Yes, I had traveled alone to Zihuatanejo, Mexico to visit my loser ex-boyfriend, and I had already saved up a year’s worth of income to move to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I had a volunteer program waiting for me. But this was different. Here I was, completely alone, hung over from the Halloween party the night before, on an overnight bus from Buenos Aires to Santiago de Chile. I looked out of the window, into the dark, vast unknown, and it hit me that anything could happen that night. Those who cared about me wouldn’t know, and those who would know wouldn’t care. I was traveling into the unknown, and while it scared me, all of the possibilities and future encounters exhilarated me.
Here I was, a 23-year-old American woman, traveling across the width of South America right before the 2004 elections. It’s no secret that George W. Bush pissed off a lot of people all around the world, and would continue to do so. Many people suggested I claim Canada as my native country, that I wear a fake wedding ring, or carry a picture of my fictitious husband in my wallet to avoid hassles and improve my safety. I considered all of that to be bullshit. I would be who I was, because it was me traveling, not some alter-ego or made-up fairy tale character. Just like traveling, and traveling by yourself, is by no means a Disney cartoon show.
What exactly does it mean to travel alone, and to do so as a woman?
Let’s be frank. The majority of the world still employs a male-dominant approach to society, and the majority of the world has a few bones to pick with the U.S. government. So you’ve got some things against you from the get-go. And if you’re looking to travel in the real sense of the word, it’s not going to be a situation where you park your ass in a 5 star all-inclusive resort, sipping on cocktails and swimming in a sparkly pool while everyone around you speaks perfect English.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does it make you sad to go to a restaurant alone?
- Is watching a movie by yourself pathetic?
- Are you the kind of person who needs a buddy to go grocery shopping, jogging, or to get drive-thru fast food?
- Do you get uncomfortable while walking (or even driving) in an unknown neighborhood?
- If your plans don’t fall into place, does it ruin your mood or your entire day?
If you said yes to any of these above questions, you might want to think twice about heading out on an adventure by yourself. After all, you will be BY YOURSELF the majority of the time. My advice would be to try to do more things independently and see how you feel during those experiences. We all have anxieties or worries about trying new things, and maybe it’s just that you need to build yourself up to a wonderful, solitary experience. However, if you said yes to all of the questions, don’t leave your city (much less the country) without your BFF (or your mom) by your side.
Traveling alone is not at all about being worry-free, having no doubts, or never getting scared in any situation.
It is something so much bigger. It is a beautiful journey of working through whatever might be holding you back and conquering those fears, meanwhile exploring a different country, culture, people, and a different YOU that you have never before seen. You will discover a lot about a world totally foreign to you and also find out more about yourself than you never expected to exist.
If you plan on traveling alone, just prepare yourself. Read up on the country and learn its statistics, regions, cultural habits, dress codes, and so on. Know that all of the stories of abduction, rape, stealing, assault, and even murder are very real. If you keep your head about you and know how to compose yourself, blend in, and treat people kindly, these things most likely won’t happen to you. Disclaimer: this is NOT a promise. Things can and will happen, and you could be the best person in the world and have the worst things happen to you. I’m just saying, don’t be a fool and more than likely you’ll have nothing but great, mind-expanding, eye-opening experiences in whatever country you choose to visit. But don’t be blind to reality.
No matter how outgoing you are, or how independent you consider yourself to be, there will still be many struggles to work through. Take a step back and try to look at yourself as objectively as possible. How adaptable and flexible are you in day-to-day situations? Do you deal well with uncomfortable situations? Do you keep your cool when everything goes wrong? Maybe you’re not now, but if you’re willing to try, and burning to go on that adventure, I say do it. You might (and probably will) find a new you emerge at the end of your journey, and this is what real travel is all about.
Just don’t forget that things will go wrong. You will get lost. There will be times that you have major culture shock and no one to confide to (except all of your virtual Facebook friends). People will try to rip you off. More than anything, you’re going to get lonely. It will be a loneliness that you have never felt before- extremely frightening at first, but also quite liberating. You will delve into the deepest parts of your soul, knowing that you can trust yourself, take care of yourself, and spend days or weeks (depending on how remote your destination is) not speaking to anyone. It is uncomfortable, but I find that discomfort is necessary for growth.
There are many occasions when my loneliness from not speaking to anyone for longer than 5 minutes at a time for weeks at a time really got to me. For example, when I was in Guayaquil, Ecuador, I stayed in a desolate hotel for about four or five days. As is my custom when I travel alone, I don’t stay out much after dark. When the sun dropped at 6pm, and I felt confined to a small room, alone with my thoughts, it got a bit eerie. However, I wrote two or three stories during that time, transforming my dis-ease into art.
On another of my backpacking trips, I was in Veracruz, Mexico, waiting for a hostel “friend” to meet up with me for about three days. It rained the whole time, but I still walked around the city, lost and impatient. At times, I would stay in my hotel room, doing my make-up in a variety of ways, drawing abstract pictures, listening to Alejandro Fernandez over and over again, writing, and feeling like I was really going insane. But during moments like these, you really get closest to the truth of your inner being. It was strange, but gorgeous. I ended up making a couple of friends while roaming the streets of Veracruz, getting both of my traguses (the ear flap) pierced for $20 USD, and meeting a local museum curator that gave me an amazing tour of the city through a local’s eyes.
If this has all completely turned you off or scared the shit out of you (believe me, there are much scarier stories I could share…), then please don’t travel alone. But if you still have that urge, that curiosity, that inner confidence and drive (as well as awareness of surroundings and self), then I think that traveling alone might be a great adventure for you. You will meet fabulous people, possibly make lasting friendships, learn a great deal about yourself and humanity, see many beautiful landscapes, and have a whole lot of fun.
I have been to some of the most “dangerous” cities in the world alone, such as Sao Paulo, Brasil, Mexico City, Mexico, and Bogotá/Medellin, Colombia, and have nothing but fond memories of my experiences. Locals I met were often kind, accommodating, curious, and helpful. The travel “friends” I met in hostels were either great or forgettable, but the conversations I had with these people from all over the world really opened my mind to difference in perspective. I gained confidence in myself like never before. And I was able to go wherever I wanted, since I didn’t have to compromise with anyone else’s plans! 😉
So, do you have what it takes to travel alone?
I don’t know. These are just my mere observations and suggestions. If you know you’re a scaredy cat, then you already know the answer. But if you hold a strong belief in your heart that you are meant to go on a journey that will forever change you, your view of the world, and your view of yourself, then I say go for it. Don’t ever forget the reality of the world while you’re out there, but just go. Go, explore, and it will probably be the closest you ever get to your true self, and possibly your true reason for being.