Reflections of a solo traveller

Summer. The period of the year in which Canada isn’t mostly covered in snow and ice. The period of the year in which you generally need light clothes, and thus you can fit three weeks worth of clothing in your suitcase or backpack, while in every other season you would fit only three days. The period of the year that spells V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N, at least for a few days. Yeah!

To me, this means mostly one thing: Solo travelling. I remember with a certain amount of emotion the first time I went on vacation all by myself: I was in my early twenties, I had been working for almost one year, and I could finally enjoy about a week of Interrail pass* across England and Scotland in the Fall. The idea of travelling by myself sounded weird and somewhat reckless, both to me and to the people I was sharing this idea with. Traveling solo? A woman? Can’t you find a friend? Can’t you join a group, or contact a tour operator? You must have guts… but for me, it was nothing but a dream come true: I wanted to visit certain places, I finally had the money to do it, and I didn’t want to wait until I found a travel mate wanting to do exactly that trip.

After all these years, traveling solo has become the norm for me. After all, moving to another country to do a PhD involves a lot of solo travelling, if you are not bringing any family members with you. You move by yourself. You go back home to say hi to mom and dad by yourself. You go to conferences by yourself, if nobody else in your lab is attending the same event. And you travel solo when you decide to visit a friend in another town, although you are not alone anymore when you finally reach them 🙂

In my first solo trips, I only saw the pros of solo travelling: Basically, you are almost totally free, and the mere idea is terribly exciting. About 100% of the time will be devoted to activities of your choice, nobody will force you to attend an event you are not interested in, and you won’t feel guilty for that friend who is reluctantly coming to your favourite museum with you. Also, you don’t have to explain your decisions to anybody: If you want to take a “red-eye” ride or flight, that’s your choice. The same applies if you wanted to visit a museum in the morning, but eventually decided to just sleep a few more hours. But there’s more.

One thing I noticed while I was traveling with a group of people, is that groups usually split in two: The ones that, map or Google Maps in hand, know where to go, and the ones that just follow. Personally, most of the times I was a follower, either because I was too tired, lazy or unconfident to lead the group, or because I was simply feeling that there were already enough people discussing in front of one map, and my contribution would have brought just more confusion. As a result, many times I didn’t get familiar with those cities, I wasn’t able to go around by myself, and now I feel like I missed something. Clearly, this can’t happen when you travel solo: The honour and burden to find the way belongs only to you. And the nice thing is, nobody will complain if you go the wrong way, you’ll just have to walk a bit (sometimes a lot) more to get back on the right track.

Another thing that usually happens when you travel with a group is the spontaneous formation of subgroups. And even if nobody is putting pressure on you, you feel like you have to join a group, or at least get close to someone, in order not to be perceived as the unsociable one. This can be stressful, if you are not naturally sociable. But when you travel solo, things are different. The first time I was having breakfast alone at a hostel, I was feeling very lonely and out of place. Then, during that very meal, something clicked: I wasn’t the unsociable one of a group, struggling to fit in. I was an independent entity. And I also discovered that many people travel solo or stay alone in hostel dorms, for various reasons: Tourism, conferences, work, recent immigration, stopover during a long trip to visit family or friends, recent divorce… I understood that just because you are travelling alone, it doesn’t mean your existence is a solitary one. And honestly, if your existence is a solitary one, that’s fine too.

But, as it always happens, after having done a thing you like for a while, you eventually see its bad side too. And the bad side of travelling solo is pretty obvious: you are alone. There is nobody sharing your experience with you—not the whole experience, anyway. Nobody to chat with during most of the meals, nobody taking pictures with you, and nobody to share your anxiety with, if you happen to feel nervous before boarding a flight. Of course you can share your happy moments on social media, or text a friend or a relative to share anxiety and funny facts, but it’s not the same thing, and it can be somewhat uncomfortable. And after a while, instead of thinking “thank God none of my friends/relatives saw this!”, you find yourself thinking “I wish some friend/relative were here and saw this”.

Being a graduate student very far from my home country, hopefully I have a lot of solo travelling ahead of me. But, again hopefully, I’ll have many occasions to travel with some company too.

* Apparently the Interrail pass is for Europeans only, but if you’re not European don’t despair! You can get a similar train pass, the Eurail pass! Also, when it comes to Canada, Viarail offers some interesting passes as well.

Banner photo: Collage of a picture by @gradlifemcgill Instagrammer @_martinella_

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