go it alone

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"Wow, aren't you afraid?"

That’s a comment I got a lot from people whenever they found out I was travelling alone - presumably because people immediately assume that terrible things are more likely to happen to solo women travellers than to men or people travelling in groups.

Maybe it's because of the deeply engrained perception that women are the weaker sex. And I'm not trivialising the risk of sexual harassment or rape - these things can happen any time, any place. There are also countries where women are subject to social mores and laws that may leave one more vulnerable.

But when you think about it, there is very little one can do about that, short of staying home to avoid danger.

I think the real fear of travelling alone lies in the fear of loneliness, or at least, a desire for familiar company. And there were definitely times I felt alone, or just bored, or homesick for friends.

But for the most part, travelling alone is extremely liberating and relaxing. You do whatever you want, whenever you want. You have time for your thoughts. You’re a better observer and you take in more of whatever you’re seeing. You’re more likely to talk to strangers than if you were absorbed in spending time with your friends.

Was I ever self-conscious about travelling alone, worried about being the only solo diner in a restaurant, or that people might feel sorry for me because they think I’m a social outcast with no friends or boyfriend? The first time I travelled alone (years ago), I did feel a little weird, especially when I ended up in a small town that seemed to comprise solely honeymooning couples. But by nature I'm always happy to do things on my own, even back home, and I stopped feeling self-conscious a long time ago.

I had my moments - I fell while mountain-biking and ended up hurting my right hand, which made it difficult for me to haul a backpack around. But I still had to travel - I had a flight to catch in Ecuador and I had only so many days to make by way there from Colombia by bus. I definitely felt sorry for myself then.

There was also the one time I had diarrhoea and stomach cramps that made it near-impossible to get out of bed - but I still had to get up, take my meds and get out of the house to buy dinner because the Airbnb host wasn't around, and there wasn't any food in the house.

There were also times where I wished it was someone else scrolling through endless hostel and Airbnb reviews to find the best place to kip for the night. Logistics is tedious.

But I would do it again in a heartbeat. I love not having to put someone else's needs first, and I like having all this room in my head just to think about what I'm seeing and experiencing.

And for all our anxiety about being left on our own, you are never really alone when you travel. You are surrounded by people whom, like you, came all the way to a foreign land to see something different. You are also surrounded by locals who often are happy to share something about their lives with you. There is always someone to talk to, if you feel the need. I'm not naturally social, but even I came away with a few new friends from my trip.

Yes, casual harassment can be a problem for women. In South America, men sometimes made kissing noises when I walked past, or asked if I wanted a boyfriend. But these are things that could just as easily happen to me back home, and have happened to me elsewhere. And personally I never felt I was in real danger - nothing ever escalated beyond the "irritating" level.

The best we can do is to use the intuition and common sense we've used all our lives to avoid danger. For example, I don’t stay out late alone, especially if I’ve been advised against it. I avoid dark alleyways. I don’t linger in places I don’t feel good about. I watch out for suspicious behaviour. If I’m nervous about say, a dodgy border crossing, I seek out other travellers (locals or other foreigners) headed in the same direction and stay close.

Sometimes, being viewed as vulnerable can work to your advantage. I’ve met plenty of locals (men and women) who are extra helpful to solo travellers. They walk me to the right place when I ask for directions. They come up and translate for me when they see I’m struggling with the language barrier. People from the next table sometimes invite me to join them (in a non-creepy way). Being alone makes you appear more approachable, and this can be a good thing.

I’ve travelled alone several times, and one thing that stays with me is how empowering it feels to be in charge, and to come out on the other side knowing that you can do it alone. Whether it’s just a weekend escape, or a year-long trip around the world, give it a go.

Comments

Ammu said…
Lovely post. Thank you for sharing your experience.
"I like having all this room in my head just to think about what I'm seeing and experiencing." This line sums up what I love about my life at the moment -- that lack of distraction and an unhurried focus on the self.
I have never taken a holiday entirely on my own -- somehow I have always ended up with company, either a friend or family member who wants to come along. As lovely as it is to have people you love around you, there's something so liberating about being on your own. Reading your piece makes me want to just do it. Can't wait to hear more about your journey.
Thanks for this post. I love to travel alone, but I feel like I'm judged as an oddball or selfish for doing it. I'm married, but my husband doesn't always want to go along. I went to Iceland alone last year specifically to get away from everyone in my family. I'm feeling inspired by the fact that you went to South America by yourself! My mom lived in Ecuador in the 1960s and traveled quite a bit in Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. I would really like to follow in her footsteps and I think I'd rather do it alone. Whether I travel alone or with my husband, I'm always responsible for all the logistics and arrangements, and it's much easier to do that for one person than for a group.
MC Bontemps said…
"Wow aren't you afraid ?" seems to be many folks' reflexive response to a solo woman traveller. Virtually all of my solo travel has been work-related, typically in pretty plush conditions, and even so I've heard plenty of this somewhat inane comment.

I am very admiring of your capacity to undertake travel logistics on the go though. I know my own ability to be an attentive traveller and properly present in the moment would evaporate in the face of needing to regularly track down working internet connections and make decisions about hotels, transport etc.
Pret a Porter P said…
I admire your travels. I greatly prefer traveling alone for the reasons you mention. I regret the times I dragged someone along with me. It can work if you are traveling with someone compatible, for me it was not the case.

You're not alone if no one knows you're alone--if that makes sense. For some of my international trips I've gone with tour groups. For me I get the benefits of solo travel but with the convenience and safety of being in a group. And it's fun to make friends with fellow travelers. I have great memories from these trips.
SA said…
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SA said…
I love this post! Traveling alone can be rewarding and very fulfilling. I don't prefer traveling in groups because it leaves me very emotionally tired by the Day 3 or Day 4. Though I travel with my Husband now, we still spend a couple of days doing our own thing on each trip!

I find the kissing sounds and other nonsensical behavior very irritating too. But, that shouldn't define the rest of the experience. I feel extremely saddened when I read about violence against female travelers. It just deters more women from taking the plunge and exploring the world by themselves!
lin said…
Ammu: Thanks! I just returned from travelling with family and while I relished that chance to spend more time with them, I missed the luxury and freedom of doing things my way and at my own pace. At the same time, travelling with loved ones does teach patience and compromise. I guess there is really no downside to going out there to do things, however you do it!

Patience_Crabstick: Glad you liked it! Interestingly, I feel like many people feel the same way as you do - they want to do but haven't because they're hesitate for all kinds of reasons. Made me wonder if people who enjoy travelling alone are in fact in the majority! I have a friend who takes separate vacations from his wife every now and then, something they agreed to do as a couple because they realised that while they love travelling together, their tastes do diverge sometimes and they like going their own way from time to time.

I love the idea of revisiting your mother's footsteps - i think little things like that make trips more special, especially in this day and age when it's so easy to look at places with a jaded eye since much of the world has been traversed.

MC Bontemps: I do get tired and careless if it's a long trip and this coincides with careless spending, haha. I end up paying more for things or joining tours because I get tired of doing things myself. I usually snap out of it though, because while organised day trips are convenient, the experience is usually rushed and somewhat less rewarding.

Pret a Porter P: "You're not alone if no one knows you're alone" -- so true! I do love the opportunity to meet people during tours as well.

SA: I do the same when travelling with friends - we usually split up for a day or at least half a day and reconvene for dinner.

Yes violence against women is frightening and I admit I have been put off from travelling to countries with lousy or aggressive attitudes towards women. That said I will never rule out exploring these countries on my own though - I think it's a matter of doing as much homework as possible and taking steps to be cautious. The rest is chance and well, shit can happen to you anywhere in the world, including at home.








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