Friday, May 9, 2008

On going solo

The following useful article is more or less an excerpt from my book One for the Road. It's a travel book intended to be read as a novel, although there's also lots of useful information for travelers in it.

Fate sometimes hands out a chance to carry out your travel dreams. Maybe you finish school and land a job set to begin a few months into the future. Or maybe you work in a company that struggles to survive, and suddenly one day you're offered financial compensation if you're willing to leave your job. Perhaps you inherit some money. No matter how it happens, suddenly you have the opportunity to leave home for a while, and you know that it's now or never.

Unfortunately, when opportunity knocks like that, it often does so only for you, and not for those of your friends who you might have preferred to share the experience with. So you have to choose. Are you going on your own, or will you stay at home and buy yourself a new couch instead?

There's an easy answer to that question. Especially if you ask others what they think you should do. Your friends envy you because you can do something they can't. Besides, they like to have you around, they don't want you to leave and be gone for a long time. And your family don't want you to end your days inside an anaconda or beheaded in a ditch somewhere in foreign parts where dangerous stuff like that probably happens all the time. Suspecting that you may regret this some day, not next week, but in ten years or so, you end up going to IKEA instead of to Guinea. And you will regret it.

Of course, in many ways it is better to travel with someone, I won't even bother with listing the arguments supporting that view. But before you cancel your travel plans just because you don't have anyone to go with, you should know that starting on a journey alone doesn't mean that you will stay alone while on the road. Backpackers are gregarious animals. They embark upon new friendships as soon as the opportunity presents itself. And it does. All the time.

Sleeping in dormitories automatically lead to conversations with those you share a room with. If you go on day trips organized by the hostel you stay at, before the day is over you will have as many new friends as there are seats in the minibus used for the trip. Or more.

Should you ever find yourself completely bewildered at a bus station in Syktyvkar, Pokhara, Cuzco, Cairns or Kampala, soon enough there will be two of you, and the most natural thing in the world for you both will be to start talking and help each other solve the mystery of the lost ticket office. It's more than likely that you're both heading in the same direction. If not, you will still meet again four weeks later with a hug on a street corner in Hanoi. This, in turn, will lead to annual Christmas cards and a free couch to stay on in London two years later. Maybe you marry the person. Nobody knows what putting a backpack on and traveling the world may lead to. As long as you stay on or near the backpacker highways, loneliness will simply not be an option.

Should you ever feel lonely, just get on a bus!

If one of your reasons for traveling is to meet new people, you should definitely travel alone. Maybe you're not the most extrovert person at home, where you have your friends, family and daily tasks to rely on. That doesn't mean much. When you travel on your own in foreign countries, you'll be surprised by how easily you start talking to strangers. Really. Because that's what humans are designed to do. You may just have to get away from your sheltered home to discover it.

Another bonus is all the time you save when you travel without company. Expect a significant decrease in the number of hours spent waiting for someone to finish in the bathroom, buying fridge magnets or new clothes. Those hours are instead yours to spend on doing exactly what you want to the most. Enjoy!

Your gender doesn't change any of this. Many countries and regions, actually most of them, are as safe to travel in as your home ground. You should take the same precautions everywhere, whether you're at home or traveling. Look after yourself and follow the advice you get from guidebooks and from everyone you meet on your way.
Sometimes, even when it's safe to travel alone, you may need someone to travel with to share the cost of hiring a car and a driver, or something like that. When this happens, just post a note on a hostel notice board. Write where and when you would like to go and include some information about who you are. Or you can simply get in touch with someone who already has put up a note.

If you want to be absolutely certain that you won't be traveling alone, there's a wide range of tour operators that are more than willing to help you. "Overland tours" and other expeditions by bus along popular backpacker routes can get you many places, and they will probably offer you more company than you really need. Still, too much is maybe better than nothing, so there you go.

These tour operators will let you spend weeks or months on tours with intriguing names like "The Great Andean Adventure", "Surf & Drink Australia" or "The Silk Road in a Pink Bus". You pay more than you would have if you traveled on your own, but in return you don't have to plan or arrange anything yourself. On the bus you meet lots of people. Some you will like, some you won't, and you will probably not have to be alone for a second throughout the whole trip.

If you're not quite brave enough to travel on your own, a trip like that can be an excellent way to get your life as a traveler started. You will see most of what the brochures promise, and there's no doubt that you will have some great experiences. What you don't get is the freedom to stay longer in the places you fall in love with. You will miss that freedom. Often. Still, if your alternatives are either to travel with a group like that or not to travel at all, go with the group!
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