Solo Travel & Romance
by Jeannette Belliveau
If it’s true that travel broadens the mind, solo travel unfetters it completely. It’s chemistry: Free ions combine more easily with their surroundings than compounds. Group tours, couples, friends all move within their little bubble through exotic landscapes. But lone travelers interact furiously with the places they are visiting, and in the process, they learn much about others and themselves.
That is the shining advantage of going solo: meeting people and overcoming challenges outweigh the relatively minor risks of loneliness, getting lost, or experiencing a health emergency or language difficulties. “You actually have more opportunities when you travel by yourself, when you are not traveling as a self-contained entertainment unit,” says Amy Berkov, a free-lance graphic artist in New York City.
“You are more likely to meet people where you are traveling. You are more likely to make overtures in the country you are visiting. The people in those countries are more likely to make overtures to you.”
“You really get to know the people’s customs, cultures and manners,” says Rochelle Jaffe, a former travel bookstore owner. “Having traveled when I was married and then having traveled alone after marriage, the difference that I have found so exciting is that traveling alone I have met the most wonderful people. They will talk to a single person. They will not talk to someone with another human being.”
“They let you in.” Precisely. Time after time, solo travelers note the ultimate paradox of going it alone: you end up meeting more people — local folks and fellow travelers alike — than when you go as half of a couple or part of larger group.
My trip diaries confirm this perception. In a 100-day solo trip from China to Tahiti in 1985, I met 56 people whom I got to know well enough to exchange addresses with. I arrived in Hong Kong to start the journey psychologically braced for what could have been 100 Days of Solitude. Instead, I met Australians, Britons, French, Japanese, Canadians and others, all going my way at least part way. In fact, the changeovers in traveling companions were almost seamless — saying goodbye to an Indiana woman at a hotel in Shanghai and practically within minutes joining two men, an Australian and a Canadian, to continue on the boat to Hong Kong.
Conversely, a month-long trip to Africa in 1989 with three good friends, while far less psychically demanding, yielded a thinner listing: just four Africans and one American friend by journey’s end. I cannot recall a single instance of being invited into the home of local people while traveling with others. On my own, however, I have spent the night at a private chateau in Normandy, a family dwelling in Bali and a cottage in Ireland’s western mountains, had dinner with a West Indian family in St. Barthelemy and a Tahitian grandmother on Bora Bora, enjoyed simple treats from tea in Chongqing to pancakes in Canberra.
Going solo can mean going sociably — to a fault. “Sometimes I would crave being alone,” says Vicky Foxworth of Takoma Park, in wake of non-stop friendliness on a solo trip to Australia. Who goes solo? Once upon time, frontiersmen. More recently, rugged individualists, “take-charge people,” says Jane A. Doerfer, the Cambridge, Mass., who in the 1990s edited the newsletter “Going Solo.” Historically, solo travel has attracted many writers, poets and journalists, and seems to be more readily accepted as a tradition by Britons and Australians. Ms. Foxworth, who for three years taught a course on traveling alone for the Open University in Washington, D.C., noted that her classes included “a fair amount of women in their early or late 30s, either divorced or never married — some who basically had made a lot of money. They were very successful people, very independent-minded women, who were going to go for a year and come back with $30,000 saved to set up again.”
The number of solo female travelers is remarkable. I have the impression that at least along the Asia backpacker circuit, women predominate as solo travelers, but others observers do not confirm this. Still, it is clear that most of those writing and teaching about this growing travel trend are female, as are about two-thirds of the subscribers to “Going Solo.” Solo travel has come to include not only many divorced and single women, but also retirees whose spouses don’t care for travel, people on the rebound from romance or at another critical life juncture — finishing college or switching jobs or careers. And it seems poised for an even bigger boom.
“Traveling on your own is just about to become a boom area,” says Ms. Doerfer. “I think we’re about two years away. Hotels and restaurants have been very slow, almost neanderthal. There are 77 million single adults in the U.S. (Yet) a lot of hotels don’t go as far as having communal tables.” Many customers come up to Ms. Jaffe and whisper quietly as they pay for their travel books, “I’m going alone.” “Some of the best experiences I’ve heard from my customers have been their trips abroad alone,” she says. In addition to offering freedom, flexibility and opportunities to meet others, solo travel appeals to those who seek challenges or wish to build self-confidence and to practice decision making.
Even small steps, such as buying your own ticket in an Italian railway station, or using sign language to order a meal in a Chinese village, can be little triumphs. Solo travel, particularly in the Third World, encourages — forces — lessons in patience. Hours spent by a roadside waiting for a bus or jeep repair in Malaysia or Tanzania can handily be recalled later while sitting in a minor traffic jam at the Inner Harbor or when put on hold while trying to straighten out a credit-card bill. “This isn’t so bad after all,” is the lesson we bring home, with a bit stronger imprint perhaps when you have survive inconveniences on your own.
The materialism and self-absorption of Westerners may begin to look strange to the returning solo traveler, who has observed peoples around the world living for a year on what we might spend in moments on imported boots or our pet’s trip to the vet. Such insights may offer both a personal and professional boon upon return. “I think you can use your travel skills to make yourself marketable,” says Ms. Foxworth. “You gain experience in problem solving, organizational skills, assertiveness and experience people of different backgrounds and ages.” Traveling can boost confidence: “If I can get myself around Japan, I can handle business situations,” Ms. Foxworth says.
Obviously, at least some solo travelers will be on the rebound from failed love or in search of romantic encounters, although this is not a topic that I have ever seen addressed very openly. Gauging the extent to which travelers engage in trysts or forge permanent relationships with their fellows or local people is most difficult. What is likely is that the solo female traveler, whether interested or not, will have to listen to male braggadoccio about lovemaking prowess and the many other American women who have come looking for love in (pick any country). This can be countered by formal behavior, leaving some of the easily misinterpreted American friendliness at home, modest dress in keeping with local standards and avoiding eye contact.
“If you feel threatened, and you are not in a totally secluded area, walk up to strangers that look OK to you, and ask if they can walk with you,” Ms. Foxworth recommends. “The downside is the loneliness. Two weeks is usually the point at which I almost start hallucinating,” says the 24-year-old cyclist, who notes that “there is a sense of dread at breakfast.”
Others agree that mornings are the roughest time. That’s when you may be saying goodbye to newfound acquaintances and heading again off into the unknown. “You may be in a rough place, cold, not that clean, lying there shivering asking, “‘What the hell am I doing here?” says Ms. Berkov. “As soon as I’m up and dressed, I’m fine.” Experienced solo travelers are sometimes puzzled by two of the more frequently stated objections to traveling alone. These are (1) dread of eating alone in restaurants and (2) regret at not having anyone to share pleasurable moments with.
First, restaurants. I never mind wandering in, with a book or postcards or newspaper, and busying myself with these while waiting for the food to arrive. Yet fear of dining alone seems to be the main hurdle to many people who wish to travel alone. Ms. Foxworth, who doesn’t mind eating alone while traveling herself, nevertheless addressed the point with sympathy during her travel classes. She asked participants to think of a reverse situation, imagining they were in a restaurant with others and saw somebody come in to dine alone. They acknowledged that would glance at the diners but did not stare, thinking the person was “a real nerd or don’t have any friends.”
I must confess to feeling a bit obvious, during a visit to the Yangtze River city of Chongqing, upon drawing a crowd of at least 150 staring Chinese once while sitting down at an open-air eatery with my bowl of tofu with Szechuan peppercorns. This is the exception, however, that proves the rule: Most times, other diners will be incurious, and self-consciousness is unjustified.
The travel writer Paul Theroux addressed the other frequent fear– lack of someone to share moments with — in a 1985 interview. “I think it’s because travel is so time-consuming and so demanding that if you travel with someone else, it’s very unfair to the other person. And I also think that the perceptions that you get from other people are not helpful, that you have to make your own mind up. You don’t profit by having someone near you, saying ‘Oh look, it’s raining” or “Isn’t that an interesting rock formation.’ ” Mr. Theroux was addressing why he travels alone when he is writing about his destination. But his observation is valid for anyone who feels that a play in London or a sunset in Tahiti is always better viewed by two.
Solo experiences offer more room for reflection, for knowing one’s true mind about something, and perhaps for converting the observations into writing or art. It is neither superior or inferior to shared experiences; it is certainly different, and something born solo travelers don’t mind at all. These born soloists have risen above the bugbears of novice travelers, plunging into a country on its own terms.
“I like to be with myself, so I don’t mind a day spending time by myself in the zoo at Kuala Lumpur,” says Barbara Miller of Baltimore, dean of international programs at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Others find solo travel daunting at times, but the only logical response to logistical dilemmas. You may really want to go to a certain place at a certain time, and no one in your circle of friends wants to, or can, accompany you. The obvious solution: Go anyway, and link up with travelers at your destination. They’ll be there. “When you pick an odd destination it’s not very likely that you’ll find anybody that particularly wants to go with you,” says Ms. Berkov. Some travel solo after argument-filled trips with companions. “My first big trip to Greece, we spent all our time fighting,” says one woman. “It’s better not to be locked into a commitment with a travel partner, although I’ve always been terrified before I leave.”
One man, a 24-year-old journalist who has gone on solo cycling trips in the United States and Western Europe, openly admits that “since I’m the kind of person who likes to blame other people, probably I’d get into arguments when things didn’t go well. I figure another person could really ruin a vacation. That’s the main advantage. I like the fact that I’m the only one calling the shots. I don’t have to consider anyone else. When you’re on a long trip, there are so many facts to consider — weather, itinerary, etc, — I don’t want to add another person. It just gets too complicated, unless the other person ceded all the authority to you.”
“There are drawbacks to traveling with a companion,” acknowledges Ms. Foxworth. “There can be differences in how you see time and money and interests. One person may have a month vs. two weeks. You may want three hours in a museum, and they want six hours.” “I feel that it’s real enriching,” says Ms. Berkov. “It’s a good way to help develop a certain amount of flexibility and poise and how to survive in the world. It’s good to learning to deal with as many kinds of people and you possibly can. Particularly in the United States, we tend not to realize what a small part of the Earth we are and how differently many other people live from us and think from us. “I feel really incredible lucky that I’m able to travel around. To me it’s a real privilege.”
TIPS — Many books and newsletters offer tips on easing solo travel. Here are some:
Seek budget accommodation. All your fellow solo travelers are most likely to be at the youth hostel, the pension, the bed and breakfast, the university dorm that lets in travelers, the clean, simple place listed in a Lonely Planet travel guide. Or else they may be at “really nice hotels, where you can meet people in the restaurant,” notes Ms. Foxworth. Avoid the middle-price range frequented by tour groups and families, she says: “You just don’t find solo travelers.”
Ask friends or family to write you en route, either to poste restante or American Express offices, which will hold customer mail. I went into the American Express office in Singapore after some months of rough travel and found five letters from home. Even brave solo travelers get the blues, and hearing from Mom that the dog is fine and she’s keeping up with the laundry can boost morale more than you could ever believe.
Don’t make your first trip a major challenge, and do your homework. Barbara Miller advises: “I would think if you want to go somewhere alone, the very first place should be somewhere like England, Scotland or the (Caribbean) islands. Do your research, be sure you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, know what you want to see. I think the first time should be a shorter trip.” Visit the State Department’s Travel Warnings, for information on problems within a country.
Focus your trip along educational or special-interest lines. One of my best “solo” trips ever was taking a sailing class in the Virgin Islands with a captain and four other people. We had good company and vastly improved sailing and navigation skills to boot. The advantage to this sort of travel is the great likelihood of quickly forging friendships with others who share your interests. Programs run by Earthwatch and Elderhostel have received favorable notice in solo traveling publications.
Stay with a family. You can seek out family-run accommodation in most of the world. Ms. Foxworth highly recommends Servas, an international-youth oriented organization that links up travelers with local people in 90 countries.
Looking for Beth’s book recommendations for adventure travel? Click here!