My butt’s too big for the hard molded plastic chairs of Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport; my back aches and the metal armrests on either side dig into my ribs.
I’m alone and broke, my student loan deposit having been delayed. People speak Swahili around me, some German, some French. Then I hear a British family across the terminal speaking English, and it brings some comfort.
While this moment may seem like a lonesome one, it is actually a fond memory, one of those flashes of time that embed themselves in the mind of a traveler like a photograph.
There is beauty in moments like these, being alone in a place so different, so out of the comfort zone. They allow the traveler to see things from a different perspective, to see their lives and everything in them from a distance. There is more clarity in this strange place. Yes, it can be a lonesome feeling, but a lonesome feeling can be a good one.
While it can be lonesome at times, a solo trip allows the traveler a lot of opportunity for thinking and reflection. Photo by Cee Chan.
The idea of traveling solo intimidates some people. To others, the lack of having someone with whom to share travel memories simply makes solo travel seem like an unrewarding experience, but experiencing a new place alone is something everyone should consider trying at some point in their life.
Yes, traveling alone can present obstacles, difficulties, and dangers, but it can also provide opportunities and perspective that simply can’t be achieved when traveling with a partner or group.
When traveling in a group, it’s so easy to fall back on the skills of others. If someone is fluent in the language, you let them handle much of the communication. If someone else is eager to do the driving and map reading, you aren’t going to learn as much of the geography of the new place. If someone in the group has an rigid itinerary, you’re going to miss out on the spontaneous wonders that tend to happen out there.
Sometimes there is nothing wrong with these things; they happen when people travel together. They are part of the necessary give and take of traveling with people and attempting to accommodate everyone’s needs and expectations of the trip.
Don’t be mistaken, though. So many times when you allow these things to happen, you’re missing out. You’re missing out on poignant and rewarding experiences like bridging language barriers to have a meaningful exchange with a local, facing your qualms about driving a stick shift to have a blast cruising down a hairy four-wheel drive road, or of hopping aboard the water taxi, last minute, with that group of people you met at the hostel.
Self-reliance forces you to face your own fears and weaknesses, and in some cases learn what those fears and weaknesses even are. You will be nervous; you will be forced out of your comfort zone.
Hopping aboard a plane bound for Africa, I learned that one of my biggest fears was of the perceived inability to communicate, though I soon learned that complete sentence dialogue exchanges aren’t the only way to interact with people. There are universal languages like laughter and the clinking together of glass beer bottles. Piecing together an exchange of a few words of slang Swahili and a few words of English can also be as meaningful as an entire fluent conversation.
I’ve feared running out of money, certainly because it’s happened to me while traveling as a poor ski bum and then later as a poor grad student, both times waiting for the delayed deposit of a check. From these experiences I’ve learned just how far a couple of bucks can last when it needs to, and I’ve developed better planning and money management skills. More importantly, though, I’ve learned that things tend to work out.
I’ve feared missing connecting flights and buses, feared that hostels will have given my reserved bed to someone else, feared that the cab driver will try to rip me off. I’ve feared all kinds of things that are out of my control, and from this I’ve learned to accept uncertainty. I’ve learned to roll with the punches, to be adaptable, and to focus only on problems over which I can have some influence.
I’ve learned that potentially my biggest weakness is a reliance on physical comfort, a perceived need for a plush bed every night and for three hearty meals a day. This doesn’t always happen when traveling, and I’ve learned that oftentimes sacrificing some of these creature comforts in exchange for a more existential experiences can be a trade of great value.
After several solo trips, I’ve developed enough confidence that the obstacle I now find most intimidating is not having someone to watch my bags when I go to the bathroom at the airport, hardly an insurmountable feat.
That’s not to say that traveling with a free spirit is akin to being careless. Spontaneity is not the same as unpreparedness, and just because you’re free from restraints of itinerary doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your research. Traveling solo has unique dangers that you need to consider and address while planning a trip and while traveling.
Freed from the itineraries of others, solo travel allows a great deal of freedom. Photo by Cee Chan.
Perhaps the most important measure you can take is to be prepared. Before you leave, do as much research as possible; read everything you can about the area where you’ll be, check out hostel reviews, bring the appropriate guidebooks, and get to know the specifics of the place. Being armed with as much knowledge as possible allows you to be spontaneous while taking calculated risk, and it decreases your chances of unknowingly walking into dangerous situations.
The next large piece of advice is simply to always consciously use common sense, which is often one of the first things to go when you’re removed from your comfort zone. Don’t panic when faced with adverse situations; calm down and think rationally.
Common sense dictates practical things like bringing along a couple of padlocks in differing sizes for locking up your belongings at hostels and carrying your money in multiple places. Also, while your itinerary may be vague, you should let people know generally where you’ll be. Someone at home should have your flight information and copies of your driver’s license and the first page of your passport. Check in when you can; a stop at an internet café a few times a week is well worth it.
Finally, make an effort to meet others, especially like-minded people where you’re staying. Your trip can be solo, but it can be both safer and more enjoyable to do things like going out at night and taking long bus trips with others.
While it might seem counterintuitive that traveling alone would open you up to developing relationships, traveling solo is one of the best ways to meet people from differing backgrounds. It’s easier for a lone person to sit down at a table with a group of strangers or grab that last seat on the bus or bed in the hostel room, and groups or couples traveling are often hesitant about embracing new people.
A trip that begins alone doesn’t always end that way—the crew waiting for a water taxi in Costa Rica.
Friends come fast while traveling, and in my experience a solo trip is seldom a solo trip the entire way through. People I’ve met while traveling alone are now among my most enduring friends. The first night of my last trip to Costa Rica I, a graduate student from Michigan, sat down at a table with three Chattanooga good ol’ boys, two Canadian fashion models, and a Korean Buddhist monk. It sounds like the opening of a bad joke, but this group ended up traveling together for two weeks. We celebrated Christmas together; goodbyes were tearful. Nearly a decade later we are still in touch.
When you travel alone, you are free to make the trip whatever you want it to be, and you are free from the constraints imposed by other people. A solo traveler can free him or herself from itineraries, can adjust trip plans when opportunities arise, and can cater the trip’s budget to their own limitations. Solo travelers can go at their own pace, can talk to people, can stop and take pictures when they feel like slowing down, and can head to their next destination when they feel like speeding up.
The concept of “finding yourself” may be a cliché, but traveling alone does give you a lot of time to think. Complete anonymity leaves you free to explore without pretenses, to just walk, to find that locals only dive bar. For me, finding that dive once turned into a night of singing karaoke in Amsterdam until sunrise with a local bartender and her friends–one of those few memories in a life that truly embed themselves, a defining moment.
You’ll have many chances to look into yourself, to learn what it is you’re really all about, and to figure out what your priorities truly are.
Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of traveling solo is that the voyage is yours and yours alone. The options are limitless. Though I was broke in Nairobi, my loan money ended up coming through. I caught my flight and made it home. Those airport seats may be uncomfortable, but I long for more moments like that.