*Ahoy, salty language ahead.
“Ahh, you travel alone,” he proclaimed glancing at me through the rearview mirror, his eyes were smiling and his tone gentle. It was not an accusatory statement, more a curious questioning.
The coral-colored rosary beads hanging from the arm of the mirror catching my eye as he spoke, attached to a picture of a family, his family I presumed. Perhaps it was this symbolism of God or family that eased me in this moment.
A single female traveler in a foreign land, alone and vulnerable in a rickety taxi heading for an unknown city with only this inquisitive stranger for company—but I was not afraid, in fact I had never felt safer, or more attuned to my body and senses.
2019 had been a challenging year: a breakup, coupled with a new way of sharing custody that resulted in long periods of time away from my boys, had taken effect on my heart and mind. I was lost, dazed, confused, and in dire need of connection.
I filled voids of time with after-work drinks, boxsets, and meaningless conversations. I mourned the loss of the time with my children; I missed their noise and chaos. My house was closing in on me, and I become a permanent fixture in my friends’ guest rooms. I was more sociable than I had ever been, constantly pursuing company, pub dates, instant gratification, and parties—yet had never felt more alone.
I soon came to realise that the connection I craved was not with others, but in fact myself. I was unable to be alone. Like, really alone. So in a moment of madness (or maybe the sanest I had ever been), I threw caution to the wind, opened my laptop, and booked a flight.
It worked for Elizabeth Gilbert, right?
It was time to take myself away for some real “get to know you” time. Me, myself, and I were on a mission, and we needed our space to work out our differences.
I closed the door on the smiling taxi man and caught my breath; the beauty of what was before me was intoxicating. There was no schedule to follow, no directions, no one to share its splendor with—but this was enough. As I made my way through the empty cobbled streets of Dubrovnik with only the sound of my bag along for company, I felt an instant rejuvenation of my heart. I travelled alongside my instincts, I wandered alongside my senses, and I trusted my intuition to keep us safe and on track.
As I unpacked in the terracotta-stone-walled apartment, I remember so clearly the sounds of the street markets below, the smell of cinnamon in the air, and the speckled light pouring in on the bed from the balcony. I walked out onto the terrace and stood for almost an hour taking it all in. That impending dread of being alone with myself, of having nobody to talk to or share the experience with, was being absorbed by the sun on my face, and instead of emptiness—I felt endless possibility.
Travelling alone is an eye-opening, life defining experience. Being in charge and wholly responsible for myself was both liberating and daunting. As the days went by, my resilience grew.
I learnt that self-interest is not selfishness as it is often perceived—it is vital. Society frames self-interest as ego-led or somehow negative; I call bullshit on that. Self-interest is one of the most undervalued and generous things we can do for ourselves. Pursuing a path that we want, with no requirement to meet a quota for another, is critical to our mental health.
Sometimes we just need to get away from our environments to really reacquaint ourselves with who we are.
I took myself out for meals, I ate hearty breakfasts in wondrous settings, I joined walking tours, and spent hours in museums and galleries. Sometimes I would read at night on my balcony with the sounds of the crashing waves as company, other nights I would venture out and sit in bars drinking cocktails and eating tapas for one. People watching became my new favorite sport, leisurely coffee stops, watching the world go by without the constraints of any time or plan is an incredibly gratifying feeling.
Travelling alone reconnected me to myself. There was no great epiphany or defining moment I can pinpoint that led to this, but instead a series of small realizations that led me back to myself.
Here are three key lessons I learned from hitting the solo tracks:
1. There is no shame in being a solo traveler: fuck what they think.
I was self-conscious about dining alone on the first night in Croatia. I was dog hungry, and the twinkling lights of the bistros were calling to me, but the al fresco diners sat at the tables outside were grouped and coupled and I stuck out like a sore thumb. I did not want to be pitied or gawped at, or worse still, invited to join them (the introvert in me was not up for that!).
Instead, I avoided the places that I really wanted to go to and chose take-away food from a nearby bakery to eat in the park. On my way back through the town, I noticed more and more solo diners: some had laptops, some books, some just sat there soaking it all in. I gave myself a real talking to that night. I had yet again put people’s perceptions above my own enjoyment.
So what if you stick out, you will likely never see these people again!
2. Set yourself a loose itinerary: wander with purpose.
Whilst I spent a lot of time simply wandering, I found that loosely planning my days was both helpful and enjoyable. In the absence of a travelling partner and in having to be our own chief motivator, it gave me a sense of comfort to have a plan. The plan can be penciled in, and I highly recommend allowing the day to unfold in a different direction if it calls to you. But in having a plan, we become our own rule maker when everything is unknown and new.
A basic plan may make things a little less daunting and become a bit of a security blanket.
3. Embrace the solitude: you can’t outrun yourself.
Finally, and most importantly, I learnt how to be alone and sit with that loneliness.
Travelling alone offers a new environment, new challenges, and fresh perspective on flying solo. But inevitably, there will still be periods of loneliness amongst that self-discovery, that’s a given. But being somewhere where there are no plasters to put on your sores, no friends to hide behind, and no homely distractions means you will have to deal with your feelings and fears of being alone head-on.
Use this time to make amends with yourself by really attuning into what you feel, sit with it, share a coffee with it, and let all the sensations in. You may even start enjoying the solitude, see it as a gift, and become the best of friends.
“Travel does what good novelists also do to the life of everyday, placing it like a picture in a frame or a gem in its setting, so that the intrinsic qualities are made more clear. Travel does this with the very stuff that everyday life is made of, giving to it the sharp contour and meaning of art.” ~ Freya Stark