Traveling, whether it's with a group or just one person you know, tends to keep you in something of a bubble. Or perhaps a better way to put it is that traveling with people you know or with a group that organizes things for you keeps at least one foot in your comfort zone. You'll always have someone to talk to who speaks your language, someone who's likely to be as bemused as you are by confusing customs, someone to verify whether you're right or wrong and someone to help you stay safe. Traveling also leaves you little to no personal space and requires a lot of compromise between what you want to do and what those you're traveling with want to do.
Traveling alone doesn't let you exist in a bubble and, the first time you do it, you get shoved well beyond the boundaries of any possible comfort zone. Whatever you do, whether it's finding the right phrase in the book for buying student museum tickets instead of full-price ones, getting on the right train or finding your way to your hostel or hotel in a city you've never set foot in before, you're on your own. On one hand, you get to set your own schedule and do what you want; on the other, there's no one to decompress with or to watch your back.
I was nervous about my first solo trip, not because I was more concerned than usual for my safety (as I told my parents, Ireland is Western, English-speaking, friendly and probably safer than much of the U.S.) but because the thought of traipsing around by myself for a week, with no one for company, was a little daunting. The idea of traveling alone had never really occurred to me, and the fact that I was taking a solo trip was purely accidental: the friend who'd planned to come with me got sick at the last moment and was unable to go. I went anyway because I didn't want to forfeit either the chance to visit a country high on my list or the non-refundable tickets I'd bought to get there, but I didn't really know what I was going to do by myself for a week in a country where I knew no one.
So I was surprised to find, barely a day into my trip, that I loved it. I stood at the Cliffs of Moher, wandered the streets of Galway, hiked across Inis Mór and soaked up the sun in St. Stephen's Green, on no one's schedule but my own. I loved my hostel in Galway and hated the one in Dublin, but I got by without any major problems and the people were interesting, regardless. Suddenly, solo seemed like a great way to travel, rather than a lonely, forbidding, potentially scary event.
|April 2006. At Dún Aonghasa, a prehistoric cliff fort on|
Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands.
The only part of the first solo trip that really made me uncomfortable after I'd settled into enjoying myself the first evening was eating alone. My hostel roommates and I were on different schedules, so I ate by myself in the common room in the morning. I was usually off rambling when lunch and dinner rolled around, so I stepped cautiously into pubs or fish 'n' chip houses and either ate standing up at the counter or asked for a table for one, feeling awkward until the moment I walked out again. Eventually, I started to relax and read or wrote while I ate, using it as time to sort through what I'd seen and done and figure out what I thought about it all, making small talk with the server if he or she seemed friendly, or sorting through the photos on my camera to delete the accidental, duplicate or just plain terrible ones. If you get a postcard or a letter from me while I'm traveling alone, it's a pretty safe bet that it was at least partially written on a table or the top of a bar.
That first solo trip was something of an experiment - a successful one. I learned that I enjoy my own company enough to travel alone, that I'm extroverted enough when pushed out of my comfort zone to make new acquaintances, that although it can be tiring I have the mental energy to stay alert and aware of my surroundings at all times without someone else there for backup, and that, despite my initial uncertainty about it, a table for one can be a relaxing, rather than an embarrassing, experience.