Reflections on the lessons I learned during my solo trips.
I learned about people
When I travel with others, we have conversations with the inhabitants of our hostels. But I’ve always been a little shy, so those interactions are mainly driven by my travel buddies. I am a passive participant.
When I’m on my own, somehow people find me. In shops, in hostels, in tour groups, people who are by themselves seek out others in the same position to fill the emptiness of having no companion, even if it’s just for a little while. These are usually chatty people who want to talk about themselves and their lives, which is exactly what I like to hear about.
The girl from Chicago who explored Geneva with me. The bookstore owner who told me about his photography. The friendly man from Liverpool who walked back down a mountain with me, talking about his friends. The law student from Texas in a cafe in Scotland. All the hostel tables and rooms full of solo backpackers eager to tell about their travels and reminisce about their homes.
I’ve met a lot of different people when I’ve traveled. Journalists, engineers, artists, retirees. People from the US Midwest, like me, and people from across the world. People who lived in the places I was visiting and others who were just passing through. Believers and agnostics and somewhere-in-betweeners. You don’t always have discussions on the most meaningful topics, but talking about travel sort of brings out all the other important things too. Travel is a little more than normal living; your journeys show your passions and priorities.
I love having conversations with people of different backgrounds and hearing about their perspectives and worldview, but sometimes you meet people you don’t jive with. People who are unkind; people who do not share the values that are most significant to you at the core. Sometimes you feel it more than you can articulate it.
I learned to give myself permission not to befriend these people. Interactions can stay surface-level and brief; I can excuse myself anytime I feel uncomfortable. Just because I try hard to be friendly doesn’t mean I have to act that way towards everyone. Moving on from toxic people means you will be unoccupied when truly uplifting people come along.
I learned not to fear the unknown
Before I traveled, I couldn’t picture what the places I planned to go would be like. They were like a huge blank spot in my mind.
I feared studying abroad. I feared taking the London underground by myself, getting lost in a foreign country, saying goodbye to my family and friends. I feared being alone.
I’m home now, and the blank spot hasn’t gone away. Unlike when I was in school, moving smoothly from grade to grade, the next sixty years of my life stretch out in front of me with no clear map on where to go next. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the not-knowing—but I’ve felt this feeling before, and that time, things turned out better than I could have hoped.
I learned photography
When there’s no one to take the picture for you, but you still want that killer Instagram feed, you have to work with what you’ve got.
I learned about myself
One, that I am capable of accomplishing things I didn’t think I could—or things I never even planned on doing. And you learn your limits, too.
Two, solo travel gives you a lot of time to think. So. Much. Time. I’m a believer in turning things over and over in your head until they either make sense or they don’t—and there were some things, friendships, commitments, goals that I thought made sense when I was at home, but when I was traveling and thinking and thinking and traveling, I realized that those things didn’t line up with the way I wanted my life to look going forward.
I learned about the flow
Some days of solo traveling are awful. I get homesick and lonely to the point that it aches; I feel depression setting in, again. I sleep all day long because it hurts to be awake. Everything feels as gray as the winter sky.
But those days don’t last; a new place provokes new feelings. Where do you go when things are gray? You can only go forward.
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