Only One? The Wandering Hart story of travelling solo
By Leanne Hart
Every time it happened, I got a smirk on my face. They looked at me with pitying eyes when they realised I was on my own and asked: “Only one?”. And then it started. “You are alone?......”no friend?”......“no children?”. I could almost predict how the conversation would go. But once they realised I was smiling, the response quickly changed to: “But you have freedom!”
It might not be right for everyone, but it was right for me - a solo journey, that is.
For anyone who is contemplating or just plain curious about travelling solo, I share with you some of my own personal experiences and thoughts after eight months of journeying - seven of those on my own.
Looking back now, when I first told my family, friends and workmates about my intention to embark on a solo journey, without a plan, it probably did seem a bit bold. Giving up a good job, selling my car and leaving everything familiar with no fixed address and no fixed return date, is not something people usually do on a whim.
I had already travelled a lot over the years, but my solo experience had been limited to business trips. This would be my first real solo journey and I could not have been more excited.
These simple words became the foundation of an ever-changing journey that will forever be a special time in my life.
"Alice came to a fork in the road. 'Which road do I take?' she asked.
'Where do you want to go?' responded the Cheshire Cat.
'I don't know', Alice answered.
'Then', said the Cat, 'it doesn't matter".
- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
It was always about the journey.
The destinations and sights may have been wonderful, but travelling solo has proven to be so much more about the journey. As the months went by, I got to know myself on a deeper level than I could ever have imagined. From the great, memorable, special, unforgettable, moments to miserable, lonely, ‘bent over the toilet bowl’ moments, it has been about being able to embrace whatever life chose to throw my way.
But it is not for everyone and each person’s experience depends on what sort of traveller they are and the destinations they choose to visit. Some places are definitely more challenging and require a whole new level of patience, understanding and tolerance than others.
I’m a lot like the guy who quoted this and I think it is why the experience was been so rewarding for me.
“Personally I like going places where I don't speak the language, don't know anybody, don't know my way around and don't have any delusions that I'm in control. Disoriented, even frightened, I feel alive, awake in ways I never am at home.”
There are many stories and anecdotes that I could share, but to sum up my experience of solo travel, here are some of the questions I’ve been asked along the way.
Q: “You are so brave - it’s a big risk isn't it?”
A: For me, the biggest risk was not doing it at all and regretting it forever.
The worst thing that could happen was that I tried it, didn’t like it and went back home. In reality, that was never going to happen. I always knew that I would love it.
Q: What was your biggest doubt before leaving?
A: Quite simply, it was “could I go out to dinner and sit by myself without feeling like a loser”.
After a practice run or two before leaving home and lots of practice on the trip, I became quite good at it. It comes down to choosing a place that has good ambience, with a mixture of people. Restaurants full of couples can be a bit uncomfortable. It feels good to have the confidence to enjoy a good meal and glass of wine, writing or reading and not feeling like everyone is staring (they are not usually).
For me, it became a bit of a game when people watching, whether it be solo travellers, couples or groups and trying to guess their country of origin, their relationship status, whether they have travelled much before, what they did for a living, where they are going etc. The very best part is when you end up talking to some of those people and discover that ‘your story’ about them is so totally different from reality. I met some truly fascinating people and loved getting to know more about them.
Q: Has it been scary or weird travelling by yourself?
A: For me personally - no, never. It has been nothing short of empowering, exciting, rewarding and enriching.
But there’s no denying - people do look at you and wonder why you are by yourself. You can almost see them trying to work out your ‘story’. Not everyone ‘gets’ the solo thing and it is a mystery to many why a female would choose to travel alone. Some people can relate, but on the whole, most cannot imagine not having company.
Q: What has been the worst thing that has happened to you?
A: I was really disappointed to be detained at London Heathrow airport and stunned after being hit by a car at a pedestrian crossing in France - minor stuff.
When I think back on all the day-to-day hardship I have seen people enduring across the world, both incidents pale into insignificance.
Q: What do you like about travelling solo?
A: Apart from some of the wonderful people I met, I enjoyed having ‘me’ time - knowing I could make whatever plans I wanted for the day, get up as early or late as I felt, stop to take photos for as long as I wanted - basically having no commitments to a time or place and being able to change my plans on a whim.
In most countries, doing it solo enhanced the experience and made it a richer journey than I could have imagined. Locals adopted me and looked out for me, I was given special treatment at times, they made sure I got to places safely and took a special interest in what I was doing.
But it also requires mutual respect - respect people and they will also treat you back the same way. Showing an interest in their culture, being patient, understanding and using as much local language as you can with greetings goes a long way.
Q: What has been the worst part of being a solo traveller?
A: It often costs more to get a single room than if you are sharing and if you want to do an activity or excursion that requires a minimum of two, it becomes a choice of paying a lot more, or missing out altogether unless you can find some other people to join you.
Sometimes, but not all the time, it would have been nicer to be able to share the experience with someone who you could laugh and reminisce about with later. Having dinner by yourself eventually gets boring.
Q: What is the most important thing you have gotten from the journey?
A: There are three things:
1. Rediscovering the art of slowing down, living in the moment and appreciating the little everyday things around me. Most of the time, beauty lies in the simplest things.
2. Being able to sit and just observe, without feeling like every minute has to be filled. Doing one thing at a time (not ten) and remembering it is OK to just watch people or listen to music. Having said that, I did do a lot of active stuff as well - getting the balance right was important.
3. Appreciating what an incredibly diverse world we live in, but realising that my own home country is still the most special place in the world to me.
Q: What was the biggest challenge?
A: There were two:
- Taking my own photo when there was no-one else around. There is just not an easy way to get a flattering photo with one arm stretched out in front!
2. Using a squat toilet, when you have all your luggage with you, was particularly interesting.
Q: Did you ever feel unsafe?
A: Safety is often a concern for solo travellers but in my experience, the risk was no higher solo than with someone else. You need to stay alert, there’s no doubt about that, but you will not automatically become a target, just because you are by yourself.
It certainly helped to stay street savvy and have confidence when walking - particularly at night. It’s about not taking unnecessary risks and applying the same rules as you would anywhere. I have been fortunate enough never to feel unsafe or threatened.
Q: Did you get lonely?
A: Of course - sometimes. But not most of the time. Alone doesn’t have to mean lonely - it all depends how you approach it.
It is easy to meet people along the way, but they will come and go and sometimes it was just me (often by choice). If you are a person who needs constant company, you may not enjoy a solo experience as much.
Q: Did you meet many other solo travellers?
A: Quite a few - it varied from country to country but it is not as uncommon as most people would think. From my general observations in South-East Asia, there seemed to be more solo female travellers than males and it was not limited to a particular age group. I came across 20-something students, through to women in their 50s and 60s. The one thing they all had in common was a zest for life and a desire to experience it through travel.
The best place to meet other solo travellers is in hostels where there are lots of kindred spirits, all doing a similar thing.
Q: If you had your time over, would you still do it?
A: In a heartbeat.
Wandering Hart's Five Travel Principles:
This trip needed a different mindset and I started with some general principles about how I wanted to approach the experience. I wavered a few times and became cynical or doubted people’s motives, but it didn’t take long to realise that these principles were right for me.
1. People are basically good.
Trust them and they will be the most memorable part of your journey. Sometimes the people you least expect are the ones that show the most kindness. Not everyone is out to rip you off. If you give off positive energy, you will get it back tenfold.
2. Downtime is important.
The downtime is just as important as seeing the sights and becomes key to enjoying a place and truly experiencing it. Sometimes sitting in a cafe and watching life go by provides more insight into a place than any tourist attraction ever will.
3. Don’t have a plan.
If you don’t have a rigid plan, it never feels like you have to change or compromise. The things you see, the experiences you have and the people you meet, may end up influencing the road you take along the way. It is OK to change your mind, attitude and path because there is no plan.
4. Trust your instincts.
Your initial judgement on a situation is usually the right one. The more you travel solo the more you realise how much you rely on it.
5. Opportunities are best not missed.
If something unique presents itself, remember that a second chance may never come along. So take that photo, talk to those local strangers and do the things you never thought you’d do.
“To move, to breathe, to fly, to float, to gain all while you give.
To roam the roads of lands remote, to travel is to live.”
― Hans Christian Andersen, The Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography