I recently came back from a 3-week adventure backpacking around Europe. I walked the cobblestone roads Julius Caesar did over 2,000 years ago, celebrated the San Juan Festival in Barcelona while dodging fireworks on the crowded beaches illuminated by bonfires, watched men competitively dive from the top of Copenhagen’s Opera House into the city’s harbor, and wandered into the March for Europe protest around Parliament Square in London.
During the trip, each day was not a day with a schedule but a day with unknown and endless possibilities. “Monday”, “Tuesday”, and “Wednesday” ceased to exist and became one-of-a-kind moments to wholly live presently in.
For a majority of this trip, I traveled with a group of friends. It was never a constant group — some arrived later while others planned on staying for only a week — but there was always at least one other person with me.
Little did I know while planning this grand adventure that I would spend the last week of it alone on the other side of the planet. Unexpected? An utter shocker? A curveball coming at 100mph from out of nowhere? Oh, hell yeah.
After finding out I would have to continue the trip alone, I stayed up until the early hours of the morning on my Airbnb bed in Rome reading about other women’s experiences traveling solo, my iPhone’s screen illuminating my face as I laid there in the dark. I read about a woman who went to Paris alone after a breakup and about another woman who decided not to wait for others to want to travel for her to go on the adventure she desired to.
I messaged mentors and friends whom have been on trips by themselves for advice. I did whatever I could to prepare myself mentally for a solo trip because I knew that after the next day, I would be… alone.
Solo. Unaccompanied. Dependent on only me. Yes, table for one, please.
I could feel the fear of being in a foreign country alone spreading from my mind downwards to my heart and gut, my heartbeat quickening and my core hollowing out for the fear to settle comfortably in.
I consider myself an independent person who often enjoys being on her own. My happy place is on an empty beach alone with a good book for hours. But this? This was more than just savoring some alone time; it was relying on only my abilities in an unfamiliar place.
As I sit here now writing this article, surrounded by people wearing athletic clothes and flip-flops — a European fashion violation— in a hipster coffeeshop, I reflect on what I experienced that led me from being afraid of traveling alone to now encouraging others to take solo trips.
Fear Will Be a Reoccurring Thing
I thought the original hump of fear was going to be the only one I had to get over. HA! Wow, was I wrong!
It was not, however, necessarily a bad thing to have felt scared multiple times.
One day into my solo trip, three hours before I was to get on a train to Florence, I woke up to a message from a friend informing me of the bombing and shooting that took place at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, killing 45 people and injuring over 230 others. In less than a week, I was supposed to have a layover at that very airport while on my way home.
During situations like this, you may be scared because not only will you be dealing with these sorts of difficult problems, but you will be handling them alone.
However, it was in these predicaments — times where you are forced to be both your support system and guiding light — that you learn about how much more you are capable of. Even though the bumps in the road and unfamiliar territories may make you nervous every time, they challenge what you thought were your limits.
After learning about the Istanbul Ataturk Airport attack, I quickly calmed myself down and focused my attention on researching other travel options. Within an hour, I had canceled the rest of my original travel plans and arranged for a detour to London, booking a flight from Rome to London that departed in 6 hours. Sitting at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport a few hours later, I was kind of amazed at how swiftly and effectively I handled the situation by myself.
Not All Strangers Are Dangers
After experiencing traveling both with a group and on my own, I realized that going solo allowed me to meet more people because I was not comfortably stuck with a group.
Whether it was the French painter who gave me a tour of Tate Modern from an artist’s perspective or the gentleman in Piccadilly who sat with me at 1AM and told his story of coming to the UK from Africa, each of the strangers I had conversations with made my overall trip even more memorable.
When traveling alone, because you are by yourself, you become more open to meeting new people. Instead of completely avoiding strangers as people instinctually do, you see them as people with unique stories that you want to learn more about.
No, They Are Not Looking at You
When I first went into a dine-in restaurant alone in London, I was nervous. I observed how all other tables had groups of people talking to one another, while my table was the only one with a single diner. Walking around Covent Garden, I had the same thoughts that I did at that restaurant: Are people taking notice of how I am by myself? Am I standing out as the only person who isn’t with a group of people?
We are used to having the comfort of other people around us in typical social settings. When we don’t have those people in these environments, we feel exposed. Naked, even. If you are naked, why wouldn’t people look at you?
The truth is, even if some people take notice of your solitariness, they do not care. Even though your fear of traveling alone may tell you otherwise, everyone is too busy thinking about something else in their lives to wonder why you are by yourself.
The moment I truly realized this was the moment I started really enjoying my environment. Instead of feeling like I was the only solo person in the crowd, I felt like a part of the crowd.
Getting Lost Alone Is Bliss
One of the initial concerns most have when thinking about traveling alone is getting lost. Eventually, what starts off as a fear ends up being something that you aim for while traveling.
There were two types of “blissful lost” that I felt while traveling solo.
The first was getting physically lost while roaming around a city. Being alone allows you to go wherever you want without having to consult someone else because your feet and curiosity are the only things deciding which street you should go down next. This led me to a spacious villa overlooking Rome where I spent hours reading my copy of A Room with a View while the sounds of a guitar playing classical Italian songs filled the air.
The second type was getting lost in my mind. It was a strange sensation that felt like I was in my own world while still being connected with my surroundings. Being alone allowed me the time to, for example, sit for two hours in front of Kensington Palace and absorb my environment, doodling in my pocket notebook what I saw.
Set Out Now
Traveling by yourself to a foreign country is unlike any experience. Placing yourself in an unfamiliar culture challenges you in ways you would not know of until you have experienced it.
Even though I highly recommend everyone to travel to a foreign country solo at least once, not all of us have the time and money to do so.
Whether it is boarding a plane to fly across the Atlantic or hopping on a bus to go to a nearby town you’ve never been to, push your comfort levels by going alone. Let your feet decide where to go without the help of Google Maps. Sit at the bar of a restaurant. Make it a mission to meet new people, whether it be organically or with the help of the digital world (e.g. Backpackr, Meetup, EatWith, and, yes, Tinder).
See how much more you are capable of in unfamiliar situations. Enjoy the company of the strangers who may offer you a different perspective. Savor getting lost in your surroundings and your own mind. You will be surprised with the amount of personal development you will experience.