Why do we travel? What is it that makes us pack up and leave the places and people we know and love? What are we hoping to encounter when we go? How do we know when we’ve found it?
I travel because I want to get to know myself. I travel to find out what I really, truly can’t live without. I want to know what makes me tick, what gets under my skin and how I react. I want to change all the settings, erase all the old data, start from scratch and meet the new me. And I do it all by travelling alone.
From my experience, telling someone you’re going abroad on your own is an emotional rollercoaster in itself. At first, utter disbelief (Why would you do something so ridiculous?) quickly followed by total outrage (Have you even begun to consider how dangerous that is, and didn’t you hear that story about their friend who had that nightmare experience while travelling solo in Tripoli?). Then comes the desperate bargaining (Are you at least going to call home every hour?) which rapidly turns into resigned depression (They’re never going to see you again, are they? You’re going to disappear mysteriously, somewhere between Caracas and the Bermuda Triangle). Finally, acceptance begins to take hold, and they start to consider for the very first time that maybe, somehow, travelling solo might have its advantages.
If you feel like sleeping in until noon and discovering a new city by night rather than by day, then do it. If you want to splash out on silver service, or eat every meal from the dirt-cheap street food stand on the corner, then that’s your prerogative. Walk everywhere, discover the countryside through the windshield of your rental car, see how far a tuk-tuk will take you for the change in your back pocket; it’s your trip, and you’re the only one who gets to decide how it goes. Being able to travel my way is the one luxury item I can’t do without when I’m abroad, and it’s the only time in my life when I can be completely and unashamedly selfish. After all, nobody ever chased true adventure by agreeing on a daily schedule beforehand and then fighting over whose turn it was to carry the water bottle.
There’s no better thrill than picking up a language through sheer immersion, because you spent your time listening rather than commenting on the décor in that great little bar you found round the corner; there’s nothing as exciting as enjoying the company of new friends not because you have to, but because you want to; there’s no comparison to the rush of knowing you can handle absolutely any situation that life throws at you, because you’ve done it before with hand gestures and foreign currency and no phone signal, and you can do it again.
Of course, solo travel isn’t always sunshine and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. You have to choose your destinations wisely, avoid getting drunk with strangers in remote locations, and take care with your belongings. But I would give exactly the same advice to travellers in groups, many of whom are still under the false illusion that travelling in numbers automatically provides security. (It doesn’t.) In addition, solo travellers will need to master the art of packing lightly, since there might not be anyone to help you get your bags up the next three flights of stairs at the hostel; but again, once you’ve really learned to pack, there’s no reason to go back to your old, excessive ways. You should, however, be prepared to spend a little more – in popular tourist destinations, most hotels, tours and experience packages are priced for two or more. Book with a student travel organisation if, like me, you think the concept of the “single traveller supplement” charge is ludicrous. And while you may experience moments where you miss having company, remember that there is a distinction between being alone and being lonely.
The last time I woke up at 5am I was in Bangkok, and I couldn’t sleep. Wandering through the eerily silent streets while local market vendors were setting up their stalls and eating breakfast, I lazily made my way along the river. When I eventually found myself at the train station, enquiring at the ticket office bought me a 20p ticket to ride 150km all the way to the Burmese border. Cutting through the vibrant green jungle of Kanchanaburi, the ground fell away from the train track on either side as we rushed over the gargantuan River Kwai. The conductor opened the back door of the train and I squeezed into the tiny space by the door, legs dangling over the foaming rapids below; the rough wind whipped my hair back into my face but it wasn’t enough to distract me from the breath-taking scenery below me. As the train wound its way around ancient mountains and thundering waterfalls, I braced myself tightly against the slender doorframe. There wasn’t room for one more …