Monday, 16 November 2015

Some Notes on Travelling Alone

I'm not an expert on solo travel in any way. This is my first attempt at it, and New Zealand is a safe and easy country to travel in. I haven't experienced culture shock or had to deal with any minor disasters. But after two months on the road by myself, I have given it some thought. Truth is that I found the first week really hard. This was partly because I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, and my entire support system was on the other side of the world (shout-out to my mum who endured a couple of long-distance crying sessions via skype!). And partly it just took me a while to get used to, to find my footing, and figure out how I wanted to do things (and that took a lot more than a week). Which also meant that I thought quite a lot about what it means for me to travel solo, what challenges and rewards it brings, and why I'm doing it at all. So here are some very fragmented, personal and slightly random notes on travelling alone (here is a drinking game for you if you want to get really drunk: take a shot every time I use a variation of the phrase "travel alone").

Just because you're travelling alone doesn't mean you're always alone. In fact, if you're staying in hostels you are almost never alone (which can be slightly exhausting for an introvert). At least in New Zealand there are a lot of other people travelling alone, who are also happy to meet new people. This means that you will basically always have someone to talk to, and to do different activities with if you so wish. Our perspective of what is normal is quite funny. When staying in hostels I meet so many other people who are also travelling alone, in all stages of life. It seems like a completely ordinary thing to do. In the way that a lot of other people are doing it, it is. But fact is that I know very few people from back home who does, and especially not without having someone to visit in the country or for some specific purpose.

One of the big advantages of travelling alone, and one that I think everybody understands, is the freedom of it. You don't have to consider what other people want to do, and you can choose everything completely by yourself. The only problem with this is that you have to decide what you want, which can sometimes be hard for a person who can easily spend 10 minutes in the supermarket trying to decide what kind of cereal to get. I'm getting better at deciding what I want, though I did still spend 10 minutes in the supermarket trying to decide what kind of muesli bars to get the other day.

Sometimes it gets lonely, which I think is also something that everybody understands. Not exactly because you're alone - as I said, it's easy to find somebody to spend time with. But because nobody who really knows you are there, and you keep having the same conversation with people you meet (where do you come from? Where have you been? How long are you travelling?), and it feels like I have barely scraped the surface when I long to get deeper.

Which has a couple of times led me to have very intimate conversations with people I've only known for a couple of hours. Because this loneliness goes hand in hand with a special kind of freedom, that I think you only have when you travel alone. This freedom doesn't come from being able to decide exactly how to spend your time, but comes from being a place where nobody knows you, and as you're not staying long you don't have to make a certain kind of impression on the other person. This means that, if you choose to, you can be completely open and honest, with basically no fear of repercussions.

Although I expected the freedom and the loneliness, there are a couple of things I didn't expect. One is that sometimes when you go to a place for the first time by yourself, you experience it in a different way. When you travel with other people, it is as much about the experiences you share as the places you go. This is exactly how you should be - it is an amazing feeling to share the experience of a new place with somebody you love or somebody you are getting to know. But when you go somewhere alone, it's so much more about just the place itself. (I say sometimes, because this experience requires you to get out of your head for a bit, which isn't always easy).

When you only have yourself to rely on, you usually prove to be enough. As I said, New Zealand is a very easy country to travel in, but this is the first time I have been solely responsible for everything, like accommodation and transport, my travel route, to figure out where I have to be and how to get places, what's worth seeing, economy etc. And one of the reasons I wanted to do this alone was exactly because I wanted to know that I would be able to.

You learn to talk to anyone and everyone. This, to me, is pretty incredible, because there was a time in my life when talking to any stranger at all would terrify me, and now I have conversations with new people every single day. I have a tendency to downplay my own achievements, because it feels like I could have done so much more and because it feels like there are so many people who are my age or younger who already have achieved so much. But when I look at the person I was ten years ago, as a timid and self-conscious 12-year old, I realize how far I have actually come. And that is an achievement.

In case you hadn't noticed, it's easy to get quite introsepctive when travelling alone. Which I have a tendency to be anyway, but it is a bit inevitable when you spend so much time by yourself. When you're at home it can be easy to distract yourself with daily tasks and duties or whatever crappy TV show is on that day. But when you only have yourself to handle problems or to make decisions there's no escaping. (At least that's what it's like for me - I guess you could easily distract yourself by focusing on seeing and experiencing new things at all times.)

People travel in a lot of different ways, and that's okay. I am not a very fast person, in any way. I would rather take my time and go less places, so that I can experience things slowly, because I know that is what's best for me. Other people would rather see as many places as possible and experience as many new things as possible in the short time that they have, and that is what's best for them. One of the most valuable things I have learnt from this trip, at least so far, is what is important to me, and what I value. I am learning that my journey doesn't have to fit into anybody else's ideal, and that it is okay to do things my own way.

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