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.
While I was in Australia, the first of the benefits of solo travel I noticed was the freedom of choice. I could eat whatever and whenever I wanted, I didn’t need to compromise with my travelling companion or justify myself for needing to pee 30 times per day. I didn’t need to announce my wants and needs to anyone and harmonise them with theirs. I could go or not go wherever I wanted, I could skip a museum I wasn’t particularly interested in even if it was on the must-see list, I could watch the stray cats play for 20 minutes without an impatient friend next to me and I could sleep in for as long as I wanted to.
My wishes and needs came first and that is the biggest and sweetest advantage of solo travelling. There’s no compromising, no feeling guilty for dragging the other person along to something they might not be into, no waiting for them to check out their thing, no discussions about whether something is worth the money or not. I woke up one day and decided I wanted to go skydiving, so I blew most of my emergency budget and went. I wanted to eat cake for breakfast, so I did. I wanted to stay a day longer somewhere, so I did. I stayed out all night dancing and slept in the next day with no judgement or fear of missing out.
Soon after I came back from Australia, I started my Master’s degree in the UK, and if I’m being honest, I wasn’t very happy in England. My short solo trips around the UK were my escape and salvation, my break from the social demands of my classmates, the haughtiness of English students and less than ideal housing situation. I used those trips to get some much needed personal space, to process my feelings, to breath in all my expectations and consequent disappointments, my emotional turmoil and mental struggles, and breathe out and let them go.
Since my trips in the UK were never planned much in advance, I couldn’t rely on couchsurfing and usually stayed in hostels or slept on trains. In a way, it was a completely different way of travelling. The anonymity of being out in nature or walking down the city streets where nobody knew me became my drug and that was probably when I started to really embrace the less obvious benefits of solo travel.
When you’re travelling alone, you can be whoever you want to be, because there’s no one in direct proximity who knows you. I could’ve lied about my name and assumed a completely different persona if I wanted (I didn’t), and that is a feeling of endless open possibilities. Of course you can always choose to reinvent yourself and change your habits, but it’s harder to do where people know you, because they already have a certain image of you, which comes with expectations. When you start acting outside the frame of their expectations, there are always questions and questions are tedious.
The lack of judgement
Judgement is another tedious thing. Although I love to walk everywhere and can go for hours, I’ve never been very fit or into sports and I’ve always hated hiking, as in walking uphill, which most people around me know. My couchsurfing hosts in New Zealand and a friend in Ireland dragged me up some mountains in recent years and I went, huffing and puffing like a steam train. Although they were all nice and supportive, I could see that judging look in their eyes that said “how are you struggling with this so much? it’s not that bad” and I always assumed hiking would remain my enemy until the rest of my life.
However, one grey winter day when I arrived on Isle of Skye with my 10+ kg backpack on my shoulders, I saw a tiny trail leading up to a ruin above Portree and up I went. The backpack was heavy enough on a good day and I was tired after an overnight train journey from Inverness, so the couple of minutes up were a huge struggle. Something compelled me up though, and the view was gorgeous.
The rugged cliffs of Skye were so beautiful and wild that something within me irrevocably moved and the next day I was hiking up a nearby cliff, following goat trails over slippery rocks, through the rushes and in the mud. I didn’t really have proper shoes, I was wet half the time because of the incessant Scottish rain and I struggled uphill like an 80 year old fatass, but I kept going. Every single day I was there, I climbed on one hill or other, always alone and super surprised at myself.
Eventually I decided to try and hike up to the Old man of Storr, a distinct rock formation on Skye. It is a short, reasonably steep hike of about an hour, but I was there in winter and there was still snow on the ground higher up. Although I’d had so much fun hiking the previous day, something was bothering me there and every bit of me was screaming that I really hate hiking. What was the difference? You might have guessed it until now and yes, it was people. There were other hikers with proper gear going up much faster and defter than me and it brought back all those childhood memories and judgements, which made me feel like I was on display with my red face and dying breaths.
As soon as I realised what was bothering me, I also realised why I enjoyed doing uncharacteristic activities while solo travelling. There was no one to expect differently of me, because the people around me didn’t know me and therefore their judgement couldn’t really matter. I had the space and time to retry some things I thought I didn’t like. To date, hiking has been one of the more distinct ones, and I eventually completely got over caring about what other hikers might thing and just go at my own pace. A year later I went on a 10 hour hike to Trolltunga by myself and I loved it. I stopped to rest every few minutes during the steepest part and I wasn’t ashamed of it in the slightest, because I made it until the end, with even time to spare.
This whole hiking story might not seem like a huge revelation to you, but take it as a metaphor: solo travel can give you the space you need to try new (or old) things without judgement, which is becoming increasingly rare in today’s society. I’ve found that those of us who have personal stuff to deal with, are usually the most in love with solo travel, because such a huge amount of alone time forces us to process and move beyond them.
Alternatively, people who aren’t working through their issues and are comfortable with themselves, still love solo travel, because they can do whatever they want to do, veiled in the anonymity that being a foreigner brings, without judgement or compromise. In today’s world it is a powerful thing indeed to be truly free from other people for a few days.
Next up: part 5 – “Should I try it?”
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