A few years ago, the thought of traveling on my lonesome in an unknown city sounded like my form of a nightmare. Even being in social situations where I didn’t know everyone in the room made me anxious. I couldn’t quite fathom why anyone would voluntarily put themselves through the torture of traveling solo. I must have had a short moment of bravery (or insanity) in 2013, as I booked a trip to Europe on my own after having my travel companion bail out at the last minute.
I had three and a half months to fill, and being my first overseas trip (minus the nagging parents or the matching t-shirts of an overseas school group), I had no idea how to begin planning. I was lucky that most of my relatives lived in the UK at the time, so I clung to the safety net of knowing I could retreat back to familiarity whenever I had to. In the midst of my research, I started to see the names ‘Contiki’ and ‘Topdeck’ pop up, and the more I heard, the more I was convinced that I needed to jump on the group tour bandwagon.
The thought of traveling around Europe with a bunch of young people with everything pre-organized sounded pretty ideal. I booked up a 21 day European Getaway with Topdeck, which only left me with two and a half daunting months to fill in. And then something incredible happened. It was like all the stars aligned, and I began chatting to various friends who were going to be in Europe around the same time as me.
Suddenly, the gaps in my trip were filling, and I was feeling a lot less nervous about having to navigate an entire continent on my own. By the time I left on my trip, I had my first two months more or less planned out- flights booked, tour locked in, accommodation paid for. I figured at the end of these two months, I would head back to stay with family for the remaining time on my trip. Or at least leave the time open to see what happened… Even if the idea of not planning every single detail of my trip did slightly terrify me.
Things couldn’t have worked out better. On top of meeting up with about 8 different friends from back home at various points on my trip, I also made friends on Topdeck that I ended up traveling with. The month or so of unplanned travel quickly turned in to the best month of my life. With friends new and old, I entered in to the biggest food fight in the world at La Tomantina in Valencia, spent a week lounging by the beach and drinking Sangria in Barcelona, exploring the unique town of Lisbon (and getting violently ill in the process), eating a ton of Danishes in Copenhagen and pub hopping in London. Not knowing which city we would explore next was invigorating, and the spontaneity of it was addictive.
Well, my solo trip to Europe turned out to be far from solo. I was surrounded by people the entire time. In fact, the only time I was really alone is when I attended a two-day music festival in a little town called Lewes in the UK to see Mumford and Sons. Those two days without much human interaction were enough to send me in to a state of craziness, as by then, I was far from confident to approach strangers in such a setting. Everyone kept saying I was so brave and independent for taking this ‘solo’ trip to Europe, yet I hardly felt I deserved such titles. I may have booked the trip on my own accord myself, but it turned out to be far from a solo sojourn.
The next big trip I took was VERY different from my adventure through Europe. I did a Discipleship Training School with an organization called YWAM (Youth with a Mission), which involved two months of training for missions in Denver, Colorado, then three months traveling to six different countries. The trip was focused on volunteer with various organizations such as homeless shelters, orphanages and churches. Not only was the focus of the trip entirely different, but the style of traveling we took was definitely not what I had grown accustom to.
I was now traveling with a group of 12 and a trip leader. We had a tight schedule and had to check in whenever we wanted to go somewhere. Coming from the freedom of traveling ‘by myself’, it was a challenge to adapt to this rigid structure. I grew a lot during this time, learning a lot about respecting authority and being less selfish. In the end, the purpose of this trip wasn’t about me, but about the people we were helping. Traveling with the same 12 people (11 girls and 1 guy!) brought about its own challenges, but I made some of my greatest lifelong friends from of this trip and I am forever thankful to have them in my life.
Now this brings me to my current trip. I would say this is the first trip where I have truly experienced what it means to travel solo. I almost felt like I needed to experience traveling solo in order to be classed as a true “traveller”, to actually earn the title of being brave and independent. I now realize that this is a very superficial and pointless reason to travel alone. The first two months of my trip I was working for Topdeck Travel, so I went on a series of three tours in the USA, Turkey and Croatia to take photographs for their promotional material. Again, traveling in a group of about 30 people is about as far from traveling by yourself as it gets. These tours were immensely social and ridiculously fun, although the introvert in me was crying out for some solo time by the end of it all. I extended my trip for another month at the very last minute.
My “true” solo travels begun in Istanbul. I had spent a few days in this city with friends previously, so the first night I had to myself wasn’t quite as intimidating as it could have been. I was staying in an Airbnb apartment which I had booked thinking it was located in the touristy area of Taksim. It turned out to be down a hilly backstreet of a derelict neighbourhood, with not tourist in sight. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told not walk places on my own after dark, but the lure of a sunset boat cruise on my first night alone made me forget my sensibility. I ended up walking home through the sleepy streets of the neighbourhood late in to the night.
Lo and behold, I was fine. Sure, it probably wasn’t the wisest thing I’ve ever done, but when I made it home I did feel a sense of achievement. Not once had I felt particularly unsafe, and in fact, I found on my way home kids playing all along the street, even in the late hours of the night. It made me realize how much fear is instilled in us in the Western World. We become close-minded and overcautious, not trusting anyone or anything because we always see the worst in the situation. By all means, I’m not underplaying that bad things happen and discernment is essential, particular for females traveling by themselves. But I think caution needs to fall within reason, and you shouldn’t rob yourself of experiences based on worst-case scenarios.
My next solo destination was quite a contrast to the erratic nature of Istanbul. Helsinki was a very calm and easy city to explore in solitude. It was safe, littered with cosy cafes, easily walkable and the people friendly enough. It didn’t enamour me as much as its Scandi neighbours such as Copenhagen and Stockholm, but it did have a hip, artsy vibe which I quite enjoyed. I had my first sit-down dinner by myself, where I devoured one of the tastiest meals of my life and had an eccentric but very friendly waiter entertain me throughout my dinner, obviously feeling sympathize to my solo status. It was kind of hilarious, and it made me shed any embarrassment I had about dining on my own.
Next, I went to Budapest for a few nights before camping at a week-long music festival called Sziget. I originally intended the five days to be a time of relaxing and regaining energy before Sziget, but my hostel turned out to be immensely social and every proceeding night was spent partying with my new-found friends. I went to the music festival with a two Canadians, one whom I met on my travels in Croatia, and we had an unbelievable good time. I loved having the opportunity to meet people from ALL over the world, and as much as I embrace the Aussie accent, it was nice to hear European voices around the place for a change.
After Budapest, I caught a train to the city of Ljubljana in Slovenia. I have four nights in this quaint little city, with a day trip to Lake Bled the highlight on my time. Unfortunately, my hostel was large and lacked a sufficient common room, so I didn’t meet many people during my time in Slovenia, until I worked up the courage to go on a pub crawl the night before I left. By then, of course, it was too late. That’s the reality of solo travel- sometimes you’ll be blessed with meeting an abundance of like-minded travellers and other times you have to face meal after meal by yourself. You have to embrace both sides of the coin.
It was at this point that I started to get homesick- a feeling that I had forgotten even existed. To slightly digress, over the past few years, “home” had become a very elusive concept in my life. First, I had moved from Brisbane at the end of 2013, leaving behind the people I had grown up with and the memories of place I had always called home. My family shifted over to New Zealand and I lived in Auckland on and off for about a year between my travels. Then, I moved over to Sydney in an attempt to settle down and build a life in a new city, a stint that only lasted me a few months before realizing I was far from ready to settle in one place.
The point being, when I started to get feelings of homesickness, it hit me in a strange way. I could no longer be longing for “home”, as I didn’t have a literal home to be longing for. Rather, I was longing to be with all the different people in my life. It wasn’t like my homesickness could just be alleviated with a plane ride- these people were scattered all over the globe. I had to remind myself how lucky I was to have such amazing people in my life, and how blessed I am that travelling has allowed me time to see friends and family all over the world. Evidently, this is the hardest part about living a traveller’s lifestyle.
To get back to my trip, the final stop on my own was in Dublin. I had one night to explore and I went out to an Irish pub by myself. Eating out solo at a café is one thing- blending in to an Irish pub was a little harder. As luck had it, some very drunk Irish guys ended up introducing me to a lovely bunch of American girls who I befriended and spent the rest of the night hanging out with. Getting out of the comfort of my hostel paid off. Again, sometimes you get lucky. Other times you’ll sit with a pint of Guinness in the corner of a pub wondering why you ever got changed out of your PJs.
I’ve learnt a lot about myself during my solo sojourn. I’ve learnt that I am capable of traveling solo. I’ve learnt that I am able to keep myself company without going insane. I’ve learn that I am not particularly good at approaching strangers to befriend them. I’ve learnt that I am able to make friends with strangers if they first approach me. I also learnt (and am finally willing to admit it) that in general, I prefer travelling with company. That doesn’t make me less of a real “traveller”. That doesn’t make me less brave or less independent. It just means that I’ve discovered my travelling preferences. Basically, I’m happy to fly to the other side of the world on my own, as long as you can guarantee there will be someone at the other end to meet me for a pint.