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun or maybe spend a week exploring Paris, but if I suggest a two week jaunt through the mountains of Central Asia or visiting the jungles of West Africa suddenly everyone's shuffling their feet and busy that weekend.
And I understand why.
I happen to find the thought of wandering through little seen mountain passes and trekking through African markets exhilarating. As my friends are so keen to say lately - these things are giving me life. But for almost everyone else I know? They've already got food poisoning just thinking about it. The Senegals and the Kyrgyzstans of the world aren't for everyone, but they are for me - so I'm often handing over my passport to an immigration official and finding transport to my lodging without anyone watching my six.
I'm happy doing it for the most part, because deep down inside I know that if I waited around for someone else to go with me I'd be waiting forever. And truthfully, the sad thing is that most people do end up waiting forever. We limit our experiences in life so often due to imaginary barriers we set up to give ourselves reasons to avoid doing what makes us uncomfortable or afraid, and traveling alone definitely falls into this category for many people. I don't want to be that person who wishes he did more with his life when his time is up. So here I am, traveling with friends and family when I can but never skipping an opportunity to see something amazing because I would have to go on my own.
After years of experience I have to say that traveling solo really isn't as scary, as difficult, or as lonely as people might imagine it would be. It's actually quite the opposite if you come at it with the right mindset! Sure, I sometimes have to take selfies when I want a picture of myself and sometimes you miss having someone to turn to and say, "Holy shit, do you see this amazing thing in front of us right now?", but these things hardly make the experience undesirable.
On the contrary, there's quite a few aspects of solo travel that I really love, so let me go over a few of them to hopefully encourage you to stop waiting for everyone else to help you make dreams come true.
My Trip, My Schedule
Real talk - I'm not a morning person. Just ask anyone who's had the misfortune of being tasked with the job of waking me up in the morning. My sister is particularly fond of telling folks about how I would refuse to wake up early on Christmas Day to open presents as a kid. Instead I would force her and my brother to wait while I slept in for a extra few hours as my way of truly enjoy the special day. If the excitement of Christmas can't even rouse me from slumber, you can imagine how annoyingly late I typically sleep on any other day.
But that's part of the beauty of traveling alone - there's no one there to get pissed at me. I can sleep as late, or get up as early (LOL, no), as I desire and there's not a soul in the world I'm beholden to other than myself. And that's exactly what a vacation SHOULD be like, isn't it? Taking care of your needs and desires on your own time because you've made the choice of leaving "the real world" behind you. The world that says you have to be at work at 8AM. The world that says you have to get up for breakfast to run your errands before the gym gets too busy.
So that's my typical travel day - sleeping in late, skipping breakfast, and hitting the road around noon. And yes, there are days when I wake up early in order to get to a site or location for optimal sightseeing, but then it's still because I've decided that's what I want to do. No one else is there to say they absolutely have to see sunrise at Angkor Wat, so won't you please wake up at 3AM and ride in this tuk tuk at the ass crack of dawn so you don't ruin my vacation please?
When that's my inner monologue, I'm game. It's my idea, of course I'm down for it. But someone else saying that? You're likely to get a lot of angry side eye and a reluctant nod of my head because I'm not a complete jerk but I'm also not a good liar.
Traveling on my own eliminates the tug of war over when to do things.
No Boring Museums & No Drunken Escapades
Not only do I get to do things at my own pace and on my schedule, but when I travel by myself I get to ... *gasp*.... do only the things that I want to do! That means I won't be going to that museum detailing the history of the city's plumbing system, nor will I be going to that church on the outskirts of town to see a mural that's a pretty good example of neo-classical horse hair brush strokes popularized in 18th Century Venice. And later tonight, I'm not interested in hitting up that ice bar you heard was the coolest joint in town. No ma'am, not today.
Because that's not really the type of traveler that I am. Generally speaking I'm not a huge fan of museums. Sure, I'm game for the Louvre or New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Those are iconic locations with droves of beautiful works of art, historic pieces that you'd be a fool to skip. But the Hong Kong Museum of Coastal Defense (an actual museum) or the SPAM Museum (also an actual museum) are likely to get Heisman-ed by yours truly.
But maybe that's your thing, right? The one thing you're totally ass-over-tea-kettle about in this world. And if that's the case - solo travel is for you! Indulging in interests that are uniquely yours is the stuff that solo travel dreams are made of. The last thing you want when you're halfway across the globe is to spend an awkward morning eating breakfast while listing all the reasons your travel group will enjoy going to the Yak Wool Museum. Because that's guaranteed to be a hard pass for me and I'm enjoying this croissant so don't ruin this for me, uhhhhh thank you very much.
Much like museums, bars and nightclubs are also a huge dead zone for me as a traveler. It's not that I'm not interested in meeting new people or enjoying myself while I'm on the road, it's that doing those two things when you're a solid non-drinker makes for really cringe-worthy memories. When I'm at home with my friends, there are really few things I experience that are more annoying than being the only sober person around a bunch of tipsy Tinas. I love them dearly but it's just not my scene. Sure, you can simply suggest your travel mates enjoy a night on the town without you, but in reality that's a much more difficult proposition to sell than it seems on the surface. You're a team, a traveling clique. People don't like to split up on trips because you're experiencing the world together, and leaving a solider behind seems to break codes of conduct for people that you didn't even know existed until your posse wanted to go twerk on counter tops on Khao San Road.
When I travel alone I'm never forced to mount a thesis-style defense of my decision to not do something. That freedom alone is enough to make me want to book a ticket to someplace fun sans companions right now.
Because I'm Awesome
Is the idea of spending a long weekend or even two weeks alone with myself really that daunting? After spending the vast majority of the last few years traveling without anyone else around, I've learned that it's not off-putting at all because .... I actually like spending time with myself!
One of the things I enjoy most about hitting the road on my own is that I've learned a lot about myself. I'm a very social person so whenever anyone else is around me, I'm very preoccupied with their presence. I concern myself with keeping them entertained, making humorous observations, making sure they're happy, making sure they're enjoying themselves. That's just my personality. When I'm alone, I still make sure I'm taking care of all those needs, but instead of focusing my energy on others I am focusing on myself.
Am I entertained? Am I taking in my surroundings? Am I happy? Am I enjoying this trip? It's wonderful to be absorbed with your own well-being because so much of our time is dedicated to the well-being of others. In a group one might feel guilty for this selfishness, but when you're alone there's no one to slight by taking care of yourself first. It's easy to be your own first priority when you're the only one to choose from.
And here's the thing about travel - it's like Schrodinger's cat. The mere act of having your travel experience "observed" by others changes it for you.
Instead of taking note of the way the locals queue up and settle into a train carriage, you're busy holding backpacks for friends as they take their seats or cracking jokes about the bumpy ride ahead. Instead of enjoying the architectural flourishes on the mosque you're visiting, you're helping compose a picture for a friend in front of it. Being in a pair or in a group introduces elements of travel that are completely absent when you're solo. It's quite liberating to escape some of those obligations when you're on your own.
Years of solo travel have taught me that there are few people I'd rather be on the road with than myself.
Make New Friends
Just because you left your home by yourself doesn't mean you're all alone. Lift your head. Look around. Chances are other human beings are somewhere nearby, right? The world just happens to be chock full 'em. Sure, you don't know them. But you could if the desire or need arose. All it takes is a "Hello."
That's actually one of the best things about travel - the opportunity to meet new individuals. Whether they're fellow travelers, the person sharing the cramped row of seats next to you on the airplane, or a curious local who's open to speaking with a foreigner, travel is fertile ground for you to make a new friend - especially when you're traveling by yourself. When you're traveling with friends and family, you've got a built in social circle around you at all times. Your human need to socialize and make conversation is being met on a daily basis, so you often have little incentive to reach out and strike up a conversation with a stranger unless you're just naturally a very outgoing person.
I've met and made friends with a handful of folks while I was traveling with people I knew, but the most interesting encounters with people I've had while traveling have all come when I was kicking it solo and open to new opportunities. A group of Christian missionaries in Botswana. A Chinese man in his 80s who was also visiting Hong Kong and looking for an impromptu opportunity to practice his English with an American. A South African expat flying back to London after burying her mother in Johannesburg. The chances of me meeting these people while traveling with others were pretty slim - I wouldn't have sat next to the missionaries during our safari journey, I wouldn't have been herded onto a cable car gondola with an unsuspecting Chinese family, and I wouldn't have been sitting next to a stranger on a plane. Had I been traveling with friends or family they would likely have been the people I interacted with in those situations.
The world is full of friendly, open people who are willing to share their day with you. Or even make a stronger, deeper connection. You're much more receptive to meeting new people when you're facing the world on your own and don't have an entourage of people serving as bumpers in the bowling lane of life.
Personal Growth Comes From Challenges
The reason many people seem to shy away from traveling alone is simple.
And they're right in some way - you're in an unfamiliar location, often times where you do not speak the language and are unfamiliar with the geography, social norms, and cultural insight that you'd have back home. If you're an adventurous person, these things won't bother you - they'll thrill you. That's part of the excitement of travel! But you cannot deny that when things go wrong, if things head south, you're not enjoying yourself as much and your wildly charming adventure suddenly turns dark and frustrating.
I experienced this a year ago when I was traveling through Europe and finally met with my first case of food poisoning. Out of all the places in the world I've visited, I'm probably very lucky that I got ill while in Germany as it's clean, safe, and has high quality healthcare. But even a place like Germany put me into a tailspin of frustration and anxiety as I debated how I should nurse my illness without anyone to help me.
Who's going to go to the pharmacist to get you those probiotics and antidiarrheal medications? Who's going to make the daily trek out of the hotel room to bring back a few tidbits of food for you to nibble on to maintain some level of health? Who's going to carry your luggage when its time to move on to the next city and you still feel like you're knocking on Death's door?
You are. That's who.
Solo travel can really push you to your limits, particularly when you're exploring areas of the world that are very different from what you're used to handling back home. Sure, you're a pro when it comes to deflecting the Greenpeace volunteer that's trying to corner you on your way to Starbucks, but can you keep your cool when it's three vendors trying to sell you plastic bangles in a steamy marketplace in India?
I can genuinely say that I wouldn't be the person I am today if I hadn't traveled parts of the globe on my own. I'm much calmer under pressure and I'm very unlikely to be flustered when taken by surprise or placed in an uncomfortable situation. Flights get canceled, wallets get lost, and tummies get grumblies. When you tackle those problems on your own in a strange and foreign land, every day problems like passive-aggressive co-workers or a broken radiator don't seem so challenging at all.
Traveling on your own is a crash course in self-reliance and independence, like a Cross Fit program for your psyche. The amount of personal growth you can accumulate in a short amount of time is a bit mind-boggling but so worth the hassle.
So What Are You Waiting For?
I'm not saying you all need to go out and starting traveling as often as I do by your lonesome selves. I realize that's not feasible or even desirable for most folks. But I do think you should consider buying a plane ticket on your own to one or two places you've always wanted to go and stop waiting for the right time, the right place, and most importantly the right people to go with you.
Because you and you alone are the right "people" to take on an adventure.
So get on a plane and eat some trdelnik in Slovakia. Hop on Amtrak's Empire Builder in Chicago, ride it to Seattle, and chat up a storm with the multitudes of people hopping on and off along the way. Finally take that trip to Peru and wander through the plazas of Cusco before exploring the ruins of Macchu Picchu.
Challenge yourself to be brave and strike out on your own. Challenge yourself to finally make your travel dreams come true even if no one else is going to help you do it. Everyone should explore some place foreign and unfamiliar on their own at least once in their life.
So. Where are you going?