Heading off on an adventure alone. If you’ve ever considered it, you’ll know that the very idea of it can be daunting. Aside from being in charge of all the planning, you are also responsible for keeping yourself and your belongings safe – most likely while navigating a place you have never been to before. And that’s just the start of it. The thought of eating alone can be unappealing, not to mention the general fear of feeling lonely. It’s easy to let the doubts set in. What happens if you hate it? Does that mean you have failed?
This time twelve years ago, I was sitting on a plane with a one-way ticket to India. As the plane engines revved for take-off, I took one last look out of the oval-shaped window and bid a teary farewell to my home, London. Four weeks earlier, a week before my 24th birthday, my long-term relationship had come to a horrible but well overdue end. So when my friend, John, mentioned that he was moving to Bangalore, India, for work I told him: “I’ll meet you there. I need to get out of here!”
It was all I needed to convince myself that it was the right time to escape – I immediately booked a ticket and handed in my notice as a trainee journalist. I packed my life into a backpack, not planning on returning until I was completely ready. Was I being brave or stupid? At that stage, I had no idea.
That was my first solo trip. I eased myself in gently by first spending time with John, before following the well-trodden path through Goa alone. Then the real solo adventure began, as I travelled through the lesser-visited regions of southern India. From there, I journeyed over-ground through southeast Asia and Indonesia before flying to southern Africa.
In the end, I was away for 11 months. It was one afternoon, while sitting on the riverbank of a small southern Indian village teaching the local children how to say my name, that it dawned on me that everything would be ok. I was five weeks into my trip and every day until then had been tough. That day was different; the sun had been shining a little brighter, the sky seemed more blue. My eyes felt fully open – not heavy from crying – and my head seemed clear rather than burdened. I high-fived the kids and was met with their infectious giggles and laughter.
When I began my journey, I was lost, in every sense of the word. The break-up had left me feeling betrayed, humiliated, heartbroken and weak. Everywhere I went in London seemed to hold a memory – either good or bad – and, on some days, I felt too overwhelmed to even leave the house. The truth was, I had been in a manipulative and controlling relationship and my confidence was kaput. I had forgotten how to be me. I needed to escape and teach myself how to be strong again.
I discovered that this is exactly what solo travel does for you. From day one, you are your own team – and that means looking after yourself, but also being good to yourself. I learned quickly that listening to my body and mind was the best thing I could do – and it was ok if I didn’t want to jump out of bed every morning to go on a long hike or spend the whole day visiting every museum. Lie-ins and early nights were absolutely fine, too. Sometimes, I did both.
After weeks of hardly sleeping, I stopped feeling exhausted. I began having massages three times a week – something I would never have dreamed of doing back home, but at the equivalent of $1.50 for an hour, I couldn’t resist.
The tense feeling in my back and shoulders began to lift. My mind started to relax. I stopped overthinking about what had happened. The past was being left behind, but I wasn’t fretting about the future either. Instead, I began focusing on what was happening right then. Suddenly – and perhaps for the first time – I was living in the present
and it felt amazing. Travelling alone had given me the space and time I needed to heal.
As it turns out, that day in southern India was the first day of the rest of my life. Once I settled into being on my own, flying across the world, eating alone, jumping on and off buses and starting up conversations with strangers in restaurants and bars became second nature.
Since then, I have driven across New Zealand, climbing glaciers, whale-watching and wine tasting all on my own. From there, I backpacked across Myanmar and Borneo and holidayed in the beautiful Whitsunday Islands in Australia. I even celebrated my 30th birthday alone in New York City. More recently, I explored northern Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Vanuatu and Fiji by myself and road-tripped around France for a month.
Exploring the world, alone or in good company, is a life experience that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy but it’s important to consider the effect our presence has on the places and environments we visit. Karen has some great tips for ethical travel here.
Planning a trip alone has become a symbol of freedom for me. Learning just how capable you are of handling life in a foreign space is an incredibly empowering feeling – and something everyone should have the opportunity to experience. Today, I am lucky enough to be in a happy relationship, but I will never be scared again to go it alone.
4 reasons to try travelling solo
Do things exactly how you want
Travelling with partners or pals is fun, but inevitably their plans get in the way of yours. It’s not uncommon to be the one who wants to get up early, while your other half wants a lazy morning, or wanting to have a relaxed afternoon while your friend is lacing up her hiking shoes. Travelling is such a personal experience and, if you’re spending that much money on a trip, you want to enjoy it as much as possible. When you’re travelling solo, you can choose exactly how to spend your time.
It’s good for your wellbeing
While travelling solo, I went from feeling weak and troubled to feeling strong and free. When you are challenging yourself in a brand new environment, you realise just how capable you are. You learn to look after yourself too; I was eating plenty of fresh food and keeping fit without even trying by swimming in the sea and going on scenic walks. I was also drinking a lot less alcohol because I wanted to stay alert.
It’s a cheaper way to travel
There’s no need to splurge on a fancy hotel room when you are happy with a single room in a guesthouse, and searching out food at the nearest food market is more of an adventure and less expensive than dining at a restaurant.
It gives you confidence
Travelling independently teaches you how to value and respect your own choices. When you’re relying only on yourself, you learn to make the best decisions for yourself – whether that’s picking where to eat or making a big life change. Plus, you learn to appreciate your own company. I used to struggle being alone for extended periods of time, but now I’ve even lived on my own for five years.
How to stay safe when exploring alone
Trust your instincts
This is the most important thing to remember when travelling alone. If a situation doesn’t feel right, the chances are it isn’t – so, steer clear. If you don’t feel like socialising, don’t feel guilty about keeping to yourself, but also don’t become too fearful of new people. In Borneo, I celebrated New Year’s Eve by singing karaoke with eight fellow travellers I had met earlier that day – and it was wonderful.
Create an essentials checklist
Losing valuables is easy when you’re in a hurry – and you’re often in a hurry when catching a bus, train or plane. Create a paper checklist for your valuables (e.g. passport, purse, visas, credit card, camera, phone) and tick it off every time you move on.
Avoid arriving at night
If you can, try to arrive in a new place during daylight hours. You can make sure that you’re happy with the accommodation, the area and the atmosphere – and if something doesn’t feel quite right, it’s not too late to find an alternative elsewhere.
Stay alert and aware
Remember that you are the only person responsible for yourself and your belongings. Limit alcohol consumption, keep your valuables on you at all times and don’t trust people too quickly. Be aware of rogue WiFi connections – hackers often use these to track keystrokes and steal passwords.
Research, research, research
Once you know where you are visiting, read up on the culture and the advice given to women travelling alone. Is it safe to walk around at night? Should you wear conservative clothing? The more you understand about a place, the safer and more comfortable you will feel when you arrive.
Know what to do if you lose your passport
Make sure that you’re aware of the procedure to follow if your passport gets stolen or lost. This procedure is different for every country and guidelines can be found online. This will keep you safe (and save a lot of panicking). Be sure to keep a copy of your passport information page with you in a separate location to your passport, and leave another copy with someone back home, too.
Invest in safety gear
Personal alarms and slash-proof bags and locks are great ways to keep you and your belongings safe. These are available in most travel shops, like Kathmandu and Ellis Brigham. Be aware that in some countries, pepper spray is considered a weapon.
Tell someone where you’re going
Every time you move to a new place, make sure someone at home knows where you are expected to be and when. That way, if they haven’t heard from you for a while, they know exactly where to contact.
Don’t be careless
Most crimes happen due to opportunity – so be aware of what you have on display and how you act. Avoid carrying cameras and other valuable items openly. If you are lost, act as though you know where you’re going. If you have a map, slip into a safe place such as a shop or café to check it there.
Don’t be afraid to spend money
If your hotel appears to be unsafe, don’t be afraid to splash out on something more reliable. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way just to save a few pounds. It’s also worth having a ‘spare’ credit card kept separately (and well-hidden). That way, if you do have your bag stolen, you will still have access to funds.