Traveling Solo to Somber Places

by Gray Cargill on June 17, 2011

Traveling isn’t always about beaches and ziplining, shopping or partying in bars in different countries. Often, the most important sites to visit when we travel are historical sites – and these can be somber, even tragic places. Today, guest blogger Amanda Williams discusses why she prefers to visit places like that without a travel companion.

USS Arizona Memorial

USS Arizona Memorial

I’m ambivalent when it comes to the topic of solo travel. I know the pros; I know the cons. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other whether I travel alone or with others.

With solo travel comes the freedom to do what you want, when you want. But it also comes with moments of self-doubt and even loneliness. Traveling solo can be great for those on a journey of self-discovery, but traveling with one or two others can often be just as eye-opening. Plus, with a travel buddy or two, you always have someone to chat with, get lost with, and share those travel memories with.

But, having said this, there are still certain times and situations when I’d just rather be on my own. I was reminded of this during a recent trip to Hawaii. I went to visit a friend living in Honolulu, but had plenty of alone time in which to explore the island of Oahu while my friend was working or in class.

I decided to tackle a variety of activities on my own – snorkeling at Hanauma Bay, visiting Pearl Harbor, exploring the North Shore, and hiking to the Punchbowl. While it would have been more fun to visit beaches, swim and snorkel with a buddy (not to mention safer when it came to the swimming and snorkeling), I found that I much preferred to be alone for the rest of it.

Pearl Harbor and the Punchbowl – site of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific – are sites popular with tourists. They are also somber, beautiful sites that pay respect to soldiers who lost their lives during war. I’ll admit that I turn into an emotional mess when visiting sad, somber places like these. Even though I don’t personally know anyone who has died in battle, I still feel strongly connected to the stories of those soldiers and sailors who never made it home – or those who only made it home in flag-draped caskets.

USS Arizona Memorial

USS Arizona Memorial

In fact, places like these – war cemeteries and memorials built to help us remember – often make me so emotional that I have a hard time keeping the tears at bay. And, sometimes, I don’t want to share those sorts of emotions with anybody else.

As I made my way alone out to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, still slightly teary-eyed from the 23-minute video about the 1941 attacks on the harbor I’d just watched at the Visitor Center, I didn’t once wish I had a hand to hold, or a shoulder to cry on. It actually felt somewhat empowering to be left to deal with such strong emotions on my own.

National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific

National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific

As I stood in the Memorial and watched the oil bubble up from the fallen Arizona battleship – where more than 1,700 men still lie in watery graves – it was good to be able to spend some time alone with my thoughts. I don’t think I would have been able to truly appreciate the gravity of the site if I hadn’t been traveling solo.

Visiting Pearl Harbor – and then the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific a few days later – was a very moving experience for me; an experience that I’m glad I was able to have on my own. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else judging me for my emotions, expecting me to react to theirs, or rushing me through the experience.

In this instance, I was really glad I was alone.

When it comes to travel, there are some times when I’d prefer to travel with others. But, at other times, it’s nice to share the experiences – and any emotions associated with them – with just me, myself and I.

Amanda is just a small-town Ohio girl trying to balance a “normal” life of job, friends and family with an unquenchable lust for travel. She’s always looking for that next chance to get swept away in an adventure, be it around the globe or around the corner. Follow her journey on her blog, A Dangerous Business, on Twitter (@DangerousBiz), or on Facebook.

Amanda June 23, 2011 at 7:59 pm

I think it’s probably a bit of both – respect and astonishment. Respect for the lives that were lost, and astonishment that so many could die in one place or for one cause.

Jimshu June 23, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Glad you get that feeling when you’re on your own Amanda. It’s good.
I’ve had some real weird experiences when on my own in places where death has occurred, – yeah written up some of them, but sometimes the spirits may reveal themselves….and then that nervously giggling group of young travellers breaks the entrancement.
Get away on your own.

Eurotrip Tips June 23, 2011 at 4:56 am

Visiting these somber places often shuts us down, due to their powerful message and memories. Like no word should be said. And most of the time, even if you are traveling in a group, when you visit tragic places you often end up on your own in your mind.

I remember visiting Auschwitz with my fiancé and even though we were together the whole time, we didn’t talk at all. It just didn’t feel right to chat – we just took in the grandeur of the events, the photos, the ruins. Without a word. I’m just not sure if it was out of respect or simple astonishment.

Amanda June 22, 2011 at 12:45 pm

The attitude in Hawaii reminds me a lot of the attitude in New Zealand — very laid-back, relaxed, and fairly welcoming. Which really helps encourage going out and doing things on your own. When you don’t feel pressured or awkward being alone in a place, it’s a much more enjoyable experience. Even if that place ends up being a somber one.

GRRRL TRAVELER June 21, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Nice post. Glad you got to make the most of your time in Hawaii. Hawaii is actually a great place to enjoy and explore your solo-ness. I’m from there and while locals love being with family and friends, they’re also pretty comfortable with doing activities on their own. I also agree that historical places are places that one doesn’t like feeling rushed at. Sometimes you just want to digest the history and reflect on it a bit.

Amanda June 18, 2011 at 11:20 am

Sometimes on group tours to somber places, you run the risk of that one guy or maybe gaggle of ignorant girls who are going to be bored and not respect the place. That really pisses me off. It’s just another reason I like being on my own in those sorts of places!

Alouise June 17, 2011 at 10:42 pm

I can appreciate this post. In Germany my Contiki tour stopped at Dachau. I went off on my own, it didn’t feel right to wander around Dachau with a group. Even still I had to deal with the time constraint of being on a tour. But I think being alone a sombre place is good, it really gives each person a chance to reflect on where they are.

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