Solo travelling is amazing, empowering and fun – until it’s not.
Lights flashing, reggaeton blares. The music is too loud for discussion but who would I be talking to anyway?
Everyone is having such a good time. I turn to the counter and order my third caipirinha, knowing full well I shouldn’t, that it would be the one to knock me over the edge and plummet me into the soft world of drunkenness.
Sipping my drink, just content to look busy, I look around and recognise nobody, and for a horrible moment I wonder if I have been turned invisible to the people around me, doomed to sit by the bar forever accompanied only by my drink and dark thoughts.
This post has been in the making for over two years now – at least on the conscious level, ever since that night in a busy backpacker’s bar in La Paz, Bolivia. But as a feeling it is something that has followed me for years, probably since the first trip I ever took.
There is only one, harsh word to describe it: loneliness.
Loneliness is a forbidden feeling.
When you’re travelling solo, you’re meeting all these new people all the time; you’re never alone. In fact, meeting new people seems to be easier since it’s just you. Suddenly, you’ve become a different version of yourself, someone more fun and outgoing than before.
Well, that’s the expectation.
In my years of backpacking, I’ve mostly gone at it solo. It never scared me: I’ve always been self-sufficient and independent, and I knew I could take care of myself if my wallet got robbed, if I needed stitched or if my heart broke. And I’ve loved it: solo travel offers so much freedom over yourself it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced. It’s the complete lack of dependency on other people.
And then the first bout of loneliness strikes and suddenly you wish there were more people who missed you.
Us travellers, we don’t talk about loneliness. It’s the number one worry of all new backpackers and we want to encourage them to get out there, we don’t want to scare them away. We don’t like to highlight negative emotions.
Even worse, we don’t want to admit we are lonely; because no one else seems to be. And if everyone else is having a great time, your loneliness must mean there is something wrong with you.
These thoughts have attacked me often in the past few years.
The trouble of being an introvert
Being an introverted solo traveller might sound like an impossible combination but mostly, I’ve made it work. It does present its own unique challenges, though.
“Extrovert” is like a setting in my brain that I have to turn on. Like a light switch
Being an introvert means that I use more energy socialising with people, so when I do spend a lot of time with someone, I have to make sure I’m not wasting my time. I en
joy easy connections and effortless friendship where I’m not the one carrying the conversation. Like many introverts, I also struggle to open myself up to new people quickly.
This sometimes makes it hard to start conversations with people in hostels. I just can’t be bothered. The more I travel, the more of the same conversation I’ve had, and by now the Cotton-Eye Joe conversation (“where did you come from – where do you go”) feels like eating cardboard for dinner: it fills the belly but provides no nutritional value.
I know travel friendships are very fleeting and fragile, and while some people might enjoy company in general, I prefer long-winded hang-outs with people that I truly have a connection with. While travelling, you often move on so quickly that there’s never time for these kinds of friendships to develop.
Quick friendships can be very detrimental to people like me who get attached easily and have a hard time letting go of the people they meet. This might lead to more voluntary isolation from company, feeding into the whole cycle of loneliness.
The changing dynamic of solo travel
My loneliness might be my own fault; I might come across as a grumpy old man yelling at a cloud. But I’ve got to say it: hostel travel has changed from when I first started.
You could blame smartphones. I know some of my travelling friends do. You can’t deny their effect, anyway: before I had offline maps on a 5” screen, I had to print out my hostel reservations. I even talked to people to ask for directions. (Can you imagine?) In hostel common rooms, it was easy to strike up a conversation because it felt like you were only interrupting their staring at an opposite wall. Now, when people walk around with mini-entertainment systems strapped to their person, what can you offer that’s better?
Personally, I believe that the changed demographic of travellers is also to blame.
When I went on my first backpacking trip, nearly everyone I met was travelling alone. Some were together with a friend but mostly it was all solo travellers, or small groups that had started out as singulars and mashed together into one big beautiful plural on the way.
Nowadays I see a lot more groups travelling. A lot more older people that can either be very interesting and endearing as guests or weird as fuck – but whichever category they fall into, they’re usually not keen on the regular hostel events. There are a lot more couples now, too. So many couples. I think I’m too single to be seeing this many couples.
I thought that maybe it just depended on the destination; maybe I was dooming myself into isolation by picking less popular destinations like Bolivia or Georgia or Iran. But after having a few conversations with fellow travellers, I’m not so sure I’m crazy anymore. Many seem to agree with me: hostels, and thus solo travel, have become more unsocial.
Why it took me over two years to write this post and why I am publishing it now
There have been two reasons I haven’t put this out there in the world before this.
Firstly, it has made me incredibly uncomfortable. I didn’t want to confess that I was the only traveller in the world who no one wanted to hang out with. I am very, very bad at talking about my feelings, especially the negative ones.
If you follow me on Instagram, you might be surprised to hear this. On Instagram, I’ve been sharing the good and the bad pretty honestly, so much that it has become easy. The captions are small, bite-sized, and my flawed brain and all of its horrible thoughts can’t spiral out of control in a limited space (like they do in a blog post. Are you still with me? Congrats for making it this far).
And Instagram is a big reason why I now feel brave enough to publish this post: because when I’ve shared my less-than-fantastic moments, I’ve always been met with a lot of support. People telling me that I’m not crazy, that I’m not the only one experiencing loneliness travelling – the exact things that I worried about. Because while it might serve me well to become softer and more vulnerable, it might help someone dealing with the same issues even more.
Secondly, though, I am always a little worried to publish anything negative because I don’t want to participate in fear-mongering when it comes to solo travel. In the few posts I’ve shared on Instagram talking about loneliness while travelling, I’ve always had a few people comment “and that’s why I’d never travel alone”.
I love solo travel. I love having freedom and choice and flexibility, and I love sitting by myself, listening to a current favourite song or to the wind, facing the sunset or the sea or the city lights. I find a lot of inspiration in moments of aloneness.
But that’s just the poetic side of it. Because on the more concrete side of things, solo travelling has made me braver, more independent, more easy-going, funnier, more introspective, more fearless. Solo travelling can be a very empowering experience and help you become a better person in ways that you couldn’t have even imagined.
But nothing is ever perfect. A lot of travel writing tends to gloss over the negative or choose to view the bad moments under a romantic light when in reality when it sucks, it fucking sucks. We need to be more open and honest about all sides of our travel experiences: if for nothing else then to confirm that, in fact, you are not as alone as you think you are.