A Little Adrift

A Little Confession… Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely

Alone is a beautiful thing; it’s when I process my thoughts, absorb new travel experiences, find unexpected friendships, and detox from being “on” with other people. Lonely is not so beautiful a thing, though if I’m honest, the lonely, soul-searching lessons I learned over the past four and a half years were as instructive as any. For all that I love time alone, and I do, I have felt  sharp moments of pain staring at myself in a mirror in a random foreign country, questioning my decision to travel solo so long and so often. In tackling this subject, a subject readers email me about on a weekly basis, I aim for honest and not an upbeat “you should totally go travel solo!” I hope I always hit honesty in my writing, but sometimes I shy from the weighty subjects because there is a delicate balance between validating that I too share a fear and noting how and why I overcame the need to let that fear lull me back into conformity.

Solo in solitude as the only person taking in the bright sunshine on the shore of Loch Ness in Scotland.

Many parts of solo travel have made me a stronger person, but I respect that there are nuances to each of us — what makes solo travel so right for one person can become a negative for someone else. And so in framing this discussion, as we look at the nuances of being alone and tips at the end for fighting lonely, let’s to look to the English language first.

We have two words in English to describe the feeling of being alone: loneliness and solitude.

Each word centers on the principle concept of having no company, yet they exists on opposing sides of a single spectrum of the human experience. One day the very circumstances that trigger solitude turn into an inward bout of its darker counterpoint, loneliness.

Counselors and therapists, or even advice from a trusted best friend, gift us with a chance to reframe a situation. They help us take an overwhelming moment in life and reframe how we perceive it. Though it’s harder to do alone, it’s a muscle I still work at; every day of my life I try to train myself to find a new perspective on an old pattern, feeling, or negative situation. Most negative feelings and behaviors in the human experience have a counter-positive like this, a word we use to express the other side to that very same situation.

When does assertive cross into argumentative?

Or vivacious into loud?

When does the welcome respite of solitude shift into loneliness?

In recognizing that one day I revel in solitude while the next wallow in loneliness, I give my brain a perspective it can latch onto for this yo-yo of emotions cropping up every so often. And in looking at the many times I have rejoiced in my ability as a solo traveler to read a book for hours at a park, or to pace myself through a museum, I recognize that loneliness is an impermanent state and one I just have to ride out until it slides back down the scale into solitude.

On Sharing Travel with Others

The iconic image of McCandless, at his Alaskan campsite.

In a divergent train of thought, let’s move back into my personal experiences with loneliness on the road.  The book (and film) Into the Wild is a wonderful, heartbreaking, and lovely read. The book bears into this discussion because I often think about a sentiment Christopher McCandless wrote before he died. McCandless marked this passage in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago:

“And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness … and this was most vexing of all.” 

In the margins of this book, he scrawled, “Happiness only real when shared.”

There’s no way of knowing how close he was to death at that point, but he was isolated and alone in the Alaskan wilderness for months when he read this book. I can only speculate from my own experiences about what he was feeling to prompt writing such a statement, but it feels like loneliness from where I sit.

Sometimes when I hit the road I think about that conclusion McCandless came to before his death and I assess if I feel any of that creeping into me. Will I regret not seeing my family for the next six months? Invariably the answer is no, and that is partly because I am rarely actually alone on the road. I meet travelers, I pass time with them, and I meet locals in each new place and pass time with them too. In leaving solo, I am not truly alone, and I think that’s the key under it all. With communication at hand and hostels filled with other backpackers I have experiences to pull me from any bouts of homesickness.

I’ve been nostalgic for home, but less often than I feared before leaving. And less often than I think most readers who email also fear. The fear of having no one to talk to never manifested for me on the road, or at least not for very long. I’ve had clashes with culture shock that left me overwhelmed for a couple of hours, perhaps a day or two of generally feeling down, but that’s contrasted with more than four years of most days being new, fresh, exciting, or at least interesting (because I won’t claim laundry days are either fresh or exciting, but hunting down the laundry, negotiating for a rate, etc — it’s interesting!).

On Personality Types

Any conceptions you hold about an ideal personality type for travel is wrong. There is no ideal, there is merely how you take your approach to the world and mesh it with travel. Extroverts may not worry so much about the lonely aspect of travel because they’re confident in their ability to make friends. But introverts who have emailed me see some travel bloggers sharing photos of raucous groups celebrating on beach bars in Thai islands and wonder if they’re destined to sit alone, holed up in a hostel crying in their tea. Neither type is better suited for travel, nor is either type excluded from loneliness because loneliness is not about just being alone, it’s about the emotional place you’re in at that moment.

Some people fear eating solo; when your food looks this good you get over that fear pretty fast. And with the market culture in Asia, mealtimes buzz and hum with interesting activity.

I am, at my core, a bit of a loner. I am super sociable too, that’s for sure. And I smile a lot, which gets mistaken for being an extrovert (I end nearly every tweet with a smiley face, I know it’s obnoxious but I can’t help it).  But in reality, large groups overwhelm me and I can ramp up into manic.

If you want to talk Myers & Briggs types, I’m an INTJ, and the analysis is pretty solid. I will note too (being prone to meticulous logic) that it doesn’t say anywhere in there that I make the “perfect” solo traveler. It’s just me, and I bring all that with me as I navigate new countries and find new friendships. For there are many new friendships even for introverts.

Rather than personality types, I really think it comes down to curiosity. Leave to travel with curiosity and you’ll find the new people and experiences that light you up inside and battle away any notions of loneliness.

On Sickness and Loneliness

I move back to the quote from Into the Wild. McCandless looked at the end of his life fast approaching and he was sick, isolated, and sad; I felt so deeply for him as I read that part of the book. Those three feelings form the darkest combination of loneliness I know. And if that trio met often in my life I would seriously consider traveling less.

I have classified myself as “seriously sick” only a few times since traveling (and once in high school). The worst occurred in 2009 while I backpacked in a remote area of Laos. In that moment, I faced a loneliness I had never known because I honestly questioned if I would live through the night. It’s still one of my darkest moments in all of my travels.

How close I was to dying that night is something I’ll never know for certain, but I was weak, exhausted down to my soul, and sick enough to scribble some last thoughts for my family. Thinking back on that night spent alone on the cold-tile of the bathroom floor, after six days of self-medicating my worsening sickness in a remote area of Laos, makes me tear up. I was at a low point in my life, and if that doesn’t make someone contemplate the choices that put them in the middle of Laos without access to a phone capable of calling for a medevac, then I don’t know what else would (and I would have accepted medevac without hesitation).

A beautiful but remote area of Laos far from the Thai border and thus far from medical care.

There is no happy conclusion to this section on loneliness, it’s the only one I can’t explain away and tell you gets better. I can only say the moments are rare, and the circumstances of being in such a remote area while getting such a serious illness are not common. I recognize that it’s not common even though it happened to me.

Last month I looked at the fear of rape as the most salient point in the solo female travel argument, and I noted that I had no antidote for it — I strive to lessen the chance of that happening, but other than that I continue on with my life. I feel that way with sickness and dark loneliness. I don’t take my life lightly, and the Laos experience gave me a deep appreciation for the technology allowing me to touch base with friends and family. Which I do, often. And then I release the rest to chance.

On Missing Family and Friends

My only friend to join me on my RTW, Jenn and I backpacked through Italy and Croatia for a month!

A reader once emailed me intimating that perhaps I don’t have people back home who I miss, going so far as to ask if I love my family (I chose not take offence, it’s a fair question). I miss people and moments every single day I am on the road. I missed several “big moments”  in the lives of my friends and family as a trade-off to this journey; my four closest friends each had a baby in 2011. I missed each birth. I Skyped them from the road, my voice cracking from my spotty wi-fi cutting in and out; I shouted my congrats and sent all my love propelling across the oceans toward them.

And I continued traveling. Despite “missing” these people and moments, I am certain this is still the right time and right choice for my life.

8 Tips for Travelers Fighting Lonely

If your time on the road is tending toward the darker end of the spectrum, to fight the lonely I offer up these ideas:

A young Mexican boy fishes on a quiet beach in the last light of day.

Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:

  • Why I Decided to Travel the World: A close look at the personal motivations for my 2008 round the world trip, as well as what made me want to stay on the road all these years.
  • How We Make the Big Decisions: How do you know if you’re making the right choice in your own life? This piece takes a look at how we should make the big decisions in our life and where the risks and questions lie.
  • On Safety and Solo Female Travel: What’s it like to travel as a solo female, and what are the real fears versus perceived fears for travelers.
  • On Health and Travel Sickness: Getting sick on the road is a primary concern for a lot of travelers; this post takes a deep-dive on where, when, and why I’ve been sick on the road, as well as tips for staying healthy.
  • On Fear, Vulnerability, & the Less Sexy Side of Travel: This is the intro piece about why I started the Travel Fears series on ALA.