Life, as I see it, should be filled with as many different and exciting experiences as possible. Not all are entirely fun or without their problems, they can even be a little scary, but they are experiences all the same and add to the rich tapestry of our lives. They fill our memories with a variety of cultures, languages, values and perspectives. Travel allows us to build bridges, provides us an opportunity to hold out our hands to strangers and offers us the chance to forge beautiful friendships. Traveling alone is truly unique, and with the right attitude, it can be one of the best experiences life has to offer.
So far, I have had the good fortune to have lived in six countries and visited over forty. I usually feel like I have stepped into another skin when I travel; as if I am a different person. Generally, I feel more upbeat, more excited about life and keen to try everything. The sights and sounds are so different from my ‘usual’: the wildlife, the scenery, the language and the food. Oh, the food! I try and eat in what would be deemed ‘local’ eateries (often the cheapest too) and attempt to communicate with people in their own language, even if I am sometimes left feeling foolish. After all, who doesn’t feel good when someone tries to compliment their cuisine and culture?
There have been times when I was afraid to travel, thinking of what might happen in a worst-case scenario. But, as the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Go ahead, you may be rewarded with one of the best experiences of your life!
One of my first forays into solo travel was a trip to New York, initially planned with a friend who dropped out at the last minute. Although mildly terrified at the prospect of going alone, I decided to do it anyway. Who in their right mind would pass up a trip to the Big Apple?
A good way to see the sights is to take part in walking tours led by local guides. Many places also run bicycle tours which allow you to cover a lot of ground and get more ‘bang for your buck’ so to speak. These tours are often punctuated by a stop for refreshments at a local bar or café and give you the opportunity to chat with other travelers. Several tours I have been on have been led by volunteers or students, any donations given for their time and knowledge being greatly appreciated.
Another bonus to being with other people is safety. Let’s face it, women in particular have to be careful, especially as ‘amiable’ to one culture may seem ‘overtly friendly’ to another and messages can be mixed! On encountering uncomfortable situations or locations, my rule has always been to walk at a normal pace, with confidence and to stay alert. Even if I wanted to run, I did not. If you felt threatened by someone, turning around and questioning the person can sometimes embarrass them into leaving you alone. They may think you are a tough cookie (even if you are only acting brave) and give up their pursuit. Of course, caution must be exercised as each situation is very different. Going with your gut feeling is a powerful test of the situation. Several friends walk with a whistle or alarm close by. I too, have a whistle on my bag strap but to date, have never had to blow it. I have had to use my ‘teacher voice’ however, to reprimand a man for making an improper proposal to me on the street!
The one thing that has continued to amaze me over the years is the kindness of strangers. Following a short conversation with an old lady on a train to Kobe, Japan, she insisted on walking me to my hostel, helping to settle me into my room and then inviting me out for Chinese food in the city. In Nagasaki, another old lady ‘adopted’ me on the street, taught me about the history of her town and bought me cakes. In both Finland and Georgia, I was escorted safely to the door of my hostel by middle-aged gentlemen I chatted to on the plane, and in Nepal, a group of motorcyclists held a party in my honor because I rode the same model of motorbike as them! Similarly, in India, I was invited to join a motorcycle group for a long weekend, was renamed the ‘Bullet Rani’ and treated like a celebrity! I hold those friendships dear to this day.
Travel is a gift. Never give it up. Many people can only dream of visiting other countries. The next time you travel, whether it be in your own country or another, take a moment to stand still and absorb it all. Breathe in the air and feel what it is like to really be there in that moment, with that scenery, those sounds, those smells. Remember; you may never go back there again and by really focusing in that moment, it may help fix that memory in your mind for decades to come.