I long ago realized that if I have a choice between traveling alone and not traveling…I’m traveling alone. I’ve traveled with friends, and sometimes that was great. Sometimes it made me wonder why the hell I was friends with that person at all.
I’m the first one to admit that traveling alone used to scare me. And there are still some places in the world where I am not entirely comfortable traveling as a single woman. But on the whole, traveling by myself is incredibly liberating.
From an entirely selfish perspective, when I travel by myself, it’s all about me. What do I want to do today? Where do I want to go? Where do I want to eat, shop, take pictures, people watch? Do I want to meet people, join a tour, or just be alone to take pictures and soak up the atmosphere?
As a teacher, I spend my life being responsible to and for other people. Especially when I travel with kids. Don’t get me wrong – I love the kids, and I enjoy traveling with them. But the responsibility of being the adult in charge of a wandering herd of adolescents is…HUGE. So when I have a chance to spend a few days being responsible only for myself, it’s a lovely change of pace and an entirely different experience.
Take my regular trips to Spain. First, I went with friends. It was awesome. Loved it. Then I went with students. It was beyond awesome, because I had the thrill of watching my kids experience another world. And then finally I went alone.
And you know what? I met people. I went into stores I would have missed. I took pictures I would have overlooked. I spent time in the small towns and the low-tourism rural areas I love – people told me regularly that I was the only American they had ever met. I had tapas in Basque bars, I hiked the mountain with a local guide, I rummaged the hardware store for local tools and handmade Basque ceramics. I convinced a pair of mounted policemen to let me photograph their horses, and I listened to taxi drivers tell me their life stories in the matter of a few blocks.
Because I was alone and on my own schedule, if I found someone interesting, I could stop and talk. That netted me on of my favorite overseas experiences – the day I walked out of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa to find a dog rescue event in full swing. Since I live and breathe for my dogs, I went straight over. The Spanish rescue volunteers and I ended up having a fascinating conversation comparing the state of animal welfare in our respective countries. To be completely honest, the museum itself didn’t do much for me – the art was a little too modern for my taste – but the hour I spent with the rescue volunteers was priceless.
A few recommendations if you’re contemplating a one person trip: Be alert. Observe everything. Ask questions. Talk to strangers. Smile. Go where the locals go. Take pictures. Buy local handcrafts instead of hokey teeshirts. Say thank you. Dress appropriately. Follow local customs – which means informing yourself thoroughly ahead of time. Be respectful. And never, never, never complain about how the USA is so much better than wherever you’re visiting.
Give it a try…you’ll get to know the the culture you’re visiting on a whole new level. And you might get to know yourself better in the process.