“What draws me in is that a trip is a leap in the dark. It’s like a metaphor for life. You set off from home, and in the classic travel book you go to an unknown place. You discover a different world, and you discover yourself. The traveller is an ancient figure – a stand-in for mankind – finding his or her way. Ideally, in a travel book the traveller is alone.” – Paul Theroux
The first time I traveled alone I was 16 and terrified, it was a school exchange, the exchange organisation put us on a train in Paris and the next three hours were an anxious blur. Would I get off at the right station? How would I save myself if I didn’t- my French was terrible.
The train arrived, I got off at the right station. Acute anxiety and a desire to put yourself into unfamiliar situations are strange bedfellows. But it is Theroux’s metaphoric ‘leap in the dark’ which propels all of us to travel, to get on trains to places we have never been, to unfurl possibilities.
Travelling is good for you, there is even psychological evidence to suggest it makes us more creative. Travelling alone gives you time to think, to decompress, to live by your own rules.
Header Image courtesy of Tongle Dakum via Unsplash
Courtesy of Pavel L via Unsplash
My grandmother always says “don’t think you can go finding yourself, you’re carrying you around with you the whole time”. I agree with her, however there is something useful about escaping your life and gaining perspective. I understand what she’s saying- you don’t need to hate-read Eat, Pray, Love to realize that whatever problems you had before you went backpacking in India will still be there in the silences of the Himalayas and the quiet inbetween moments. But the immediacy of new landscapes, perspectives and people will be there too.
Courtesy of Mark Bosky via Unsplash
Solo travel is selfish?
“in reality it is one of the easiest and most rewarding things you can do”
Sharing special moments in a new city is great. But you may find yourself getting to know the person you’re with rather than the country you flew all that way to explore. You might also find yourself chatting less to locals and fellow travellers because it’s less uncomfortable to chat to someone familiar. Before you go, decide what travel experience you’re after. If it’s a sun-filled relaxing beach holiday then taking someone along is probably ideal, on the other hand if you’re feeling adventurous, solo travel is a wonderful opportunity to vault your comfort barrier and learn a lot about a new city/yourself.
Solo travel can be liberating and stress-free. Wake up in the morning and determine your own agenda. Not afraid of heights but your partner is? Go paragliding without worrying about entertaining anyone else. We compromise (and happily so) in every aspects of our daily lives, so occasionally it can be quite invigorating to do what you want when you want.
- Keep copies of all your travel documents in a drop-box folder on the internet.
- If you’re feeling uneasy check-in with people back home when ever you arrive in a new place.
Travelling alone is empowering
Once you start doing it it is addictive. Part of this is because other people think it is difficult, when in reality it is one of the easiest and most rewarding things you can do. Be a little brave, jump into the void and you will soon find that there’s no void at all, instead a wealth of interesting places and people to get to know.
What about safety?
Sure there have been strange moments travelling alone, and I’ve been given useful advice from more seasoned female solo travellers (see below). It is unfortunate that female travellers need to exercise caution but it is important to remember that there are good people everywhere, and some bad people, helpful people and some unhelpful ones. Certainly there are some countries that are just easier for solo women travellers, countries with low crime rates and good public transport, however most countries are safe to travel alone in and you will be joining a rapidly-growing international legion of solo travellers.
Bottom line? Don’t listen to the naysayers- unless there is significant political unrest there is never a good reason not to go.
Some easier starter destinations for solo travellers: Belgium, the Netherlands, Japan, Zambia, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Canada among many others.
Courtesy of Mark Bosky via Unsplash
South Africans like to say “just make a plan”, this makes us natural travellers.
Advice from female solo travellers I’ve met:
On Walking Alone At Night
- Wear masculine, loose-fitting clothing. If you can, wear a hoodie and pull up the hood.
- Adopt a heavier walk.
- Never be afraid to get yourself into an embarrassing situation- do not worry about being impolite – safety trumps rudeness. Never be afraid to raise your voice, this is often a very effective way of deterring harassers.
- If you prefer to sit next to another woman on an overnight bus journey for safety reasons (this is a good idea in certain South American countries) simply ask when booking the ticket. People are more understanding and accommodating than you might expect.
On Eating Alone
If you’re uncomfortable eating alone then take a notebook and pen along, or a book. It is very culturally accepted to dine alone in Europe and I’ve never felt uncomfortable doing this in South East Asia. A lot of people feel self-conscious about this. It’s really just a question of practice.
Watch your body language, it’s easy to make friends with fellow travellers on public transport or in a restaurant, but before you rush into a situation, take a few minutes to assess whether you think this is a safe situation. Be friendly, but use common sense when talking to strangers.
Some solo traveller ideas:
Before you go check if there are any interesting classes you can take in the city you are visiting (join a yoga class, go to an expat dinner, take up a cooking class in Bangkok or Paris). You will quickly make friends with like-minded people.
You don’t necessarily need to book your accommodation in advance, this allows for spontaneity, however arranging a transfer to the airport ahead of time will relieve anxiety as will booking the first night’s accommodation in a new city.
Solo female travel is not a new concept
There is a long history of intrepid solo female travellers, women who ignored societal conventions and lived their dreams. When we travel alone we continue this proud tradition. Above is a photograph of Della Crewe who from 1914 to 1915 undertook an 17700 km motorbike trip across North and South America with only her dog Trouble and her Harley Davidson for company.
To those who say they would consider travelling alone in Europe but would never do it in South Africa, have a look at Destinate’s Solo Stellenbosch campaign. Go here to see what I got up to solo in Stellenbosch.
Are you ready to take the leap? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.