For the longest time in life, I resisted traveling solo. I was not as afraid of being lost as I was of the feeling of self-consciousness borne out of the fear of what would people think. I was afraid that this would wrongly indicate to the world that I was friendless, unsocial, and no one wanted to hang out with me. When I took the plunge, I discovered, much to my relief, that people are too busy to think anything at all. Better so, some actually thought it was very adventurous and brave of me to go around globe trotting. For the longest time, I was brainwashed into believing that sad, friendless souls travel alone. I was told that people who do not have families or who have been abandoned by their friends travel alone. I was told that one must wait until one gets married to travel Europe. Now what if you were not married, but had the time, money, opportunity, and the enthusiasm to travel? Would you still resist it due to preconceived social notions? The day I started having minor knee pains, I realized that I should start seeing all those places I would not be able to see a few years down the line because I need to hike, climb, crawl, or walk for hours. That was one of the most liberating moments for me. Over the years, I started to visit more places, more countries, and got addicted to the idea of traveling alone. I was still going places with friends, but I started to love those long solo drives as well. I started to realize the myriad of great things about traveling alone that I had overlooked before. Perhaps it is worth sharing some of them.
1. Knowing Thyself
Traveling alone gives you a chance to connect with yourself, and to the world around you. Your observation abilities improve manifold. You begin to notice and appreciate the little things you did not notice before. You significantly reduce the “noise” in your life, even if for a while, which is the first step toward knowing yourself better. If you thought you know yourself well, wait till you start to travel alone in unfamiliar lands, see how you handle situations, warm up to the world around you, and communicate with others. I never knew I love bridges or sunsets and sunrises until I actually got fascinated by them after my trips to Florida and California. I never knew I could navigate my way around reasonably well until I started reading maps to find my way around Paris. I remember the evening when I spent hours sitting by the Seine, watching the beautifully lit little boats ferrying tourists across. I had spent those hours in conversation with myself, realizing how much I wanted to be a writer and a photographer other than joining the scientific workforce as a professor. I was surprised how much my head had cleared after spending weeks backpacking, not having to see, hear, or talk to anyone familiar.
2. Taking Charge
Traveling alone teaches you to take charge of your life. You learn to plan your time and money to maximize returns. You build an amazing sense of accomplishment. You develop great confidence, a virtue that is reflected in the other spheres of life as well. You learn to walk up to a stranger and ask for help. You improve your communication skills. Sometimes you are required to communicate even when you don’t know the local language. In Rome, it took me a while to make myself understood, be it while asking for directions, or while trying to find out the locker room at Roma Termini where I needed to store my bags for the day. When traveling alone, you are your own boss. If you are not that scared of being your own boss, it is quite a liberating feeling. The freedom that comes with traveling solo, of visiting whatever place you want to, of eating whatever cuisine you prefer, of spending an extra hour at the museum although you didn’t plan it initially, is undeniable. In certain ways, traveling alone is like doing a PhD. You have all the time to discover, make mistakes, and figure your way out. While the disadvantages of traveling alone are more intuitive, it also teaches you skills like planning, organizing, maximizing, strategizing, forming an agenda, researching on things to do, taking charge of your life, and most importantly, not depending on anyone. You are more aware of what is happening around you. Just because you are open to the idea of traveling alone, you become more proactive in your approach and more observant of the little things in the world. This is because you do not have the distractions that come with traveling in herds.
3. Reducing “Noise”
By traveling solo, you bypass the hassles of traveling with a mismatched travel partner. Nothing can spoil a trip more than traveling with people you are not able to warm up to. Traveling for me is mostly place-specific (when visiting a place is a priority) or people-specific (when spending time with someone is a priority). More things can go wrong during a place-specific trip. You might want to wake up early to visit as many places as you can, while others might want to sleep until late. You might want to go hiking while others might not want to. Sometimes, you want to spend an extra half an hour at a place taking pictures, while people might not share your enthusiasm and ask you to hurry up. You might not want to be dragged to every museum and every shopping mall in the area. Then there are other hassles you might face when in a group. Some people in the group might not get along with each other. Some people might be too busy talking on the phone although officially they are your travel partner. Some people are too busy bossing around and being the center of attention. I have seen all kinds of things going wrong in a large group. Who gets to drive? Who brings in the morning coffee for everyone? Who gets to take a shower first while who gets to sleep an extra few minutes? Why does she take hours putting on makeup? Why can’t they pack their lunch and eat on the way instead of wasting hours eating at a restaurant? Are they going to divide the costs equally, or should they pay more because they ordered more food? Is he trying to be more pushy, forcing us to go to places and not letting us voice our opinions? Do we need to see every goddamn geyser at Yellowstone National Park? Can’t we skip the boat ride in Crater Lake? Should we spend all that extra money renting a convertible? Do we have to camp in the cold? You can bypass all the unhealthy group dynamics, group politics, and adjustment issues when you are on your own.
4. Leveraging the Opportunities
By not being afraid about traveling alone, you do not wait until you are old or rich to be able to start seeing the world. You do not wait for the right travel partner to come along. You do not wait until you have all the money to travel. Chances are more that by the time you have the money and company to travel, you might start experiencing those knee joint pains or muscle cramps during a strenuous hike you never noticed before. You steer clear of the expectations that come with traveling in groups. Just to know that you are in charge is a great feeling in itself. In fact, the world becomes your playground where you are free to decide where you want to play next. You can go just about anywhere, from the volcanoes of Italy, to the wonders of Peru. Nothing really limits you more than your own fears or doubts.
Traveling alone for me has come with multiple blessings. It has helped me develop skills like travel writing and photography, and get in touch with my artistic side. I am more observant of my surroundings, the people, what they wear, how they talk, and how they behave in social settings. This has helped me in being creative in research as well. Solo traveling has brought me in touch with my creative side, just because I am spending more time with myself in an alien setting, rather than being in a group where I am more busy having fun with a bunch of people I am comfortable hanging out with.
5. Improving Social Skills
Ironically, by traveling alone, you actually end up making more friends. Suddenly there are people who want to travel with you because you are more experienced and hence assumed to be experienced, knowledgeable and responsible. People develop a respect for you that you didn’t notice before, just because they know you can take charge and are not scared of being on your own. I have had people come up to me and ask, people I barely know or talked to, about the make and model of camera I use, about the way I plan trips, and about what to see at a particular place I have been to. People ask you for suggestions every now and then. If nothing, a compliment from a stranger like, “Wow, I wish I could travel like you” can make your day. Similarly you now find yourself being more friendly to people because every person you know is a potential contact at a particular place. When you meet someone from say Mexico or Brazil, you know that in future if you visit those places, you have a potential contact person who could help you. Thus not only people warm up to you, you warm up to people as well.
Whether you plan to travel solo, or in groups, or want to do both, let nothing limit your abilities, confidence, enthusiasm, and your wanderlust. To set foot in the countries where great philosophers and thinkers lived, to see the same sights that Columbus or Vasco da Gama had seen hundreds of years ago, to see history unfold in front of you, and to marvel at the works of Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo firsthand gives you a sense of accomplishment that no amount of watching television at home or growing crops in Farmville can give you.
P.S.: I have taken all these pictures during my trips. You are welcome to appreciate them and marvel at them, but please try not to be tempted into downloading, uploading, or passing them along as your own.