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Solo travel is not ‘brave’

Solo travel is not ‘brave’ By Shabnah Ratnarajah

10th June 2015

But it is a tragedy to not do something you desire because of fear.

I have travelled mostly solo, usually without any connection to life back home, for ten years. Yes of course there have been times I’ve wondered what the hell I’m doing – up close and personal to Colombian rush hour traffic on the back of my salsa teacher’s motorbike wearing shorts, a flimsy top and flimsier sandals – but no more often than I’ve wondered that very thing in my everyday life at home. The only time I’ve ever actually feared for my life was in the UK whilst living in a salubrious suburb in London.

But there are undoubtedly unnerving moments in single travel. There was the time when the 2pm Uruguay to Argentina ferry was re-sited to leave from another port due to terrible storms. They bussed us there and we continued to wait while they decided whether it would be safer to cancel. Minutes after finally setting off well after midnight, we were rocking so violently that you could hear things crashing and breaking all around. My fellow travellers were not quiet in their hysteria. Exhausted, hideously seasick and completely confused due to my lack of Spanish I honestly questioned if we would make the crossing.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it was actually the most scared I have ever been on my travels. But it also highlights some of the best things about travel generally. I honestly believe that humans are naturally kind and helpful. And this unexpected voyage proved that.

In the Uruguay terminal, a delightful elderly man, concerned that I was ‘so far away from home’, translated the announcements for me. The guy sitting next to me on the ferry bought me a fizzy drink to calm my stomach as I would have hurled if I’d tried to get up. He even offered to drive me to my hostel when we finally docked at some ungodly hour.

When you travel alone, you remember that you truly are able to handle anything. Things don’t go to plan, just like in normal life. As children we unquestioningly went with the flow and instead of doing us any harm, it likely made us more willing to learn new things by trial and error. As adults we so often over-think genuinely unimportant details and whether that minute-thing-that-probably-won’t-happen will go wrong. Why stress about the little things that haven’t even happened yet when the moment is right in front of you? Solo travel has taught me not to lose my precious present by focusing on the past or future. It is so much easier to be in the moment when what you’re encountering is new, and especially when you’re encountering it alone.

Sometimes it’s practicality that forces me to be in the moment. I focus on the scenery whilst on public transport in different countries because I know that at some point I’m going to have to make the return journey, remember where to get off, and find my way back to my accommodation for that night.

That hasn’t stopped me from getting lost. But getting lost can honestly be part of the fun. Taking the wrong bus, I ended up seeing a lot more of Quito, Ecuador than I ever planned, including some truly stunning architecture that isn’t in any guidebook. And my two-hour pre-breakfast Lonely Planet guidebook walking tour around Ubud, Bali turned into a five-hour wander through paddy fields and a tiny village that most definitely was not on the intended route.

At home with easy connectivity to information, we forget how naturally resourceful we are. I love that simple but primal sense of exploring and being guided by my feelings; if I feel safe, I keep going, otherwise get out. That is my one rule – trust your gut and if you don’t feel safe, don’t do it.

Travelling alone I am completely free to surrender to any whim. Sharing a hotel room for a few nights in Bali with a girl I met at the boarding gate because her sister could no longer make the trip – why not? Joining two Kiwis for a local bus-trip across the border to Brazil to see Iguazu falls from the other side – I would have been too lazy to go alone. Deciding that actually the ugly little town with amazing atmosphere I went to in Colombia was my absolute favourite and I’d quite like to spend my entire last week there lying in a particular hammock and going for long motorbike rides with aforementioned charming salsa teacher – be a crime not to. ‘Wasting’ all afternoon and evening wrapped in a blanket in a Copenhagen square café, drinking beer alone and people-watching because I cannot be arsed to move – no one to please but myself. A delicious street ceviche lunch for five times less than I spent on the nation’s favourite cocktail in a particular hotel in Lima – no one around to complain that they want lunch somewhere they’re less likely to get food poisoning (I didn’t and for what it’s worth, it remains the best ceviche I’ve ever had). Coffee and a film in a language I don’t understand with a local 19 year old in Fiji (he initially lied about his age) – well I didn’t have any other plans for that afternoon.

Travelling alone doesn’t mean you can’t plan if that’s what you need to enjoy it, and I’m very aware that my ‘zero-plan’ approach isn’t most people’s idea of fun. But I honestly believe that in over-planning you have mainly sterile experiences, and miss out on so much that solo travel can offer. How do you know who you will meet and what might happen? Leave yourself the option of saying ‘yes’ to whatever feels fun, or at least changing the plans you have made.

Solo travel brings me back to just being a simple human being, living the way humans were designed to – exploring, making connections, aware of my immediate surroundings and doing what feels right instead of over-thinking or wondering if I’m going to miss out on the next big thing. There is not a single interesting person I know who regrets a trip taken alone, no matter what happened. There is no reason why you can’t be the next.

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