I embarked on my first solo travel adventure only a short a week ago.
From the warm comfortable bosom of Australia to the mildly chillier but breathtaking New Zealand, I flew toward the unknown, scared but mildly excited…
Wow. How can just one week stretch to feel like a lifetime? One roller-coaster after another of conflicting emotions.
During such a time of drastic change (from one half of a couple to a complete loner) each day has to be taken as it comes, with no one day being entirely good or bad, merely a mish-mash of moments, some where you felt great, some okay, some terrible.
I have to preface that I am coming at this from someone in a relationship who hasn’t been alone, or ever travelled alone, in pretty much four years. That’s a lot of attachment and codependence to try and negotiate through in a new country and a new city.
Lesson #1: Solo Travel Shows You Who You Really Are
At best, solo travel an inconvenient transition. There’s nobody to aid you in yanking your backpack off the airport conveyor belt, nobody to hold something for you whilst you rifle through your stuff for your wallet, nobody to marvel at your new surroundings with, nobody to guard your collection of crap whilst you run off somewhere to pee, nobody to share a knowing look about something funny or silly.
At worst, its how these moments reflect the truth of your situation, that yes you may have had that someone, but for whatever reason or choice, for now, you are entirely alone and it’s scary. You might make acquaintances and friends along the way, but nonetheless, you are the only person taking care of yourself, your stuff and your needs.
You are suddenly confronted with your own company, habits, thoughts and behaviours, independent of other peoples opinions or interference.
You might learn a truth you always suspected, that you are an outright weirdo, and that no wonder you used to annoy people forced to be with you 24/7…or you might learn that really you’re not that bad a person and you should cut yourself some slack.
Lesson #2: You might learn to appreciate other people
You may also learn that you really appreciate cuddles.
Note to self: instead of sitting on my phone and doing isolating things when in the company of others, I will cuddle them instead.
Maybe up to this point, you thought you were semi-independent but not until that was the only mindset you could be, did you realize that you very much like having someone around.
Hey, its natural! It’s natural to want balance, and to want to talk about the amazing things you are experiencing with a real live person that you love.
In their absence, you certainly do learn the ways in which you relied on that someone, and they likely were very helpful in everyday life.
You do miss that person who has come to know what you need and want in a practical sense, whether its helping start breakfast while you hastily shower, someone to decide what to cook for dinner when you might spend twenty minutes umming and aahing your way into starvation mode.
Someone to share the burden of mastering each day relatively smoothly.
Basically, solo travel is a whole lot more tiring.
These are not really complaints, just facts of what this transition feels like.
Lesson #3: You also learn to appreciate being alone.
Amongst these observations I have had some real moments of positive clarity that reaffirmed my original reasoning for wanting to try some solo travel. I do feel satisfied that I did this.
I suppose I had a somewhat wistful view of how it might be from the off though.
I’d wake whenever I wanted, go take photos of buildings, or stop in a coffee shop and people watch, then meet lots of new people in the hostel, engaging with new experiences without my usual buffer of a boyfriend.
You might say, you could do most of those things with your partner, and more, which I have done and I always managed to have fun doing so.
However, there is an appeal to living out your day precisely as you feel like doing, with no consideration for anyone else. We all need these kind of days.
We all need alone-time and maybe I did take that to an extreme of sorts by opting to fly thousands of km’s away for mine, but, it has been beneficial.
I hoped it would be, but at first, in my hostel in Auckland, I was just anxious and tearful, regressing to a child-like state of wanting my person (I’d say wanting my mummy but for a while it’s been Taran, no offence mum!).
It doesn’t help that I do suffer generalized anxiety anyway, and I have been known to get overwhelmed even when I am in a fully supportive environment.
But mental health tendencies aside, I did fall into a semi-comfortable feeling amidst this solo travel lark, only really a couple of days ago though…
As cliché as it sounds to say, I have formed a better understanding of myself and I have become reconnected with some valuable truths, even in such a short time.
Lesson #4: You make peace with your true nature.
I’ll never be social butterfly.
(Aren’t butterflies super social?) I’ll never be gregarious and the life and soul of a conversation, and that’s totally cool.
We all have our reasons for being solitary, or not.
I’ve had time to realize that I am naturally inclined to talk lots to random people about random stuff when my mood fits, but in general, my energy is better suited to recharging in a peaceful creative space and staying connected with people who know me well to stop me feeling lonely.
I haven’t been completely isolated this past fortnight, thanks to good ole world wide web, I’ve also not pretended to be something beyond what I intrinsically am at my introverted core.
We are all different (shock horror) and as much as I have beat myself up for years about my differences seeming on the wrong end of that spectrum, I now know for sure that I am not inferior.
I got this far and I will get further, despite my insular nature being what some people perceive as a limiting factor.
Watching people eat alone makes me feel sad and this is a very silly thought.
When I’m eating my two-minute rice, its one of the happiest two minute segments of my day… maybe improved if it was something that took longer than two minutes to prepare but still.
Why would I assume anyone feels sad as they stuff their yummies into their mouth?
I’ve learned not to get stuck in the melancholy of aloneness and recognize that myself, and others, choose and need moments where we can just be present, enjoy our meal or drink or book or Youtube video, and it doesn’t mean we are sad inside (but sometimes we are because two-minute rice actually sucks).
Lesson #5: Kindness is priceless.
Small gestures, a smile, a thank-you, just giving a little bit of help or guidance to a stranger are kindnesses worth doing every day where possible.
I smile and greet people more when I’m alone and I find myself more inclined to recognize when someone needs my help, no matter how small their problem is, and I respond to that instinctively.
We should look out for each other in all walks of life, be it in a hostel in New Zealand, or any place else, anywhere in the world.
I sure would have appreciated this when I got on a packed city bus in my donkey form laden down with baggage, to then be forced to stand in the aisle (the only standing person), and then proceeded to drop my change, at which people just stared at.
Maybe they were all fricking Jedi’s and they were trying really hard to stare my change back into my pocket, but I don’t think so. I think they just let themselves stay in their bubble of distraction and inaction out of habit. Maybe they thought ‘dumb backpacker, coming here, spending all their money supporting my economy, gah’.
Well, solo travel has forced me out of this bubble, out of a place of thinking we should all fend for ourselves 100% of the time, and I don’t intend to go back into it.
Lesson #6: Live in the moment.
There’s nothing that interesting on my smartphone that means I should sit alone eating lunch in a cafe in a foreign land, and not take my eyes off it.
I feel more engaged in my environment, more aware of my surroundings, not just from a safety standpoint but just because its the perfect time to think.
How many hours of our day do we try to stop our thinking, escape our minds wanderings, or distract ourselves, usually with our devices? We habitually do this, sometimes entering a state of disassociation from our environment so strong, so powerful, that we miss stuff that’s really happening.
God forbid a puppy walk by without us stroking it, or an alien spaceship lands, or I don’t know, we miss the opportunity to prevent someone’s death.
I have enjoyed lounging around in my brain more. Thinking and observing, forming memories, snapshots of life around me, building understanding and insight.
If my smartphone failed to show me the meaning of life up to now why do I think just one more scrolling sesh is gonna change things. There’s nothing wrong in being absorbed in a good book or article but if I’m paying to be in this city, paying to explore then I’m going to explore; I’m going to walk, look around, sit, eat, and look some more.
Lesson #7: Solo travel will challenge you, and that’s okay.
There have been many more fleeting thoughts and minor revelations along the way, most prominently the fact that for me, solo travel can be personally impactful even if only done for a little while.
It is good to miss someone and let yourself miss them, but carry on functioning anyway.
In fact go beyond functioning and enjoy yourself.
It’s fun to have little stories to tell for the rest of your life, coming from your own unique singular perspective.
It’s okay to have something entirely for yourself.
I do prescribe to the words of Christopher McCandless (ultimate solo traveller, see the film Into the Wild) and his line, ‘Happiness is only real when shared’. But maybe that’s true of certain kinds of happiness, and maybe happiness is different in different circumstances.
Maybe he meant that we can go seeking something amazing and true, and feel exhilarated in the process, but when we find it, we wish we were finding it with someone.
Well I think that maybe we can become better equipped to build bountiful and beautiful shared experiences, in travel and in life, if we at first take time alone to reaffirm who we are, what we want and fundamentally, learn how we can bring the best of ourselves to that ultimate happy pairing.
In being a little selfish, a lone wanderer for a short period, we can actually end up becoming a more self-less partner, friend and family member in the end.
Happiness, in the ream of travel, really is a spectrum of different experiences. From tour groups to couple’s travel to solo expeditions, it all holds the potential to make us feel, learn, love and grow.
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