“Who are you going with?”
An innocuous question, and a standard one from my parents for a large part of my life. In middle school, they asked it for my safety. They wanted to know who was I with when riding bikes, walking to the park, or getting ice cream. You know, just in case it got dark and they needed to call someone’s parents and reassure themselves that I was accounted for if I wasn’t home yet. Same with high school. Before I had a license it was “who is picking you up?” And when I passed my test it became, “Who are you picking up?”
In college, it came when I announced I was going on spring break. “Who are you going with?” They asked in a tone that hinted they’d recently watched some kind of Dateline and 20/20 episodes entitled “Spring Break NIGHTMARE.” I accepted it. It always made them feel better to know that I was going somewhere surrounded by my friends. And it wasn’t just my parents. Friends asked the question. “Oh you’re going to Vegas! With who?” Or “I heard you just got back from San Francisco, who went with you?” It was like the concept of traveling alone wasn’t even a possibility. To be fair, it hadn’t even occurred to me yet to consider solo travel. I didn’t personally know anyone who traveled alone during that time in my life, the only thing that came to mind was Jon Krakauer’s book “Into The Wild,” where the guy died. And yeah, no thanks.
But as I got older, I realized that often when traveling en masse often left me feeling unsatisfied, like I was being stifled by the overall group mentality of deciding where to go, what to do, and when to do it. Suggesting a few hours off by myself tended to make someone else say, “Oh no, I’ll go with you,” which again often led to a watered down version of my original intention. And I also realized that while some people are great friends in your home city, they can still be terribly incompatible travel companions. So I stopped waiting to be invited on a trip or coaxing others to accompany me somewhere, and just began booking jaunts that satisfied my personal plans. It made all the difference in the world.
I learned to be self sufficient.
When you’re by yourself, you’re in charge of everything. This means you have to stand up for yourself in the event that something goes wrong. You can’t nominate another member of the group to deal with lost luggage, a delayed flight, or a hotel shuttle that never shows up. Over the course of my solo trips I’ve learned how to negotiate and stay calm when a hotel or car rental company has made a mistake. Through trial and error of my own, I’ve made better plans for myself after certain experiences. When a hotel informed me they oversold for the night, tired and jet-lagged, I gritted my teeth asked them to call other places, then gathered my three bags and marched to hotels on the same block to ask for availability. I have developed the utmost confidence in myself that I can handle most travel issues that arise and resolve them as quickly as possible.
I’ve learned to roll with uncomfortable/crazy situations.
Sometimes, as much as you’re going for solitude with solo travel, you’re occasionally forced into the company of others and almost forced to bond. Like when I got stuck in an elevator with a bunch of strangers. I can get a bit claustrophobic, so rather than surprise them all with a panic attack I chose to profess my situation to the group. Which led to us all chatting about where we were from and one woman offering me a breathing exercise she uses when she feels panicky in small spaces. If I had been with friends, I would have had them as my safety net, remained quiet, and just made faces assuming they’d know my internal agony.
I’ve learned what I really like to do.
So often on past trips I kind of accepted when other people would throw out phrases like, “We HAVE to do this!” and I would go along with whatever the plan was, whether a specific beach, restaurant, theme park, walking tour, etc. But a great thing about traveling alone is that you don’t have to be social if you don’t feel like it. There have been plenty of trips where I’ve taken a full day to just veg in my hotel room with the Do Not Disturb on the door to watch TV, take naps and order room service with no one nagging or trying to guilt me that I’m wasting the day. I’ve learned that I like having some days filled with activities just as much as I like just decompressing and not having a plan, but I like doing it all on my time and when I feel up to it.
Having freedom from compromise is A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.
All of these things connect to being free of having to collectively agree on where to eat, where to go, and whose turn is it to get ice down the hall. I can eat wherever I want and whenever I’m hungry. I can spend my money on venues or tours or sightseeing that I deem worth of my personal budget.
I am my own best company.
The biggest lesson has been how comfortable I have learned to be while I’m on my own. People tend to confuse “alone” and “lonely.” They are not interchangeable descriptions. Years ago I was horribly insecure and awkward eating alone at a restaurant counter on my summer job lunch break. I assumed everyone was staring, wondering why I wasn’t with anyone, and ate as fast as possible. Now I eat meals all the time on my own, whether I’m traveling or in my own city. I don’t mind doing dinner, going to the movies or hitting up a museum solo if someone isn’t around to join me.
Currently I’m participating in a writer’s residency abroad. When I was accepted several months ago and would say that I was going sans a companion I was met with raised eyebrows, proclamations of my “bravery,” or the question, “why don’t you find someone else to go?”
The answer? Because I don’t need to.