Location: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Music: The Police – So Lonely
I vividly remember my first ‘solo’ traveling experience. It occurred on a family trip to Las Vegas in the summer after I graduated high school. I was still 17, so too young to gamble and really venture off on my own, and our family-centered itinerary didn’t really allow for it, either; however, on one rare night I got the opportunity to sneak away alone. I didn’t get far — I just marveled at the volcano show at our hotel, the Mirage — but the experience changed me. I loved being able to stand there and gaze at it for however long I wanted. I enjoyed the freedom and the anonymity afforded among a crowd of strangers. For once I relaxed, soaked in the present moment, and sliced off a little piece of our family vacation to keep all for myself.
Fast forward to ten years later, and I would once again be faced with a similar opportunity. With the desire to travel the world but nobody with the means or the free time, it would force me to tackle the journey solo, and that meant the whole journey. From planning an itinerary, packing, money management, sickness, and a myriad of other travel obstacles, at the moment I stood alone in the airport terminal, it would all have to be faced head-on by me. I stood confident at the prospect. Now, with six months of backpacking, both solo and in a group, under my belt, I can adequately reflect on the pros and cons of both.
Traveling solo is a daunting prospect for most. I often get asked how I can do it, and responses of, “I could never do that,” are quite common. Trust me, you can. Stepping off the plane in Copenhagen on the first day of my trip, I have to admit, I was petrified. Suddenly the liberation from everything familiar was overwhelming, and just the short, easy train trip into the city center was raked by anxiety and near panic attacks. What am I doing with my life was a theme that popped up frequently on that first day, and even into the second as I experienced a crippling hangover trying to silence that voice in my head. The worst part was that I had nobody to voice my concerns to.
So, yes, the worst part about traveling alone is the long periods of silence and creeping loneliness that wax and wane like the tides. The loneliness is easily assuaged by staying in hostels, one of the best things to happen to traveling since Google translate. Hostels are similar to college dorms except that it’s more common to have to share your room with three through nine other smelly, snoring travelers versus just one. They range from famous, clean, near-hotel status to cockroach, dirty, bloody-sheet dumps. Fantastic websites like HostelWorld make weeding out the good ones a much easier process than the trial and error of past. Traveler reviews also help you make educated decisions so you don’t end up in a party hostel (yes, they exist) when all you wanted was some peace and quiet.
However, for an introvert like myself, the freedom of solo travel is intoxicating. If there is somewhere I want to go or something I want to see, all I have to do is make the decision and it is final. There are no arguments, compromises, or miserable acceptance. I am free to explore, or, if I am tired and need to recharge, free to stick around the hostel all day napping and getting my fill of Family Guy reruns. Dinners alone turn into the perfect time for introspection, and amazing scenery can be enjoyed without interruption. But bad can’t exist without good, and I’ve suffered through the amazing because, again, I lacked anyone to share it with.
The isolation of a solo traveler will always spawn a desire for company at some point, and I’ve done an equal amount of time traveling with a group. Usually composed of a few different cultures and ages, group travel can be a great way to learn more about the world and its beautiful diversity. Especially when the beers start flowing and the group dynamic loosens up, a range of topics is usually discussed once the basics are covered. The five basic questions that permit admittance to any group are:
1) Where are you from?
2) What do you do at home?
3) Where have you been?
4) Where are you going?
5) How long have you been traveling?
After these are answered, getting to know a fellow vagabond is one of my favorite aspects of travel. Everyone has something to offer, and I’ve met some people with incredible stories. Meeting the right traveler or local always seems to put things in perspective and offer invaluable insight into one’s own life. Sharing a good meal, interesting conversation, and unique experiences with a group of like-minded travelers helps to increase the fun and cement memories. All the sharing can also breed contempt, however, as different personalities clash, new bonds form and others are neglected, and only some interests are pursued when creating the group’s schedule. Also, I have found that the bigger the group while traveling, the more shut off they become from having authentic interactions with the locals, which is the most fulfilling part of travel for me.
In summation, there’s really no right or wrong way to travel. Extroverts may be more comfortable traveling in a group, while introverts will need some time alone to recharge so they don’t implode. Whatever you choose, before setting off it is wise to have a test run with your potential traveling partner. All too often I meet two or more miserable people who can’t stand the person or people they’re stuck with — that is, until the beers start flowing again.
“No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection.”
— Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fears