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.

traveling alone at loch ness scottland
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

into the wild
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.

Tophu nway, Shan soup.
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).

Laos Countryside
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

Beautiful Tuscan Landscape
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:

  • Call home. Call your parents or best friends using either Skype or Google Voice; if they’re savvy you can even video-chat or FaceTime with them. Those friendly voices are often the best cure when I’m feeling blue, and I’ll even indulge and spend several hours just catching up with people so I erase the feeling that I’m missing out on the lives of people I love and care about.
  • Volunteer. Selfless-service is a great way to recalibrate your sense of gratitude and happiness. As an added bonus, it often allows you to interact with other great people who will also help pull you from your funk. (::cough, cough:: I wrote a book on international volunteering should you be so inclined).
  • Find other travelers. Though I have always found showing up in a new place provided enough new people for me, my level of interaction would be downright anti-social for others. If you love the experience of meeting new people, organizing trekking partners, and finding travel buddies, there are numerous forums to get you there. I have used Couchsurfing in the past with success, I got great advice from the indie travelers in BootsnAll’s forums before my RTW trip, and the Thorntree from Lonely Planet is a good starting place if only for the sheer size of their user base. And for a ton of other options, this site shares the a list of travel forums.
  • Stick with travelers you like. In the early days, it was hard for me to honor my inner lemming and take others up on their offers to tag along. Sure a day trip is fair game, but to up and join a formed group of other travelers … surely they’re jesting and don’t want me to say yes?” Yes, they do or they wouldn’t offer. I have met amazing people by pairing up and agreeing to take off my solo-travel mantle for days and weeks a time; trips that beat away any fingers loneliness that were creeping in and formed lifelong friendships.
  • Indulge in the mindless. Partake in your couch-worthy activity of choice and refuse to feel guilty. That may mean spending a few hours catching up on Nashville (I’m guilty of streaming this show), or with a good book, or surfing the internet. As long as you enjoy it, it’s fair-game.
  • Splurge. Give yourself a break in whatever way you like to splurge. Book a nicer guesthouse for a few nights (this can combine nicely with TV time if you choose well), get a massage, treat yourself to a tasty food that makes you feel good. Sometimes lonely creeps up when other things about travel combine and compound over time.
  • Remember, this too shall pass. Loneliness is impermanent, and riding out an evening or two of feeling low happens to me on the road, but also at home. Part of being human is recognizing that  to have our highs, we must accept there will be days comparatively lower. But if it’s more than loneliness and has moved into lingering depression, seek help.
  • Check in with yourself. Listen to your intuition and know that maybe you should go home. While some solo travelers are comfortable with a year away, others with three months. Honor who you are and what you need. In that moment in Laos, I thought with ever fiber of my being that I would never see my family again. When I came out on the other side of my illness, I looked closely at my travels and realized I needed to stay aware of at what point I may reach a similar moment and stare at regret instead of intense sadness. The dynamics of my current travel style — half a year on the road, then a few months at home — were born from that moment in Laos. During that first year of travel, I realized that after being away from home for more than six months I entered a time when I would regret not seeing family and friends if something serious happened to either them or to me.
sunset mexico
A young Mexican boy fishes on a quiet beach in the last light of day.

Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:

A Little Honesty… On Safety and Solo Female Travel

Concerns about my safety on the road plagued those who love and care about me when I first announced my plan to travel solo around the world. Long-term travel is still an uncommon practice in the United States (compared to Europe and Australia) so perhaps the chief issue I dealt with was the fact that most of my friends had never heard of someone taking a round the world trip. Top that with media portrayals of other countries and you might think every country outside the United States is fraught with peril at every corner.

Top of the Monument
Traveling totally solo and feeling very safe in Scotland, safe enough for this selfie on top of Stirling Monument.

I have not found this to be the case on the road these past years, but in my  early days of planning, their fears became my fears and the entire situation caused, to-date, the only anxiety attacks I have ever had. It was the solo aspect more than the safety when I first left (in the throes of the naïveté of my mid-twenties), but both fears were present during that first year. Before I left, my solo fears circled around the idea of loneliness, but safety is the biggie that gets thrown in my face most often, then as well as now, when I announce new places I will visit.

I am a young solo female and thus pretty much lowest on the totem pole in terms of the types of travelers. Couples have safety in numbers and male solo travelers have an easier go of it in terms of world-wide gender inequality issues, a fact not up for debate—it’s just different for a solo man. So, I’d like to take a look at the different elements of safety on the road—it’s broad topic in regards to travel, and most travelers I know have, at one time or another, dealt with safety fears related to: health, physical safety, and risky activities. Health is a topic for another day; today I’m focusing on physical safety fears that I could have let overcome my desire to travel the world. These are fears that I still consciously choose to overcome each time I leave because it’s not a one-shot deal . . . the nature of some fears is that they are solved for a time and place, but not in general. I travel, but it does not mean that I don’t harbor fear; fear is a part of the human experience and evolutionary wise it was needed for survival. Now though, a lot of what triggers fears on the evolutionary scale are no longer valid (it’s unlikely a cougar will stalk me down a city street at night) but they are vestiges of being human, so let’s understand and address the main fears, one by one.

On Traveling as a Solo Female

I have only increased my safety by traveling rather than simply staying home. I now have a greater breadth of experience and knowledge to draw upon when assessing uncertain situations.

If we boil down the core fear for solo women it’s rape. And I can’t downplay that, it’s a fear I share and it’s the main differentiating part of traveling as a solo woman—it’s my fear and the fear of every person who raises their eyebrow when I share that I travel solo. My best friend’s mother heartily disapproves of my travels. And though it often concerns the places I choose to visit (U.S. media does not treat Mexico well in the news), she has known me since I was in high school and she genuinely fears for my safety; she fears that something truly devastating will happen.

And for my family, my dad puts a lot of trust in my judgment because he seldom mentions the core dangers. He emails me travel warnings and keeps me updated on conflicts in areas nearby my travel route—so I know he’s concerned—but he trusts me treat my own life with care, and that’s the main advice I usually email to other travels: respect your own life. I take precautions and steps to mitigate the chances I am in a bad situation; I choose hostels in safe areas, I stay sober, and I stay aware. There are more practical actions too, and I share more at the end of this post. Beyond that, I can’t stop random acts of violence on the road any more than I can at home—and the rape/homicide rates in many U.S. cities prove that home is dangerous, too.

Safety as a solo female traveler also involves discussing sexual harassment. Female readers have asked over the years if I’ve ever feared for my safety, if I’ve had negative experiences on the road. I’m always tempted to write back that I’m lucky nothing terrible has happened to me, but that statement just pisses me off because it shouldn’t come down to luck. As a woman, I shouldn’t have to hope and pray that a man doesn’t decide to harm me, but it’s the state of the world.

Let’s look at that idea more closely: Safety for female travelers comes down to luck and not preparation alone.

Anyone who says that they avoided issues on the road “because they were prepared,” or because they did “all the right things,” imply a false sense of security. Plus it’s an insult to any woman who has been harmed while traveling—citing preparation as the sole reason for safety does a grave disservice to the facts. Violence against women is an epidemic. It’s a problem in the U.S., and a problem in many countries I visit. I can take steps to minimize my exposure to risk when traveling, but I can’t change the nature of the world—this ready violence against women. No one can plan against the sheer ill-luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Me and Jordi around Town
Since guards are down with locals during India’s Holi celebrations you have to be alert, but I will always remember the fun times with my friends Jordi and Neil wandering around town during the Festival of Colors.

For the sake of transparency on this issue, I have been aggressively groped three times in my life. Each time I was disappointed and mad, and (luckily) none were to the point that I feared it would go further. Each incident reminded me that the way society sees women has a long way to go in a lot of places in the world, my own country included. In 10 years as a solo female traveler, I have experienced only two incidences of clear violence against me. One was in broad daylight during a festival in India and another in Jordan, also during the day. The third incident happened before I left to travel, at a bar in Los Angeles, and of the three it was the most aggressive, invasive, and left me feeling the worst—and it was in a crowded bar with my friends nearby.

I didn’t write about these incidences at the time not out of fear, shame, or covering anything up, but rather because they defined my travel experiences in neither Jordan and India, nor in LA. And I wasn’t solo for any of them. In fact, in all three instances I had men and friends nearby and it didn’t stop the harassment. Three continents, three entirely different cultures, and yet similar attitudes toward women created that shared experience . . . more a statement on the way women are treated the world over rather than on travel, specifically.

I can’t say that nothing will befall female travelers, but I can say that it is not the norm. Truly. Kindness the world over has been the baseline of my experiences all over the world, but it’s hard to combat that when the random acts of violence against women are highlighted more prominently in global media. I know that if something happens to me—and there is that chance—that it will likely be random, and it will be poor timing: wrong place, wrong time. And it could just as likely happen during my time in the U.S. as in the places I travel.

I can’t live from a place of fear. I travel with self-defined policies, agreements I have made with myself to lessen my exposure to risky situations. Beyond that, I put my trust in the world. It may fail me, but that is a risk I have consciously chosen.

how to make a krathong
A friend in Thailand shows my niece Ana and Em how to fold traditional patterns into the palm frond krathongs for a local festival.

On Taking Risks

There is no one-size rule. Life, and travel, is about constantly assessing a situation, making predictions, observations, and acting based on those assessments. Sometimes the assessments are off and I make a bad choice. But it is an absolute fact that traveling has greatly increased my ability to size up a situation and a person and make an accurate judgment. In talking to people from all walks of life—all cultures, backgrounds, attitudes—I have created a book of knowledge that I add to whenever I encounter something new.

If safety is the topic, then I have only increased my safety by traveling—I have a greater breadth of experience and knowledge that I can draw from when assessing uncertain situations.

Surf Camp
Not so risky, but tricky enough for me. Learning to surf in Byron Bay, Australia.

A reader emailed me about taking risks. He heard my story about hiking an active volcano in Guatemala on a podcast and asked: “Something that called my attention was your positive attitude towards risk, so different from mine. [Please share] a few sentences about how you approach risk in your travels, and especially inside your mind.”

My response to him:

I am not an adventurous traveler by any stretch—there are those who do all the big, risky, sporty things. For me though, I try to nudge the boundaries of my comfort zone, but there are many things I won’t do that others will. Travel is highly personal, so if you don’t want to hike a volcano then I say don’t do it and stand firm in that decision.

When I was in Belize, just before I traveled through Guatemala, I had a big decision to make and I erred on the side of caution because it made me intensely uncomfortable to do something that some other travelers easily think is okay. I was at the blue hole, a popular dive site off the coast of Belize, and I had planned, dreamed, and anticipated diving there for several years. Once I arrived though, I didn’t like the attitudes of the dive companiesmany take very novice divers down even though it’s a difficult dive. The thought of diving that deep made me nervous, and I decided that seeing the caves 140 feet below the water was not worth the risk—I assessed the situation and realized I didn’t care enough about the experience to put myself on what I perceive is a risky dive. So I didn’t. Instead I snorkeled nearby, did a couple of shore dives on the reef, and had a perfectly enjoyable time. Other divers may think my decision was silly because thousands of people do that dive without harm, but it didn’t feel right for me. I trusted that feeling, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Traveling is highly personal and what one person does, enjoys, or finds interesting another won’t—and the same goes with risk. Find the travel experience that you think fits you personally and that makes you excited to travel and go do that! Travel should excite you and push just at the edge of your comfort zone. That’s how we grow and change—not by necessarily doing outright risky things, but by confronting the small fears that are boxing us in and not allowing us to live the life we want.

My fear of that dive made it unsafe for me. It pushed me too far outside my comfort zone, and it’s likely I would have done something dangerous from that fear. I knew it wasn’t a good choice because I wouldn’t have stayed calm, and that could prove fatal while diving that deep, when there’s no margin for error. For me, the balance of facing a fear versus the risks and safety of travel becomes learning what are informed fears—which are based on a truth—and which are instead masking fears of change or fears of challenging the status quo. It can be hard to tell the difference, at first, but there is a big difference in the actions that should result.

Holding a tarantula in Guatemala
Saying hello to a tarantula my guide pulled from the ground while exploring Tikal, Guatemala.

On the Actual Dangers

The very basic fact of it all is that if something serious happens to me on the road it will likely be a transportation based injury—just like at home. Traffic accidents and drowning are far more common the world over than tragedies from these other fears according to the U.S. State Department. Fatal traffic accidents far outweigh death from terrorism, plane crashes, or infectious disease according to the CDC.

Some chicken bus drivers in Central America are on duty for 24 hours while driving decades-old buses on pothole strewn roads. The rickety buses in India speed over high mountain passes in the dark and careen around curves protected by guard rails held on with scotch-tape and wishful thinking. Rampant corruption in Mexico (and Bali, and India, and . . .) means that no matter your traffic infraction, you can buy your way out of the ticket for less than $100 (and often just $20).

Chicken bus guatemala

And a “Thai tattoo” in Thailand doesn’t refer to getting some ink while tipsy and high on life—it’s the scabs, scars, and road rash mottling the skin of travelers who have crashed their motorbikes. Something that happens often enough that it has nicknames in every places travelers take this risk (it’s also so common in Bali that it’s called a Bali Kiss). In 2011, I got in a traffic accident in Laos with my niece Ana because I made a riskier decision than I probably should have, and I have several gnarly “Laos tattoos” that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Ana came out of the accident unscathed (thank god) but I had a serious muffler burn, went into shock, and limped away with a lot of road rash on my hip, elbow, and knees.

Did you know that fatal traffic accidents in Thailand are the second leading cause of death for U.S. travelers abroad? The first being traffic accidents in Mexico. No joke.

Three to a motorbike
Three to a motorbike with Jodi and Ana in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Transportation laws are sparse in many developing countries, and those they have rarely enforced in full.

Now compare this to the dialogue from people each time I leave for Mexico or Thailand. I hear about the drug cartels in Mexico, getting seriously sick, and the “scary people” who may harm me. The reality is that while precautions for the other areas are needed, our perceptions are skewed by the media. Outside perspectives often simply reinforcing political doctrine or maintain societal norms.

The map of the world according to mainstream media would have me think a broad swath of the world is untravelable, that the people in these countries I visit cultivate hate and will actively harm me. That’s not true. More than 95% of the world may not like the politics of the west. They may not like my religion. But they are not seeking ways to harm me. Or you. In fact, that 95% doesn’t really think about me at all. They raise their kids and work each day to put food on the table . . . just like in the U.S. So in terms of harm, I don’t feel the religious or cultural based fears. Granted, there are regions I approach with caution because of the gender inequality issues, but the danger map of the world is far different in actuality than you might think, so I point you to this post for more on accurately assessing location-based fears.

On Overcoming Fears

Have enough fear to keep you present each moment of your travels, enough to keep you cautious, but not enough to stop you from traveling. Male or female, there is a basis for fear or we wouldn’t discuss this issue. Bad things can happen. But travel changed my life; it made me a better person, it opened opportunities in my life and facets of understanding I never knew I lacked. It bred compassion into the fiber of who I am as a citizen of this world.

Safety and risks come down to time and place as much as anything. Each region, country, or moment of life comes with its own issues, risks, and fears. I take steps to accurately understand the risks of a place, and I act with my own safety in mind. Then I release the rest to chance, which is all any of us can do because risk is a part of life. Just as there are little risks, there are big risks, too. The biggest one for me being looking back on my 20s and 30s and thinking “what would my life look like if I had traveled young?”

A Little Adrift

There are many things I may look back and regret, but this will not be one of them. To close this out, and before mentioning the specific female travel tips, I will say, as I have many times, that I have found true kindness, friendship, and generosity in each corner of the world, in the mostly unlikely of people, and in countries other Americans assume are only filled with foes. People have gone out of their way to extend help when I needed it, times when I was at my most vulnerable—sick, lost, alone—and that common thread of generosity follows me around the world. Fears have a place in keeping us safe, but without frankly talking about the true facets of traveling in diverse places it’s easy to believe the world is the sum of its dangers. By and large it’s the opposite: traveling becomes the sum of human kindness. It only takes a commitment to shifting your perspective to see that.

How safe do we want to be? How much of ourselves are we willing to give up for it?

Sarah Hepola

Practical Solo Female Travel Tips

Safety and Solo Female Travel: An honest discussion and practical advice for female travelers.

These handful of tips should be paired with common sense and they will take you most any place you want to go in life:

1. Do Your Research & Bookmark Important Resources
Read the national travel advisories and research what the government says are the key dangers—many local embassies around the world will update country and city listings with nuanced safety information surfaced by no amount of Google searching. The U.S. government has one, though I find the Canadian one more thorough in some regards. The Canadian one also includes an extensive section on risks for women—have a read and then bookmark because it has a section for “If the worst happens.” While your embassy is one potential point of contact for Americans abroad, Pathway’s to Safety International provides care for American victim’s abroad.

2. Understand Local Cultural Norms
The first thing I recommend to any traveler—male or female—is to understand the cultural norms. Read about your upcoming destination; read memoirs and histories and the accounts of travelers and locals in that destination. Email local expats or locals who blog; figure out the geo-politics and religions and these will inform your travels as well as your behaviors. I have a whole section of this site dedicated to the best travel books broken down by region/country for this very reason—so you can learn and understand before you leave and have a baseline for your actions. In some places you should cover your hair (Iran) while others it’s best to cover shoulders and legs but belly is acceptable (India). The interactions between women and men differ and you cannot travel and assume your home culture will follow you. Although Western women are afforded “male” status in some countries, you cannot accept that as a given. That means things like direct eye contact, touching, and even the way you address others is up for adjustments as you travel.

3. Involve Others in Your Safety
Look around you and find ways to involve the people in this new place in your safety—usually just telling them you are alone is enough. This applies to bartenders, hotel clerks, and any place you might be waiting around. Tell your hotel you’re traveling alone and they will make certain you know any risky areas in the city; many also go out of their way to make sure you arrive home each evening. Bartenders only need to know that you’re concerned to take you under their wing. The same goes with waiting: At bus stations, when I have hours of sitting around, I will ask other groups if I can sit near them (or I’ll just do it). Recognize that you being alone is often a choice, and telling the right person gives you a network of people also aware and concerned for your safety.

4. Choose When You’re Solo
Finding ways to get comfortable once you land, and know that you don’t have to be solo even if you are traveling solo. I often take a free walking tour on my first day or two in a capital city. These tours offer a lot of history and all of that, which is fun, but there’s often cultural information included too, which helps me understand where I should put my attention. And what’s more, walking tours are filled with other travelers visiting for the next few days or weeks. It doesn’t always work out that I meet someone I want to do something else with, but sometimes I will at least meet with tour people for food/drinks/daytrip another day. Even more, I have paid for one- or multi-day tours when I just wasn’t in a state of mind to handle things myself. If you arrive abroad and don’t love how things are going, book a tour, buy your peace of mind. If you mentally set aside a bit of budget to cover it, just in case, then it’s there if you need it.

5. Stay Aware
One reason I sleep for a week straight when I go home is because my brain is taxed after months of maintaining awareness of everything around me. When I’m walking down the street, there’s only one brain mapping the city to make sure I can get back to my guesthouse. On buses, if I’m solo then I’m likely not asleep. To date, the only times I have had issues is when I pair up with another traveler and both of us relax in ways we never would otherwise. We lose awareness and we forget things, get lost, allow ourselves to be surrounded by touts, etc. As a solo traveler, you need to assess and make decisions constantly. This post on how to build situational awareness is brilliant. Read it. Borrow a couple of those books from the library before you leave. And though it’s written from a male point of view, the descriptions of how to teach yourself to continually assess new situations is a valuable skill on the road.

6. Stay Sober
This is a personal choice and it dovetails with stay aware. While I love a good beer, and while enjoying drinks in dive bars around the world is a backpacker rite of passage, I don’t ever get sloshed when I’m solo. My stance on drinking when I’m with others varies depending on the time, place, and situation, just as it did when I lived in Los Angeles.

7. Know Basic Self Defense
Before I left in 2008, I spent four months learning Krav Maga, an Israeli form of self-defense training. The gym was near my home in L.A. and I booked an unlimited package so I could rapidly build my self defense skills before I set off solo. Self-defense training for women is important, not only do you learn reflexive defense skills, but it’s a huge confidence booster. I have never used my Krav Maga training, thankfully, but every day I am the road I carry that knowledge. I know how to properly punch, and I know how to push through the exhaustion-barrier in a fight. Again, while I’ve never needed it, and there is every reason to believe that you won’t either if you are aware and cautious, there is no reason you shouldn’t research local classes and learn the basics. Many local YMCAs, libraries, or women’s group offer affordable classes. I highly recommend it. Will it save me if someone truly means me harm? I don’t know, probably not—but I like my chances better for knowing it.

8. Stop Being Too Nice
Say no to anything that makes you uncomfortable. I read once that men who want to do harm prey on the societal expectation that woman are polite and accommodating—many of us were taught to give indirect and polite noes. Reading that changed how I approach interactions that make me uncomfortable. Because I did that, all the time. There were times in my early travels politely listened, or tried to gently ditch to an over-eager tout, cautious of being perceived as too aggressive or mean. Now I just don’t care if I’m rude, and you shouldn’t either. I would never be rude in the general course of life, but if it’s something unsolicited and I feel uncomfortable, I go for blunt and immediate. You don’t owe them your kindness, you owe your instincts and gut your attention.

9. Carry Travel Insurance
Since we’ve honestly looked at the safety issues, the biggest threat is actual bodily harm from traffic accidents. I carry travel insurance every time I leave the U.S. Although I have never used it—I paid for the Laos hospital visit out of pocket since it was only $80—I feel safer knowing I can call on medevac or a hospital visit if I am in a serious accident or very sick. This post thoroughly reviews options and gives a detailed breakdown of how to pick a good company; or just head to World Nomads if you’re a backpacker and looking for the best policy my research has found, with decent rates to boot.

10. Carry a Doorstop and Safety Whistle
My travel friend Jodi highly recommends both, so although I carry only the whistle, I know several solo females who feel a lot safer with both.

11. Pay for Your Safety
Take a cab. Spring for the closer hotel. Plan enough of your day that you’re not left risky areas after dark and you’re not riding on an overnight bus. Traveling on a budget often puts us in a mind-frame of penny-pinching and it’s easy to get caught up in the notion of saving every dime possible. Before I left, I vowed to myself that if I caught myself in a moment when I was about to make a decision that valued my money over my safety that I would reconsider the choice. I take the cab when I’m lost, unsure, or have far to go, even though a cab is surely not very “backpackery” of me. I schedule my flights to arrive in a new city during the day, if possible, and I book easy transport to the hotel if not. Uber is now in most major cities around the world—download it, set it up, and be ready to use it in a pinch (and of course, buy a local SIM card when you land so you can summon said Uber).

What are your thoughts? Do you agree with my assessment of the safety or have any other tips and resources for solo women?

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.
  • Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely: Many readers have emailed about if they should take off on a solo trip, and this looks at what it’s like to travel solo, as well as why it can be a life-changing experience.
  • 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.

If there is ever anything that I can do to help, please do reach out on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and let’s talk about how we can make your travel dream a reality.

A Little Honesty… On Why I Decided to Travel the World

welcome to the united states
Some people go their entire lives without wanting to leave the confines of our borders. That was never me.

Every so often, readers email me asking what compelled me to travel solo back in 2008. Then they wonder why I never stopped traveling. They ask: “Why were you willing to pack up your life and leave my friends and family behind?”

Their curiosity leaps from the page. I hear the gentle upspeak at the end of the question as they wonder about this strange creature who doesn’t have the trappings of many other women in their late twenties: house, toddler, and a 9-5 job.

Some readers presume I use travel as a way to run away from my problems and issues. They hurl the accusation as if they are catching me in a lie. The short answer is: I was probably running, but it wasn’t away from my problems, but rather into the one thing I thought could help me manifest the personal changes I wanted for my life.

There is the shiny side of traveling, which I have talked about before. There is that shining, beacon of hope for travelers that comes from the pure desire to see new places. This is a dream that pushes many to travel. They yearn to see the bright colors and faces of new city, to hear the slide of new languages lilt over the ear, and to capture those moments in time. We capture these moments through story, photos, or simply being witness to the travels. It’s the dream of many, but yet in the U.S. so few of us take the steps to realize that dream; culturally round the world trips are just not very common.

Crafting My Motivations to Travel

I had those shiny travel dreams too, but in the days leading up to purchasing my one-way ticket I realized more than the distant notion of seeing a place, I had perhaps found a way to help me transition into a new and shinier Shannon too. I wanted to quickly shed everything I had built up until then. I wanted to run. I wanted to change the me I saw myself becoming. I wanted to run from obligations I felt looming over me. And I wanted to run from a cookie-cutter pattern for life that felt molded for someone else. I know using personal issues as a catalyst to travel seems naïve — because you can’t solve anything by running—but it’s only naïve if you think you’re escaping by running.

I am impulsive rather than brave. I often let (present tense, it’s still something I do) frustration be my guide as much as anything. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2006, just months graduating college, I gave everyone a four-week notice. Why four weeks? I could tell you it was because I had a burning desire to jump into acting, but equally alongside that desire was a simple truth: I needed immediate space from my family.

When I was 21-years-old, one of my four older brothers died of a drug overdose. His death was a turning point for my family. His death created a crack from which we have never come back. It created rifts and pains that remain unhealed because his death was too much for the fragile balance of our familial dysfunction.

So I moved to Los Angeles. And it followed me, as all things we run from do. I shared a bit more on that here. But suffice to say, I spent two long years living in LA and working in the entertainment industry. I felt the city breaking my spirit. I fielded more family dysfunction from my hometown across the country. I found myself frustrated and primed for a change.

A conversation with my dad planted the seed for traveling overseas. Since I work online (and I had this work even before I read Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek), I had more choices than many in my circumstance. Traveling and working was a novel idea, it wasn’t one that had ever occurred to be mfore. And it came to me at a time when I felt like I was drowning — I hated LA by that point. I don’t hate it now. My hatred was more about me than the city. Now think of that period of time in the City of Angels with a tingling nostalgia. At the time, however, I struggled with the superficial nature of the acting industry. I wasn’t doing a great job navigating my first grown-up relationship. And I had handled my family situation horribly.

We each make decisions we think are healthier for us, decisions that will give us a hand in navigating our life. Choices related to our life’s work or our health, decisions to cut out family members or friends, or perhaps to move out of our home state to gain distance from poisonous relationships.

I decided that I would travel and hope that time, distance, and growing up would give me clarity on each of those other choices facing me in my life. The personal side of me craved the distance from issues I had not yet learned to cope with, just as the intellectual dreamer in me craved the new cultures, people, languages, and interactions.

Accepting Someone Like Me Could Travel

My vision board for 2008.
I unearthed this photo last week, it’s a vision board I created in December 2007 with all the ideas and things I wanted in my life in 2008. The entire lower right corner represents travel; I bought my one-way ticket seven months later.

I have dreamed of travel since I was young and paged through National Geographic magazines. I feel a pull, a need to make distant places feel like my own. To feel like I have laid witness to the range of experience and place this world has to offer. I also love languages and have studied many over the years — Spanish, Italian, Thai, and American Sign Language. Linguistic nuances fascinate me. The way we express ourselves shapes how we think and act. During college, I loved it enough to declare myself a linguistics major for one brief semester in college.

In deciding to travel long-term, I married my internal struggles with my dreams. I don’t regret the dysfunctions or issues that brought me to the decision either. It’s likely these very aspects of myself that motivated me to leave and allowed me to overcome the fear of setting off solo. And I am fortunate that I came to this place in my life in my mid-twenties, when I had the lack of responsibilities, the time, the willingness to “rough it,” and just enough narcissism to justify leaving behind my friends and family.

Accepting that travel was possible for me — a moderately poor, still in student loan debt, no real savings kinda girl — owning that decision, changed my life. From that moment of acceptance to buying my plane ticket spanned about a week. That’s the impulsive side of me. I knew I wanted to travel, I was a little lost in my life (some might even say adrift), and a week later, June 16, 2008, I bought a one-way ticket so I that couldn’t back out of the plan.

Waiting for the tide
Before I left, I felt like a stranded boat at high tide. Stuck.

Using Travel as an Incubator for Personal Growth

My decision wasn’t just about seeing the world and traveling; I needed the time, space, and perspective to become a better person, to feel like more of a whole person. Travel did not fix me, but it instead it was an incubator for personal growth—something I craved five years ago and something I often hear as the main rationale behind why teens and young adults should travel more. Before I left to travel, a close friend told me: “No one out there knows who you are, they hold no expectations. Become the person you want to be.” And the road is a good place for that sentiment.

The travel experience holds a mirror to your face and forces you to come to terms if you’re the person you want to be. Once you see yourself, traveling gives you ample time to dissect the nuances of those discoveries on marathon 36 hour bus rides, endless trains, solo dinners, and dark moments hugging a toilet hours later.

I consciously choose both reasons for traveling, and I know this is not true for everyone. For many I speculate there is more purity in the decision, but heck, I only speculate. Because perhaps, deep inside, many of us know that life on the road will give us the chance to re-write our story. I re-wrote the story I told myself about who I was. And although there are many paths in life, I couldn’t have rewritten my story without this new path in my life.

Travel is an accelerator allowing your own issues to bubble to the surface — healing those issues is an option, you can choose to travel and remain unaffected, or you can seek out the person you want to be and allow the lessons on the road teach you the path. All of this occurring alongside the breathtaking moments of joy as you see whales breaching a foot off the bow of your boat, a spectacular sunrise in a jungle forest hanging from a zip-line, and the laughter of new friendships.

Curbside Balinese offering
New spiritualities and religions waited for me — new ways to reframe the story of the world I had long held as truth.

That being said, if I had known just how forcefully travel would make me face my own demons, I would have lacked the courage to even back my backpack.

It was in my Vipassana meditation course that I came to terms with my brother’s death. Surely some of the peace I now feel would have come through another experience in my life had I not spent those ten days in solitary contemplation. But travel was my gateway. Travel provided me with a path for healing. I am nicer than I was, and that was partly from reconnecting with volunteering and service as I traveled. Traveling butted me up against the worst aspects of myself: the girl who was (is?) quick to anger, the girl with strong opinions, the girl who runs from her problems. Travel is and was my boot-camp for life.

Though, I assimilated life lessons more quickly in the first two years of travel than any other time in my life (which I talked a lot about in my four years of travel piece), I still have a long ways left.

There are pieces of me that will remain no matter what I do. These pieces are a part of my story. But there are issues, patterns, habits, and behaviors that travel mirrors back to me, it allows me to see those that no longer serve me.  Traveling solo built the strength in me to face the issues that propelled me into leaving. It didn’t solve them, but it taught me where and how to find the strength to address them. There are no doubt many other choices in life that can bring similar results, but those were not my path.

And so, that single decision to buy my one-way ticket was the start of the personal journey to fulfill my dream to travel, and to become a better person. It was the day I decided not allow circumstances to dictate who I am.

sunset in mexixco

I needed time to heal through some personal struggles — and I have healed through many, though far from all — and to follow what I now believe was my path. I was meant to be a traveler, and in coming well into my fourth year on the road I realized that the time and experiences with my nieces and nephews have given me a clearer vision of what I want to do with my life in one way or another (and once I overcome the fears related to this new venture): I want to share travel with youth, to get to them when they’re young and inspire them to find the new ideas, perspectives, and personal growth that long-term travel and service provides.

More than anything I want the next generation to learn their place in the world, because I know that only in making myself whole, only in taking that personal journey over the past four years have I come to a place where I can begin to truly be of service.

Travel is like love, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end. — Pico Iyer

Other Entries in the ALA Travel Fears Series:

  • 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.
  • Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely: Many readers have emailed about if they should take off on a solo trip, and this looks at what it’s like to travel solo, as well as why it can be a life-changing experience.
  • 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.

A Little Honesty… On Fear, Vulnerability, & the Less Sexy Side of Travel

Over the years I have shared stories and snapshots of life on the road — glimpses into the beautiful people and places I have experienced. Sometimes, I shared the obstacles along the way, the harder and more personal moments of travel that were more wholly rooted in who I am as a person than the stories of the people I’ve met.

But not often. I my focus has long been on telling the stories of the people I meet. And while it’s my favorite part of this site, it’s only one part of the story. A lot of travelers face big decisions and tough choices when they think of traveling the world. And so you’ve emailed and asked for more.

wentworth falls

The internet is an inquisitive place, and as the A Little Adrift community grew, I realized there were a handful of common questions coming through my inbox. I have fielded hundreds of emails from other dreamers planning their own trips. I’ve corresponded with dozens of readers who were curious about my internal motivations for the decisions I have made in my life. These emails ask planning specifics like safety concerns and what to pack, and esoteric questions about how my views on religion have changed through travel. Interestingly, in all these emails about the where, how, and why of travel, there is a common thread that stands out in each one, and usually comes in the closing moments before they give thanks and sign off.

It’s the moment when the nugget of their true question inside takes hold, when I see that thing that drives them to reach out to me for advice. It’s their fear statement. Nearly every email ends with a question or story that encapsulates my readers’ one overriding fear causing them to hesitate in accepting the call to adventure.

Often it’s that last question that bowls me over with the willingness of others to seek the help and guidance they need. This is not something I am good at. I have a hard time asking for help. But I am so grateful you have trusted me enough to share your own stories. It’s this sharing that allowed me to realized that there room for a frank discussion on the fears, insecurities, and motivations behind travel. More than anything, we all want assurances that it’s a shared fear, that we are not alone in this moment.

antigua guatemala

My own doubts and fears have long prevented me from sharing the more personal parts of my journey. That’s about to change. I packed up my life in 2008 and spent years learning what it’s like as a long-term traveler. Earlier this year, I set a silent goal to share the darker pieces of travel. I started the year talking about my struggles in transitioning from long-term travel into something else . Every day I ponder what I should take as my next steps. And now, years later, I’ve had a good number of experiences that I can share with one goal: to admit and acknowledge my fears so that another may realize they are not alone.

sunset in san panchoFor the next few months, I will answer the most pressing reader questions I’ve fielded over the years. You can expect a deep-dive into the topic with stories, ideas, and resources too. This Tuesday the first post goes live and my palms are already sweaty. Just kidding, my palms don’t sweat. Instead I clench my jaw, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it now does it? But truly the post is queued and I have an overriding compulsion to delete all the personal parts. Good times.

Anyhow, the post focuses on the whats and whys that catalyzed my decision to travel around the world. Beyond the desire to see the world, there were personal problems, ideas, and dreams that convinced me to buy my one-way ticket five years ago, and some might even say it was running away. So, I’ll look at how personal the choice is for each of us, as well as what keeps me on the road.

In the spirit of this new series, I invite you to ask me anything and I’ll work my way through the questions in the coming months. Ask here in the comments, or shoot me an email. Either way, in these coming months I will talk about the scary joys of travel. If you have a specific question, ask away! :)

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.
  • Yes, Sometimes Travel is Lonely: Many readers have emailed about if they should take off on a solo trip, and this looks at what it’s like to travel solo, as well as why it can be a life-changing experience.
  • 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.

A Little Synchronicity…Plan, Who Needs Plan!?

And so it is that I prep once again to leave the United States. My bags are slumped beside me, a crisply new book (Gun, Germs, and Steel) in my backpack waiting for my endless airport layovers and my anal-retentively neat morning checklist ready to see me on my way with all my power cords, bags, books, toothbrush and water bottles in tow.

Can I just say, I’m seriously psyched.

It’s hard to describe how right this feels. You’d think that leaving is old-hat now, I’ve done my fair-share of goodbyes over the past two and a half years, but this is different.

This trip feels less epic but yet very right.

Yummy ice cream at the Circular Quay
First day in Sydney I bought myself a well-deserved ice cream to help the transition into solo-travelness

Hours before I left on my round the world trip I was an absolute mess; I had been careening toward the breakdown for days and my best friend in LA found me curled in a ball sobbing on her bed. I released the weeks and weeks of stressing about vaccinations, bills, the “right” clothes for my trip, the blog, and the endless days of solitude and open road.

To call it anything other than fear would be a lie. It was a single culminating moment of terror. Brief but real.

This time is different. I know how to say my goodbyes as “see ya soons” instead, and I know I can come back in the blink of an eye (how spectacularly random was that 12 day turn-around time in Bali last fall?!).

It also feels so right. The fear is gone because I know the world is such a small place. It’s huge, but consumable…if that makes any sense…it’s no longer the scary “unknown.”

I also have no attachment to a plan this time around.

The “p” word has been thrown in my direction a lot lately.

What are your plans for Thailand? How long do you plan to stay? Will you travel?

No idea.

Truly. I head north to live in Chiang Mai as soon as I arrive and will be living with the oh-so-lovely Jodi (Legal Nomads) in a super cute house she found. Beyond that, I simply surrender to wherever life takes me.

You see, it’s been a solid few weeks in Shannonland. Better than solid. Freakin’ awesome if I have to be honest.

And I can’t pinpoint specific reasons why it’s so awesome, but everything circling my life is aligning so very, very nicely.

Confusing Irish Road Signs

Joseph Campbell remarked to Bill Moyers in the Power of Myth:

Follow your bliss. If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.

The path to bliss isn’t travel for all people, I get that. Some of my friends are jiving on completely different paths (baby-toting and all). But there’s something to say for heading in your own right direction, how much easier life seems.

I’m not entirely sure if any single decision put me on this synchronous path but it has me completely enthused for Thailand and the opportunities lying ahead, and all the excellence I can’t wait to share with you all :)

A Little Reflection… Vipassana Meditation: Was it Worth It?

In the months and years since I took a ten-day Vipassana Meditation course in Nepal,  friends and readers have asked me to share my thoughts, now that I have distance from the experience. I jotted a few sparse notes during the course, and journaled on Day Eleven to chronicle my ten-days in a Vipassana course. Those entries shared the raw thoughts and feelings as I processed each day of meditation and course teachings. During the course, I was deep in the middle of the pain and difficulty. There was little room for reflection.

The Women's section of the Yard - What a View!

What is Vipassana Meditation?

I dubbed my time in Vipassana meditation as my ten day stint in “solitary confinement.” It’s how it felt at the time. And even in retrospect this intense mediation course as one of my wackier decisions. It’s one of the most structured and regimented forms of meditation. The rules are strict and the entire process is tightly control. This course was the hardest thing I have ever voluntarily chosen. More than six months later, I was endlessly thankful that I was able to complete it, that I had the support and stamina during the course finish. And now, seven years later I still look at that course as a formative foundation on how I approach life.

A few of the strict rules:

  • You cannot speak or communicate (non-verbal communication like eye-contact is a no-no)
  • No reading or writing
  • Food is restricted after the mid-day meal
  • You must adhere to the meditation schedule of 10+ hours of meditation and an hour of discourse in the evening

vipassana meditation beginners

What is it Like on the Other Side of a Course?

The course kicked my ass. Raw feelings bubbled up throughout the intense ten days. I started the course cautious and fearful of what it would be like. Then I had anger and resentment during the middle. By the final day, I swelled with well-being and happiness.

And now?

Pride.

I feel proud that I was able to complete the course. This was one of the hardest obstacles in my life to complete. Growing up I was a dilettante. And while usually that’s one of the cornerstones of being a child—experimenting, learning, and discovering new interests—changing interests so frequently impacted my personal self-views. I have always considered myself a quitter.

Machapuchare and Begnas Lake

Back in the day, I loved synchronized swimming. I even won state and national awards. Then I quit that and moved onto tap dancing. Tap wasn’t as fun as jazz, which then gave way to pottery. Then there was that brief stint in ballet, then Irish dance, followed by several years of piano lessons. I dabbled in art, more styles of dance, and went back to competitive Irish dance in high school. All that took a backseat to theatre—the only thing I stuck with. Until I didn’t; I left my LA acting career to travel the world.

On day four, when I wanted to quit it was more than that. I needed to quit. I begged to quit. I spazzed out in my head with a need to abort the decision and save myself from finishing the course. I didn’t like the trainwreck of thoughts I faced each meditation session. I desperately wanted the opportunity to relieve myself from the pain. Teacher persuaded me to stay. He assured me that I was strong enough. That’s it. That I was strong enough to finish.

And in staying, I proved to myself that I was strong enough to honor my commitment.

This personal lesson is not the point of Vipassana; but it was one of the things I proved to myself on the trip thanks to the course. And it was one of the many things I took from that course. Six years later, the course teachings continue to shape my ideas about the world. I think about impermanence when I process my brothers death, or when I’m faced with debilitating life challenges. In the depth of my depression in 2014, when all seemed futile. It’s then that a niggling piece of my brain reminded me that I knew a technique to climb out of the hole and find help. It took a lot to come out of the depression, but Vipassana was surely a tool that allowed my brain to lift from that pain.

Many have wondered if I kept Vipassana as a part of my life. Do I still practice the technique, which requires two hours a day of silent meditation?

No, I don’t. I have perhaps ten times in the six years since I took my Vipassana course. I have friends who aim for 20 minutes a day in the weeks and months after their course. I learned a lot during those ten days, but ultimately I continued my round the world trip and somehow allowed the Vipassana to fall aside, with the practice not integrated into my life, but the teachings have remained a part of me forever.

Dhamma Hall
Dhamma Hall on the grounds of our Vipassana center in Nepal, on Begnas Lake

Should You Take a Vipassana?

advice for taking a vipassana course

The crux of the question for many is if they should take a Vipassana course. It’s highly personal. This is not a question I could ever decide for someone. I can’t tell you if it’s the right next step for you, but I can give you a few thoughts I’ve had since then.

I found benefit in the course because it gave me a lot of perspective I needed in my life. On a weekly basis I find my mind reframing situations with the lessons and teachings that you listen to each night. These lessons weave together Buddhism and Christianity to come aware with core truths all the major religions advocate. Goenka teaches these lessons via video tutorials each night. These lessons offered me clarification, peace, all of that happy spiritual-ness that I sought. It didn’t fix my issues, but it gave me a new perspective.

Vipassana is not a cure-all, nor a magical solution to life’s problems. It doesn’t solve anything when you come out on the other side of the ten days. Instead, Vipassana is a tool. It’s a training technique that gives you another way to shape your mind—and yourself—into a person better able to face the world. The ten days are only the introduction to the technique. From there, it’s up to you how much you get out of it. The program provides ideas and a framework for viewing suffering and pain. It was a way to see the world that I had never before considered. It reframed entire swathes of how I view my life.

And one thing my teacher told me has always stuck with me. He said, “Not everyone has heard of Vipassana, but it comes into your life when you need it. When you can most benefit from learning the teachings and technique.”

How to Prepare for Vipassana Meditation: 5 Pieces of Advice

Additional Vipassana Resources

Other online stories:

Books About Vipassana:
These books all either cover Vipassana in depth, or they are the breezy travel reads that include the author’s experience in a course.

Find a Vipassana course:
The official Vipassana site has a directory of centers. Friends who took the course in a Western location report slightly higher levels of comfort. Each center is equipped differently; some offer each student a private room, others are shared rooms. My center in Nepal (Nepal Travel Guide here) offered shared rooms and rustic accommodations. Food is always simple and vegetarian, but will vary greatly depending on your location. Many centers near major centers are booked out months in advance; do your research and book your course early.

 

Spud the Bagpiper in Scotland

A Little Anecdote… Hitchhiking Misadventures with Spud the Scottish Bagpiper

Spud the Piper in Fort Augustus, ScotlandIce cream dripped down my hand as I made my way to the small Fort Augustus bus stop—I was staring down the barrel of another long and drawn out travel day. I had strapped on both my backpacks, and with 20 minutes to kill before the bus arrived, I made my way to the grassy hill where Spud the Piper piped away to dazzled tourists.

Spud spotted me immediately, finished a tune, and then came over to chat. Since it was instantly obvious I was leaving town, he asked where I was headed next.

I sputtered out a vaguely incomprehensible answer, “Um, a really small town . . . Grey-something. With an “s” in there too . . .”

At his increasingly inquisitive look, I floundered even more for an answer, for the name of this tiny Scottish town where I would head next. I had randomly chose this next town because there was a cheap and well-reviewed hostel, and because it sat at the entrance to the Cairngorms National Park. But it was firmly off-the-beaten-path and I feared he would think me nuts not only for heading there, but for not even remembering where I was going next!

“Near Aviemore!” I exclaimed, the name of a nearby town coming to me as I fumbled to take out my small notebook.

“Grantown-on-Spey?” he proposes.

“Yes, precisely!” And then in the way of weird coincidences, Spud tells me that not only does he live in Aviemore, an hour-and-a-half away, but he’s from Grantown-on-Spey and plays the pipes there nightly.

Without pausing he asks, “Do you want a lift there?”

Oh the quandary I now faced. If I was willing to wait two hours then he would drive me to Grantown-on-Spey and actually drop me off at my hostel. Otherwise it was a looong day and multiple buses to reach the small town.

The only obstacle: I don’t believe in hitchhiking. Not even a little.

As a solo female traveler, I think hitching is unnecessarily dangerous and not worth the money saved. I actively tell other women hitting the road that they should be willing to pay more for their safety.

Buuuuut, circumstance also plays a role in any situation. Here were the thoughts racing through my head:

  1. Hitchhiking is fairly common in Scotland.
  2. I’ve known Spud for several days now, so it’s not exactly hitching.
  3. He’s wearing a wedding ring . . . that marginally counts for something.
  4. I really do not want to take a bus to a bus to a bus to get to Grantown-on-Spey in five hours when it could take just two.
  5. I have the time and the money to take the bus and I am a smart woman and should just politely decline, walk over to the bus stop, and take myself safely to the next town.

Conclusion reached, I answer.

“Um . . . sure, that sounds great actually.”

Did I just say that? Crap. We arranged to meet up in a couple of hours by the grocery store-cum-café-cum-restaurant. As I walked away, I tossed my empty ice cream stick into the trash, meandered past the bus stop, and pondered my options.

I had time to take the bus, and I was beginning to convince myself that this change in the plan was a terrible idea—warnings my dad had issued to me for twenty years echoed in my head.

Well, crap. When it came down to it, I was going with my gut instinct.

Two hours later, I dropped my main backpack into the trunk and kept my laptop bag with my passport at my feet . . . I mean, I still had to be cautious, after all.

Spud peeled out of the parking lot and as we cruised past the “Welcome to Fort Augustus” sign,  Spud’s announcement caused my heart to thud in panic.

The town had receded into the distance, when glanced over at me with a mischievous look, “Now, I’m going to tell you something, and I don’t want you to get scared.”

Everything inside of me dropped to the floor. The sound of my heartbeat pounded in my ears I as thought, “holy shit, holy shit, holy shit!”

Although we rode at full speed, the doors were still unlocked so I casually crept my head toward the door handle.

Then Spud finished his thought. “This road is small, curvy, and I like to speed.”

Oh my god! I laugh-sighed my relief, and then told him to never say those opening words to a solo, trapped female ever again.

As for the car ride? Oh boy did he speed. We whipped around curves as he candidly told me about his life, and informed me that he was a bit famous in the area (and internationally) because he played the bagpipes for Madonna at her Highland wedding several years earlier (which the internet verifies as true!).

Scotland viewpoint

We chatted the time, comparing notes and thoughts on America—because everyone has an opinion on my country. By the time I left his company, I’d had one of my most positive experiences and personal interactions in Scotland. Although there is great natural beauty in this country (the Isle of Skye comes to mind), and so much history (William Wallace in Stirling), it’s getting to know a local’s perspective that made me feel most connected during my Scotland travels.

Spud is a genuinely nice guy and I’m so glad that I went with my gut instinct and accepted his ride. Although I’m still dead-set against hitchhiking solo, I also reinforced my conviction that all rules can be broken at some point, under the right circumstances.

If experiencing new countries is about meeting the locals and having one-on-one personal encounters (which I think they are!) then I couldn’t have made a better choice. So, thank you Spud if you read this, for the ride, for taking me out of my comfort zone and helping me trust my instincts, and for being a really neat guy. :)

What it's like to travel RTW for a year

A Little Confession… Conflicting Sadness As My Year Around the World Ends

I have just six more days left before my long journey around the world ends. The finality of that statement pains me a little inside, because I had dreamed of this, planned for it, and now lived it. And this era is nearly over.

These past 11 months flew by so quickly—at a lightning pace no matter how much I slowed down. Time progressed and the year rocketed past me. And as quickly as it seems to have passed, at the same time, it really does feel like a whole lot has happened. The backpackers I have met this past month driving around Ireland all ask a similar question, how do I feel now that the adventure is ending.

 Loch Ness in Scottland

I feel a conflicted sadness. My family will be at the airport to welcome me home. I will hug my niece and nephews and marvel at how they’ve grown in one short year. And I’ll sit around a table drinking beers and sharing stories with my hometown friends that I’ve known since high school.

We’ll surely pick up right where we left off, but I am not returning home the same person who left this time last year. Travel has been my way of life for months on end. It’s a lifestyle ingrained deeply into the fabric of my every waking moment for more than 320 days.

I’ve perfected the art of traveling long-term.

I can perfectly pack my backpack in precisely six minutes, and that’s with a headlamp on and a piece of toast in one hand! And next week, I’ll no longer need that skill, which was hard-learned and a source of pride. If it takes just 21 days to develop a habit, I’m habituated to travel and I wonder how long it take to re-acclimate to home.

Traveling through English speaking countries these past two months will surely ease the transition. When I first arrived in England, I had this culture shock moment that stopped me in my tracks. I had just left my housesit in charming Amsterdam, where, sure, they speak great English to travelers, but it’s not the native tongue of the land. For the first time since I left Australia, that very first stop on my RTW trip,  I was back in an English-speaking country. So there I am strolling through Hyde Park in downtown London, and I overhear a casual conversation between two elderly women chattering on a nearby bench. It was inane chatter, just wisping fragments of thoughts reached me.

And all of a sudden, it hit me that I could understand them. My brain hiccuped at the intrusion of another person’s casual thoughts marching alongside my quiet walk. I was back in a place where I could hear and comprehend snippets of conversation around me. Throughout the year, apparently acclimating to a foreign world meant that my brain had stopped attempting to translate and understand everything around me. I took in most of my information by people-watching or reading books, learning things only when I directly sough the information. Like proverbial frog in water, I hadn’t even realized the change as it happened, but I had grown more accustomed to the foreign tongue and the general hum of incomprehensible conversation than to my native language.

It floored me. I’ve changed my sensory input on an almost minute-by-minute basis for nearly a year. The person who goes home to quiet suburbia and slips back into old friendships—I’m not sure I know how to do that, at least not instinctively anymore.

To call that realization less than culture shock would do it a disservice, because it surely was that. And it’s one hurdle now understood, if not overcome … because the think Irish and Scottish brogues have me scratching my head on the regular!

Confession: Until I returned to an English-speaking country I never realized how much work it takes to communicate, how much of my days were spent just getting across questions, information, and ideas. It’s nice to be easily understood. Really nice.

Lake District in England on RTW trip

Looking Ahead after a Year of Traveling the World

Ho hum. I will surely cry on the plane next week. It’s already been happening when I think of the enormity of what I did and the finality of boarding a plane home.

I am a bit of a crier, and even if I continue to travel, this is the end period closing out my yearlong trip. Although I already plan to continue traveling in January—I have my online work and so how can I truly stop now?!—I don’t plan to travel for more than six months at a time anymore. I miss seeing the kids I love grow up, so I plan to make the US my frequent base for future travels.

That’s not an indictment on the yearlong trip, however. No, six months just wouldn’t have done it. Because there were times when I desperately wanted to cut the trip short. When I felt loneliness on the road, sickness, and when I thought about packing up and buying a ticket home.

But that would have prevented me from truly learning some key lessons about myself, who I am, and why I took my trip around the world. Once you make it past the eight-month mark of a RTW trip, that’s when I think everything cranks up a notch. That’s when it all started to really sink in, let’s say.

The stories this month on A Little Adrift are still about my time backpacking the UK and Scotland, but I am in my final week of my nearly month spent driving around the Emerald Isle. I fly home next Thursday out of Dublin airport and between now and then I have every intention of enjoying every second of toe-tappingly great Irish music and even a few more pints of Guinness.  :-)

On the health front, I am ending on a lousy note as I recover from a severe cold that I caught during a cold-front while I was exploring Dingle. Not a great way to end it all, but the Irish are so friendly that I just can’t imagine a more lovely way to meditate on this transition than all of the hiking I’m doing around Connemara and the Aran Islands.

Dingle pub

Diamond Hill in Connemara

Confession: I’ve traveled solo since Amsterdam. A few of you emailed asking about my cousin—she is back home now in the Pacific Northwest. She left the trip early because of interpersonal conflict between us, and because she was just ready to be home, I think. We didn’t part as friends. I am deeply sorry for that. Hopefully with some time we can talk out what happened, but for now my cousin is likely happy to be home in a comfortable bed after a long four months backpacking across South Asia and Eastern Europe.

So with a lot of time in my own head now, I’m actually enjoying the quiet solitude of hiking and driving around so I can muck through all of the complicated emotions swirling through me. I will end this round the world trip the way I started—just me, a pair of chacos, my backpacks, and a great big smile.