On Traveling Alone

In October of 2018, I took a train trip from Copenhagen through Brussels, Paris, and Berlin. Many of my classmates were traveling as well since we had the week off. Most people traveled with a group of friends or to meet people they knew studying abroad in other cities, but some of us traveled alone. What stood out to me talking to people in my apartment who had spent even a day traveling alone was our common ground of shitty moments.

One of my housemates got hopelessly lost walking through Amsterdam, then shattered her almost-dead phone when she was trying to get directions. Another, who went to Cinque Terre, wound up having to walk up the steep roads of a coastal village in the middle of the night when her plane was delayed and her train passed her stop. Yet another shared how uncomfortable it was at first be the only one eating alone in a restaurant. As for me, the loneliness-restlessness I remembered from other solo trips hit me hard on my third day in Paris and I nearly cried in public three different times. Traveling alone doesn’t always go well and it doesn’t always feel good. But it gives you a stronger sense of self, an emotional connection to wherever you go, and shows you the goodness of the world when you least expect to see it.

A self-timer selfie at the Seine after a woman wouldn’t let me into the Orsay with my student ID. I almost cried but started walking and taking photos instead and I felt better.

You’re On Your Own

In his book Why Travel Matters, Craig Storti advocates hard for traveling alone. To be a traveler (distinct from being a tourist), Storti explains, your perception must be uninhibited by having a familiar person with you, no matter how well you get along. A travel buddy could be a distraction, filtering your experience through their own, or simply make it harder to meet locals (Storti 139). In A Taste for Travel, John Julius Norwich says a companion can ‘cushion’ the traveler, “desensitizing their antennae.”

I accidentally got to a free jazz concert too early, and sat reading alone while really cool-looking French people socialized around me. The seats filled up and it was a great concert.

This is not to say that traveling with someone whose company you enjoy is by default a bad idea. Traveling with those you love is its own kind of wonderful adventure, and one that is worth having. It just depends what kind of trip you want. For me, traveling alone means more direct contact with a place and my experience with it. I can think and reflect in a more authentic way because I’m only focusing on my own experiences.

Because you typically have a more direct channel to wherever you visit when you are alone, and because you have your own emotional journey while there, traveling alone helps you develop an emotional relationship with the places you go. Experiencing a new place alone gives me a personal and emotive connection to wherever I am. I have regrettably few memories of the trips I took when I was younger where I was guided along with a large group of other tourists, or even just with other family members. My experience wasn’t defined by relating to the place, but rather by relating to the people that came there with me.

Solitude Demands Optimism

Traveling alone can be draining. Having only yourself to rely on when navigating a new place, eating alone, and, if you’re like me, overcoming introverted tendencies to make new friends, can all be pretty exhausting. I felt this on my third day in Paris especially (you know, the one where I kept almost-crying in public). That afternoon I found myself walking through the rain, sans umbrella, wishing for someone to magically show up to take me in and take care of me.

That didn’t quite happen, but sticking it out got me pretty close. The first sign that things might be okay was a ceramics shop, which I tried to enter not realizing it was closed for All Saint’s Day. Not a graceful start, but the designer was there and invited me in while she found a card to give me. We made some small talk, during which she validated my desire to learn how to make pottery. I didn’t feel better immediately, and ultimately had to walk back into the rain, but I was glad she was so kind to me.

Later, I went Montmartre, happy to find the Sacre-Coeur shining over everything. My only memory of Paris from my first trip to Europe as a kid is that church, so getting to come back and recognize something washed a lot of my stress away. I walked past it to one of the winding side streets and found dinner at a cozy restaurant with a kind hostess who let me practice what little French I knew as I ordered my food. I was the only one there at first since I was early, and getting that extra warmth helped me start to mend. I wrote on my phone, ‘I don’t feel good, but I feel better,’ and read short stories until it was time to go back down the hill for a concert. These little moments of hospitality answered my wish for getting taken care of, and wouldn’t have been possible if I had allowed myself to give up and stay in for the rest of the day.

The Sacre-Coeur at Montmartre

Traveling alone is not only defined by loneliness. It gives you moments of euphoria, little gems of sheer joy that come unexpectedly. I have had one of those moments every time I’ve traveled alone. Walking home on a dirt road in Mindo, Ecuador and getting caught in the rain was my first experience with this. I was breathless and laughing, and was able to experience it so intensely precisely because I was alone, thrilled that I had managed wind up in such a beautiful place, not to mention spend three weeks getting by on what Spanish I knew in an unfamiliar country. Later that summer I found the same feeling, this time standing in a lake in the Rockies during my second day of driving to Denver. It’s one of my most precious memories, even if I have no one to remember it with.

I didn’t expect to have that feeling last week. I spent the bulk of my second day in Paris going between a bookstore and a bistro, reading and writing for hours about what I was feeling on my own in a new place. I wound up walking from the Louvre pyramids to the Musée de l’Orangerie, and although it was cold and had started to rain, the joy I remembered from other places came to me and I felt relieved and comfortable for the first time since I had arrived. I bought some roasted chestnuts with my last bit of cash and walked through the park happy and content, finally having found my moment of joy that always makes the solitude feel worth it.

A shot from my walk through the rain towards the Musée de l’Orangerie

Finding that moment told me I was experiencing not only a new place but new aspects of myself in an authentic way. Last week’s trip changed what I thought I had already learned from other travels because that’s what solo travel does. It gives you experiences with only yourself and can teach you something new even years later. It gives you space to grow and experience feelings fully and lets you create relationships with worlds outside of your own.

On the train out of Paris the morning after going to Montmartre, all my bad feelings had evaporated into a fondness for the city and a vague interest in returning. I had learned what I liked and what I didn’t and added it to my growing understanding of what kinds of travel work for me. It felt like looking back on a long school year, knowing there had been highs and lows but ultimately nostalgic because of how much it felt like I had grown. And all this within a week. I imagine longer, more adventurous journeys both back in the U.S and abroad and feel the excitement that made me want to study abroad and travel alone in the first place. There is so much to see and feel just beyond my immediate world, and I feel better the further out I go, still knowing it won’t always be happy or comfortable. That’s the whole point.

This piece was originally written in Winter 2018.

Refuge in the Andes

After a few weeks of traveling alone in Ecuador in the summer of 2017, I had decided to go home early. It was my first solo trip, and I had ambitiously planned for a full three months of backpacking and exchanging labor for lodging. I had planned things so I would end up on the beach in time for my birthday in July, but by early June, loneliness had caught up to me, and the beach no longer felt that important.

It felt good deciding to come home and knowing that I only had one more week to see Ecuador renewed my sense of adventure. I changed my route and decided to end the trip at a hostel located several hours outside of Quito.

Secret Garden Cotopaxi, Ecuador

I took a bus back to the city, and the next day I clustered with other backpackers on a narrow sidewalk, waiting for a shuttle to whisk us away to the mountains. The last hour of the drive was on a dirt road, going about 15 miles per hour, winding us slowly past vivid green farmland in the low valleys of the Andes.

Alpacas grazing around Secret Garden Cotopaxi.
A pond and lush vegetation at Secret Garden Cotopaxi.

After we piled out of the van and stretched our legs, an Australian ushered us inside to a cozy living room, sheltering us from the chilly mountain air. We were handed ceramic cups of mulled wine, and listened with warm bellies as the staff explained the house rules and described the activities that were scheduled for the next few days. We would have group meals at a long, wooden dining table. Food was prepared in a large kitchen adjoining the living room, where there was always fresh banana bread waiting on the counter.

Another alpaca friend.

There were a few separate cabins for shared dorms, complete with bunk beds. My roommates for the weekend included two women and a few French guys on a trip together. They were all in their twenties, making me the youngest at eighteen.

Later one of the staff took us on an introductory hike, leading us as we stumbled after him in our borrowed galoshes. Our small parade of foreigners alternated between hacking through the deep moss of the forest and slipping upstream in cold water. The stream, it turned out, would widen and eventually reveal a waterfall in the midst of the volcanic jungle.

I sat with the other girls and we watched the French boys strip down and plunge into the icy water. The scene was like some kind of mythic painting- our young, happy bodies splashing around in near-perfect wilderness.

Fellow backpackers enjoying an icy cold waterfall in the jungle.
The stream away from the waterfall (and our hiking trail).

The clouds were so low where we were- and we were so high up- that we only saw the mountain tops a few times from the hostel itself. The best view would come the day before I left, rewarding us for the several hours we spent huffing and puffing our way to a total elevation of 4200 meters.

A mountain peak surrounded by clouds.
A dog enjoying the view after our ascent.
More peaks and the landscape beyond the mountains.

From the peak we had muddied and exhausted ourselves to reach, the clouds granted us fleeting glances of the swaths of farmland below. Shades of green were knitted together with curving seams of vegetation, and the edges of the mountains around us framed everything like jagged curtains.

On the way back, we passed wild horses. We slowed to watch them as they gazed down at us from their grassy hillsides.

A wild horse in the mountains.

The days passed quickly, and suddenly it was time to coordinate my delivery back to Quito, along with the other travelers on their way to the next place. I felt torn as I packed my bag, fielding questions about why I was leaving already. I felt I had finally found something good, and people I wanted to be with. But I couldn’t get out of my flight- I had already changed it once- and it was time to say goodbye.

After learning in the weeks prior how isolating traveling alone could be, I was grateful for having arrived somewhere that felt so comforting yet still pushed me towards adventure. I felt especially affectionate to the people who had been so kind to me along the way, buoying me through it all. In the airport, I took stairs instead of escalators, paying a small homage to the mountains my body had so recently scaled.

In the trips I have taken since then, I have learned that the loneliness of traveling by myself is almost always offset by scattered sparks of joy. For me, those sparks often come from connecting to other people. That feeling of mutual care, even for a split second, has propelled me through all kinds of sadness. There have also been moments that I am reanimated by something inside of me- maybe a realization of where I am and how wonderful it is to be tiny on an enormous earth.

Traveling alone challenges me to make my own joy despite the loneliness, and to see myself for where I am. Then, when I finally arrive in the company of others, it feels that much more precious, and I find that I would happily do it all again.

This piece was originally written in Fall 2020.