Alone in a Crowded Station: Reflections on Solo Travel

I traveled a lot this past year.  A lot.  For my job alone, I visited a dozen different cities across the archipelago, and even visited a few of those places more than once.  I also did some domestic travel on my own during my grant, and following my grant this year I took a month off to travel through parts of Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia.  And while some of this personal travel was done with friends or colleagues, much of it, due to my own schedule being so different from most of the people I knew, I did on my own.

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Meeting a Chinese friend and wandering Bangkok together!

Before this year, I hadn’t done much in the way of solo traveling.  I had done a fair number of day trips by myself to nearby cities when I studied abroad in London, and I did make my trip to Toraja as a second-year ETA alone, but any other travel that I have ever done has been with friends or family.

I always assumed I wouldn’t like solo travel, at least not extensive travel.   While sharing stories of travel to anyone is wonderful, there is something extra special about reminiscing about travel with someone who was there with you.  I’ve always felt that no matter how incredible the place you visit is, the people who are along for the ride are always the most memorable part of any journey.  Without those people built in to my trip, I thought surely, I won’t enjoy myself.

But after doing my trip to Toraja alone last year, and meeting so many fabulous people at the hostel where I stayed, I started to think that maybe traveling solo wasn’t all that bad.  And being forced to travel on my own for work (though, I did get to meet with people from my program on each of these trips, so though much of the travel itself was done alone, I wasn’t always on my own once I got there) made me a bit more confident in my ability to do so.

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A moment alone at Ankor Wat.

So when no one was able to join me for my after-grant travel, I didn’t sweat it.  I packed my trusty backpack, made sure my camera was safely wrapped in clothing, and set off on my own.  I definitely learned a few things along the way:

1. Not having to answer to anyone else’s schedule can be quite liberating. If I saw something that seemed more interesting than what I had originally intended to do that day, I could change my plans at the drop of a hat, without having to ask anyone.

2. I actually tend to read the books that I have brought with me when traveling alone.

3. Not already having friends to talk to forces me to talk to other people (not to say that I don’t still talk to people when traveling with friends, but I certainly do so more frequently when I am alone). And I got to meet a lot of amazing people this way, who became fabulous companions on my many adventures.

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Sometimes new friends are of the pachyderm variety.

4. Traveling alone as a woman requires a certain amount of caution. My mother has always told me that I am too trusting of people (and she is probably right), and tried to keep her voice in the back of my head while traveling alone.  Generally, I felt safe in all of the places I traveled, and fortunately nothing particularly upsetting happened, but I don’t know of one place on the planet that won’t make me a little nervous when walking alone at night.

5. Trying to balance #3 and #4 can be a challenge.

6. Not having a buddy to sit next to on buses and trains can sometimes result in somewhat awkward seat companions, but it can also sometimes result in a new friend, or in having an entire row to yourself (which I am also 100% okay with).

7. I take a lot more selfies when I travel alone.

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Biking around the Ankor complex.

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8. Sometimes, I get distracted by wherever I am visiting and forget to eat when I am traveling by myself. Other days, I found myself eating far more that I would have if I was traveling with a friend, because I simply had to try as many local dishes as possible, and didn’t have anyone to share them with.

9. I actually stay caught up on my journaling when traveling alone.

10. My confidence was definitely boosted by traveling solo. Though I did get lost on several occasions, and sometimes maybe didn’t plan things quite as well as I could have, the fact remains that I was able to navigate several cities in three countries (two of which I do not speak the languages), while avoiding any major catastrophes.  If I had any doubts as to my ability to handle myself before, they are certainly gone now.  Where’s the next adventure?  I’ve got this.

In the end, I do think that I personally still prefer to travel with a friend or two, because I love sharing experiences with people I love.  But while a younger Grace might have waited to take a particular trip just because no one else was able to or interested in going along, the Grace of today wouldn’t let that stop her.  Now, with nothing holding me back, I am envisioning even more exciting adventures in my future.

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