Solo travelers receive three kinds of reactions back home:
“Are you insane? Do you know how dangerous it is out in the world?”
“Isn’t it boring to travel alone?”
“That’s awesome! You’re gonna have so much fun! Safe travels and keep us updated.”
So what’s the reality of traveling alone? Lots of people say you’re never really alone even when you travel solo (even I say that), but the truth is, you are on your own at least half of the time. You are bound to sit in a restaurant by yourself, unless you are ridiculously outgoing and love to hang out with any breathing human being.
Short solo trips are easy, and I encourage everyone to do it a couple of times—you’re back home underneath your warm blanket again before you know it. Choose a safer city if you’ve never done it. What is there to lose?
Long-term solo traveling, though, is not always glamorous. I am going to throw all the pre-departure preparations aside and only talk about what happens when you are smitten in the middle of your great adventures. My friends on the road have doubted my survival in South America as a so-called “New York Princess,” but they also don’t know how tough and stubborn a New Yorker is. There are so many things I have to now do on my own (without servants): lighting up the stove with matches (yes, I had never done it before, and I was terrified of matches), taking long-haul buses with the risk of getting lost in the wilderness, dragging all my luggage at 5 AM without help, getting by with minimal Spanish capability and Google Translate, being weary of thieves and rapists, etc. The lack of boundaries and structure in long-term traveling WILL heavily test the level of your independence, emotional stability, and the ability to accept uncertainty. Sometimes you meet awesome people and spend quality time with them, but every traveler eventually moves on. When you go to the next destination, you never know if you will make new friends at all. Sure, you will have all kinds of small talks and say many hellos, but that doesn’t guarantee you will develop any connection with these strangers. In my own experience, every destination has surprises awaiting, and everyone has a story to offer, but only a handful of people would develop a real friendship with me down the road.
Most of the days, I am completely fine with being alone. I enjoy sitting in a cafe alone to work, walking around the streets to photograph quietly, and perhaps deliberating over every molecule in the universe. On a particularly emotional day, though, I wish I was teleported back home for a day so I can see all my friends in the flesh and party together again. Thanks to social media and all types of messaging apps, I can always count on having someone to talk to whenever the loneliness strikes. Imagine the times when you could only write letters. It would have made traveling alone awful!
On a positive note, solitude is a rare gift in our overly connected world today. I think a significant part of my journey alone is to learn how to be comfortable with varying feelings that arise from loneliness. Being miles away from home means I can no longer have the comfort of seeing a friend who lives four blocks down the street—I am forced to sit with my feelings. Going through that alone without falling into complete despair has already made me a stronger individual than before. When I struggle with finding harmony in solitude, Thoreau’s words from Walden often surface in my thoughts. Although I can never reach his level of comfort with isolation, I can now somewhat resonate with his experience in the wilderness (to a degree):
To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a slight insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery. In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since.
“A slight insanity in my mood” is exactly what I feel on days when I crave meaningful human interactions beyond talking about the weather. Yet I can also “foresee my recovery” and cheer to myself ever so slightly when I overcome each strike of loneliness. Traveling alone isn’t always glam, as aloneness is both a gift and a curse: It pushes you out of the comfort zone and challenges you to stay afloat with no immediate rescue but your own strength. Are you brave enough for the challenge?