Fear not solo travel

Travelling alone is something people often talk about as the ultimate self-discovery, time to get to know yourself. At the same time, it as the biggest nightmare for some people. There are a few things I have realised from solo travelling, and it only became apparent to me having spoken to people who have not done it themselves.

Asking for help (and accepting it) is ok. Asking for help, and more importantly accepting the help given, are difficult. There is no way you know the answers in a completely different environment that you find yourself a couple of flights and train rides away from home. You may know exactly what to do once you enter the Tube (if you are a Londoner) — whip out your Oyster, look out for South or Northbound map of your Tube line (of course, you know which colour to look out for). Well, how do you decide which line to take on a train in Kuala Lumpur? Metro in Moscow? Of course, Google map is always there to help but what about places where the maps haven’t caught up with reality? My friend and I spent a good fifteen minutes circling around an spot in Chisinau (Moldova) where Google Maps helpfully told us the museum we were looking for was located … it was not. It was about 15 mins away.

When you are away and on the move you don’t have a luxury of certainty and a magic ball predicting what will happen. But you need things to work out. Time is often a limited resource, so you have to rely on others rather than figure everything out on your own. I used to struggle with asking for help because I have always felt that I should be self-sufficient and if I can’t do something, I’m somehow deficient. Plus, i wouldn’t want to inconvenience others.

What I have come to realise is that asking for help is never an asymmetrical exchange of value — people like to be useful and to add value, and this sense of making a difference is of greater value to them than the money you may offer to pay in return for their help. Plus most human interactions with positive intend and demeanour leave a positive impression and enhance someone’s day. That is quite a gift in itself!

Trust and being vulnerable go a long way. Trust is tough under normal circumstances, but when travelling solo it may make a difference between an awesome experience and a disaster. Trust and vulnerability underpin most of our daily interactions and activities, both at work and outside. They don’t teach you how to do this at school — there is the only way of learning this (unfortunately?). If you can accelerate this experiential learning through travel, life will be better when you return!

In a familiar environment, mental heuristics help you decide who you can or can’t trust, which situation may be best avoided and when red flags get brighter. In a world away, it’s hard to work out how to judge people or situation and you have to rely on your gut. You need the courage to trust strangers. And if you do that with an open mind and sincerity, they will reciprocate. Inevitably people try to help and support. They will translate for you, make an effort to show where or what it is you need, involve you in activities. People feel the need to protect the vulnerable. Somehow if you trust that people don’t intend on harming you — they won’t. Trust opens doors, brings smiles and welcomes experiences and adventures onto your journey!

(Disclaimer: I’m not advocating doing stupid things and walking into disasters with a smile on your face, be cautious and do your homework).

Be comfortable to be uncomfortable. Discomfort just means that your body doesn’t know what is yet to come — it could be amazing. Discomfort also means that you are doing something you have not done before — when new habits are formed, it gets uncomfortable, but this may be the only way of achieving the goal and shifting from the place where we may feel stuck.

17 hours on a hard sitting train in China, surrounded by the smelliest foods, non stop blend of music, snoring, laughter and your own headache. I appreciated how little personal space you really need! (Any would have been great at that point). It was ok though, as there was an awesome beach and seafood waiting for us at the other end, and we have loads of stories to tell from that trip. If you feel uncomfortable and learn that there is a reward at the end of it, it becomes just part of experience and not a big deal — end goal in mind! Discomfort may also means whatever is happening is not good for you — well, at least you found out and nobody will tempt you into it again!

After I once spent 51 hours of getting from Ulaanbaator to London, (un)aided by grounded planes (thanks icelandic ash!) — 17 flights worth of passengers unloaded in a tiny Brussels airport and you sleep on a bench and/or floor, I can sleep anywhere and with any noise! Turns out I am a great guest since — last friend I stayed with warned me how noisy her cats are at night — I still have no clue as I never heard anything.

My own company is not so bad. Many people need a company, interactions and engagement with external world. I am one of those people, typical extrovert. My mom always told me when i was a kid — if you are bored of your own company, why should anyone else have fun with you? This is also the chance to find out what we are like — when we have the pleasure of entertaining ourselves, and when we have the mind space to figure out our likes and wants.

I feel though, that the best way to find out more about yourself is to spend time with people AFTER spending time on your own. It is the contrast of how you feel, react, act and engage and what makes you happy, sad, irritated or annoyed that tells you more about yourself, rather than the pure self-reflection in your own head. Without external input and feedback, our bubble of the dream world projects a different reality that validates our assumptions and reinforces our fears. By nature, we are social creatures, and interactions with other (crazy) human beings help make sense of our own insanity.

Trust that everything will be ok. So you missed a train, a flight or a boat. May be you will get lost in the city and not get to tick all the items on the itinerary. Is your life really going to end as a result? You often end up doing something that is much more worthy of a story to be told to other people and remember yourself, not ticking another box on the list. Once i travelled to Namibia where I was meant to be working in a village in the North of the country, but I had to spend the first night in the capital 7 hours away from that village. In the morning, i got onto a bus that was going to take me to the village, it was one of those that just picks people up and dropped them off along the way on request. A couple of hours in I realised I had no idea when and where I was supposed to get off. Sure, I had the name of the village and a contact name, but there were no signs on the road marking where we were, nobody spoke English on the bus and my local sim card hadn’t yet been activated. I also wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for as I had never met anyone from the organisation. This was just one other event in a chain of adventures up until that point (mostly self-inflicted), so I was already considering what the hell I got myself into. Eventually, I got dropped off at a petrol station which I was told was near the village and a message was sent to my host to find me there. I guess there were not that many blondes sitting on a large suitcase in this area of rural Namibia, it all worked out!

There are so many amazing things in the world, and people are so diverse. Yet, we are all more alike than we are different. Views on life and perspectives are shaped by experiences and environments. You move out of your post code and you see another reality and a different feel. Now try to move to a different geography, climate and cultural norms — can we expect the same outcomes? As cliche as it may be, people you meet along the way and stories you collect put everything in perspective. You reassess the values and what is considered “normal”, some people have revelations, some give everything up and move to a secluded island. However, what you also realise is that life revolves around the same things for everyone no matter where you go — family, friends, security, happiness, desire to make a positive impact and leave a mark in this world. Everyone tries to achieve that in a way that they know and express it through the means they have available to them. So if we remove the external layer and try to connect on an emotional level, we really are not so different from one another.

Solo travel is never solo. Of course, there have been days when I didn’t hear the sound of my own voice, and those days were nice. It is sometimes easier to not have to maintain a cheerful mood, consider what others may want to do, how they feel and what the right thing to say to them would be — you can just follow your own mood. But on most days, I ended up speaking to someone, meeting someone along the way, may be even making a new friend. In fact, people are more open to contact when you are on your own, and none of the social conventions no longer apply (e.g. “don’t talk to strangers”, “he must be hitting on me”, “they want to sell me something” etc). Travellers are just in a good mood, curious, friendly and want to experience as much as they can!

There are no barriers, there are only stories we tell ourselves. All of the “I can’t” we tell ourselves — “I can’t travel on my own”, “ I can’t go so far”, “I can’t go to a place where they don’t speak my language” — are just FEARs: Future Events Appearing Real. They are not facts and barriers, which means we have the power to change them before they materialise. It has always been easy for me to fewer “I can’t’s” when it comes to travel, but somehow I was not able to apply the same thinking to life on return. Until one day, having contemplated going independent and resigning from my job for over a year, I realised that navigating the unchartered territories of career and life is like travelling far way from home without a map — I do not know the directions and the best places to go, but there are a loads of people who already happily live in that place, and know all the best spots to see and things to do. So it is possible and there are options — I just have to get lost a few times and ask for directions.

Experiences should be shared with someone else. At the end of the day, on any journey there can be an overload of emotions, thoughts, experiences and memories. And this joy is for us to experience and share with others. Whether that as a memoir, blog or journey buddies, or a random along the way — don’t keep it to yourself!