Solo Travel at Sixty
When I was a child, I fell in love with a 1940’s book, “Pam’s Paradise Ranch.” It was a girl-loves-horses-adventure-delight, set in Hawaii, a world of paniolos (Hawaiian cowboys). So, when I heard about a “Paniolo Experience” on Maui, and conveniently happened to already be in Hawaii, how could I resist?
And I didn’t have to.
When you travel alone, spontaneity is a norm, not an exception.
At age 23, I backpacked alone around Europe for a few months. I was young, idealistic, trusting, naïve. I had a rail-pass and sometimes even hitchhiked.
No wonder my mother was worried sick.
Cell phones, internet and Skype were still sci-fi. We did telegrams, or handwritten letters on flimsy blue paper. Alone back then was so much more ‘alone.’
I still have that travel-lust, but for a long time, say 2–3 decades of child-rearing, solo wasn’t an option. I was always packing for more than one.
Now, at 60, I’m less naïve, less trusting. The world feels scarier then it used to.
Bad things can happen to good tourists.
But I’ve also realized that I’m probably safer traveling solo now than I was at 23. The world may be more dangerous, but I’m wiser, less impulsive, and pay attention to my instincts. I’m fine with appearing ignorant, and comfortable asking for guidance.
Just as important, however, is how the world sees women over 60. We are not threatening. This may be a universal truth. And since we don’t scare people, they feel free to talk with us, share a meal, invite us home to see the vineyard. Tell someone how much you enjoy their country and culture… and struggle to say a few words in their language… and they will open right up. Stand on a corner with a map, and it is rare that you will not be offered help in a few minutes (not late at night or in a dark alley, of course, which requires a different skill set … walking briskly in an alert and determined manner, with a handy-dandy shriek alarm in your hand.)
Some Benefits of Solo Travel
Solo travel is a way to discover your own opinions, hear your own voice, without interjection from others. When you travel alone, you don’t have to negotiate or accommodate. You can do what you want to do when you want and how you want. (For a people-pleaser, this can take some getting used to.)
Solo travel often translates into more time talking with locals. Without a companion to talk to, you turn more readily to strangers with questions and initiate conversations. What continues to surprise me is how readily total strangers do engage and share… and then they are not quite strangers any more.
When you travel alone, you’re free to indulge whims and act on impulse. Start the day intending to visit a museum, but get sidetracked by a shaded side-street of antique shops and bookstores? It’s OK. Want to eat lunch/dinner at 3 p.m.? You’re the boss. When I travel alone I often take off my watch… just because I can.
Just as travel with a spouse or friend is a bonding experience, a sharing of something unique, solo travel is a particular way to connect with self. The interior landscape shifts with every mile of the exterior landscape. There is a distinction between being “by yourself” and “with yourself.” Solo travel is the latter.
The Downside of Solo Travel
Dim Sum is less fun, as can be meals in general if you want to taste three dishes on the menu and there is no one to share. (Although last month at a packed Cuban café in Honolulu, when I leaned over to ask someone at the next table what their interesting looking dish was, she responded by extending a fork, saying “Oh, you must try it.” Within five minutes, we’d pushed the tables together and I was a part of the extended family.)
It can be scary to get sick, fall down, get stranded or lose your passport or purse. Going solo means there is no one to take care of you or help with a solution. You must face being self-sufficient or being willing to ‘rely on the kindness of strangers.’
I’ve struggled with feeling comfortable going out alone at night: the dark is darker when solo (metaphorically speaking) and I feel more vulnerable. I look for ways to manage, whether sticking to crowded streets or taking a taxi even if only for six blocks. Every country is different, so there are no absolutes. I’ve learned to trust my gut, and sometimes my gut tells me to curl up in bed with a book.
What I miss the most when traveling alone is having someone to squeeze or hug when there is an “Aha” moment of exceptional beauty or wonder. If magical moments are not real unless shared, then solo travel might not be for you.
Preparation makes a difference
It’s not a good idea to launch into a 3-week international jaunt if you are a novice at solo travel. Start small, as with a weekend road-trip. Focus on skill building: make yourself talk to total strangers; ask questions; go alone to concerts and events. Approach your home region as if you were a tourist, and explore towns, neighborhoods and museums. Pretend you are a tourist and look through a different lens.
Study up on the politics and history of your destination. Read guide-books. Google with abandon. Talk to other women travelers for advice.
Consult travel advice websites (i.e. make multiple passport copies; extra prescriptions; medical travel insurance; keep someone informed where you’re staying.)
Maps are your friend. When you understand logistics, you will feel more adventurous.
Back to Maui
I grabbed an early flight to Maui, then a rental car. With a few days to explore, I started by driving up the switchbacks to the crater of the Haleakala volcano: over 10,000 feet from sea-level to summit. Half-way up, the weather was suddenly so foggy that I could barely see the front end of the car. That’s when I saw the sign: “Use headlights in clouds.” After a few more gut-twisting miles, like a plane during take-off, I emerged into sunshine, to a sky of intense and unending blue. The volcano crater was a moonscape, hiking over lava beds an ankle-twisting challenge. I stood above the clouds and howled.
It was so not Kansas.
And neither was the hotel, the Makena Beach and Golf Resort, on the Wailea coast. It had a sheltered cove beach with palms and pines, ocean-view balcony rooms surrounding a 5-story open-air courtyard, lush with towering trees and the biggest koi-pond I’d ever seen.
The next morning I went on my “paniolo experience.” It was a trail ride, on the mountainside, with panoramic vistas. It wasn’t what I’d yearned for, the wild galloping of a 9-year-old’s fantasies, but the guide shared story after story, and we lunched on a grassy patch above the sea, and I could smell and feel all that I’d previously only imagined. And that night I went to a luau, tourist-driven and yet fun, the whole pig lifted from the roasting pit, watching hulas and fire dancers, chatting with newlyweds from Wisconsin and couples from Japan as the sun lingered over the ocean.
A few tips for solo traveling:
Dress to blend. Study the women, then adapt. (In Germany, I carried a canvas “Tegut” grocery-store shopping bag, with a scarf purchased from a local store worn like a local. No fancy jewelry. I became invisible..)
Practice being loud. Women are often conditioned to be polite, to second-guess an instinctual response. Don’t. If you feel the least bit threatened, even uncomfortable (usually from a man or group of men) be ready to speak up. Be firm, but if he/they do not back off, make a scene. Doesn’t matter much what you say, but attracting attention is the best way to stop attention. “Stop that now” or “Leave me alone” in the local language works, but any language is effective if loud enough.
Walking tours are an excellent way to orient to a new city. They are generally low-cost or even free (local historical societies and the like.) You are not stuck next to one person on a bus, and can stroll along chatting with a variety of different people. I rarely complete a 2–3 hour walk-tour without an invite to share a drink or meal with tourists from other countries (often couples ready for a break from just dining with each other.) Many cities also have evening walking tours, or even pub crawls, which can be ways to experience nightlife but not be alone or feel anxious.
Don’t get trapped in the tourist-picture-snapping-spiral-of-death… so focused on taking pictures that you don’t even remember being there. Put the camera down. Breathe.
Take breaks. Go back to the hotel or B&B and take a nap. You have nothing to prove. Life is not a race. Less really can be more.
It’s the journey not the destination
Not defined by distance, this journey can be across an ocean or a state line: Maiu or Missouri, Alaska or Nebraska. It takes a while for buzz in the brain to subside, the chores and obligations to diminish. It takes a while to get used to being with yourself.
And, if you haven’t traveled alone before, sixty is the perfect age to start.