I met Juan Diego in Colombia; we haven´t become particularly close as he likes to keep to himself – but after talking to him a couple of times, something clicked together in my head.
Diego has walked hundreds and thousands of miles across South America, camping in the wild, playing his flute and admiring landscapes. He is a biologist and loves to watch nature, knows everything about plants and loves his calm – he is not much of a party maker. He didn´t prepare, save up and plan for every minute of his journeys – he didn´t speak much of it, he just set on the road. Alone.
Doesn´t he need company? you might wonder, same as I did. Apparently not. He stays clear of other people and keeps to himself. He doesn´t talk nearly as much as I do, he doesn´t feel the need. I, on the other hand, need to get my daily dose of blablablabing or otherwise it strikes on my mood. Juan Diego, for me, is a hardcore traveler. I have walked across mountains so I am familiar with that kind of pain, but let me tell you –
the company of other people has always been a great help when it comes to putting one foot in front of the other and making this neverending chain of steps lead somewhere.
Everyone should travel solo…or?
Nowadays, everyone will tell you to travel alone, be it a fortune cookie, fortune teller, your hippie aunt or your best friend. Plus, of course, all the 354 intrepid travel blogerinas you follow on instagram (because they have mastered the art of taking a selfie without it looking like a selfie) will second that. Because, let´s be honest, to leave your porch and walk ahead fearless makes you feel like Xena, the princess warrior, and that´s a hell of a good feeling, am I right? Sure I am.
Solo travel gets praised from many sides and for many reasons. You get to decide what you do and when you do it, you can eat and sleep wherever you like or not at all, you get a huge amount of me-time when you don´t have to change your plans because of others and obviously, leaving behind the people who have known you for years gives you a shiny new opportunity to be whoever you want. Although I doubt that Juan Diego was thinking of any of these; he is not an egoist. He simply likes to be alone.
Is solo travel about big egos?
I agree that one shouldn´t resign on his or her travel plans only because they do not have a suitable travel buddy; however, I myself have set on several journeys by myself, ending up meeting my husband, learning (or attempting to learn) new languages and skills, completely changing my life vision and mixing up my priorities set.
However, I have also come to wonder if the aura of sanctity that is forming around (especially female) solo travel is a result of our highly individualized society which values one´s own ego over the sense of community – although I am sure many solo travelers would give me a slap in the face upon hearing that. Anyhow, even if it is so, it doesn´t necessarily have to be a bad thing – (more than) a little bit of emancipation would certainly make many (wo)men happier and more fulfilled (empowered, to use a more fashionable word) in their lives.
Read more: 5 weirdest places I slept at when traveling
On the other hands, my happiest moments on and off the road have always been connected with the company of other special human beings. Leaving my home on my own has been a much needed nudge for me to connect with strangers and create fleeting acquaitances same as some strong bonds. I would strike up random conversation with people on trains. I would cook with strangers. I´d have a blast sharing stories with whoever liked to have a laugh with me. I´d feel sad when I´d have no one to turn to and say – wow, look at that beauty!
Now I understand why my friends were shaking their heads, thinking I´m weird. I only told them half of the truth. Because, as much as I love slamming the door behind me and walking towards the horizon on my own, I would hate to have a lonely dinner more than three days in a row.
How it all began: Camino de Santiago
When I was twenty years old, I packed my 80 (!) liters backpack full of unnecessary stuff and, clutching a blue hardback copy of Paulo Coelho´s Pilgrimage in my hands, I set on a journey of thousand steps that would lead me closer to enlightenment and wisdom – or so I hoped. While I haven´t reached any higher spiritual state in Spain, I learned that there were people willing to befriend you literally everywhere; one of my best friends from the road is an Italian guy I´ve spent one day with in A Coruna, after meeting in the bus in the morning and before taking our respective flights back home. Making friends on the Camino is somewhat similar to making them in the kindergarten – it is the easiest thing ever.
The Camino de Santiago is a place where many people walk alone and it is easy to explain why you don´t want any company walking it – after all, a pilgrimage is a spiritual enterprise and you are supposed to have some kind of an inner goal that pushes you forward – there is even some kind of elitism, saying that you shouldn´t walk it just because you “like hiking”. (Bullshit. You should walk it no matter what, the scenery is divine enough for everyone.) It is also a community – really, it is a community more than anything else – of people who want to share with, help out and fend for each other in all kinds of difficult situations. I have never seen so much harmony among people – the St. James´ way remains in my memory as a place where the universe is just perfect as it is.
Fast forward to 2014, Colombia.
It is october and I am spending my week off on the Caribbean coast – my boyfriend couldn´t leave work at that time and my colleagues never made it out of Bogotá where we work, or were too shy (and scared of rumors and my boyfriend) to tell me they will also be in the area. I am visiting the Tayrona natural park and spending the rest of the time in Palomino, reading 100 Years of Solitude and Brave New World and discussing literature with my newly found friend from Tunisia who is a true gentleman, showing a lot more interest in my opinions about Marquez than in my boobs.
Which, considering the size of my bra, is truly impressive.
Read more: No, you can not travel for “free”. Here is why.
On the other hand, when I visited Ayutthaya (Thailand), I was taking my time to photograph the temples, collected some lucky clovers and kept close to the only other lone person in sight in hopes to strike up a conversation and make friends to share the wonderful place with. (I didn´t succeed.) That night, I packed my bag and took a night train to the north, in hopes of meeting someone new there, someone to hang out with. Ayutthaya was a place of high interest for me as I have learned about it in my prior studies, but I haven´t enjoyed it half as much as walking&talking across some God forgotten villages in the middle of Spanish nowhere. When I think of those temples, I always remember the loneliness first.
You see, it is a cliché but it is true that you cannot achieve happiness without sharing with the others.
Read more: Exploring the ghost village of Kayaköy
Or, I´d better say, I cannot.
The practical side of having a travel buddy
Happiness though is not the only thing to achieve when traveling; sometimes, plain surviving is also on the menu.
On a more prosaic note, I will share one more experience with you today.
In the summer of 2013, I was having the time of my life hitchhiking around in Cambodia with my brand new boyfriend, now my husband. Unfortunately, a couple of days after arriving to the capital of Phnom Penh, I contracted the dengue virus and was limited to sighing and sweating in the breaks between vomiting and crawling to and from the bathroom during long, painful days. If it weren´t for the kindness of my companion, I would probably have died of dehydration and kidney infection at some point – he was the one who convinced me go to the hospital, brought all my stuff along and made sure I ate something every day. (I have to shamefully admit that I was a far worse nurse when he got the virus some years later.) I think you don´t need me to spell out the conclusion of it.
While I think it is useful to push your limits and leave your comfort zone, I have come to a realization that the company of other people is something that enhances the overall feeling, not the other way around. Most of my friends do not share my vision of a perfect trip and I understand it – not everyone is excited about drinking a 60 cents worth glass of borovička in a bar that used to be a public bathroom in its youth. I am certainly equally unimpressed by a offer of a week at a resort and it is perfectly fine that way.
Read more: Why do women hike naked?
Still, somehow…I do love to travel with my partner. Traveling with him has made me bold enough to hitchhike, stay in sleazy places and walk into risky zones in search of a karaoke. (Oh, wait, I have a history of wandering into red lights districts all by myself, forget about that one.) I used to say I´d never want to stop traveling on my own, but have found out I miss my husband when he´s not around, not because there´s no chance of meeting other interesting people, but because I enjoy and value his company. I surely do want to go on some trips alone in the future (I don´t think it is healthy to be together 24/7) but at the same time, I love the lack of weird comments and sexual harassment and have gotten used to it very quickly. Thanks to traveling with a man, I was also allowed to experience situations that would be normally out of reach for a female – not that I would not want to sit, eat dog meat, drink beer and dance with Cambodian policemen who let us hang our hammock at their station, but I think we all can agree that the Cambodian society is more sexist than their traditional stories of smart women suggest.
What would be the main point of this essay, then?
Well, there are several; first, to travel alone is enjoyable if you are not alone for the most part, at least for me. Second, being a couple makes hitchhiking easy and safe and I love that. Third, traveling with a man (sadly) feels more comfortable for a young woman I am (until your boyfriend gets an offer to exchange you for two fifteen years old girls who surely are more fit and tanned than I will ever be). Fourth, having a friend by your side, be it a woman or a man, is extremely helpful when you are fighting an injury or a disease.
Along with all of that, applying for a Couchsurfing spot as a couple filters most of the weirdos quite successfully, but let´s not start that one now.
Read more: Why Being a Long Term Traveler Sometimes Sucks (at www.likeridingabicycle.com)
What is your experience? Do you love to travel alone ALONE? Have you tried to travel with friends from your home or do you prefer to find someone to share the journey with on the spot?
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We are hitchhiking from Europe to India and we didn´t prepare a single thing – stick around to see if we can make it! You can cheer us on if you think we´ll get there, or laugh about us if we don´t.