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The Truth of Solo Travel

By on Dec 5, 2011 in Uncategorized | 22 comments

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Telling people I spent four months travelling solo in South America prompted a range of reactions and quite a few misconceptions. But what surprised and even saddened me was the number of people who said: “Oh, I could never do that. I wouldn’t be brave enough.” This genuinely seems to be holding people back from embarking on solo travel – they miss out on amazing travel opportunities because they are frightened of going alone. Now, solo travel is by no means an obligation, but neither should it be feared. So, here’s the truth of solo travel, at least the way I see it.

Peru

My temporary home: Huaraz, Peru

“You must be so brave”

Not really. Stubborn, yes. Determined that I wouldn’t miss out on a great experience just because it meant going solo, yes. But the truth is, I was terrified in the few days before I left the country. I wondered what the hell I was doing, whether I would cope and whether I would actually enjoy it. But I had a volunteer placement set up, so my trip began in a family home, with a job to do and people all around me. I was still a little nervous about hitting the road by myself and actually ‘travelling’, but once I flew the safety of my Peruvian nest, I realised it wan’t so bad. I went from day to day, learning how this new life worked. It’s no different in this sense to any new experience: the unknown is always a bit frightening and we all have to deal with it at various points in our lives. Once you adapt to being a ‘solo traveller‘, you find your rhythm and it feels natural.  And when you have it figured out, you feel like you can achieve anything in the world.

Machu Picchu

I look really lonely, don't I?!

“Isn’t it lonely?”

I was always sceptical of those gung-ho types who proclaimed that solo travel was brilliant, fabulous and not a bit lonely. I was worried that I would be very lonely, going from place to place all by myself. I am comfortable in my own company for a short amount of time, but I need the company of others to be at my happiest. Fortunately, I can honestly say that in four months, I probably spent less than five days on my own. I met people all the time, everywhere I went – sometimes other travellers, sometimes locals. I nearly always had someone to chat to, have dinner with, or go on trips with. I’m certain that I wouldn’t have met half the people I did had I been travelling with someone else. Many of the people I met have influenced or even changed my life.  Ocasionally, very ocasionally, I did find myself alone and, yes, lonely. But anytime this happened, fate had a way of sending someone along and stopped me being lonely.

View of Salta

Photographic evidence for my mother to show that I had arrived safely in Argentina!

“What if you get lost/stuck/in some kind of trouble?”

Travel does not always go smoothly; there will be challenges to overcome. But once you get over any inhibitions that stop you talking to complete strangers, help is always at hand, even if all you need is a shoulder to cry on. Despite what some news reporters and sweeping cultural generalisations would have you believe, most people are kind, decent folk willing to help you out. You have to be resourceful as well and learn quickly how to think on your feet, but you will get yourself out of trouble. I got stuck, lost and cross on various occasions, but I’m not still stuck, lost or even cross, so it does work out in the end.

Lima Restaurant

At the friendliest restaurant in Lima

“I wouldn’t want to eat in a restaurant alone”

This seems to be a deep human instinct, the one thing that is singled out more often than any other and many of us, including me, have a real dread of eating dinner alone in a public place. I did not want to do this at all. So generally, I didn’t. I found that solo lunches were fine and actually quite enjoyable, especially a large buffet restaurants which had communal tables, where people would come together, have lunch and exchange conversation. Dinner was a different matter. Most of the time, I either had people to have dinner with, or I cooked for myself. I made friends on the road all the time – something that was much easier than I thought it would be – and fellow travellers are always looking for dinner companions. I have a lot of treasured memories from these impromptu dinner dates. But once, in Uyuni, Bolivia, I found myself alone, hungry and with no cooking facilities, so I had to go to a restaurant by myself. I felt conspicuous sitting down alone, but then I became aware of British voices at the table next to me. It was a group of four, who had apparently just met one another, so I grabbed my drink, gathered my courage and, wondering if I sounded like a nutter, I introduced myself. Just like that, I had a whole group of people to have dinner with.

In Rio de Janeiro

On top of the world in Rio de Janeiro

“I could never do that”

Maybe it’s due to the above perceptions, but people have said this to me. Maybe they think I posess some special powers that they don’t; I wish I did! Yes, it’s a daunting prospect, but if you want to get out there and see the world, completely unrestricted, then do it. Take a deep breath and take the first step. You can do it. Solo travel takes a leap of faith, but it is the best thing I ever did. It is a rich and rewarding experience and you don’t need any special powers, just a little bit of resolve and self-belief.

 

What are your thoughts on Solo Travel?

 

22 Comments

  1. Laurel

    5 December 2011

    Post a Reply

    Bravo! Great post! I loath the response, “I could never do that”, for similar reasons. I love sharing the how to of traveling as well. I want everyone to have the opportunities I have had to see the world. It seems we agree our only limitations as humans are those we impose on ourselves. I think your post will definitely help those on the fence.

    • Katy Stewart

      5 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      Thanks Laurel – I definitely agree with what you’ve said about our limitations being self-imposed and I hope that this will encourage people to consider solo travel even if the prospect scares them a little.

  2. jo

    5 December 2011

    Post a Reply

    The question resounds with me and Africa travel too.
    Brave? Uh nope!
    But Katy,’Stubborn’?? Absolutely!
    :)

    Love this piece

    • Katy Stewart

      5 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      Thank you :) I think every solo traveller is probably a little bit stubborn, as we both are!

  3. Nerea

    5 December 2011

    Post a Reply

    I haven´t travelled solo in a long time but I´m thinking about it now and since I read your posts, I´ve become more interested.
    Eating alone would be difficult, but not as much as learning to read maps while driving :-)
    Great post, Katy!

  4. Erik

    6 December 2011

    Post a Reply

    I agree with so much of this. Really, a great post.

    Even though I’m married, my wife doesn’t travel. I miss her like crazy, but I really do like traveling by myself. There is a lot to be said for being able to do what you want and keep whatever schedule you chose.

    • Katy Stewart

      6 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      Thanks Erik, I agree, being able to do exactly as you please is a huge advantage to solo travel!

  5. Margo

    7 December 2011

    Post a Reply

    I have been in situations where it is either eat alone or don’t eat! What I discovered is that it’s just one more way you really have the chance to meet people – either in a community or fellow travelers in a way that is wildly different than when you are part of a couple or group.

    • Katy Stewart

      7 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      I love your practical wisdom, Margo :) Yes, you certainly have to get over the ‘restaurant’ fear when it comes to eating alone or going hungry and I was surprised at how social an experience it can be!

  6. Abby

    7 December 2011

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    It DOES take bravery for most people to travel alone! My mom just did it for the first at the and of 60. I’ so happy that you enjoy it. It’s something I have definitely learned is not for me. Buy being in my mid 30s indicate that I will do it again. :)

    • Katy Stewart

      8 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      Wow, good on your mum! I think it’s fine if you have tried it and learnt it’s not for you, I just don’t want peole to think that they can’t do it :)

  7. Leyla Giray

    7 December 2011

    Post a Reply

    I don’t think I disagree with a single word in your post! I’m one of those constantly trying to convince people that loneliness on the road just doesn’t happen – or very rarely. Travel is a highly sociable activity and you reacted with perfect instincts when you barged in on the Brits in the restaurant! I agree that solo dining is a hard bit to get over but you did it with verve. Well done!

    • Katy Stewart

      8 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      Hi Leyla, thanks for your comment! I’m glad you feel the same and good luck with convincing others that solo travel is sociable!

  8. Ugo

    9 December 2011

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    I never thought I could do it, but, like you, my stubborn side won out. What a trip – I went from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia to the Altai Mountains in the western part of the country. I could see 20 miles: no cars, no buildings, no one in sight. I could breath deeply; this is what heaven will be for me. After 3 weeks on the road in Mongolia, I spent 4 days in Beijing. And loved every solo moment of it.

    You just need to take that first step.

    • Katy Stewart

      14 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      Thank you! If I remember correclty, I was laughing at the jokes of an old German fellow while a sweet Brazilian girl was taking my photo on top of Sugarloaf Mountain :)

  9. Marcy

    20 January 2012

    Post a Reply

    I really needed this article. I’m in Salta, Argentina completing the second part of a 6 month internship abroad. I actually may be volunteering at the David Mathers foundation (that’s how I came across your site). I’ve been thinking about hitting Uruguay & Brazil and maybe Chile before I leave South America for good, but was kinda hesitant about being out there completely on my own. I see you’ve been to Brazil. I know exactly 1 word in Portugese & I kinda came equipped to live in a place, not backpack. I’d love any insight you can give about traveling there alone.

    • Katy Stewart

      21 January 2012

      Post a Reply

      Hi Marcy, I’m so glad you found this helpful! Please, please go to the David Mather Foundation while you’re in Salta and say hello to David, Ceri, the other staff and all the students from me, I miss them a lot! I would definitely recommend volunteering there if you have the time, it’s an experience you won’t regret. I know exactly how you’re feeling, I was very hestitant about going to all those places on my own, but it was the best thing I ever did. Don’t worry about not knowing much Portuguese, if you stick to the main places – Rio, Sao Paulo, Iguacu etc, the tourist industry is well-established so you’ll find lots of people who speak English. I know it might be scary, but I’d say see as much as you can because you’re in an incredible continent and you don’t want to go home with any regrets. Feel free to drop me an email anytime if you need any more advice.

  10. Fate

    1 June 2013

    Post a Reply

    Inspiring read! Been thinking of going on a solo sabbatical to South America…

    • Katy

      2 June 2013

      Post a Reply

      Thank you – if you decide to go, you won’t regret it! Let me know if you have any questions about going.

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