“Don’t you get scared? Travelling alone?”
The girl from Paris spears a piece of pineapple as she looks towards me, across a table groaning with freshly cooked food. Outside, the sounds of Havana’s streets ricochet from one crumbling balcony to another, caught in the billowing folds of hanging laundry.
I smile, mentally preparing the phrases I’ve used so many times before.
“Of course – I mean, there’s a chance you’ll feel a bit lonely at times – but it’s fine really.” Check one. “You meet more people travelling solo than when you’re with your friends.” Check two. “And besides, if you want to travel somewhere then that should be enough reason for you to do it. You don’t always need someone with you to feel confident.” Check three.
Strong words. Supportive words. Just the kind of reassurance a nervous traveller needs when they’ve made the jump; when they’ve bought the ticket, boarded the plane, arrived in a foreign place and suddenly realised they have absolutely no clue what they’re doing.
It was Natasha’s first time away from home by herself. She had a friend who was working in Havana so was sorted for companionship at the weekends – but during the week, she was alone in Cuba.
And she wanted me to tell her exactly what she was in for.
My confession about travelling alone
Most people usually look sad and confused when I tell them I travel solo. It’s got such a negative reputation: the idea that you must either have no friends or you’re ok with willingly putting yourself in danger.
“There’s simply nothing like travelling by yourself,” I wrote in answer to a recent interview question, filled with the passion I’ve always had for travel. “The freedom of striding out along your own path, with nobody dictating what you can or cannot do – it’s extremely liberating, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
In the back of my mind, there are still the nights I don’t talk about. The ones when I’ve reached my hotel, barricaded the door and not left again for the next twenty four hours. Overwhelmed and terrified by the thought of having to relearn a network of streets from scratch yet again; to deal with being stared at, misunderstood and pitied by complete strangers; to embarrass myself when I can’t speak the language; and to feel like the world is passing me by without a second glance.
And then I compound the problem further by feeling guilty about how pathetic I’m being.
In Alain de Botton’s ‘The Art of Travel’, he makes the point that we aren’t automatically happier by virtue of being abroad. We don’t become different people, either: there isn’t a magic button that makes us suddenly funnier, more impulsive, more daring, or more confident.
Wherever we are in the world, we are still ourselves. Even if we’re on a foreign street filled with palm trees and food carts, we’ll always have to accept being who we are.
Warts and all.
So why should I travel if it makes me scared?
I get a lot of emails from readers asking how they’re supposed to travel. They’re concerned about their safety in particular parts of the world; how hard it’s going to be to make friends; the fact that their original travel partner has bailed and now they don’t want to go alone.
Ultimately, they’re scared, and I sometimes get the feeling that they’re looking for a magic solution. One that I and many other independent female travel writers must have stumbled upon: the solution to constant, on-the-road happiness.
I want to dispel that myth – for me, at least. Because guess what? Even though I write a website about being a strong, solo, empowered female traveller, I get scared too.
All the damn time.
Part of it is having an overactive imagination. More doubts and concerns occur to me as I grow older, and there are days when I’m battling my way through dozens of them while simultaneously trying to explore a new country.
I know some of my fellow travellers really don’t suffer from any fear, doubts, or sense of uncertainty – and my hat comes off to you – but I think it’s extremely important to not cast others in an unattainable light. Too often, it feels like travel bloggers are bestowed with an entirely ‘different’ ability to travel: the idea that ‘they must be different from me, because I feel scared and small and alone when I think about travelling, and I probably won’t ever do those amazing-looking things because I’m sure I’d fall at the first hurdle’.
The truth is that travelling can definitely be scary. Regardless of how much you do it.
What you have to learn is how to embrace that fear and travel anyway, regardless of all those things you’re scared of. Because, just like with anything in life, you eventually pick yourself up, learn a little lesson or two and continue on your way.
This is what I’ve learnt about dealing those travelling fears.
1. I’m scared I won’t meet people or make friends
At heart, I’m an introvert. I love being by myself (which is clearly a useful aspect of travelling solo!) but the prospect of never having people around brings me out in a cold sweat.
There are times when I’ve sat in a black mood, having not spoken to anyone in a friendly manner for a good few days, and questioned what on earth I’m doing. It doesn’t help that the group of cool kids in the hostel common room have formed an impenetrable clique and are clearly having the time of their lives together, either.People always say, ‘it’s easy to make friends when you travel!’ but there are still barriers you might face. Maybe you don’t feel cool enough, maybe you simply don’t click with anyone around you. That’s fine.
It’s all about choice.
Staying in hostels is one way to meet people – chatting in the kitchen or in your dorm room – but for others, it’s signing up for a language exchange, or unashamedly striking up conversation with taxi drivers and market stall owners.
My secret weapon is to get involved in volunteer projects in most of the countries I visit. Apart from being able to learn tons more about that place and its culture, it also gives me a legitimate and dedicated reason to be there, and usually means a guaranteed group of new people to talk to.
And there’s quite a few unexpected perks as a result.
2. I’m scared about getting myself in dangerous situations
Stories of mugging, rapes, losing your passport or running out of money – hell, even working out how to look out for your luggage when you go to the bathroom! There’s no doubt that travelling by yourself brings a slew of possible dangers with it.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed a lot of fears and worries that I didn’t have as a teenager. I’m more alert to dangerous situations and often think I’m going to fall down the stairs. I inwardly panic on rocky bus rides and have to repeat little calming mantras to myself whenever there’s airplane turbulence.
But for some reason, I also willingly throw myself out of a plane from time to time. I trek for three days in the Peruvian mountains, coping with horse-broken collarbones as a result, and I sign up for a month of walking in Spain (which I don’t think my feet are ever going to forgive me for). What’s that about?
Simple. I’ve learnt to trust my gut.
It reads most situations better than my head does. That taxi driver who smiles a bit too eagerly; that shady hostel at the end of a too-dark street; that plate of delicious-looking fresh fruit with a few too many flies buzzing around it; trust yourself, and trust that you’re making the right decision.
Danger is relative, too. I’d never trust myself with a machete in normal life, but being abroad makes you more daring and have more faith in your own abilities to learn and be receptive to new ideas.
And as for your health? Although it’s a terrifying prospect, getting sick when travelling literally makes you stronger. Not to mention the stories about horrific foreign bathrooms are always hilarious and make for ideal hostel banter.
3. I’m scared of missing out
Arriving in a new destination with little more than a guidebook usually makes you desperate to tick off the ‘right’ things. Except you often don’t know what those are – and it can be stressful.
Give yourself a break! It’s impressive enough that you chose to travel at all. Nobody’s going to judge you for not hitting every single tourist attraction (and if they do, tell them to shut up).
Besides, some of my most memorable travel moments have been completely unplanned: whether it’s an impromptu street festival in Bolivia, wandering a fruit market in Southern India or a night spent in a giant hammock above the Colombian jungle.
Missing home and the people you’ve left behind is a constant worry, too. There’s a deep seated fear that eventually my London-based friends will forget about me, or I’ll simply stop being important to them because I’m never around to make an impact.
At times, it’s proved too much and I’ve flown to London to be reunited with my loved ones. But for the most part, the real friendships I’m blessed with are strong enough to withstand a bit of distance. Never underestimate the value of Skype, Facebook and WhatsApp, either!
4. I’m scared I won’t know what to do once I get there
You never really know what’s waiting for you outside those sliding airport doors. For some, the tangibility of that unknown world is exhilarating and wonderful; for others, it’s simply overwhelming.
They feel vulnerable, scared and suddenly rather small.
So if you find yourself roaming without direction in a foreign place, give yourself a purpose.
For me, it’s this website. Writing and photographing everything around me for the last three years, knowing I’ll channel it into articles for people to read who I’ve never met: that’s given me a huge push to go and explore, even on those days when I haven’t felt inspired to get out of bed, much less to actively traverse a country on my own.
Find a passion to pursue, regardless of where you are. It puts a fresh spin on every activity and colours your experiences – and allows you to indulge in the pastimes you might have ignored in your normal life. If you love dancing, take a local class. Sit on a park bench and do some sketching, even if you haven’t drawn in years. Wander through a food market and ask the local vendors how to cook a traditional dish.
Do something that makes you happy, and let that dictate the way you travel, instead of just relying on the guidebook.
5. I’m scared of feeling lonely & being alone
The scale of what it means to travel solo is pretty wide. You can be travelling alone as part of a tour group or in a spontaneous collection of other hostel-frequenters you’ve picked up along the way. I’m not judging the method, or the terminology – but there’s a huge difference between travelling ‘solo’ (i.e. hanging out with a ton of people who quickly become your friends), and actively being alone.
Taking transport alone, touring a strange place alone, eating alone, sleeping alone: one after another, these all take their toll in a way that barely registers if you have the simple addition of human companionship.
It happened to me in Cuba.
Hours after my conversation with the French girl in Havana, I’d arrived by myself in the tiny town of Viñales to a cacophony of shouting women, eagerly flapping name cards and laminated photos of their houses. I’d located Elsa, the owner of my night’s accommodation, and as we walked to her house, I asked her how many other guests she had staying with her that night.
“Nobody! Just me and my husband are here,” she said, beaming happily.
I ate my dinner alone: seven different plates of food laid out in front of me and a Kindle for companionship. Breakfast was the same.
Within hours I’d realised a cold, hard truth. I was totally alone in Cuba – and I didn’t feel strong and supported by my own company like I’d hoped. Instead, I just felt small, tired, and lonely.
But then I went walking through the countryside around Viñales, my hair a frizzy mess, my face smeared with sweat and suncream. I encountered more cows and mud puddles than people, took photos, wrote notes about my trip, chattered away to myself, and realised I was really enjoying my day. Alone, and happy about it!
I met a man in Colombia who was writing a book on loneliness versus being alone, particularly when traveling. “They’re just so different,” he said. “And the problem we often have is inadvertently mistaking one for the other. ‘I’m alone,’ we think, a few hours or days into being by ourselves, ‘and I feel so damn lonely.’
But actually, being truly alone is sometimes exactly what you need. It’s the place where you get to know yourself the most, learning who you are and what makes you intrinsically, wonderfully, uniquely you.
Learning to love yourself without the need for anyone else’s validation – and making that discovery? That’s a truly valuable thing.
The lessons you’ll learn from being scared to travel – and doing it anyway
Since I began travelling by myself, there have been times when I’ve felt sadder, smaller and more alone than at most other points in my life. But those moments are completely eclipsed by the times when I feel an incredible sense of pride at learning how to cope with the world on my own.
It could be the smallest thing, like successfully navigating a city’s bus system using only my wits and the kind words of strangers; or the most useful thing, like slowly picking up a new language; or the most rewarding thing, like making a long-lasting friendship cemented by an adrenaline-fuelled travelling lifestyle.
But the biggest payout? I know myself, implicitly, explicitly and everything in between. I can’t repeat it enough: I KNOW MYSELF – and I like the person I am.
I’ve learned not to feel guilty for indulging in the things I want – spending a long afternoon in a cafe with a book, even though a local tourist attraction was just a ten minute walk away; paying for the more expensive room or transport option, even though the ‘traveller’ thing is to slum it and earn cool points by doing so.
I’ve been my sole source of companionship at breathtaking sunsets and during unbearably sweaty bus rides with men refusing to stop staring. My inner monologue and my frantic diary scribbles has been my only means of entertainment for hours and days and weeks on end.
And amazingly enough, I haven’t driven myself crazy. On the flip side: I’ve come out of it stronger, happier, and more comfortable in my own skin.
In summary, then…
So yes: I may look a bit like a fearless explorer on the outside, but inside I’m still worried that I won’t make friends, that I’ll get myself hopelessly lost, and that I’ll end up regretting my decisions.
What’s different about me is that I have a huge amount of memories that tell me otherwise – and they’ve all come from travelling.
I’ve met people in hostels, on beaches and in bars all around the world who’ve become some of my closest friends. I’ve learnt that getting lost without a map invariably means being led home by a succession of helpful locals. And I’ve never once regretted a decision I’ve made when travelling, even though I’ve cried and despaired about what I’m doing at the time.
I haven’t been writing as Flora The Explorer for the last three years to promote the image of being constantly happy, positive and strong (although luckily I do often feel all of those emotions about myself).
Is travelling alone difficult? Yes. Can it be problematic, and worrying, and exhausting? Absolutely. But it’s still worth it. Hell – it’s exactly because of all those things that you should absolutely still do it.
So I get scared sometimes. So bloody what? It makes life a lot more exciting when you battle through it, and come out stronger on the other side.
Now it’s over to you guys! What do you get scared about when you travel? Do you have any tips to make things easier?
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