Numerous travel articles and blog posts extol the virtues of solo travel or offer (rather unhelpful) tips to combat the inevitable sense of loneliness that creeps in during sojourns for one. I am a believer that everyone should embark on a solo adventure at least once in their life. Doing so opens you to new experiences, meeting new people, and allows you to appreciate a place in a different way than when you travel with others. I am one of those people who contributed a blog post to these benefits.
And while the sense of solitude can be energizing, it can also be debilitating. I have holed up in a hotel room when my energy levels flagged and I couldn’t motivate myself to continue. I have skipped meals because dining solo can be boring without someone else with whom to converse. Explaining, “no, it is just a table for one” to the host and wait staff can become tiring. Inquisitive people pester me with questions about why I am traveling alone. Others commend me for bravely going it alone as if I were a 19th century explorer, instead of a traveller who rarely has to rough it. If you travel solo, you will be beset by moments of loneliness and at the risk of sounding obvious, being alone can reinforce that you are indeed alone.
Humans are inherently social creatures and there is a fair amount of research on how shared experiences enforces the intensity of feelings people have for one another. When friends and family gather, they reminisce and retell stories to strengthen their bonds or reinforce a shared connection. Perhaps more than anything else, this is what I miss most when traveling alone. There will be no shared narrative. No recounting the experience over a glass of wine. No being reduced to fits of laughter at the mere mention of a word. There are no group photos that are passed amongst one another. Instead I am left with adventures that exist in my own mind and a collection of rather egotistic selfies.
And while I am open to traveling with anyone, in reality it is someone that I would prefer to be with. I often think how much a certain loved one would appreciate a place, an activity, or restaurant and wish they were there. Often I envision bringing them back and imagine watching the joy of the moment spread across their face. On a trip at the end of last year, a woman recounted that when she went scuba diving with her husband last year, she saw a massive sea turtle, but her husband did not. She spent the rest of the vacation searching for a turtle to ensure that he had the same amazing experience she had. I understand the sentiment. Accumulating these experiences without that someone seems rather selfish.
But, I have restless feet and a desire to experience as much as possible. Sitting at home waiting for a travel partner is more anxiety inducing than hopping on a plane and going it alone. Solo travel is a function of where I am in life – no spouse or children, friends and family concentrated across an ocean, a job that is more conducive to short weekend jaunts than long holidays that others prefer. So nearly every weekend I jet off to explore a corner of South Africa, alone.
These trips are punctuated by extreme gratitude for the years that I get to spend in this amazing country. I marvel that this is my life and when loneliness sets in I try and embrace the duality of wonderment and aloneness without giving in to the latter. The reality is I experience both more acutely when on the road. For me the key to combating loneliness, more so than tips like “volunteer” and “invite a stranger to dinner,” is to focus on gratitude. Be in awe of the moment. I document my awe with photographs and journal entries so when I want to hole up in my hotel room, I look back these moments and am reminded that another memory is just beyond the front door.