A year ago today, I set off on an 18-hour journey to Sri Lanka. I was traveling not only to the other side of the world, but to a new country that I knew next to nothing about. And I was doing it alone.
Some of it was by design, some of it wasn’t. I was originally supposed to travel with my boyfriend, but we broke up six months before the trip and he opted to give up his tickets. I had a decision: I could either cancel my trip, or go alone. Given how routinely I travel by myself for work, and how great my thirst for adventure was, I decided I should go. And I was determined to embrace the two weeks of solitude.
I went into the trip expecting to be alone most of the time. That’s why they call it solo travel, right?
It turns out that’s not the case – unless you truly seek it. I was surprised to find that I had company on nearly every leg of my journey, and I was grateful for it.
The thing about solo travel…
I’ve created no less than three drafts of different articles about solo travel, working through how I wanted to approach the topic in the wake of my first big international solo trip to Sri Lanka (if you count studying abroad in Spain where I didn’t know anyone ahead of time, it would be my second). Every time I went to write about what I learned, how I changed, what I took away, it always came back to how I was impacted by the people that I met.
It stopped me in my tracks every time. How can I write about traveling alone when other people keep coming up?
Well, maybe that’s the point.
The fact is, my travel experience was much richer because of the people I met. It was the opposite of what I expected to take out of the trip, but exactly what I needed.
The solo part
There are many individual aspects to solo travel, one being that only I had the full experience of my journey despite having met people along the way.
These people are pearls adorning a necklace, and my full experience is the strand that holds it all together.
I can’t deny that I came home feeling more confident because I was able to navigate a completely foreign country on my own. I was proud that my instincts were worthy of the trust I placed in them and that my prior travel experiences had prepared me well for a solo journey.
When faced with taking the easy way out for transportation (riding in private cars), I chose to learn the local bus system and travel like a Sri Lankan. It was important to me not to be the kind of tourist that dropped in to enjoy the best of the country without gaining an understanding of daily life. I stuck to my goal and was proud of not wavering, even though I was traveling long distances on public transport by myself. It helped that the locals I met on the buses were extremely kind, and the foreigners were quite attractive.
But there’s something to be said about having shared experiences. Forming connections with people and places is truly the essence of travel.
The shared experience
Solo travel is simply the act of going somewhere without a designated travel companion. There is no rule stating that you have to be alone the whole time unless you want to be. Much of the joy from a solo trip can be derived from the time you spend with others.
Everyone I met left a mark on me. Each and every new friend taught me something new. I became more aware of my own tendencies, culture, and bias when I saw myself through the eyes of someone new.
I met Helena, the Swiss farmer who told me about her farm and her children over the course of a seven-hour train ride from Kandy to Ella.
Melanga, the Rotary Club president headed to a service project in Jaffna. We actually knew of someone in common, a Sri Lankan businessman whom I had interviewed for work.
Vincent, my French travel buddy in Polonnaruwa.
Caroline and Julia, the lively and intellectual women I met while sipping tea in Ella, with whom I quickly became comfortable to tackle the subjects of life and love and loss.
Evgeny, a Russian singer and total character who hung out with Caroline and me in Ella, Mirissa and Galle.
Memo, my German safari friend with whom I geeked out about camera gear, and who squealed like a child when he first caught sight of a leopard in Yala National Park.
Timo, from Heidelberg, Germany, an art lover like me who was my wipeout buddy at surf lessons in Weligama.
Andreas and Nina, the engaged couple from Nuremburg who were my other surfing buddies in Weligama. We philosophized about surfing as a metaphor for life, and I secretly hoped they were serious when they asked if I would photograph their upcoming wedding.
Lisa, the blonde American living in Milan who surfed with a gaggle of tan Italian men.
The boys of The Green Rooms (Niran, Shehan, Jaliya, AJ, Shaggy, Lahiru) who teased me daily, taught me to surf better, and were awesome company at the surf lodge and the local bars.
Tips and takeaways for creating a social solo trip
The single greatest takeaway from my solo trip is that traveling with an open heart and an open mind will allow you to meet people and experience things that will leave a lasting impact. Perhaps the greatest aspect of traveling alone is the fact that you don’t have a go-to person to be your companion, and therefore it makes you more open to meeting others.
Here are a handful of tips to make the most of your solo travel experience – whether you prefer to be alone, with others, or a mix of both.
- If you’re social, book yourself into hostels where you’re guaranteed to meet people. I have a good friend who travels solo multiple times each year, and the first thing she does when she gets to a new country is meet people at her hostel so they can plan activities together. She basically recruits friends when she arrives. Not everyone is like that – I opted for hotels and home stays during my trip to Sri Lanka and still met people. But you have options if you do or don’t want to make friends, and your lodging is a great place to start.
- Be mindful of your body language. If you’re open to meeting people, make it clear by turning your hips and shoulders in the direction of others. Even if you’re too shy to initiate a conversation, your body language will show that you are open to talking. (By the way, I fall into this category of shyness. I rely on body language to compensate for the fact that I will almost never be the first person to greet someone new.)
- Embrace the moments when you are alone. Allow yourself to explore your thoughts, to let your mind wander. I did some of my best thinking on the four-hour bus ride from Polonnaruwa to Kandy, and kept a daily journal of my experiences. I also devoured three books over the two-week trip.
- Be open to deviating from your travel plan. I hadn’t planned to visit Galle on my trip, but my new friends Caroline and Evginy were going one day and I decided to join them. It ended up being a really enjoyable day, and I got some of my favorite photos from the entire trip there. If you allow yourself to be spontaneous, you could end up with some truly great memories.
Regardless of your preference for being alone or with others, I strongly believe that it’s worth it to travel alone at least once. I learned so much about myself, and came away with a new confidence that my friends and family noticed immediately. Most of all, I didn’t have to answer to anyone else – I got to do exactly what I wanted to do, with no regrets, and that’s important when spending money and weeks of your life somewhere new!
Have you traveled solo before? Do you prefer to be alone, meet new people, or have a mix of both? Let me know in the comments!