“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you. You must travel it by yourself. It is not far. It is within reach. Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
It still astounds me when people give me wide-eyed expressions ranging from admiration and awe to shock and disbelief when I tell them I prefer to travel alone. I am not the first woman on the planet to travel solo, nor will I be the last. I also very much doubt that I am the first woman from my country / city / community to undertake solo travel. And yet it seems that my friends find my ability to explore faraway (or even not-so-faraway) places on my own something short of incredible. I grew up in a culture of community building and cameraderie – and yet I am one of the most fiercely independent people I know. (Many others would attest to that as well!) How this disconnect occured, I have no idea. But I love being unfettered from social ties. Perhaps this makes me a bit of a soci0path – an outlier, the girl who doesn’t get invited to the hip parties, the one everyone forgets during reunions. Believe it or not, it doesn’t bother me at all.
That’s not to say I have no friends, and I’ve never travelled with people I already know. I go on road trips with girls from my high school. I travel overseas with previous work colleagues, college classmates, heck – even people I’ve met from parties or surfing trips. Whilst I enjoy their company, I would always find time to be alone. Travelling for me is a journey of self-discovery. I find joy in seeing new things that thrill me, in a way that can’t be expressed in words. In the corner of my mind, there is a secret garden where I keep my travel memories locked up for myself to enjoy.
I admit, there is a part of me that cannot tolerate human quirks – especially when I’m on the road. There have been times when my travel companions would annoy me. It would be the most trivial of things – like how she spreads her things across the room when unpacking, making our space look like a refugee camp. Or fussy eating habits, when she already knows that we’re travelling to a remote town in a developing country where food options are highly limited. Maybe it’s the accounting practices during travelling – how everything needs to be settled to the very last cent. Sometimes it’s the inability to be mobile and agile (read: carrying a refridgerator for a backpack and ten pairs of shoes on a seven-day trek). It’s a host of things – risk aversion, prolonged personal care rituals, muddying washrooms, etc. The little things wear me out and bog me down, and has more than once thrown my schedule off.
With solo travel, there is none of that. Sure, nobody is there to take your photo when you reach the summit of Mt Kinabalu – but hey, I don’t really care. I’m there to enjoy the view, not to have my photo taken for bragging rights.
In my mind, the solo traveller has different views and different intentions for travel.
I like to immerse myself in local culture – and that’s not easy (or sometimes impossible) when travelling with a big group. Solitary wanderers can blend into a crowd much easier than five foreigners with funny accents and flashy cameras. I’ve been mistaken as a local almost every time I travel – from London to Paris to Madrid, all the way to Ho Chi Minh to Bangkok to Sydney. I eat at hole in the wall establishments where the staff can’t speak a word of English (or any other language that I can manage to converse in.) I wander around street corners without a map and without a specific destination. I smile at strangers and get asked to have tea with shop owners. I love it.
My mom would tell me that the world is not a safe place, and being a solitary female traveller makes me vulnerable to unsavoury characters. Thankfully, I have had none of that in my seven years of solo travel. I still believe that it’s a beautiful life, and the people you meet on the street are generally good people trying to make an honest living. I have yet to use my self-defense tactics (most of which I have forgotten) or claim anything from travel insurance. My guardian angel must be working overtime; of course, I don’t go courting danger. I avoid dodgy places and shady characters even when I’m not travelling alone.
The other great thing about being alone on the road is meeting other solo travellers. Hearing about someone else’s journey excites me almost as much as planning my own travels. Making new friends or acquaintances in each city also gives me a temporary travel buddy. It curbs the loneliness, and gives me a (sometimes psychological) safety net in case of minor emergencies.
A few of my female friends have declared their intention to travel solo in the future. All I can say is – do it. The experience stretches you out of your comfort zone, but it also opens you up to a different kind of journey. Going at it alone reveals much of what you are made of – and more likely than not, you will be surprised and pleased at the results.