by Ruby Bisson
Before I left Australia, I had an incredibly romanticised idea about travelling alone. I imagined strolling cobblestone streets, well dressed, hair neat, all while eating fresh bakery foods. I had pictured myself reading a good novel by the beach and sighing in contemplation. I had imagined a paper map in one hand, a camera in the other paired with a smiling face and an unlimited supply of confidence. I would see photos of acquaintances or friends of friends who would frequently travel alone and this is the image that they gave me. They were trotting the globe, sharing wistful epiphanies and experiences, idealising the ‘I won’t wait for anyone, I want to, I have to go and do this alone’ mentality that hits the adventurous spot. 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 away the most meaning from it, and I was convinced it would be an easy ride.
I’ve now been travelling for the past two months and for most of that time I’ve been flying solo. It is an incredible opportunity to leave our borders and explore the world and for that, I am so incredibly thankful. However, I understand that for some of my social media followers my preconceived notions might be exactly what they see of my current travels.
But 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 gallivant around cities and medieval towns and swim 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 and use the free wifi. No one is there to encourage you to get off your ass and have fun and make the most of the moment. Alexander Supertramp is right when he says ‘happiness is only real when shared’.
Making friends is not always easy business. You need to get really good at first impressions, you need the confidence to invite yourself to bars, you need to forget about being shy and initiate a night out yourself and see who will join. You need to say yes, always. Saying yes has allowed me to be wheeled around Rome at 4am and be serenaded by two Dutch brothers (who became two of my closest traveller friends) in perfect harmony. It has meant I’ve danced on tables in Nice, France and gone to underground bars with a stylish Frenchmen and a local in Prague; all because I said yes to an invite. 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, have fun. They want you there.
You get sick of taking #selfies. Did I even just write that? Yes, yes I did. 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. You feel bad for asking them to take another despite the fact that that shadow of that building was clearly covering half my face.
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 help when you’re lost. There’s no shoulder to cry on when you’re upset, homesick, unwell. You have to suck it all up, refrain from showing weakness. 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 ‘I am blessed, I am blessed’, because I know every opportunity I waste because of a crabby mood, I will regret the moment I land in Australia.
I didn’t expect these feelings when I travelled, but so what? That’s why it’s a huge, glorious adventure and that’s why you have hilarious stories and memories with strangers that you could not have predicted if everything went smoothly because you planned. If you didn’t get lost because you had wifi to help you or if you didn’t ask that girl to take that photo of you because you were travelling with a friend who was perfectly capable of taking it for you. I asked a group of backpackers on a 22 hour boat trip from Barcelona to Rome if they knew where the bathroom was, and next thing I knew the boat is delayed and we had no choice but to camp out on the beach somewhere in Italy. We spent the night drinking rum, lying out under the shooting stars, falling asleep to the waves breaking on the shore. It was the most magical experience and if I had chosen to aimlessly walk the boat find the bathrooms myself, I would have been stranded in Italy at 1am, alone, with no money, no help and a whole heap of fear. “This is living!” I remember yelling, arms outstretched on a cliff overlooking Italy in the morning.
In all honesty, while advising others of the difficulties and challenges of traveling alone was my initial intention, I would be a fool not to also shed light on at least one of the most delightful details of solo sightseeing…
Guiltless laziness. When you’re travelling alone, no one has to find out how boring and dull you truly are. Right now I am lying in a hostel with no pants on, eating Caramello Koalas and not exploring Munich, Germany. This morning I spent five hours aimlessly walking and now I’m calling it a day. Who cares? I don’t feel guilty because I am not letting anybody down, I don’t have to worry about offending or disappointing someone. There are places I want to see, but I will see them when I want to see them. It’s not that I can’t be bothered, I am just so content and so happy doing exactly what I am doing in this very moment.
This is the beauty of backpacking; the good, the bad, the ugly. Regardless of whether you’re travelling alone or with friends, you will encounter challenges unlike you’ve ever experienced before. 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.
I’ll leave you with Jack Kerouac, the king of all road trips and his quote which is not only relevant to our online personalities but to our entire life:
“I realised that these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilised-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming of the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road.”
All photos by Ruby Bisson.