The first time I travelled alone was reactional. After months of auditioning for drama schools, I was hit with a subsequent flurry of rejection letters. On top of this, my boyfriend at the time had decided that he didn’t actually love me anymore, and telling me over the phone would be the best way to deliver that news.
I had dreamt of going to drama school since I was given an ‘applaud yourself’ microphone at the age of 5 and had fallen head over heels in love, both of which were now not a part of my reality.
I booked the global interrailer pass, packed a backpack and I just left. I booked my first hostel whilst I was on the Eurostar and had shagged a new boy before arriving in the third country. Not, I have learnt, the way to mend a broken heart. I would be lying if I said that this trip was a solely positive experience. I spent plenty of days wandering around foreign places alone, staring longingly out of train windows and dancing all night with people that I didn’t know or necessarily like. The benefits however, the things that I gained from this trip outweighed the occasional tear rolling down my face as I watched a couple of newly weds snogging by the Trevi Fountain.
I learnt that to travel by yourself, to physically travel and get from A to B is a challenge. You have to be prepared, willing to ask strangers for directions and plan as much as you can in advance. Sleeping on your backpack in Airport lounges or at train stations becomes a normality, as does wearing your bum bag on the inside of all of your clothes. I learnt that arriving in a new place at night was nowhere near as enjoyable as getting there in broad daylight. Downloading mapGoing on a ‘bar crawl’ on your own seems fun at first, until you’re left to manoeuvre the Budapest metro at midnight on your own, when your phone has run out of battery and all the streets look the same. A battery pack became my greatest companion.
For your soul, solo travelling creates an entirely different challenge. The comfortability which one must feel when walking over to a group of friends laughing and drinking and asking if you can sit with them because you’re travelling alone, is enormous. Quickly, I learnt that the fact I was alone was not something to be ashamed or embarrassed of, but to be proud of. People found it fascinating and intoxicating, drinking up my stories like a fine wine. When meeting other solo travellers you feel a bond which is rare to find in the eyes of a stranger. I met an Australian girl called Hannah and fell in love with her. My trip was heightened when in her company and a lot of what I learnt about myself came from conversations over chips and beer sat in the close proximity of my new favourite stranger.
When I decided to go to Bali last year, there was nothing to escape, no break up or devastation. I just wanted to roam and explore. None of my friends were free to come with me for the whole trip and I didn’t want to let this stop me. I didn’t want to stop my adventures because I had to do them alone. The first thing you learn when you’re travelling by yourself is that you’re never alone. There will always be someone, a new character in a hostel, a bar or on the beach that wants to share their story and their experience with you. Like minded people gravitate to similar places. I learnt to always pack in separate plastic (sorry to the environment maybe you could use paper) bags grouping my clothes by item type. A bag for tops, dresses, pants makes everything so much easier to find when you’re packing and unpacking almost every day. I learnt that the embarrassment of asking someone to put sun cream on your back is far less agonising than sitting in the back of a sweltering mini bus with sun burn. I learnt to realise when being alone was exactly what I needed or when being surrounded by new people would keep me from thinking of home.
When visiting the blue lagoon in Bali, I understood that one picture was enough of any breath taking view as the pictures would never do the experience justice. Rach informed me that the best people to ask to take pictures of you are the Chinese – a generalisation which is entirely true. I tight-roped to find the balance between creating wild memories and staying safe. Always feeling proud and a little relieved when I made it back to my own bed. In Rome, when I was trying desperately to mend a broken heart, I ended up walking back to my hostel room at 6am with no shoes or knickers having left them, along with my dignity in the proximity of a stranger. The next day I took my sad, hungover self to the Vatican hoping that my sins would drift away. I cried whilst staring up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, very cathartic. I learnt to pack condoms even when I didn’t think I needed them.
In Bali I learnt to be present, appreciating each experience and person for what they were in that moment. I let go of the expectations that I had of the trip before I had arrived and tried to just ‘be’. An incident with a moped and an hour in Indonesian A&E gave me time to reflect on why certain life events happen, what we can learn from them and how we can appreciate them no matter how difficult they are. Whilst being away I have always been blessed to discover how much I love home, how important the people in a place are to our experience of it.
Always keep a journal, even if you just write silly things like how good a type of food was or how blue the ocean seemed. Apply bug spray even when you think you’re in a place where mosquitos don’t dine. Don’t drink the water or put ice cubes in your drink unless you want to spend the night on the toilet. Don’t let anyone tell you that being a girl makes you more vulnerable, it doesn’t, being reckless and making silly decisions makes you vulnerable. Stick to the beaten track or if you want to discover hidden gems and untouched places go with a local and another traveller. Sometimes reading a book in a beautiful place is as beneficial and exciting as climbing a live volcano. Eating food is the best way to explore a culture and eating on your own is nothing to be embarrassed about. Fast dry towels will start to smell, subsequently so will you.
Recommendations from other travellers are always worth listening to but never as good as what you discover by yourself. Falling in love happens faster, harder and far more frequently when travelling in a brand new place, not just with a love interest but with places, friends, dogs and cats. Calling home can make you laugh and cry.
Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone by travelling alone is bound to be difficult. When I reached Florence, I arrived at what I hoped would be an idyllic campsite. I soon realised that it was less than idyllic and I spent the night on the ground sobbing into my sleeping bag for no real reason at all. The next day, I went on a wine tour with seven couples, got inordinately pissed and slept in the same sleeping bag feeling humoured and happy.
I’m of the thought process that if given the opportunity everyone should travel alone, even if it’s just for a weekend. It liberates you, challenges you and allows you to get to know yourself. After both experiences of solo travelling I can happily say that I enjoyed my own company and was proud of the journey I had had. Making it back in one piece with the same back pack, similar clothes and a healthy glow, with stories I will hold on to for ever.