Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Table for One?

There's traveling, and then there's traveling alone - they're two completely different things and each has its own strengths and weaknesses, as well as its own stresses and delights.

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. 
I made friends with a girl in my hostel in Galway and a guy in my hostel in Dublin. With the former, I went out for a pint at Tis Cóilí and ended up in the middle of a seisún of fabulous traditional music, casually and energetically performed by talented musicians who had dropped by and ended up jammed into the front window, sipping their own pints between songs. The bartender laughed when I asked if there might be a CD of the group's I could buy, but offered me one by a solo accordion ("box") artist, Colm Gannon, which I still listen to regularly. With the latter, I sat in the hostel's lounge and talked about Ireland vs. the U.S. in every aspect we could think of - education, sports, culture, attitude, outlook on life, etc - while a party raged on in the pub next door, for what occasion I don't remember.

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.


Cindy said...

I loved reading this!
I've always felt comfortable living alone and wandering US cities alone, but thought if I told anyone I wanted to travel alone, they'd think I was crazy/would worry too much about my safety.
It is very exciting to hear that your solo travels were a success! :)

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

I'm so glad you enjoyed the post, Cindy!

When you tell people you want to travel alone or have done so and thoroughly enjoyed it, you get varying reactions: some people want to do or have done the same thing, will tell you to go for it and will want to swap travel stories with you when you get back; some will tell you they could never do that, but think you're brave and adventurous; and some will think you're completely nuts. ;-)

I say go for it! If you want to ease into traveling abroad alone, pick somewhere that's not too far outside your comfort zone - speaks a language you're comfortable using to get around, isn't too far from home (parts of the Caribbean, Canada...I don't know enough about where is safe in Mexico right now to recommend it), gets lots of American tourist traffic, etc. - and just go. Do your research, pick someplace to stay that's convenient to what you want to see and do and just give it a try. Even the people who think you're crazy will be impressed by your confidence.

Thanks again for reading (and not thinking I'm crazy :-) )!

Chris said...

I'm a bit different in the fact that my first travel was solo travel. To me, traveling with somebody else is the weird thing.

That said, I'll always feel weird dining alone :-/