“The world is a wonderful place full of even more wonderful people. Seeing it makes us better people – it broadens perspectives, develops empathy, ignites new ideas and ways of thinking, and makes the unfamiliar feel familiar.”Henry Brydon, Founder – We Are Explorers
Henry wrote the above in a blog post about his 38,000 km bicycle journey from the UK to Sydney for over 2 years. He further reflected, “The 2-year adventure taught me a heck of a lot; it re-wired my brain from the inside out, showed me the magic of the world and taught me about the power of self-belief.”
It often happens to me that while reading certain books and articles, I feel like an imaginary bond with the writer. I realize I have felt the same way and they put it in words for me. Reading Henry’s post made me reflect on my travels and the lessons I’ve learned being on the road.
My travels have changed tremendously over the past 5 years, and I have changed with them too. I love walking in unknown cities, I feel comfortable eating alone in busy restaurants, but I also see my mindset shift as I explore more and meet new people.
I sat down yesterday to think about why I love traveling and wrote this post to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned. I guess these are also good reasons to pack your bags & travel more 😉
Background on my travels
I’m not a long-term traveler, just yet. On the contrary, my travels have been comprised of small yet frequent trips, a mix of group and solo adventures.
It all started when I first moved to Singapore almost 6 years ago. In the spirit of exploring a new city, I ventured out with friends and many times alone. Hidden laneways, street markets, museums, and walking through the Marina Bay Promenade.
I would go out running without using my maps, in a new direction every day, usually in the evening and sometimes in the night and find not-so-popular spots near my college campus.
The first 3 years of my college life comprised of many holidays. I studied in 3 major cities over 4 years; Singapore. Dubai and Sydney, so that’s quite a bit of traveling in itself. And then there were other trips, first Thailand, then Georgia in Eastern Europe and countless short trips in Australia and week-long escapes to Gold Coast, Tasmania, and Melbourne.
My first solo trip happened by chance in 2017 when my friend had to cancel his plans last minute and I was by myself in Koh Samui for 4 days. Not a bad place to be alone.
And then I was hooked. That trip was followed by quiet solo escapes while in Sydney. Once to a meditation center in the lush blue mountains, and many times to one of Sydney’s beautiful beaches on my bicycle to complete my uni assignments in nature. You gotta start with your backyard first.
In the last 2 years, I have traveled solo to Tasmania, the Australian Red Centre, 5 weeks in New Zealand and to Thailand again. And with my family to Vietnam and Russia.
What makes solo travel so special
“I think one travels more usefully when they travel alone because they reflect more”Thomas Jefferson
The best part about solo travel is you get to be your own boss and do things at your own pace. Feel like skipping that must-visit tourist spot in the city? Cool, let it go.
Want to eat your heart out a fancy restaurant? Sure, go ahead.
You will meet new people even when you travel in groups but being solo gives you the liberty to be your true self and live life like no one is watching.
Being with your friends/family, there is an invisible boundary, a group comfort zone. And you don’t even feel the need to socialize with other people as you’re already in a group.
On your own, you meet new people in your dorm or the hostel kitchen. You learn more about them and their life experiences.
Essentially, it boils down to freedom.
Yes, there are times when you feel homesick and miss your friends. I remember once video calling my friends and saying it would’ve been more fun if they were here.
Meeting new people is great, buy saying good-bye is harder. And then there’s the ever-present thought of something going wrong. But the positives sure outweigh these minute fears.
This brings me to the first lesson/realization (call it whatever you may):
You’re Going to be Okay
Most of the times your fear will never materialize. You’re going to be okay. No, you won’t run out of fuel or lose your passport.
Yes, bad things do happen, but they’re rare. As humans, there’s always fear involved when we do something for the first time. Travel is just one of them.
I was scared to death walking the 13km Roberts Point Track in Franz Josef alone, it was rated as an advance tramping track involving a lot of climbing slippery rocks.
I went for it anyway. There were only two other people behind me, so I decided to stay in their visibility in case something went wrong.
The hike, though challenging, was a rewarding experience. I came back with sore ankles and a wide smile after accomplishing it alone.
You will Change
Experiences shape your beliefs. You’ll see new ways things are done. People from different countries sharing their life stories. Locals and tour guides telling stories of the land you are on.
When traveling through the Red Centre in Australia, I was mesmerized by its beauty but also by the life of people living there. I had a heartfelt appreciation for the land.
Many of my friends didn’t want to go to Uluru so I went alone. It’s hard to reach place so many people who travel to Australia skip it, but to me, it was a rewarding experience. It’s a completely different place compared to the metropolitan Sydney & Melbourne.
My tour guide shared many stories of the local people and I made friends with fellow backpackers, all of them as fascinated as me.
And the countless hours you will spend alone with your thoughts in transit adds up to the experience. You see how people live their life in a foreign place and then apply it to your own life back at home in some ways, making it more adventurous, and more fulfilling, I guess.
Money /= a better holiday – It’s cheaper to travel than to stay at home
There are two points to this. One is that you can still enjoy a good holiday without shelling out a lot of money. And the longer you travel the more you save.
Over my 5 weeks in New Zealand, I mixed eating out and cooking meals in the hostel kitchen. And also chose free adventures (hiking, almost always free) over expensive adventures(sky-diving). When making these decisions, I thought about the most value of money activity. So, for example, I chose to go learn skiing for $250 for a full day with 2 x lessons for 2 hours each over a bungee jumping for $350, which would only last 30 seconds.
I won’t expand on my second point, that being on the road is cheaper than staying in one place. I’m figuring it out too but have felt the difference. It varies by where you live too.
There’s a ton of content on the internet about this, so google it!
I’ve learned to stop judging strangers by their appearance
This is an important one. And I owe this to my Vipassana experience in New Zealand as well.
I guess its human nature to judge people we don’t know by their appearances without having any context to it. I’ve been proven wrong time and again and I’ve met some of the friendliest people on my travels and living abroad. Locals and fellow travelers alike. Helpful locals in Thailand, intimidating but friendly people in Russia and always smiling Kiwis.
I’ve learned that the world is full of people different from me – and the connection becomes enriching when I embrace those differences with an open mind.
“By broadening your horizons,” he ventured, “what I meant is that education will give you a sense of the world’s scope, of its wonders, of it’s many and varied was of life.”Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
“Wouldn’t travel achieve that more effectively?”
“We are talking about horizons, aren’t we? That horizontal line at the limit of sight? Rather than sitting in orderly rows in a schoolhouse, wouldn’t one be better served by working her way toward an actual horizon, so that she could see what lay beyond it? That’s what Marco Polo did when he traveled to China. And what Columbus did when he traveled to America. And what Peter the Great did when he traveled through Europe incognito!”
More Personally, I’ve Learnt to:
by making plans on what to do, what to skip, where to spend my money, who to hang out with, and in the end, things turning out okay.
In the first half of my New Zealand trip, I was on a backpacker bus for 9 days. I made a lot of friends and by the end of it seemed like we all knew each other for years. For the second half in South Island, I had planned a solo road trip and I was bummed on spending the next 12 days alone and missing out on the fun.
I cursed myself for 2 days and then I found out that the bus meets my schedule from Day 3 so I got join my friends for most of the activities.
Things work out themselves eventually, and in retrospect, those 2 days alone were quite spectacular as well.
By traveling solo, you quickly learn to listen to your intuition. Traveling solo has taught me to be more quick-minded and to trust my decisions, which in turn has made me a more resourceful and aware person.
I traveled to Tasmania for the first with 13 friends and they all called me a “master planner”. I used to be the type of traveler that plans every-single-moment. I had a list of all the places I wanted to see, booked excursions, planned dinners, and lunches. I had a fully packed itinerary at every destination. And I knew everything about every place.
After all, I wanted to make the most of the limited days of travel. Over time, I realized that this did not leave any chance for serendipity to occur. There was no downtime and limited interaction with locals.
Now, as a solo traveler, I do the absolute opposite. I still research and know everything about every place, but I let my plans are determined by my mood, by the weather and by just letting things happen at their own pace.
This is incredibly freeing from the pressure of ticking everything on the bucket list. And if we imbibe the same perspective into our daily lives, magical things can happen.
(Side note: I am still a compulsive planner regarding my daily schedule but I leave time for serendipity and decide what to do on my mood)
“I am never happier than when I am alone in a foreign city; it is as if I had become invisible.”Storm Jameson
Make new friends
This is a no-brainer. Even if you are an introvert and suck at communicating (I’m one), you’ll learn to make new friends. Just make sure to put yourself out there. Sit in the lounge area in the hostel, join them for the free events, smile, and someone will come to talk with you. We’re not the only introverts in the world.
A single traveler is more approachable and interesting. People want to know why you are traveling alone and what brought you to their land.
Accept my emotions
Didn’t pre-book the tickets for the full moon party, forgot to web check-in, why is everything so expensive, your flight is delayed by 5 hours, the boat cruise has been canceled due to technical difficulties, all hiking tours stopped because of heavy snowfall….and many more unexpected things will happen.
And most of the time, you can’t do anything about them, just sit there angrily. But that does no good.
Travelling also sometimes brings anger, homesickness, and just about every other unfavorable emotion you can think of.
Traveling alone has taught me to control my emotions for things outside my control and manage my actions for things under my control.
I’m penning this from the comfort of my home in India, craving a dose of travel but locked down because of the coronavirus. I had planned the second half of the year with lots of trips but it seems unlikely for at least 3-4 months.
Writing this post made me cherish and reflect on my travels even more.
And I think this is just a start to a very long journey and over time my these lessons will become stronger with more experiences and teach me more things.
Have you ever traveled solo? What did it teach you? If you haven’t traveled on your own, would you like to?