The modern Xanadu: The closeted realities of Solo Travel

Let’s do a small quiz. Think about the last time you came across a post like this on Facebook.

Travel here before you are 30. Travel there before you are married. Travel with your best friends. Do this road trip. Top destinations for 2017.

And not to forget people who post quotes (with stunning images) about “If travelling was free, you would never see me again” and “7 good reasons why you should travel solo”.

My guess is — All too often to remember.

We are growing up in an era of impatience — a generation which lives life under FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) to often absurd outcomes (First month anniversaries to honeymoon photography), one thing which really bothers me is the romanticization of solo travelling.

The distinction between the traveler and the tourist, the adulation of solo traveler over the packaged tourist — the snobbery which accompanies solo travel is almost childish. We are beginning to put solo travel on such a pedestal that it’s supposedly the only admirable way to travel , to the point that it is being made out to be a rite of passage into adulthood. Its a panacea for all our problems — finding yourself, forgetting someone, running away and going nowhere.

Before you bring out the pitchforks, I write this from the experience of significant travel over the past 5 years — solo, with family, with friends and with strangers, both within India and abroad. My perspective has been informed by numerous conversations with solo travelers (both short term (few weeks) and long term (a few months to even years)) and includes people who have given up their careers to travel full time. From the intersection of my travel experiences and my work as a behavioural researcher, if I were to sum up these myriad experiences in one line …

Solo traveling is great, but I would not recommend it to everyone.

Why you ask? Not because of the practical aspects of solo traveling, but of the less spoken emotional and mental effects of it. Read on

Our inability to be alone: Solitude in the age of fetishistic connectivity

We are almost never alone. If we are not surrounded by people, we create virtual surroundedness. And at the very core of it, it is not surprising that we do — and now science has proof.

In the early 1900’s, evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar made the provocative claim that the primary reason the neo cortex (involved in higher functions such as sensory perception, generation of motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought, and in humans, language) grew larger was that primates could live in larger groups and be more actively social. Recent work by social neuroscientist Matthew Liberman made accessible in his book Social: Why we are wired to connect takes it further when he says

“Most accounts of human nature ignore our sociality altogether. Ask people what makes us special and they will rattle off tried-and-true answers like ‘language,’ ‘reason,’ and ‘opposable thumbs.’ Yet the history of human sociality can be traced back at least as far as the first mammals more than 250 million years ago, when dinosaurs first roamed the planet. Our sociality is woven into a series of bets that evolution has laid down again and again throughout mammalian history. We can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.”

Given that sociality is hard wired, it is not surprising that we do not want to be alone. Solo travel can make being alone a very lived reality. Being on the road all by yourself is not easy.

Do not beat yourself up if you feel burdened with this miasmic suffocating expectation of travelling solo. The fact is, we live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person. We are either evolutionarily incapable, or personally inadequate. It is normal and it is ok not wanting to travel solo. It is a design feature, not a flaw.

The mental state: Emotional messes of solo travel

When you travel for extended periods of time, you are not always alone. You often travel with strangers, people you meet on the road — people at your hostel, at bars, at historic sites etc. A simple smile can start off a conversation which finds you travel companions. I’ve met and traveled with the most fascinating people: a Japanese girl travelling for the last 3 years, a journalist reporting on climate change in post Trump America, a couple cycling through Latin America, a guy who sold everything and fits his life’s possessions in a backpack amongst others. This is one of the biggest rewards of solo travel — as we leave our comfort zones and cross paths with people out of our ‘in-groups’ — and these conversations have the ability to illuminate and inform and make fantastic food for thought.

And as you travel solo, you make make strong connections — you open up without the fear of being judged and see the world and yourself from a very different lens. But your travel companions are with you for a few days. And then you go separate ways, till you find the next set of people to bond with. With time, multiple such experiences leave you on an emotional high, but you know that you will never see most of them again. Our hard wired sociality revolts, as your ephemeral bonds collapse, leaving us with moments of utter loneliness. But what really bothers us is the emptiness, the void it leaves which makes us yearn for the familiar.

Familiarity: The drug of validation and shared joys

Travel often leaves us overwhelmed, and we love to escalate that joy by sharing it with someone. You miss that friend who would geek out on the wonder that is Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, the trekker who knows the joys of climbing an active volcano in Indonesia, the socially conscious one who would appreciate the horrors of the Argentine dictatorship, the nature lover who could marvel with you as you witness the great migration in Serengeti. You miss the inside jokes, the conviviality, the ability to confide your fears into someone. I compensate by staying connected over Whatsapp, but nothing beats the shared warmth of standing next to a loved one and taking in the most wondrous sights of the world.

So to all those people who say “If travelling was free, you would never see me again” — No, my friend, you will come back sooner than you think. Many of us would love to be nomads, but we must remember that nomads often traveled with their loved ones. We carry our world in our hearts, not in the cities and countries in which we may choose to dwell.

So is Solo travel for me?: A 2 step guide to figuring it out

Step 1: Wherever in the world you maybe, get onto a train / bus to the nearest spot of your interest. Or drive. Pick the mountains if you like nature or palaces and ruins if you like history. Do it over a weekend and do it alone. Avoid being digitally connected.

Step 2: Try and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Make the first attempt. It could be a fellow countryman or it could be a foreigner. One of the simplest ways to start a conversation is to either give a compliment, talk of a shared joy or misery or be genuinely interested in knowing about them. See if you can hold the conversation, find common ground and exchanges stories.

If you are able to do Step 1 and 2, congratulations — you can definitely attempt solo traveling. You do not need to quit your job, sell everything and be on the road — but you can definitely take off for a week to experience the incredible world we live in.