I remember the first time I ever travelled alone. It was in August of 2001 and I went on a 2-week holiday to Naxos, Greece when I was living in Lund, Sweden. I had moved there from the USA and started my postdoctoral fellowship the year before, and already after one year things were not going that great. Bottom line, my supervisor was a jerk who went out of his way to make my life miserable. I loved Sweden but things were not turning out as well as I'd expected.
I remember feeling pretty down as I had also broken up with my Swedish boyfriend some months before and started dating a Brazilian guy who was trouble from the start. Everybody in Europe disappears in the summer, thanks to the 6 weeks of holiday every Swedish citizen is granted. I found myself wandering the empty streets of the small, medieval town of Lund, which houses one of the largest and most famous universities in Scandinavia, feeling like I was in a ghost town. I felt lonely and downtrodden, so when I walked by the front window of a travel agency just a couple of blocks from my flat, and saw the flyer for a last-minute ('sista minuten' in Swedish) 2-week holiday package to Naxos for only 250 USD I went in and booked my first solo adventure.
I was a little scared at first but 2 weeks later wandering the cobblestone streets of Naxos lined by beautiful, white globed adobe buildings, visiting ancient ruins, sunbathing while watching local kite-surfers, hopping from island to island on a well-established system of ferries, watching open-air concerts in dimly-lit plazas, I knew I had made the right decision. Sure, there were a few awkward moments, like having dinner on my own in romantic open terraces surrounded by couples. But I got used to it. I took a book to read or my journal to write in, and enjoyed my Greek salads, the most delicious combination of feta, cucumbers, tomatoes and extra virgin olive oil you can imagine.
I met a very nice Dutch girl on one of my day excursions to Mykonos. We met on a tour of the island and decided to hang out together for a few days. We found ourselves lying on a nudist beach by accident one day, constantly accosted by naked perverts, laughing and realising the best beaches on the Greek islands are the nudist ones. I also met a nice guy when I was waiting on the pier for my ferry back to Naxos from Santorini. I had taken the ferry to Santorini the day before and gone on a boat cruise on the bay to see a massive underwater volcano followed by a donkey tour of the island with a group of Italians. We laughed as these erratic donkeys took us up and down the stone steps of the city while a hysterical Italian girl kept yelling 'patso patso!' (crazy in Italian).
Before I knew it, I had missed the last ferry back to Naxos - all I had on me was a sarong over my bathing suit, a pair of flip flops, and a wallet. I thought I might as well make the best of it and asked a random bus driver to take me to a scenic spot to watch the sunset. He told me his shift was over but that he would drive me to the end of the island for free, for the best sunset I'd ever see. I thought twice about it, riding with a stranger, in the dark, to an unknown place, but I genuinely felt he was just being kind, so I went, and the crimson sunset over the sapphire blue Mediterranean was one I'd never forget. That evening, after checking myself into a charming little hotel, I decided to go to a classical music concert inside an old, underground vaulted tavern. I arrived late as the trio of violinists was finishing their first set. I asked a random man 'is it half-time?' and with a grin he said yes. After one year in Europe I had already begun to forget my English, and didn't realise I was saying half-time instead of intermission. I still laugh about my faux-pas to this day.
When the concert resumed I realized the man I had talked to was the violin virtuoso and lead player, one of the best in Europe. Sitting in that tiny room listening to this beautiful, melodic sound reverberating from the walls was a night I'd never forget.
You see when you travel alone, the unexpected happens. You have enriching, life-changing experiences you will never forget. You meet all kinds of interesting people, kindred spirits, many of whom you'll remain friends with forever.
Every year I try to take an extended trip on my own. I do so for several reasons. First, I do it because it's the best way for me to reset and recharge. When I feel overwhelmed with life or fed up with people, I know the best cure is to go travelling on my own. Another reason I travel is, of course, for the adventure. I love putting myself out of my comfort zone, exploring new places, seeing new things, having new, life-enriching experiences I will cherish forever (my trip to Greece was 17 years ago yet I remember it like it was last month). While I do enjoy meeting interesting people when I travel this isn't my main motivation. I love wandering on my own, observing people, thinking about life, asking myself important questions, and seeing things from a new perspective.
Today I started my second solo road trip out West, from Colorado to California. While I have travelled internationally by myself many times, as of last May, I had never taken an extended road trip by myself. For me it was the last frontier. The thought of driving for days or weeks on my own really scared me, so I knew it was something I had to do. I drove from Colorado to British Columbia in Canada, via Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, and Washington State. It was a fabulous trip and many of my fears were conquered. I even went camping by myself, built my own camp fire, walked for miles up and down the Oregon beaches, something that had been on my bucket list for many years. On that trip I house/dog-sat for a couple I had only met via FaceTime, became great friends with the owner's sister, went hiking and kayaking on Bowen Island, spent time with two adorable dogs, wrote 80% of a book I had wanted to write for many years, and went sightseeing in Whistler and Vancouver.
On this trip I am heading out to California, again via Utah (my favourite state), and visiting 5 more national parks, doing some camping, then spending two weeks in Napa to finish my book and working on my travel business while house/cat-sitting, again for a couple I've never met in person. Wine-tasting, sightseeing, and meeting up with a couple of friends and relatives are also on the list.
I realized today while driving in sketchy winter conditions then through miles of desert with no other car in sight that I did not feel as scared as I did last time. It's like anything else: the more times you do something the more confident you become in your abilities. The more you travel alone, the more you learn to trust yourself and your instincts, and realise that the decisions you make are really what is best for you. I believe traveling alone builds a level of self-confidence and allows you to nurture a relationship with yourself that no other activity can. You learn that no one can take care of you as well as you can. As a woman raised in a patriachial society where as little girls we are taught that only men can take care of us, this the most valuable lesson I learned. Once you being travelling, and enjoy travelling, by yourself, you realise you are your own best friend, supporter, adviser, and companion. It is the most self-empowering thing you will ever do.
So take the plunge, and go on your first solo adventure!