Long-term solo traveling, as all extreme activities, is not for everyone. One of my friends still calls me “His Hero” because few years ago I quit my senior role at a financial software firm in New York City to travel through Asia for a year (it later became an 18-month adventure). Although many shared their envy when I announced the news, loneliness and fearing the unknown were the two major obstacles most friends and colleagues raised when talking about my long journey solo plan. Once already in Asia local people couldn’t understand why a 40-year old man traveled alone for so long. Aren’t you married? Don’t you have friends? Don’t you get bored? All questions I faced constantly, particularly from women.
It might look selfish going solo around the world. You can do whatever you wish and there’s nobody to discuss with where to go next, what to do the following day, where to eat… You are the center of the whole experience. I think more than selfishness it’s an egocentric way of traveling. What you are seeking is to get the maximum learning from your solitude, from the freedom going solo brings. But solitude is not for everyone, particularly if it’s of the long magnitude.
I believe everyone needs regular time alone in order to grow as a person. A totally different matter is to spend large chunks of your days, weeks and months mostly by yourself. Of course, traveling gives the solo traveler many opportunities for meeting new people along the way, but unless you are constantly seeking a temporary travel companion those who travel solo are going to spend many hours with their own souls. And sometimes that’s not easy at all. Not talking to anyone for hours or even days (apart from ordering food and getting accommodation), not immediately sharing new experiences with someone, being alone so far away from the loved ones, and constantly having to be out of the comfort zone can provoke anxiety in many.
Our brain still has a very prominent primitive instinct: the fear of the unknown. When facing it, some take the rather-safe-than-sorry approach, while others adhere to the proverb “Nothing ventured, nothing gained”. Nowadays I think most fears are just in ourselves. It’d be difficult to find a time in our long history as humans when life was as safe as it is now. There are decent hospitals even in the poorest countries, travel insurance is there to help during an emergency (I had to use it thrice during my adventure), and clean water and healthy food are easily available in most places. Hence, the remaining fears that we face when considering a long solo journey are those that come from the unknown. What majority of people don’t realize is that most of the unknowns they will face during a long solo journey will be positive rather than menacing.
When you leave so many loved aspects of your life behind (not only your loved ones but also your home and most of your belongings and life style) you start to value them in a more balanced way. Distance is one of the best ways I know to truly appreciate things because distance puts them into perspective. After a few weeks on the road you will start missing not only your close family and friends but also certain things you perhaps took for granted like the comfort of your house, your bathtub, your air-con, a good bottle of red wine, or your regular coffee shop. At the same time, and more importantly, you’ll give much less value to other aspects of your previous life. Perhaps to most of your cloths, some of your gadgets, maybe your car, your favorite TV series, even some people in your social network might not be seen as positive as you previously thought. This balancing process might take several weeks or even months, but I think it’s one of the most positive outcomes one can get from long-term solo traveling.
More than seven months after the start of my journey through Asia, I arrived in Hoi An (Vietnam) and got, by chance, the first room with a bathtub. Immediately, I filled it up and enjoyed the most glorious bath I could remember. I felt like a Roman Emperor. As I traveled as light as possible with a medium-sized backpack, I learnt than objects are only important if they are truly necessary in your life, and most of them are easily replaceable (although some can be expensive).
Other important aspects long-term solo traveling brings are:
1- Time alone will allow you to focus your attention freely on whatever interests you at each moment. People watching while sitting at a terrace can be extremely entertaining in busy cities such as Saigon. Give me its streets over most TV series.
2- Being by yourself on the road or at a restaurant is the perfect moment for strangers to approach you. In many undeveloped countries, as families are big and people live in small spaces, solitude is uncommon. There people find strange the concept of solo traveling, so they will come to talk to you with great curiosity. Where are you from? Why are you alone? Aren’t you married? Do you like my country? Then, you’ll have the opportunity to inquire about their lives. There’s no better way of learning about a country than talking to the local people. Smile and be open to anyone who approaches you just to talk.
3- Reading is an activity you’ll have plenty of time for. Busy western lives can be a serious obstacle for regular and intensive reading. Use your journey to catch up with all those books you have on your Amazon’s wish list, or simply pick up second-hand books on the road, particularly about the country you are traveling through.
4- Writing a diary is one of the activities I’d recommend to anyone on a long-term journey regardless if they are going solo or not. Going through your day noting down how you felt about what you’ve just experienced and reflecting on is a very productive way of enjoying your day twice, and more importantly learning from it. Better still, take advantage of your time to write a blog or a book (I wrote a travel memoir: The Year I Became a Nomad).
5- Meditating is a wonderful activity to take up while solo traveling if it is not already in your daily routine. Early in the mornings and in the evenings before going to bed are the perfect moments to spend time focusing on your breathing and your body sensations. If you manage to do it regularly, you’ll start to notice quite soon how it affects your attitude, your mindset and your mood. Your mind will become more settled, clearer, and your understanding of the world and yourself will be enhanced greatly.
As you do all these regularly, you’ll gain confidence and start enjoying your trip more deeply. Your solitude will become an ally, not a hindrance. You’ll learn a lot about yourself, particularly where your mind wanders to when is not focused on a specific activity, what really interests you about people and cultures, and more crucially what kind of life you’d like to live. Those fears of the unknown will vanish and you’ll look forward to getting to your next destination.
Your mind will inevitably change as a result of the alternative life style you’ll be enjoying for months. Instead of the constant planning a busy life in a western city entails, your mind will have plenty of time to concentrate on what your senses capture at every moment. Your brain’s left side will give way to the right; your logical mind will lose weight in favor of your sensitive mind. You’ll become a person much more in touch with your emotions and with what it really moves you. It’ll assist you in finding your life motto and your future direction if you were searching for one.
I initiated my Asia journey with two additional objectives to the pure exploration of a fascinating continent: writing a book about my adventure and becoming a photographer. I started my journey with plenty of doubts about my quest, but by the end I had a clear commitment to put all my efforts in pursuing my dream. My time in the corporate world came to an end the moment I fully experienced the traveler’s freedom.
Getting back home is never easy. Going back to old routines and social customs won’t be automatic as it was after a short vacation. Nor it’ll be smooth. Probably you’ll even reject doing certain things you previously did without pondering. When I returned from Japan to New York I booked myself into a 10-day vipassana meditation retreat in Massachusetts as a stepping stone to settling back in. It certainly helped me to transition out of my nomadic life. Find a way to make your transition as smooth as possible and be fully aware of what you should discard of your previous life in order to put your focus on what and who really matters.
With a positive mental attitude, fears of solitude and the unknown will quickly vanished. If you don’t already have one, work on it daily as you initiate your solo journey. Soon the only thing you’ll be regretting is not to have departed earlier.