The Gift of Solo Travel

Jessie - New York, New York
Entered on November 15, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe in traveling solo through a foreign place. Experiences occur when you’re alone that simply are not possible with the buffer of another person. These experiences help define and strengthen you, hone your instincts, and illuminate what you — and the world — are about.

I began my solo travels at age 19. I taught English in a township in South Africa. This was 1992. Apartheid laws had been dismantled, but the new South Africa had yet to be invented. Stories of necklacing and anarchic rule-by-force filled the media, and the State Department warned U.S. citizens against going there.

I was nearly assaulted when Inkathas sweeping through our village assumed I was a Boer. And when the school inspector brought me to her home, believing a predicted toyi-toyi would endanger me, it was her Afrikaner son who crept into my bed. I starved myself that summer — it was the only thing over which I had control — and left the township weeks before the assignment was supposed to end.

The experience became the barometer against which I judged all new challenges: If I could handle that, I’d say, I can walk out on this relationship I know is breaking me. If I got through that, a career without security isn’t frightening at all. Over the next few years, I visited Greece, Turkey, Ireland, Britain, France, Mexico, Cuba, the Caribbean and much of the United States — but saw none of it alone.

Traveling in the cozy comfort of known company, I was unthreatened and unharmed, but also unaffected. Eventually, the places began to blend, and my experiences developed a sameness that differed only in their superficial details. I longed for the revelations, the deep insights and the life-altering encounters foreign travel was supposed to bring. I wanted the freedom and adventure that reputedly came from surrendering to what a new place had to show you. I craved the romance of not knowing where I’d sleep each night, the conversations I would have, the people I would meet. Instead, there hardly seemed much point in leaving home.

It wasn’t until I found myself in Casablanca, waiting for a friend who missed her flight, that I was forced to travel solo in a foreign place again. Within an hour, I was befriended by three brothers who brought me to their mother’s house for dinner. And in Tiznit, a boy showed me a stunning secret garden not described in any guidebook. In the Atlas Mountains, I met a camel-herder named Hassan who stared at me for hours across a fire.

“You’re different,” he finally said. “You’re open.” He asked me to be his seventh wife. There was a pause; then we laughed. The shared laugh signaled a point of connection, a joint recognition of the world and our respective places in it. With that laugh, I began to understand the gift of solo travel.

By dropping the protective armor that traveling with others had given me, by allowing myself to be vulnerable, people took a greater interest in me. My willingness to trust was respected and rewarded.

As I continued making solo trips to unfamiliar places, I honed my instincts in a way I hadn’t had to in known company. I learned who and what was safe, and how to distinguish between adventure and mere stupidity. Better than any postcard, my solo travels taught me to live more openly in my non-traveling life. They made me brave enough to abandon set agendas, exist without the need for other people, and let myself get lost from time to time, knowing my own internal compass would help guide me.

Eleven years after I left South Africa, I returned. Alone. I went back to the township where I had taught. The headmistress was still there; she cried when she saw me. “I knew you’d be back,” she said. “I knew you would.”

“How?” I asked, hardly believing it myself. And, showing an empathy that would have been imprudent in the old South Africa, she patted my hand and smiled, “Because you came at all.”

Solo travel plants the seeds for change, and opens doors to deeper understanding — about a place, its people and ultimately yourself. Solo travel is where true adventure lies.

This I believe.