During 2010, as I traveled alone through France, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina, I regularly encountered people who found it courageous of me to travel alone. I remember a hairstylist in Bogota. As she blow-dryed my hair, she told me she couldn't picture it. I asked her why. She couldn't really say. So it goes. For most people, traveling alone is unimaginable.
Traveling alone still gives me a thrill -- but it's not scary anymore, I've done it so much. Traveling alone can be occasionally lonely, yes. I have felt pangs of loneliness at times. Scary, in South America or Europe, rarely. It's easy to meet people when you travel alone if you stay at hostels and hook up with couchsurfing, a global network of travelers who support each other through hosting and advice. People think that couchsurfing is only for finding a place to stay, but it's also for making friends. Go to the "groups" section and find the city you're visiting, find out what people in the couchsurfing community are planning. Post a message saying that you are coming to town, does anyone have advice or want to have coffee? Couchsurfing members are astonishingly friendly and helpful.
Here are five reasons to travel alone, some classic, some idiosyncratic. There are also reasons to travel with a romantic partner or with friends. Each experience is unique, but traveling alone is undoubtedly rich. Add yours in the comments.
1. Learn how to make decisions. For me, traveling alone was one crash course in making decisions -- just keep on rolling the dice and see what comes up. Stop the research. Stop the analysis paralysis. Just keep choosing and living. In travel, everything is as it is, and there's always another day to change course and choose again. A lot more happens in life when you stop worrying about what to do and just go. That problem dogged me in the year before I made the decision to travel. I was so freaked out by the idea of putting my life in storage and jumping off the known career path that I pondered the decision to death. I planned to travel only four months and wound up going for over a year. Once I got started I didn't want to stop.
2. Openness to the world. The sense of risk and heightened reward is what draws me to traveling alone. Traveling with a friend can be an adventure too, but the adventure quotient is usually higher when you are alone. You're more vulnerable in the sense that you have to seek out company and help. There is a lucky charm in traveling alone. My friend Mark lived in Rio for three years right by the beach in Ipanema. On a solo trip to Rio I stayed with him and he jokingly told me he could always spot the solo travelers by the red streaks on their backs: the spot they couldn't reach themselves with sunscreen. Apt observation and probably true for some solo travelers but not all. But hey, just because I'm traveling alone doesn't mean I can't ask a hunky Carioca volleyball player to put sunscreen on the hard-to-reach places. That's the advantage of traveling alone, isn't it? Openness to adventure.
3. The grace of trusting in strangers. Traveling alone also teaches you to trust your fellow men and women. They are the ones who help you out when you are in need. I will never forget the man who stopped a long-distance bus for me in Colombia so he could go buy me Coke and toilet paper (I confessed to him that I had "digestive" issues right before we got on the bus). Then he invited me to his family's home for lunch, and I still get emails from the family saying they will never forget me. I have had similar experiences all over Brazil and Colombia. The kindness and welcoming spirit is unbelievable.
4. Star in your own movie. When you travel alone, the trip is completely yours. You are the star of your own movie. All the mistakes are yours to make, the serendipitous discoveries to enjoy, and the insights to savor. The recollection of the trip is entirely personal and private. Even though I have blogged extensively about my travels, there is no one who was along the whole journey with me who can say what it was all about. Some people prefer to share memories and make meaning from the trip together. That is beautiful as well, but there is also a soul-searching power in doing an odyssey on your own.
When we set out on an extended travel by ourselves, we may not know why we are going when we begin, and it may only be clear when we come back. When you finally understand the narrative of your solo trip, it's your secret.
5. A new best friend (or love) 4-eva. In a year of travel, I made a new best friend who I know will be a friend for life. We will be at each other's weddings if we get married, we coach each other through our lives, and we hope to meet up for other adventures in Africa, Asia, and to dance tango in Buenos Aires. We spent close to two months together in Cali, and we met up again in Buenos Aires for two more months. Our friendship is pure gold and we have both helped each other grow in innumerable ways. That openness to a new friend might not have been there if I had already been traveling with someone else. Who knows? You may meet the love of your life. That aforementioned friend did actually . . . .
Sasha Cagen is an author and entrepreneur who spent 2010 traveling in Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina. Read more at quirkyalone.net.