I find it telling that it seems a majority of the interesting travel blogs I run across are written by solo travelers, most often women. I think there’s a reason why we write more than people who travel with friends or in groups and that it’s pretty self evident: it’s an outlet for our loneliness.
In the last year and a half, the vast majority of my time has been spent away from home, alone. As I write this, it’s been over a month since I’ve conversed with anyone in my native language, and I can remember every single conversation in English for the month before that. The truth is, I don’t think I could have done this without the internet – without a blog to share my thoughts, without Facebook to see what my friends are up to, without the occasional e-mail to provide a façade of normalcy… without these things I’d likely have driven myself insane with my internal dialogue.
Now, I grant, there’s a reason I travel alone and I do love it, but lately it seems all I run across in the blogosphere are posts discussing the benefits of traveling solo. I think perhaps this paints a one-sided image, so here’s the other side, five things that suck about traveling solo:
#1 – It’s lonely. The most common question people ask me is “don’t you get lonely?” They seem surprised when the answer is a resounding yes. It’s a different kind of loneliness than you may think, but it’s soul crushing nonetheless. It’s a kind of loneliness that causes me to constantly have imaginary conversations with people I know in my head, to write thousands of pages that never see a keyboard, and to remember and relive powerful moments from my past repeatedly.
It’s the frustration of having to explain who you are to every single person you meet, and learn the same about them, never simply shaking hands or hugging someone already having common ground. It’s seeing important events happen in the lives of your friends from a distance, a nagging feeling that you are slowly becoming a stranger to everyone you know.
It’s eating dinner by yourself, without people to discuss the menu, food, or share a bottle of wine. It’s seeing something funny or interesting (“isn’t the translation for that ‘Black Jungle Cake instead of Black Forest Cake?”) and turning to point it out to someone only to realize there is no one. No one to go “dude, check THAT out!” or share a “how awesome is this?” moment with.
It’s making every decision, day after day after day, by yourself; it’s having no one to share or take responsibility for any action. It’s pulling that splinter out of your elbow while contorted like a yoga master to reach it, it’s trying to hold all the little bits of your wheel and chain and bolt together by yourself while you put it back on.
It’s realizing that as the memories are constantly replaced, there will be no moment when a friend goes “hey, this is like that time we…”
#2 – You can only be in one place. There are many situations while traveling where it’s amazingly handy to have multiple people, the most common of which is having someone to watch your stuff.
When you’re alone, you are constantly faced with decisions about leaving your stuff unattended, especially if you are traveling on a motorcycle like I am. Can I risk going into that grocery store to buy supplies in this town? Can I leave this stuff on the street while I go in to find out how much that hotel costs? Can I trust this mechanic not to rifle my items when I go grab a water?
I find my options severely limited in many situations as a result of being alone. If I want to take a two hour walk through a park, I need to find a hotel first to stash my stuff. If I need to buy things from four different stores, it means a morning off as I wander around town for hours. I can’t even stop in at an internet café in a small town because my stuff might not be there when I get out.
#3 – You have to do everything by yourself. It may seem liberating, but the fact is there are a lot of things that multiple people can do with much less effort than someone alone. Try figuring out how to tighten a bolt when you have to hold the nut steady on the other end – three feet away.
It’s also both mentally and physically exhausting. You do all the driving. You watch out for camp sites. You set up and take down the tent. You look at the map. You ask for directions. You decide where to eat. You decide where to stay. You have to remember all the things to buy at the store. You do all the navigation. You have to find all the interesting things to do. You have to carry all your stuff. You have to do all the troubleshooting and repairs.
One of my fondest memories of traveling in India with Tak was the simple agreement we made that whoever was doing the driving would just concentrate on that – the person in back asked for directions, navigated, watched time, etc. Alone, you do it all.
#4 – No one has your back. Everything I do, I have to be a little more careful about when I’m alone – wait, is it a good idea to do a backflip here? Should I drive further from the road, what if I get stuck? What if I break my finger prying this open?
I have to double check my keys, wallet, and documents constantly. I need to make sure I lock every door twice, double check I didn’t leave anything on the ground, pay attention to every single piece of everything I disassemble.
A few days ago I had to change my rear tube, and when I put everything back together I realized a piece I thought had been connected was actually loose, and it had fallen out. Even worse, it was round. It took me twenty minutes of very careful searching along the side of the road to find it, but if someone had been with me they almost definitely would’ve noticed it fall and grabbed it right away.
It’s also a big deal when you go the wrong direction. Sometimes by yourself you miss a sign, miss a turn, don’t notice the yellow building you were told about, or generally get distracted. No one has your back – soon you’re off the wrong way, doing the wrong thing, sometimes none the wiser.
Usually in a foreign country, two pairs of ears are way better than one. Someone else listens to the conversation and picks up on the bits you didn’t catch, and sometimes they even catch something you completely misunderstood. When you’re on your own, there’s no one to tell you “No, the lady said it was AFTER the green door, not AT the green door.”
The worst thing, though, is when you get sick. As a long time bachelor I’m used to taking care of myself when I’m sick, but when you are a hundred miles away from the nearest town and suddenly you can’t see or think because of a crushing migraine, you really want someone else to set up the tent or drive you to town. Since no one has your back, you have no choice but to do it yourself.
#5 – You turn into a sad lost puppy. I realized how pathetic I was becoming on this trip after nearly three months away from home when it occurred to me that I will now happily babble on about anything to anyone I meet – in a language that I’m not even fluent in!
I will talk to random strangers at gas stations for ten minutes only to realize that I’ve let them say maybe two sentences in that entire time. I’m now that guy that turns every encounter in some sort of conversation, instead of just getting a room at a hotel I need to talk to the lady about why I’m there, what there is in the town, why her hotel is painted blue… anything.
Sometimes I think I hear English and I will chase people down to see if I can talk to them. Today at the Perito Moreno Glacier, I was taking a photo when someone walked up next to me and said very clearly “Oh, yes!” at the view. Within a heartbeat I had turned and said “You speak English?” only to find it was an Argentinian who knew almost no English using the phrase just like a non-Spanish speaking American might say “hola!”
The other day in the grocery store I saw two very American looking college age kids, all decked out in North Face gear and looking like they were three days out from Iowa. I could have sworn I heard the guy ask the girl if she was bored, and immediately I turned to ask them where they were from – Chile, and they didn’t speak English. Augh.
I grant I’m not traveling like some do – I’m not going from hostel to hostel, running into other random travelers (it’s been over a month since I was in a hostel in a “tourist town”). I’m not riding busses from city to city, spending time sitting around somewhere and exploring. I’m constantly on the go, constantly pushing myself, as I race winter south to Tierra del Fuego. It was tough in Thailand, Nepal, and all that, but I did find people to hang out with and take the edge off when I was traveling like a normal person.
These days, not so much. In fact, I’m seriously thinking that my originally planned 6-8 months around South America is just not going to happen – I think I’m going to give up after four, because I’d like to see the same person two days in a row. And actually be familiar with where I am again. And not hate myself for ruining three relationships with awesome women because I couldn’t stay in one place.
Don’t get me wrong though – traveling solo is also awesome. I don’t regret it, and there are plenty of reasons I’m doing it. I just want you to know there’s a tradeoff, going solo has its perks but it’s by no means a free ride.