Falling in Love with Solo Travel
As someone who loves exploring, I learned early on that if I want to see the world in my own way and at my own pace, solo travel is the way to go. It’s not that I dislike traveling with others, just that I know the types of activities that interest me and that I don’t mind, say, sleeping in a well-kept budget hotel if it means having extra money to spend on rafting the blackwaters of New Zealand’s glowworm-filled underground caves or splurging on a kaiseki meal around a sunken table in Kyoto’s geisha district. There’s also the reality of conflicting schedules, additional financial restraints, and finding sitters for kids and pets that can make planning a trip with others difficult. While waiting for my boyfriend to decide exactly when he could take off work, I may have missed out on learning to make laap pla duck (grilled catfish salad) in Chiang Mai or helping build a mud-brick schoolhouse on a permaculture farm outside of Melbourne.
I took my first international solo trip 17 years ago, booking a round-trip plane ticket to Mexico to explore the beaches of Playa del Carmen and Tulum. It was a learning experience. When I arrived at Cancun International Airport, my borrowed backpack was waiting beside the luggage carousel, but the film canisters and alarm clock I had carelessly packed in its side compartments were not. My lack of confidence and poor Spanish-speaking skills resulted in a bar of soap and toothbrush that cost this gullible gringa the equivalent of $15 USD. Still, my positive experiences far outweighed the negative. There was the Yucatan fisherman who brought me to a local seafood eatery that took my breath away, and the Canadian couple I met on the public bus to Tulum that helped me score a prime thatched-roof hut (he spoke fluent Spanish) just yards away from the crashing waves of the Caribbean. At night I would write in my journal by candlelight, sipping cervezas and nibbling on slices of the fresh cantaloupe they gave me as a parting gift.
In the years since I’ve helped neighborhood women make macetas or candy trees in the kitchen of their Cali, Colombia, home; sat down with Kenyans to a meal of spiced goat and ugali at a local eatery outside Nairobi; and embarked on a last-minute weekend excursion with a group of fellow solo travelers along Australia’s Great Ocean Road. While some of these trips have been directly linked to my job as a travel journalist, I typically go into them without any idea of whom I may meet and just a vague sense of the overall itinerary (including a recent trip where I found myself driving a car through the wilds of Western Australia with nothing to entertain me but stunning old-growth karri trees and my own singing voice).
Although I do love traveling solo, I’m far from an extrovert. I consider myself a bona fide introvert with extrovert tendencies who finds it much easier to meet others and make friends when I’m not hiding behind a loved one. An added perk: These are friendships that tend to last. A fellow writer and I who bonded over a ceviche lunch in Lima recently got together again on his way through San Francisco; and the safari guide that led us on a foot search for wild dogs in South Africa’s Madikwe Game Reserve has been my WhatsApp penpal for more than two years. I’ve shared unforgettable experiences with former strangers while singing karaoke in Osaka and learning to make dim sum in Hong Kong. These are friendships that remind me that I’m more than who I am at home. I’m also a New Zealand bungee jumper, a Thailand trekker, and a woman lucky enough to sail around the tip of Patagonia’s Cape Horn.
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits to traveling solo—whether we’re completely on our own, with a local guide, or in the company of a group we’ve joined for this journey—is that it offers the freedom to expand our own boundaries without those familiar home restraints. There’s no one to tell us who we’re “supposed” to be or how we “normally” act. Whether it’s a multi-day hike to Machu Picchu or a train journey along Asia’s Silk Road, solo travel provides a safe opportunity to try out something that may feel totally different from the norm, but results in a truly remarkable experience.
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