First Impressions of Solo Travel
I've tried and failed to write this post several times over the past few days. I initially wanted to title it "Intimacy On the Road," but that sounded too provocative, and my parents read this blog. In all seriousness, though, to travel alone is to develop intimate connections with all manner of entities: places, cultures, peoples, not least of all oneself. I think the reason it's been so difficult for me to start writing about my first impressions of solo travel is that they have been so different from what I expected. In the best way possible.
If you haven't read my blog before, here's a brief introduction to my current situation. After a series of canceled/failed plans involving travel and moving abroad, I decided to travel through Europe by myself for a few months. I'm visiting and staying with friends in various locations, but no one is accompanying me, and so I am effectively flying solo. I've never done this before. I've gotten on planes by myself, sure, and I studied abroad in Madrid five years ago. But there's always been someone to collect me at the airport, someone to take care of me if I get sick, and someone to help me navigate new cities (I have a hopelessly poor sense of direction). This is the first time that a trip is mine alone: I decide where to go, how long to stay, and what to do. I love it. But when I got on the plane to Madrid, I was terrified.
I'd always wanted to travel like this, but I never envisioned doing it alone. Though my teenage self devoured story after story of kickass women exploring the world solo, I assumed I wouldn't be able to do the same. "Sure, I'll see the world," I thought, "but I'll get so lonely if I go by myself." I assumed I'd take a friend or, more likely, a significant other. And I had plans to do just that, until I didn't. Single for the first time in a decade, I panicked. Flying to visit my family in California, I promised myself I'd go right back to my adopted home of Washington, DC and settle cozily back in to my comfortable life there.
I repeated DC like a mantra for my first week in California, turning it over in my mind like I would a worry stone in my palm, soothing my anxiety with mental images of the incredibly supportive communities I have there. Until one of my best friends, who loves me like a sister, came to LA and set me straight. Handing me a carry-on cocktail kit, she looked me squarely in the eye and said:
"You don't have to stay. But you have to go."
In that moment, I knew she was right (as she always is). I made the decision to go. But I assumed that I would struggle.
You see, I'm a nester. I'm good at making homes; I'm terrible at coping with transitions. My entire first year of college was a mess. I was so anxious during my first two weeks studying abroad that I barely slept. I had a rough first six months in DC after graduating college and moving there. Empirically speaking, I'm not good at navigating these types of life changes. As I say, I love adventure, but I'm bad at it.
Or so I thought.
I'm finding, in fact, that I'm much better at adventure than I used to be. For years, my problem has been a fear of solitude, and the overwhelming anxiety I felt boarding my flight was that I would get lonely traveling by myself. In fact, solo travel has resulted in more connection than I've ever experienced on any other trip. In the nearly three weeks I've been traveling, I've only felt lonely a couple of times, and the feeling has always correlated with being low on resources when I've slept too little or drunk too much. When I'm alone, it's by choice; I've even found myself actively seeking solitude after spending so much time with other people.
Which brings me back to intimacy. As a solo traveler, I've found that I'm much more approachable than I would be if I was accompanied by a partner, family, or group of friends. Especially as a woman (for better or worse), I'm less intimidating when I'm by myself, and I've found it incredibly easy to strike up conversations wherever I go. Locals chat me up in bars and fellow solo travelers seek me out in hostels. All it takes is a smile and a willingness to chat, and I've made a new friend.
More than anything, I'm struck by the swiftness with which I'm able to create an intimate relationship with another person, and they with me. Granted, I'm a particularly open book, but I think the act of traveling offers a sort of magic connection that is otherwise more difficult to encounter. I catch myself talking about my deepest desires and wildest hopes, and listen eagerly to those of others. People from all over the world know my sister's name and what kind of relationship I have with my mom. I know about their exes and guilty-pleasure TV shows. The beauty of travel is this acceleration of time; the sense of urgency that prompts us to drop the niceties and engage in the vulnerability that is the very best part of being human.
There's the family who welcomed me, a stranger, into one of their most important holiday celebrations.
The boy who told me his ritual for good luck, who taught me to dance, and who made me relax for the first time in months.
The bartender who turned into a confidante after an hour, telling me stories about getting lost in his adopted home.
The crew who made pilgrimages to Madrid out of pure desire and found each other there.
The friend who, like me, recently broke up with her long-term partner and canceled a trip.
The man who told me he could barely breathe after losing his friend in September.
The other first-time solo travelers, equally nervous and seeking.
The scores of human beings who offer up their truths with extraordinary courage, telling me in no uncertain terms who they are.
So many open faces and hearts, waiting to welcome me. As an especially empathetic person - some would say I identify too much with others - I'm used to being the vulnerable one. I suppose I still am, but on this road I find others meeting me with equal tenderness, a similar willingness to strip away the usual defenses in service of intimacy and human connection.
For this reason, solo travel has not been lonely. I meet more people in a day here than I did in a month back home. And let me tell you, they're beautiful.