Don’t you just hate being afraid of things? Fear can be so limiting. Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn how to be completely fearless?
Er, not so fast. Yes, fear is our foe when it paralyzes us and keeps us from doing things we want to do. But fear can also be a solo traveler’s best friend.
You’ve heard that expression “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” right? There might just be something to that when it comes to fear and solo travel.
Fear Helps Us Grow
You know how self-help gurus often challenge you to “do something that scares you every day”? Facing one’s fears every day sounds exhausting to me, so I wouldn’t go that far, but the theory in general is sound. Stepping outside our comfort zone is scary. But every time we face down one of our fears and act anyway, we grow a little bit more. And without fear, there would be no opportunity for courage.
What is it about solo travel that scares you? Is it the idea of navigating a strange place all alone? Is it the difficulty of communicating in a country where you don’t speak the language? Is it talking to strangers? Is it eating alone in restaurants?
Whatever it is about solo travel that you fear, find others who have done that thing and learn all you can from them, then do it yourself. There is no more triumphant feeling in the world than overcoming your own fears.
I’ve always looked at people like they’re crazy when they tell me how “brave” I am for traveling alone. I don’t think of myself as brave, nor do I think you need to be brave to travel alone–if you stick to what’s comfortable. But in some cases, they may be right. Traveling alone in the U.S. is easy for me, but every time I travel to a country where I don’t speak the language, my stomach starts to feel like a fish flopping around on the beach.
I have this fear (rational or irrational, it doesn’t matter) that I might not be able to communicate my needs once I get there, and my overactive imagination starts to run through all the resulting bad scenarios, like not being able to convey if I’m sick, or getting hopelessly lost. . .or starving to death because I can’t order anything edible in a restaurant. (Okay, maybe my imagination is a little melodramatic.)
Of course, none of those things have ever come true. But I had to face my fears to find that out, didn’t I? Did I say “Oh well, I can never travel to France, because I don’t speak French”? No!
But because of my fear of not being able to communicate in a foreign country, I always make sure I learn a couple dozen essential phrases in the native language whenever I travel overseas. I quickly learned that’s all you really need. And the locals really appreciate the effort.
I cannot tell you the pride I still feel over being able to order food in French in Paris and in Spanish in Madrid and Barcelona. Or how pleased I was to be able to help two Americans who didn’t speak a word of Spanish get on the correct train and find their seats, because I could speak just enough Spanish to ask the right questions of the station attendant. They acted as though I saved them from a burning building. Talk about a confidence-booster!
Fear keeps us safe
On the surface, you might take that to mean that fear keeps us at home, on our couches, in our living rooms, safe from the “big scary world out there”. I don’t mean that at all. I’m not talking about the paralyzing fear I referenced above that prevents us from acting. That kind of fear is our foe, remember?
No, I mean that a healthy amount of fear gives us a healthy amount of caution—it’s that “spidey sense” in our lizard brains that alerts us to danger. It’s how much more acute our hearing is when we’re walking down a dark street at night, listening for the footsteps of somebody walking too fast toward us. It’s the way we notice other people around us, if they’re standing too close or seem to be paying too much attention to our bags.
There’s this saying “There’s safety in numbers”. While that is sometimes true, I think sometimes, being with a group just gives us a false sense of security. I’ve heard more than one person express shock that they were pickpocketed when they were traveling with friends. They swear they never noticed anyone near them.
Well, of course they didn’t, they were probably too busy talking to their friends and not paying attention to what was going on around them. But when you travel alone, you notice what’s going on around you. You notice when someone is standing in your personal space. You have to. There’s no one else to watch your back.
My first day in Madrid, I was walking around Puerta del Sol with my backpack on my back while waiting for my room to be ready. It was very crowded with people, which naturally makes me wary of thieves. My spidey sense started tingling. I glanced over my shoulder a couple of times and saw a woman walking a little too close behind me. I got a bad vibe off her.
So I stopped and turned to look at her. She stopped and turned away from me at the same time and pretended to be digging around in her purse for something. I walked past her, in the direction we’d just come from. She didn’t follow me (because that would have been too obvious, right?), but when I did finally get into my room at the hotel, I found a slash mark on my backpack that hadn’t been there before. I know she did it, and I know I stopped her in the act, just by being a little paranoid in a crowd.
So we can think of fear as our enemy, but I prefer to think of it as a “frenemy” who always keeps me on my toes and pushes me to grow.
What do you think? Have you learned to embrace fear as a solo traveler?