On traveling solo

Getting lost is more fun when you have someone to share the experience with. (Trying to figure out walking directions in Nagoya, Japan – a couple of years ago)

“It’s just not my thing”

At a holiday party this weekend, I was chatting with a friend who had just come back from a few weeks’ vacation in Nepal. He had visited Nepal for a shorter period of time a few years ago, and he liked it so much and wanted to return for a fuller experience – which he just did. For the first part of the trip he was with a friend, but for most of it he was on his own, except for fellow travelers he met and shared some time with along the way.

I’ve never been to Nepal, so listening to his travel stories was partly about me having the pleasure of imagining what it’ll be like to be there myself, someday. I’d of course be interested in trying out the local food like he did, taking amazing nature photos (or rather, taking photos of amazing nature), trekking and hiking, experiencing the local culture, and experiencing the global cultures of fellow travelers.

“But I can’t imagine traveling solo,” I couldn’t help but comment. “I love traveling but I’m just not a solo traveler. I’d just feel… I don’t know, lonely I guess.” (Disclaimer: The conversation took place in German, so of course I wasn’t that smooth and natural-sounding, but that’s what I wanted to say, and I think my friend understood.)

I clarified to my friend (or at least I tried, with my limited German vocabulary), that it wasn’t really even about being a woman and safety concerns, which of course I do and should have.

I’ve never had a complete solo trip from beginning to end, but I’ve had some days during different trips that I spent alone. I’ve found that I don’t enjoy being a traveler as much when I’m alone in a new country/city, and that I feel less motivated to do the things I’d normally be excited about and can’t wait to try. In short, I not only become less adventurous, but also less open-minded. It may be that I’m instinctively a follower, who prefers to have the comfort of following someone’s lead. Or it may have something to do with my poor sense of direction.

Whatever the reason, I’d say to myself, if I don’t enjoy it, why even try? I know a lot of people who enjoy it (I personally know many people – male and female – who do), but it’s just not my thing. That’s always been my attitude towards solo travel.

“But in Nepal,” said my friend, “even if you’re by yourself, you’ll enjoy it there. You’ll feel safe, and I think you’ll find the people really friendly and helpful.”

At first, my reaction to his advice and encouragement was “Yeah, I know, but… you know, (It’s just not my thing, I wanted to say, but wasn’t quite sure how a statement like that translated into German. Es ist nicht mein Ding?)”

But I loved it that he used his personal experience meeting local people in Nepal as a way to show that solo travel can be safe, fun, and memorable. And this made me wonder, do solo travelers have different kinds of interactions with local people? Do they build different kinds of relationships with locals?

When we travel with our travel buddies, be it friends, partners, or family members, we arrive as a pair or a group, which consists of existing relationships. To me, these existing relationships are exactly what makes traveling enjoyable, because I have someone to share my experiences with. It may also be the case, I realized, that these existing relationships and group dynamics with which we travel are sort of comfort bubbles that define – and maybe even limit – our travel experiences.

Meeting local people (including meeting up with friends who are from, or consider themselves to be locals) in the places I visit is by far my favorite aspect of any travel. Having a glimpse of the local “way of life” really excites me, especially when I learn something completely new and different about how people do things.

I came to think that maybe solo travelers may have a more authentic version of this experience.

Visiting a local bar and chatting with the owner, for example, is a great way to get to know the flavors and rhythms of the local lifestyle. Instead of “us and the owner”, as in the case of a group of travelers visiting the bar (and hopefully behaving appropriately), a solo traveler would perhaps build a deeper connection with the owner by having a one-on-one conversation that may be a bit more even; two people sharing stories and learning a bit about each other – one happens to be a visitor.

The funny thing is, I still can’t imagine myself traveling solo. When I think about any destination on my ever-expanding travel wishlist, I almost automatically envision traveling with my partner (who is blessed with a very good sense of direction and the confidence that allows him to venture into any street or any path that looks walkable – and somehow always find the way) and with friends, preferably when possible, also with our dog.

But I feel I’ve gained a new insight into the art of solo travel, which still remains largely mysterious to me, but seems perhaps a little bit less unapproachable.


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