Have you ever been to your school’s dining area alone and been so self-aware, that you forget to enjoy your food? I have and my thoughts race. Do people think I’m a loser with no friends? What if I run into my ex or that guy I left on read? Is it socially acceptable to get a fifth plate of fries? At some point, we all eat alone, because there is a genuine convenience to eating by yourself. Yet, we have been conditioned to see eating, a basic human need, as social.
Traveling, unless you are backpacking, is also viewed as strictly social. There is a vulnerability you expose yourself to when you travel, but it is not something to be feared. The awareness, both inner and outer, you gain is rewarding and can definitely be earned without the presence of your family, friends, or partner. I just visited Argentina, the Brazilian state of Parana, and Paraguay (kind of) by myself. Rather than isolation I felt liberation.
You do not need to compromise on any logistics.
“What should we watch on Netflix?” is like asking family and friends for World War 3. Everyone has their own preference and accommodating each turns into a math problem my high school algebra did not train me to solve. So, we end up watching nothing, “Mean Girls” or “White Chicks” for the 20th time. Traveling is no different. There are many logistical questions to address so that there is no giant cloud looming over the entire trip.
- Where are we staying? A hotel, a hostel, or an Airbnb? Ok, now that we have rightfully decided on Airbnb, what neighborhood? Do we want a scenic view? Do we need a kitchen? Are we willing to share beds? Make sure to give yourself at least two days to come to an agreement.
- Who is coming? There is nothing more uncomfortable than hosting two friends who are not friends with each other. Things can get passive aggressive (or just plain aggressive) easily. Choose who travels with you wisely.
- When are we going? In the Google Calendar era, our days fill up with events and obligations quickly. We don’t have to move a finger. Invites from GMail just automatically sync into your schedules. Finding common free time can be impossible. Guess this trip is going to have to be pushed back to summer of 2020.
- How are we getting there? Bus? [Redacted] is feeling like Kim K and refuses to ride a bus like a commoner. Car? Oh, nope [redacted] is gets car sick easily. Plane? Too expensive and also [redacted] is afraid of flying.
- Will there be WiFi? This is its own question because it is just that important. My Airbnb host even told me Americans will ask him first for the Wifi before saying hello. How will people know you are living in the moment if you can’t post that beach pic from today on your Insta story?
If you travel alone none of that is a worry. You are in control of every last detail. Going into my trip I kept it easy (or hard depending on your preferences). I picked two Airbnbs, each under $15 a night. They weren’t homey, but since going to college I have jumped around from apartment to apartment so much that the concept of home is lost on me. So, long as I have a place to shower and sleep I am more than set.
To travel between destinations, I slept at the airport, took a 6 AM flight, and did a five-hour layover. This was not the most glamorous trip, but it was the most accessible and cheapest. Local travel was similarly complicated, because while I “Uber Everywhere”, places I visited had strong taxi unions and no Ubers. That does not mean you should take the taxis! They will go out of their way (literally) to drive all over the city and upcharge you. Just learn the bus and metro routes.
I completed my trip dataless too, since I have no local chip and no international data plan. Gasp! Yes, all of the logistics of this trip sound absolutely absurd and wild. But I am an absurd and wild person. The logistics may not sound desirable, but I personally had a great time. Only we know our own limits and standards, so this is why traveling solo really is the best bet.
You make what you want out of each day.
You must also answer, what is there to see and do? Before traveling I create a Google Map with color-coded pins of the attractions, and an itinerary with prices and times. A bit much? Perhaps. But super helpful. Not everyone is seeking a city tour though. Some are looking for beaches, or food, or museums, or nightlife. You can compromise on one plan, do a bit of everything, or split up. But making any of those options work takes more effort than is worth.
Everyone I know can tell you some frustrating story about how I am always late. To give you a gist, I once walked into class 40 minutes late because I was getting my hair done. But travelling I do take seriously. I am usually the first one ready. At the door by 8 AM – even of I stayed out until 2 AM the previous night. However, not everyone is morning person and some take advantage of their vacation rest. That is fair, but cuts into the time you can be exploring.
People will usually say, “I will catch up with you later,” but lost Internet connections and geographically-impaired people can make catching up difficult. Sometimes they will choose to tag along anyways out of FOMO (fear-of-missing out). But hanging out with a groggy night-owl at 8 AM can be exhausting. Similarly, being out on the dancefloor at midnight because your friend dragged you, but preferring to be in bed is not ideal for any party.
Being alone makes it so that you can explore as many places for as long as you want. When I was in Curitiba, I took a bus tour of the city. The bus stopped at 25 points and you had the opportunity to hop off and hop back on at 5 points of your choosing. Imagine trying to choose with other people. If you want you can even visit certain sites which I did while at Iguazu. In going back, I felt like I got to know the park better and less rushed than my first day.
You open yourself up to meeting new people.
As extroverted as I may seem, I can actually be quite shy if I don’t know you well. You need to really pick at my Cancerian shell for me to leave its comfort. Well, comfort is not a luxury you have when traveling alone. You are kind of obligated to talk to people so you can get questions answered and so you are not completely bored to death without having friends to talk to. Thanks to putting myself out there during my trip I can say I have some new friends now.
When traveling in Iguazu, I became friends with a group of other exchange students visiting from Mexico. I learned that they are living in Curitiba, the next stop on my trip, and got some great travel tips from them. We also got to bond over my favorite topics: boys. When I was stuck at the Iguazu airport for ten hours and made an unlikely friend in an older, gay male. We similarly bonded over boys and I learned a lot from his stories about trips throughout the world.
I became especially great friends with my Airbnb host in Curitiba. I would return from my excursions every evening and we would bond over what I had done with bottles of wine and pizza. A fellow photographer and traveler, he offered me great advice on photo editing and on what places to visit, not only in Brazil, but throughout the South America, since he backpacked alone for about five months. In fact, one our conversations sparked the idea for this blog.
When traveling alone you are more likely to be approached by other tourists than if you are in a group or with another traveler. You will be approached to take pictures (say yes, but make sure you get your pic in return), for questions, or for general conversation. Through these interactions you will get to meet travelers like yourself, from all over, and learn about their country, culture, and how they are fitting in or standing out which is always fascinating conversation.
You are more in touch with culture.
When traveling alone not only do you open up your eyes to the new country and culture, but all your senses become hyper-aware. The people you know are not around and all that is around are unknown things. To make better sense of where you are, your body heightens your sense of hearing, smell, touch, and taste. The sensory overload can be overwhelming, but amazing.
My abroad friends and I speak to each other in English and Spanish. Our Portuguese professor would be very upset to learn that, but our native tongues are comfortable. But on this trip, I spoke in Portuguese and Spanish. I noticed linguistic differences between my Portuguese and Paraná’s; between my Spanish and Argentinian Spanish. At times, the differences were confusing and frustrating. But as I opened myself, the more I even picked up accents and lingo.
My first night in Iguazu, I had Pizza Hut, because I was tired and it was convenient. My first night in Curitiba, I had Habib’s, a local Brazilian chain, because you grow to love the local chains too – even if they are also trash. But, try something new, fresh, local. I treated myself to the best Brazilian food when I ate a regional dish. I loved the regional red wine, despite usually hating red wine. I tried a chocolate strawberry pizza with a cheesy crust and it was exquisite!
I opened myself up to traveling like a local and learned significantly more about the culture than if I had taken Ubers. Sure, with Ubers you might learn on the off-shot that your driver talks to you, but I took a car barge from Argentina to Paraguay, and learned so much without speaking. I sat, waiting to depart for 40 minutes, and listened to local radio and conversations about local politics. Through their actions and clothing, I learned about local gender performance.
In Iguazu, I got many locals’ recommendations to visit Itaipu Dam. I though why would I? Science is my weakest subject; I am not one to know about engineering or energy. But I went and am glad. Itaipu Dam creates the largest amount of renewable energy in the world and provides all the region’s energy (including 80% 0f Paraguay’s energy) and most of the jobs! Cool, no? It is these surprises, where something amazing is out of your sphere, that are most memorable.
You are challenged to problem solve independently.
Be ready to think on your feet and pivot your plans. When I took the barge to Paraguay, I planned on having lunch there and taking a bus back into Brazil. Instead, I was asked to take the barge back to Argentina, since I had no visa into Paraguay. This threw my day’s budget off. I miraculously had enough (down to the cents) to scrap lunch and make it my Airbnb. I had no one to borrow money from and Venmo later. Whether abroad or home – learn to budget, adjust the budget, and make every dollar count. Also, take a little more (cash) than you think you need!
I also had trouble crossing into Argentina, a country whose language is my literal native tongue. I nearly got arrested because I could not understand the officer’s heavy accent. I felt like I imagine most White hipsters feel when moving to Spanish Harlem. The situation could have been resolved better only had I traveled with an Argentinian friend, of which I have none, so you should expect linguistic misunderstandings which you will need to get yourself out of.
I would like to think I really overcame the mother of challenges during this trip. I made it around with no internet connection. Okay, yeah, that is not by any means a real problem, but you try doing it. At many points throughout my trip I even had to use…an actual (gasp), because my Google Maps would not update and my location said I was 200 miles away from where I really was. It was fun though. I imagined I was on Great Adventure.
Bonus Challenge: Having one of your sandals break while you are walking around and are unable to call an Uber or go home to change.
You develop your work.
Being in a new environment stimulates your creativity. Studies even demonstrate how sitting in a classroom seat can awaken new perspectives (but good luck taking someone’s unassigned seat). During my trip, I definitely felt more motivated to get back to some projects I had previously left abandoned – such as my blog. There is just so much stimuli everywhere you turn and speaking to others, be it locals or tourists, can help you flesh those ideas out.
For example, when speaking to people in Curitiba, particularly my Airbnb host, I learned a lot about the politics of Southern Brazil. I learned that Southern Brazil feels so culturally different that in motions resembling Brexit or Catalonia, Southern Brazil is seeking to secede and form its own country. That knowledge provided me with the topic for my Brazilian Politics final paper.
Another benefit of traveling alone, especially for creatives, is that you have all the time to take pictures and videos. Getting the right shots can take several takes and being rushed is the worst. You also have more time to talk to locals and learn more about them or about the place you are in, which greatly supplements your content.
You learn more about yourself.
It is corny, but when you travel alone you truly do learn more about yourself. Just think about it. You have so much time to just yourself and your thoughts. That is a lot of time to reflect on topics and on experiences that you do not necessarily give yourself the time reflect on when you are busier.
The train ride from Curitiba to Morretes was 4 hours long and through the verdant Atlantic rainforest. During this trip I was able to reflect on my place in Brazil and back home. Specifically, I was very self aware about my gender identity, race, and sexual orientation. I was able to better think about my interactions with people in the United States versus the different areas of Brazil I visited. I was able to make better connections and distinctions between the two countries.
My trip through Iguazu was similarly peaceful and relaxing. As a person who grew up in New York and goes to school in DC, I can be pretty high strung. Yet, that trip taught me to take things more at ease and to go with the flow more. Especially, since a lot of things did not always go as I had expected.
All this is not to say traveling in a group is bad. There were times at which I missed it. When I asked other tourists to take my picture and the only took one blurry shot, I missed my friends who would take dozens of shots. There were so many places were I thought “I wish they were here”, because my anecdotes and pictures did not do the grandeur of the place justice. Every three minutes I would get slightly salty about seeing couples.
But overall, I feel better for this trip. I challenged and pushed myself in ways I would have never imagined possible. My understanding of and relationship with myself is different. My expectations of life and the world are different. Pursuing that kind of inner and outer awareness can be a lot. It can be scary. It can be uncomfortable. But take the plunge.