The Solo Journey: Finding Confidence in Your Own Company
I've always considered myself a pretty independent person. Self motivated and an introvert, I certainly enjoy alone time, and when I've recouped my energy I love to experience new things even if I don't have a friend to join me. There is a satisfaction in being comfortable to do things on my own.
I would not say that is lost when it comes to travel, but there is definitely an intimidation to stepping into an entirely new environment where the only thing familiar is yourself.
I had the amazing opportunity to meet that intimidation head on. It has been 2 weeks since I returned home from a 16 day holiday in Europe. It was my first real solo trip and with the exception of a few days spent with family and friends I got a taste of what solo travel felt like. The fears that followed my thoughts of the unknown proved meek in comparison to the wonder I experienced.
The unknown can be scary, but it can also be the doorway to amazing opportunities.
And I found many doorways on this trip.
I chose the Netherlands and the UK as my solo taste test because I had visited cities in both before and, guiltily, wanted to have a little more familiarity than just myself :) Also every city I visited has such unique character and life, I could visit them a thousand times and always discover something new.
So here are a few things I learned on my humble solo jaunts in (semi) foreign lands.
::Say Yes to Dorms and Say Hello::
I am a big fan of hostels for so many reasons. Top of the list is the emphasis on community. Many hostels create an atmosphere for connection; movie nights, pub crawls, cooking lessons, dancing, tours, the list goes on. Another naturally ingrained element of hostel community is the dorm style rooms. I've stayed in various sizes, from 6-8 bed dorms up to 24 beds, both co-ed and women only. For this trip, in London I stayed in a 18 bed co-ed room while in Amsterdam I stayed in a 4 bed all female room called the Pink Ladies (more on that soon).
Each time is a unique experience, made most profoundly so, by the people. And it's so awesome. I've met travelers from all over the world, with itineraries ranging from 6 months to a holiday weekend. When I listen to their experiences, their tips, and opinions it fuels my desire to see more of the world and to appreciate the very fact that I can sit in this communal kitchen and find insight and commonality in their company. People who I'd likely never have met if it weren't for this trip, and further, if it weren't for putting myself out there. By reaching out or reciprocating a welcome, a question, a smile, you open up the possibility for new relationships and distinct memories.
That's not to say that you will always find a lifelong best friend in every dorm you stay in. In some instances, the other travelers are fine doing their own thing or you may not see them because their plans and schedules differ from yours. But that is OK because even a single conversation creates an impression that sticks with you. It contributes to your own personal growth. My confidence has grown tremendously as a result of these moments, some that have extended into continued correspondence, and others, fond memories to cherish.
The point is do not be afraid to initiate and encourage conversation. You never know what insight and adventure can come from a hello.
::Be Open to Experiencing Life With a Stranger::
I can imagine how this might seem slightly disconcerting, the word stranger still holds a variable of risk and danger, and though caution is good, seeing a stranger as a threat simply because they are unfamiliar should not be the guiding force while traveling. As a 26 year old woman who often gets mistaken for an 18 year old, I have been forewarned of safety's importance and I am attuned to my surroundings.
Yet I knew that if someone approached me to offer help or strike up a conversation I was not going to turn them away simply for the fact I did not know them. Only if my instincts told me otherwise would I remove myself from the situation. Thankfully I did not experience any threat to my safety on my trip.
I would say July 16th held the most distinct experience with strangers. Location: Oxford. I was sitting at a four seat table in the Eagle and Child pub (home to the "inklings", the literary group that included J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis) and three people came up to the table and asked if they could sit with me to study. Turns out they were actors studying at Magdalen college. So I read my book and drank my beer while they practiced their lines and it felt strangely comforting. It took me back to late nights of studying at Seattle Pacific and that shared comradery through that shared academic struggle. Though the struggle that is memorizing lines for a play is way beyond my skill-tee. I ended up asking them at one point what their process was like.
They each had their own methods, but one that soon won the evening involved two glasses, one filled with water. As they recited A Midsummer Night's Dream, they would pour the water back and forth, and interestingly the repetition within the multi-tasking helped to solidify the words in their memory. It was fantastic to watch and even greater to chat with them about travel and acting. Looking back I remember considering leaving for London not long before they arrived, as I had spent quite a bit longer in Oxford than I had intended (more on that soon too). I am so glad I didn't.
I thought of every introduction as an opportunity to not just say hello, but really inquire into their lives, their story. I met Mohammud (above) at an amazing market in London called Spitafields. A large warehouse space doppled with vendors tents selling prints, antique light fixtures, jewelry, hand crafted pieces, abounding options. He is from Ghana and recently came to London to sell his family's beautiful jewelry and handcrafted wood masks. He was so kind and I admired how he took pride in his country and in the craftsmanship of his pieces. We talked about the importance of family, and as I walked away with two gold band bracelets and a dark wood mask, I felt the brilliance of our brief connection. There is something so cherishable that I should have the chance to learn of his life when a series of decisions could have so easily taken me in a different direction. I recognize and value the significance of it because it reminded me of the essence of this blog. That everyone has a story and we should take the time to hear it. We can glean so much value from those interactions, they shape us, not just as individuals but as groups and communities.
"There are no strangers here; only friends you haven't yet met".
I believe it.
::Take a breath when you get lost::
This is both a practical advice as well as an emotional one. I say when instead of if more in describing my personal situation than a generalization because I get lost at least 2-3 times on every trip. Inevitable. It is stressful to lose your grip on your surroundings, it makes you feel more vulnerable, and frankly a little scared.
I have learned that when you can't depend on your phone to guide you, people are more inclined to help than you may think. In places where English is prevalent though not the first language used, I tried to initiate with what few words I knew of the local language to communicate my need. Usually they could tell with my huge ass back pack and strained body language that I was lost and came to my aid. In the event no one was around or people seemed disinterested, I often sought a coffee shop to gain my bearings. There I could recharge, physically, mentally, and my rather maddening phone.
There are always options and, a more important realization, I can figure it out. I learned to trust my instincts to navigate and trust that getting lost is not a guarantee of grave harm. Sometimes it's the new path to discoveries I could not have otherwise experienced. Because of a wrong left turn I stumbled upon awesome restaurants and shops, little garden alcoves and memorials. And though that sometimes threw my agenda for a loop, I allowed myself to adjust to the moment, appreciating this new discovery as where I was meant to be.
When traveling on my own, I did find that sometimes getting physically lost led to feeling mentally lost, overwhelmed by my ineptitude and frustrated that I was stuck or walking endlessly. Not every time I got lost did I stumble upon the coolest coffee shop. Sometimes I exerted an incredibly sweaty effort just to find that I was headed in the opposite direction of the station and certain to miss my 4:30 pm, pre-booked, $260 train (which I did).
Instead of lamenting over what was going wrong (or wrong with me), I focused on the beauty that is London, Amsterdam, Haarlem, Bruges, Hawarden. When I got overwhelmed, I took a moment to recognize that I was standing in Europe, a dream for me only a few years ago. I was standing on my own two feet that was traversing mottled cobblestone streets of Bruges, yes they repeatedly got turned around, but they were still moving. I was still moving. Alive, exploring, and learning. I hold onto that dearly.
So when you've missed your bus stop and have to walk an extra 45 minutes with no service into Haarlem with a dying phone do not fret. It is all a part of the journey.
I hope that never happens to you, but if it does, believe you can handle it. Because you can.
::enjoy your own pace & Listen to your body::
One of things I enjoyed about traveling solo was I could explore and venture at the pace I wanted to. I didn't have to regard anyone else's agenda, which allowed more flexibility and freedom to my day. On the parts of my trip where I was with friends and family, I loved every minute of it, because I got to share these beautiful places with them and their appreciation inspired my own. Yet, I relished being able to walk with the plan to go to a museum and instead be swept into a beautiful antique bookshop without any feeling of guilt or worry that my companion's experience is ruined. I can be as prepared or as spontaneous as my heart desired.
Whether planned or improvised, it is so important to know when you need rest. Then once you've recognized it, rest. I wanted to see so much and say yes to every exciting opportunity because it's not an everyday option to hang out in Brussels or Derbyshire, but I quickly realized if I don't take care of myself then I will not be able to enjoy those places fully. There were many days when I'd end with my heels in great pain and aching muscles from the miles of walking.
Your health should come first.
The result by doing so is complete immersion in the experience and appreciation of every moment.
There will often be the question of whether you should have done this or regret for having not done that. I have those disappointments from saying no and I'm still reconciling them. But it does not take away from what I did experience, and I know that the times I walked those few extra miles when I should have rested affected my appreciation. Learning that has been a great lesson. Savor the moment and respect your needs.
I have traveled 10,961 miles on my own. Through each I discovered that I am capable and quite adventurous, that I both enjoy solitude and fellowship with others. I did not let my shyness stop me from engaging with people and I am empowered to continue to grow through traveling.
This is just the start. I encourage anyone who is considering it to give solo travel (at least) one try. There are so many resources that make the process easy for traveling solo. I stress that travel is attainable and the result is beyond physical reward, the experiences created by visiting other places becomes intrinsic to your wellbeing.
It is an investment in yourself, as an individual and as a member of this world. As a result of that investment, you receive glimpses into the amazing cultures and perspectives that define people's lives. Your awareness and regard for both the familiar and unique is heightened. You will embrace change more readily.
I hope you do it. I really hope you do.
Do it :)