This is a series of honest posts about what solo travel is really like, so please start with part 1 if you haven’t already.
There are different kinds of loneliness
As the adrenaline faded, loneliness crept in. Whenever I saw something amazing, I wanted to share it with someone. I was ashamed to smile or laugh at something funny, and often too socially awkward to connect with random groups of young travellers visiting the same attractions as me. However, I learned to force myself to socialise quite quickly, which actually worked despite my somewhat antisocial nature. The excitement over all the new things kept me going and couchsurfing helped, immensely. All the hosts I met were great people, I connected with almost all of them within the first hour of meeting and I often kept in touch with my folks back home over emails and short phone calls, so I never felt truly lonely in Australia. In fact, I didn’t even have time to feel lonely, and the backpacker community is so strong in Australia that I was never actually really alone for long. My solo trip to Svalbard was similar in that respect.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am generally one of those people who enjoy time alone and I’ve worked hard over the years to like my own company, but we humans are social creatures. The trap of loneliness got me eventually, although in a totally unexpected way. I came back home from Australia full of energy and the will to live, overfilled with the positivity of new experiences and new perspectives, and suddenly I was a stranger. Everyone at home were still the same old characters leading their normal lives, which suddenly seemed bleak in comparison to my adventure. I’d come to rely on myself and learned so much about my wants and needs, that I didn’t want to go back to the person I was before. Yes, personal growth is a bitch.
It took me a while to reconcile the new, adventure me, with the old, regular me, and during that time I was incredibly lonely. The post-travel depression is real, every single time, and you can get addicted to the feeling of always wanting something new, something more. I had learned, however, that it wouldn’t work for me and that is why I don’t travel full time.
Back to the topic at hand though: loneliness. During my studies I lived in Sweden for a year, and I absolutely loved it. Since I was already in Scandinavia and still had some scholarship money, I figured I’d try to see as much of it as I could. When I moved out of my flat in mid-July, I embarked upon a rather long solo trip through Sweden and Norway. Couchsurfing isn’t a big thing in Scandinavia, because the people are less open to strangers than in other parts of the world, so I mostly stayed in hostels and single rooms, whatever was available. Norwegians are reasonably sociable, but Swedes prefer to keep to themselves, so besides chance meetings with other travellers I was always alone in the crowd.
Somehow that made it worse and although I often talked to my boyfriend and my friends, I began to crave human contact halfway through my journey around Sweden. I struck up 5 minute friendships with waiters, ticket sellers and museum goers, which was a real test of my social skills, and every friendly smile was a heartwarming treasure. Even though I still enjoyed travelling, sometimes I felt so lonely it hurt.
An unexpected benefit
I was also dealing with some heavy personal issues, which was probably why it was so bad. My grandmother was dying, I’d graduated from my Master’s and was still on the fence about my chosen PhD and future plans, whether I should stay abroad or go back to Slovenia, and worried about returning to my long distance relationship in person. When I found out my grandmother died I was couchsurfing in Bergen (Norway). I remember sitting on my couch and staring at my feet, but not really seeing them. I allowed myself 5 minutes of crying in the bathroom and went out into the city. I didn’t say anything to my host until later that evening and she was sensitive enough not to pick at it, for which I’m incredibly grateful.
There was so much to see everywhere though, and I’m stubborn, so I kept going. I knew it was my last year as a student, which meant my last chance to travel for more than a month and not worry about allocated vacation days at work. Turns out, the loneliness was cleansing in that particular circumstance. It forced me to work through my fears and issues, as although I tried to keep busy, I was never busy enough to escape them. I don’t think I would’ve been as at peace with my decisions or processed my grandmother’s death later on so well, if I hadn’t had that much time alone.
At times it was harrowing and cut bone deep to have no one there, but I pushed through it. I learned to stop being so hard on myself, to take a break and allow myself to “waste time” on holiday. In a way I finally learned the importance of self-care and taking time off for yourself – not to be productive or do things, but to just slow down and chill. There was one time in Varberg when I ended up watching Netflix in my hostel bed for half the day, because I needed a break from travelling and new things. It was stupid, known and comfortable, and it worked.
When I finally returned back to Slovenia for good, I knew exactly what I wanted and I was firmly behind all of my decisions, which I’d made before fully processing them, as I usually do. I think a part of my brain already knows everything and does it for me, before the rest of me catches up – I’d written about what coming back home after living abroad is like here. But anyway, loneliness.
Yes, you will very likely get lonely during your solo travels and although you will meet and connect with lots of new people, you’ll also feel the emptiness when you both move on. For some that is the ultimate turn off, but for me it is a benefit. As someone who struggles with finding enough time for all my interests, deep introspection is not often on the menu, so loneliness, whether on the road or at home, is a treat. It tends to happen more often while you’re abroad though, because you are less busy, which is why most people say travelling is transformative – it’s not the travelling itself, it’s taking the time to reflect and process your life.
Because being alone is not the same as being lonely, and if you find yourself struggling with spending more than a few minutes alone, it might be time to work on that and figure out why. 🙂