When people hear that I travel alone so much, they often say “I could never do that.” I sometimes wonder if they think I came out of the womb ready to toddle off on my own to parts unknown. Not at all! When it comes to solo travel, in fact, I was a bit of a late bloomer.
Growing up, I was very shy and introverted. When I traveled, I stayed close to people I knew. My first semi-solo trip came at 18, when my uncle bought me a plane ticket to come visit him out in Tucson, Arizona for a month. I was so excited! An adventure! But. . . I was so timid, I didn’t have the guts to hop a bus and explore Tucson on my own when he was at work during the day, so I pretty much sat around the condo watching soaps, playing with his cat, and going out to swim in the pool. The only times I saw Tucson and the surrounding desert was when he was off work and could take me places.
I could kick myself thinking about that experience now. What a waste! What was I so afraid of? Getting lost? So what–you get lost, you ask someone for directions. Was I afraid someone would accost me, single young female that I was? Maybe. I grew up in a very small, rural town and all I knew of large cities was what I saw on TV. Today, cities are my favorite places to explore, and I love taking public transportation! How did I go from country mouse to city mouse?
My first real dip into the solo travel pool came in my late twenties when I went to England. I took a three-week summer class through the University of Vermont called Shakespeare on the Page and Stage. It was everything an English major/Anglophile could possibly hope for! We would attend class each weekday morning, performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company at night, and have afternoons and weekends to explore London. I knew no one in that class when I signed up for it. But it seemed to me a safe way to travel solo.
It was perfect for me at that time. Sometimes, I hung out with my new friends in the class, and sometimes I explored the city on my own. I got used to taking the Tube and buses and just walking all over the city. Sure, I got lost sometimes, but it was never a big deal. I would just backtrack or ask someone for directions. I began to realize the things I’d once feared were no big deal.
After that I built up my courage to go other places alone. Each trip worked wonders on my personal growth and self-confidence. I found I was much more capable than I’d ever suspected. But although I was perfectly comfortable traveling alone, the prejudice remained in the back of my mind that solo travel was a “last resort” for those of us who didn’t have anyone to travel with. It was just a temporary stopgap measure until Mr. Right came along, at which point I would have a built-in travel companion. Imagine how excited I was when I finally started dating a man who told me he enjoyed traveling. (Prior to that, I had not met many date-worthy Vermonters who did.)
I quickly discovered that my new boyfriend wasn’t exactly the ideal travel partner I had always dreamed of. When we traveled, it was almost always for business. We spent all day every day in meetings and seminars, leaving us with little to no time to tour an area. Everywhere we went, he was constantly in sales mode–and flirting with other women whenever my back was turned. And that wasn’t all. He was the strangest person to share a room with I’ve ever encountered.
First off, sleep was nearly impossible to achieve, because he insisted on listening to motivational CDs while falling asleep at night (out loud, not on an mp3 player). They made him fall asleep. Me, they kept awake until his snoring started, which also kept me awake. Second, he insisted on eating breakfast in the room every day. I’m cool with that concept, but usually “breakfast” is something like bagels, donuts, or a cereal bar. Not Mr. Health Nut. He insisted on bringing everything one needs to cook omelets in a hotel room–hotplate, frying pan, spatula, collapsible cooler to store eggs, cheese and veggies. Which meant he also packed like a girl. No, wait, I can’t say that. That’s an insult to girls. Let’s just say he made me look like a backpacker.
There were never enough towels in the bathroom, because he would use them to stuff under the crack in the door to prevent any light leaking in from the hallway (he couldn’t sleep if there was any light in the room, and obviously hadn’t heard of a sleep mask). To avoid being caught with the contraband hotplate, he never allowed housekeeping into the room, so we didn’t get to replenish those towels he threw on the floor or have the overflowing trash emptied. The room tended to get pretty ripe.
After traveling with him a few times, I began to dread our trips together. Was this what travel was going to be like from now on? Because he was sucking the joy out of it for me.
Fortunately, that relationship finally came to an end. When I began to travel solo again, I appreciated it in a way I hadn’t before. It’s amazing how little things now make me happy, like being able to sleep in peace and quiet, or how long my room towels will last when they’re not being thrown on the floor, or eating breakfast in a restaurant. If someone’s boyfriend is flirting with other women in the lobby of the hotel, I don’t have to worry any more that it’s mine.
I no longer see solo travel as a second-class experience. It’s an act of self-love, a gift we give ourselves. I still hope someday to find a man whose core values and travel style match mine more closely than that disaster–but I also hope he understands when I suggest we take separate vacations once in awhile. Now that I know the value of solo travel, I don’t ever want to give it up completely.