Don’t take this the wrong way — I’m not lonely. I feel overwhelmed by the number of friends who have been asking me to meet up for coffee. Yet no matter how many people ask about my trip, or look at my photos, there is still something I can never transmit — the memories.
When my brother and a few of my friends came to visit at various points during my trip, I thought that it was fantastic to have the company. I wasn’t lonely then either — I was making lots of local friends. But having loved ones visit gave me people with whom to share the experiences, and more importantly, the memories upon my return.
Still, there are a few countries in which I was completely alone: Ecuador, Uruguay, and Brazil.* Now that I’m in Canada, those memories are locked in my mind.
Last week, the Brazilian hit “Balada Boa” came on at a Latin bar. While everyone else let loose and danced in a circle, a wave of emotion hit me. I was transported back to my road trip across southern Brazil. Vinicius, a local who was on a tour of his own country, had driven me from Paranagua to Florianopolis, and during the four-hour trip, we discussed our faourite zouk music and sang along to “Balada Boa.” Nobody here will every remember that, nor will they remember the night we spent dancing zouk and forro on the beach of an almost-deserted island.
The same thing happened last night as I listened to a CD of Uruguayan guitar music for the first time. It had been a gift from the artist himself, an old man who I met along La Rambla in Montevideo. No matter who listens to the album with me, nobody will be able to recall the smile on the old man’s face, or his deep concern for my safety as I continued my run along the beach.
Those memories are all mine.
I have this idea that, every year that I get older, it will become harder and harder to find a “soulmate.” Not because all of the good men will be taken, but simply because each year leads to thousands of new memories that I will never be able to truly share with my future husband. They are things that I can only try to tell and explain through words and photos. Maybe that’s why some people are so afraid of ending a long-term relationship — they’re afraid of losing years of shared memories. In the same way, some people are afraid of traveling alone.
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but nothing is like having been there yourself.
*Well, in Brazil I did have the opportunity to meet up with a couple of friends from my semester abroad in the Netherlands, but they don’t live in North America either, so the problem is the same. (I don’t want you to think I’m forgetting about you Sandra, Thais, and Jorge!)
In one of my recent posts, “Solo Female Travel — Safe or Just Plain Crazy?,” I addressed some of the common questions I get asked about female solo travel. I wanted to set the record straight: as long as you have some street smarts, you will have a wonderful time on your own, and will meet a lot of people eager to be your friend.
As a followup to that piece, I want to provide some basic tips on making friends for anyone who is planning to venture off on his or her own. This post is not gender-specific, although I may later write something to discuss female safety while interacting with people abroad.
On Meeting Other Travelers
1. Don’t Isolate Yourself: I’m a naturally shy person, and I’ve never been good at group situations. I’m the one who sits in silence and takes everything in. When I arrive at a new hostel, the group atmosphere often overwhelms me, and sometimes I want to just retreat to my room. However, to make friends while traveling alone, it’s vital to muss up some courage and be a bit more extroverted. I know that I can normally carry on a one-on-one conversation just fine, so I like to find the other solo travelers (usually identifiable by backs hunched over Iphones or laptops), and strike up a conversation. If you’re a bit more daring, find a group of people and ask to sit down and join them. You won’t regret it, and will likely even end up making some plans for the next day.
2. Downtime: Even though I just said that it’s important to be social, equally important is to give yourself time on your own. In our daily lives at home, we’re accustomed to having some time each day to unwind and recharge. This can be hard when you are staying in a crowded dorm room, and are constantly surrounded by people, but make sure you make a point each day of spending some time on your own, even if it’s just for half an hour. Go for a walk, read a book, journal, or take a nap.
On Meeting Locals
3. Couchsurf: Perhaps the easiest way to meet locals while traveling. Join couchsurfing.org, a social network that offers travelers free accommodation (normally a couch or spare bed) with locals worldwide. However, don’t look at it as just a break for your budget — the fabulous thing about Couchsurfing is that it gives you an opportunity to meet people and immerse yourself in their cultures, foods, and lifestyles. If you’re not comfortable spending the night with a stranger, you are also welcome to meet hosts for a coffee or a day out. You can also search for people with similar interests as you, or look for events going on in your area. I’ve had great experiences so far with this site!
4. WWOOF: WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and it is a website that connects organic farmers with travelers who are looking to offer their two hands and spare time in exchange for food and a place to stay. This is one option that I haven’t tested out personally, but I have close friends who have, and who say that it was one of the best parts of their trips. Whether you end up shearing sheep in Australia, picking apples in Spain, or stomping on grapes in Chile, WOOFing is sure to leave you with some great friends and memorable stories.
5. Find People With Similar Interests: One of the quickest ways to make a new friend is to bond over something you are both passionate about. For me, that’s salsa dancing. Every time I arrive in a new city, I use Facebook, Twitter, and Google to scope out the local salsa scene. These link me to current salsa events, bars, and dance schools. When I attend salsa events, I meet tons of new people, many of whom are eager to introduce me not only to their salsa life, but also their city and culture. Be it photography, karate, yoga, or live music that tickles your fancy, you’re sure to create a network of new friends when you pursue your hobbies abroad.
6. Bring an Unlocked Phone: If you’re meeting locals while traveling, they are sure to ask for your contact information. While you can try making plans over Facebook, it’s far easier if you have a local cellphone. I travel with an unlocked cellphone (a basic one), which allows me to buy a new SIM card in every country where I plan to stay for a while. You can normally unlock your phone in cellphone shops for around $20 USD. SIM cards and pay-as-you-go credit vary in price from country to country, and I’ve paid anywhere from $4 USD, to $25 USD (Colombia and the Netherlands, respectively) for the card. It’s a worthwhile investment if you plan on befriending locals, although a cellphone doesn’t have a lot of value if you are just socializing with other tourists.
And… Most Importantly
7. Know Yourself: This is by far the most valuable advice I can give. When you are traveling alone, you may find yourself eager for company, and you may end up hanging out with people with different interests that you may not normally be friends with. While it is always good to push your boundaries and meet new and different people, don’t let this turn your vacation into one that you aren’t 100% happy with. Know what kind of traveler you are, and honour that. Are you a partier? A sightseer? A museum-goer? An early-riser? A night owl? Make sure that you are meeting your travel needs before those of others. As for me, I know that I am into history and dancing, so I make it a priority to include those types of activities into my day. I may spend a few hours hanging out in a bar or sightseeing with new friends, but I will still go out salsa dancing at night as opposed to getting wasted at a club, even if it means that I go on my own. By keeping your own interests in mind, you will be able to find a balance between being social, and traveling “your way.”
Today marks seven months on the road for me. While I’ve had the fortune of having visits from my brother and a few friends at various points on this trip, I’ve spent most of the time traveling on my own. During these months, I’ve encountered many people who think I’m either very brave or very crazy to be doing this, but I think this attitude boils down to a misunderstanding about solo travel.
In hopes of setting the record straight, I want to address the top three FAQ that I have been asked about my experiences:
1. Don’t you get lonely?
Almost never. The surprising thing about solo travel is that you’re only really alone when you want to be. If you stay in hostels or Couchsurf, you are constantly surrounded by people who are looking to make new friends. Moreover, locals seem far more willing to approach or open up to individual travelers as opposed to groups. Traveling alone better immerses you in new cultures, as you’re unable to isolate yourself with your travel companion, and are instead forced to meet new people. Ironically, I often crave alone time because I find that I am not getting enough of it!
2. Isn’t it dangerous, especially as a girl?
Not once in South America have I felt unsafe as a solo traveler. I take taxis at night, go out dancing, and take overnight buses, all on my own. While there are always dangers present, these are no different than the ones you will find elsewhere in the world. People get mugged in Paris, drugged in New York, and murdered in Edmonton, but this isn’t going to happen to everyone. The important thing is to exercise common sense and try to blend in, which is also easier to do as an individual than in a group.
3. What about those Latin men?
There’s no hiding the fact that latinos are flirtatious and forward. The best way to deal with piropos (cat calls and compliments) is to ignore them and act confident. As for guys directly approaching female travelers, don’t be surprised if most of the people who try to befriend you on this trip are male. Know your boundaries and be smart and safe, and you’re unlikely to run into any serious problems.
Overall, I want people to realize that traveling alone is not as risky or depressing as one would assume. I think the biggest problem I’ve found about traveling alone is that there is no one to watch my backpack while I go to the washroom in transit terminals, and I have to cram the darn thing into the stall with me!
But in all seriousness, the most important thing to remember is that the vast majority of people in this world are genuinely good. People you meet are almost always eager to help you and share their culture. Learn to trust a little more, take risks, and open up, and you will discover more about yourself and this world than you could ever learn traveling with someone else.
Have any other questions? Leave a comment! To gain some more specific tips for solo (female) travelers, watch for my upcoming article, “Tips for Solo Female Travelers.”
Although I’ve only been completely alone for a few days, I’ve already noticed a couple of things about traveling solo. On the negative side, it can be a bit frustrating trying to fit into tiny European bathroom stalls while carrying a huge backpack (instead of having a companion wait outside with your bags). It can also be tricky trying to buy groceries for just a one-person meal. However, the most remarkable difference I’ve seen is in the amount of attention I get when I’m on my own.
While I was waiting for my flight to Portugal at Schiphol Airport, I was informed that I would be upgraded to business class. Having only flown first class once, and never having received any sort of upgrade, I was pretty excited about this stroke of luck, even if it was only an hour and a half flight. What I didn’t anticipate, is how much I would get out of this seat change.
A little disclaimer: anyone who has every traveled with me will know that Ellen-in-transit is truly not a pretty sight. In glasses, with messy hair, and loaded up with Gravol, I barely have the energy to stay awake through the boarding process, so why the following scene would ever take place is beyond me.
Of course, like all of the other passengers flying business class (who were all men), I enjoyed a nice glass of wine and a delicious meal, which was served despite the short flight duration. However, the strikingly handsome Portuguese flight attendant made a very obvious point in giving me, not one, but twopackets of “fruit and nut cocktail mix,” which were accompanied by a wink. Then the purser — who was also rather dashing, but more than twice my age — walked by to strike up a brief conversation. He seemed quite interested in the fact that I was traveling alone and that I was making a (pitiful) attempt to review some Portuguese. Shortly thereafter, he returned to ask if he could present me with a bottle of wine to help me “enjoy my stay” in Portugal. He then brought me a plastic bag filled with a chilled bottle of white wine and fifteen packets of cocktail nuts. (The latter have been my primary source of midday nourishment for the past five days). When the other, younger flight attendant came by again, he coyly handed me a package of TAP Portugal playing cards, with another wink. Not to be outdone, (although in my opinion wine > playing cards), the purser walked over and handed me his business card, with his home and mobile phone numbers scribbled on the back. “In case you need anything while you’re here.”
“Anything” included a place to stay or a ride to my hostel, as I discovered by the offers he made on subsequent trips to Seat 3J. Of course, I politely refused both offers, a decision I came to question later as I struggled up the San Francisco-esque hills of Lisbon with my backpack. Nevertheless, countless winks later, I left the plane with my bag full of TAP souvenirs and wondered what on earth I was getting myself into in Portugal.
The attention continued throughout the week. At the hostel, I got my room upgraded. While out and about, I received more winks, smiles, and coffee/drink invitation than I can count — at least enough to run out of creative excuses (so if anyone has some good ones to supply me with, I’d appreciate it). However, the level of attention changed completely on the days I went sightseeing with other people. This behaviour is clearly culturally influenced — I’ve never experienced anything to this level while on my own in the Netherlands.
The good thing is that all of the attention so far has been positive. People (both men and women) seem much more eager to help me or initiate a conversation when I’m alone. Still, it has caught me off guard; I had not expected anything to this extent… and if this is just Portugal, what will Brazil be like? It’s something to ponder while I pack for my flight to Rio and finish off the last package of cocktail nuts.