Before I left Australia, I had an incredibly romanticised idea about travelling alone. I imagined strolling cobblestone streets, well dressed, hair neat, while nibbling on freshly baked baguettes. I had pictured myself reading Steinbeck and writing in my journal by the beach and sighing in contemplation. I imagined a paper map in one hand, a camera in the other paired with a smiling face and an unlimited supply of confidence.
Online I would see photos of acquaintances or friends of friends who would frequently travel alone and this is the image that they gave me. I was convinced that my looming adventure couldn’t be done any other way; I had to do it alone in order for me to take the most meaning from it, and I was convinced it would be an easy ride.
I gallivanted through Europe for seven months alone, and I understand that for some of my social media followers my preconceived notions might be exactly what they saw of my travels. I want to share a more realistic, un- filtered perspective on travelling alone.
You get lonely
This is not the kind of bored whimsy you feel at midnight on a Friday when your friends have bailed on plans. You explore cities and medieval towns and skinny-dip in the ocean and have a beer at 10am, but you do it without laughter, without conversation and without a familiar face you can relive that moment with later. You wake up in the morning knowing there is a foreign city outside your window and yet sometimes, you lack motivation. It’s easier to lie in bed with no pants on and use the free wifi. No one is there to encourage you to get off your ass and make the most of the moment.
Making friends is hard
You need to get really good at first impressions. You need the confidence to invite yourself to bars, to forget about being shy and initiate a night out yourself and see who will join. You need to say yes, always. I’ve danced on tables in France and gone to underground bars with a stylish Frenchmen and a local in Prague, I had dinner with an ex-drug lord in Germany, eaten ostrich with an older Malaysian man in a brothel – all because I said yes to an invite. It enhanced my experience ten-fold. You will enjoy your adventure as much as you allow yourself to, and if you sink into depressing loneliness and don’t make an effort, you’re not going to have half as good a trip. Don’t say no out of a lack of self-confidence, don’t convince yourself they are inviting you because they feel sorry for you. Just go, drink it up, have fun. They want you there.
You get sick of taking #selfies
Everywhere. In fact, you give up altogether. As we are in the age of photography and snapping up everything we pass, you can’t help but want photos of yourself in all of those wonderfully diverse places. Unfortunately, you don’t have someone who ‘gets it’ nearby and one you feel you can continually ask. It’s a struggle to ask passing strangers too, especially if you’re in a country where English is not the primary language or, even worse, if you find someone willing and they end up taking a truly shocking photo. The shadow of that building was clearly covering half my face, lady.
It can be terrifying
This is especially prominent as a young woman. People warned me about pickpockets and the local men and how I shouldn’t be alone. These aren’t comforting things to hear. When you go out at night and lose those faces that you kind-of sort-of remember meeting a couple of hours earlier, it is the most terrifying thing- especially if you’ve been drinking. You don’t know their names. You don’t know where you are. What time is it, 4am? Where’s my wallet? Note to self: write the address of your hostel on your arm.
There’s no shoulder to cry on
You have to suck it up and refrain from showing weakness when you’re upset, homesick or unwell. When you’re in a hostel for only a couple of days sharing a room with 40 other travellers, nobody is going to want to associate with a depressed traveller. You’ve got to remember how long it took to save, how worthwhile this adventure will be. You have to remember this and do it on your own. I have gone to sleep whispering ‘be bold Ruby, be bold’ because I know every opportunity I waste because of a crabby mood, I will regret the moment I land in Australia.
Regardless of whether you’re travelling alone or with friends, you will encounter challenges unlike any you’ve ever experienced before, but that is the beauty of it. It’s how you grow and learn and perhaps, maybe even ‘find yourself’. These are things that edited Instagrams, beautiful architecture on postcards and captions on photos cannot depict. These hard times enhance the positive ones, and you learn to love every element of travelling alone. While I hastily shuffle through cobblestone streets eating yesterday’s bread, I’m wearing yesterday’s clothes and my greasy hair is in a messy bun, while I drop my book in the drain by accident and I’m seriously lost and no where near where I imagined I would be when planning this trip, I am happy. I am overseas, I somewhere different and I am free.
Get out there and wait for nobody.