Monthly Archives: October 2011

Travelling alone


Never travelled on your own? I’m a big fan of solo travel. You find yourself tapping into resources and strengths you didn’t even know you had. It’s challenging, scary and, let’s face it, sometimes deliciously dangerous. I always meet an incredible array of people – probably because my insatiable need for people and chat doesn’t necessarily diminish when I’m on my own, I just need to work harder to get my fix. There are some negatives though – a small problem can turn into a catastrophe when you don’t have someone to share it with, and eating dinner by yourself night after night could make even a reclusive mute feel lonely.

So what are the pros and cons?

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Twin sharing with strangers

CONS

Even people loving folks like me have reservations about sharing hotel rooms with strangers. On a European tour I had to share a room with a girl who sheepishly tried to warn me that she had a slight foot odour problem. ‘Slight odour’ couldn’t begin to describe the rancid, fetid smell emanating from her when she removed her sneakers. It’s hard to maintain a polite facade when you’re dry retching.

PROS

While I didn’t share an actual room, I discovered a fellow Formula 1 fan in a hotel in Sao Paolo and we became firm friends immediately.  Jackie and I met in the hotel lobby for a cocktail and ordered Campari and lemonades. The non-English speaking bartender consulted his manager who confirmed with us that it was indeed lemonade we wanted. Then we watched as he cracked open a cocktail shaker, poured in some spring water, squeezed in half a dozen limes, a big scoop of sugar and ice and suavely mixed our ‘lemonade’. It was such a large scale production for a simple drink that we laughed until tears rolled down our faces. The bartender was confused and a little annoyed. We discovered later that we should have ordered Campari and Sprite!

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Sharing unique experiences

CONS

A shared experience –
drinking out of urinals at Modern Toilet in Hong Kong

When I say experiences, I don’t necessarily mean floating down the Grand Canal on a gondola in Venice. I mean those experiences that are so strange or silly that you and a travelling companion would cry with laughter about it, bringing it up several times over the next few days, forever remaining an ‘in joke’ between you and retold countless times at Sunday pub sessions for the rest of your life.

Sometimes, when you’re travelling on your own, these sorts of experiences don’t really reach their full potential. My sister kindly bought me some silky bright purple satin pyjamas as a going away present. Which was great, thank you. But at 3am, in a hostel in Bath the fire alarm went off. Diligently, I leapt out of bed, grabbed my laptop and handbag and ran down the fire escape. In the foyer I discovered only a small handful of people had bothered to get out of bed. They were fully dressed. And wearing shoes. They looked at my disco pyjamas, the pants way too long and gathered around my ankles, and raised their eyebrows.

This story still makes me laugh now as it did then and I do tell it occasionally. But it’s not the quite the same…. right?

PROS

There are some things you just wouldn’t experience at all if you were travelling with someone. In a small garden piazza in Granada at twilight I was writing in my journal, very happily people watching when an old couple shuffled along. The wife deposited her husband among some other senior citizens and they immediately started a lively debate. She instead came over to sit next to me on my bench. She tried to strike up a conversation but she couldn’t speak English or Italian and I couldn’t speak Spanish. Shame. Or so I thought. This didn’t deter her at all and we chatted comfortably for half an hour. I couldn’t tell you what that conversation was about but she offered me her trail mix and I offered her some of my water and we smiled and nodded happily.

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Loneliness

CONS

There’s no doubt that at some point, even if for only half a day or half an hour, you’ll succumb to this melancholy feeling. I was at a particularly low point while staying at a Bed and Breakfast in the Lake District. Quite frankly, I’d had enough of the whole travelling lark. I’d barely spoken to anyone in couple of days. I’d eaten a sad and dreadful dinner the night before. I slunk down to breakfast and sat at a table set for two. It was an awkward breakfast room with just a few people chatting carefully so as not to disturb the quiet.

Imagine my consternation then, when the waitress came over and looked at the spare seat. She poured me a cup of tea and then said, ‘Will your friend be down shortly?’. What? No, no friends. She was determined to pour a second cup of tea. ‘Where’s your friend?’. ‘No’ I simply said, squirming. Clearly she didn’t think I spoke English, so she raised her voice and asked ‘DO YOU HAVE ANY FRIENDS’. To which, of course, I could only logically answer, ‘NO’. As if the embarrassment could get any worse she then said, ‘Oh, you have to sit at the table with the corresponding room number – that’s your table there’. She pointed to a little corner table for one, the setting and chair facing the wall. She made me get up, slink across the dining room in the now resounding silence and sit at my allotted table, carrying my own cup of tea.

I wasn’t feeling strong, I went meekly. It still shames me.

PROS

On the plus side of loneliness, being stuck with only yourself for company means you can do whatever you like, whenever you like, however you like it. No matter how wonderful and/or compatible a travelling companion might be, there’s bound to be something you want to do that they don’t (and vice versa, of course). This includes sitting in a quiet pub in total silence, reading a book, sipping a gin and tonic. I brought along my flamenco shoes one long holiday and ended up practicing on a cruise ship theatre stage at midnight (the theatre was empty!).

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The level of freedom and self indulgence you experience on any holiday, even a volunteering holiday, is usually unlike anything at home where there are always dear ones to think about, care for and love. A solo holiday is all about me, me, me at my narcissistic best! 🙂 

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Disappointments

Ok I’m going to risk sounding like an arrogant prat. I’m going to confess that not every place I’ve been fortunate enough to visit has been amazing, wonderful and/or incredible. I blame it entirely on the 21st century. Six hundred years ago travellers were still conquerors, discovering lands for the first time and being amazed by what they saw, simply because it was novel and therefore exotic. (When I say ‘the first time’ yes, I fully acknowledge my white Western colonial bastard perspective.) Nowadays, before you even step foot on a place, you can Google a place, read about it in a magazine or book, watch YouTube videos and, if you’re really diligent, talk to the people of just about any nation on this planet. Possibly even other planets! There’s little ‘new’ left. I’m pretty sure I can run an internet search on a backwater African village, population 42 and ‘discover’ the opening times of their local market.

The point is, these days we run the risk of not only ‘knowing’ our destination before we get there, but consequently being totally underwhelmed by it. I was choking with indignation when, gazing out over the Colosseum, I overheard one person say to another ‘Mmm… it’s not as big as I thought it would be. A bit disappointing’. I was astonished and even a little bit upset. But the truth is, I arrived at the Great Wall of China and thought ‘It is amazing, no doubt, but really….. it’s just a wall. The surrounding scenery is far more spectacular’. Before you choke too, consider that it was minus 80C, I was woefully underdressed, I’d just ridden in a tiny tiny glass gondola that was so frightening it made me cry, there were hundreds of people, I slipped over on the ice and I’d already seen this image a thousand times. It was only later when I found out something about its history – the incredible story behind its creation, it’s woeful underutilisation and its fascinating construction – that I actually appreciated what I’d seen.

Appreciating travel icons actually takes a bit of work and, ridiculous  I know, a little of our own imagination. It’s still about connection, and for me it always will be.

I’ll leave the last word on travel icon saturation to my mother. An Italian senior citizen, sceptical and impatient at the best of times, she was excited about seeing Uluru. She had already heard so much about it. Her tour bus pulled into the carpark with hundreds of other vehicles. She noted people were having silver service dinners, sipping champagne, others were chattering excitedly about the imminent sunset. Everyone was lining up their cameras and videos for that special moment when the sun dips over the horizon. She was all hyped up for it. Well, the moment arrived and although she could hear the ‘ooohs’ and ‘aahhhs’ around her she couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then suddenly everyone was getting back into their cars and driving away. ‘That was it’, she said. ‘We drove all this way to see…. what?’. She was truly perplexed. I’m not sure what she was expecting, but someone explained to her that the novelty was seeing the beautiful colours of the rock shimmer and deepen in the changing light.

In true form she snorted in disgust and muttered the Italian equivalent of ‘Well, f..k me’ as she clambered back on the bus. ‘That was a f…g waste of time’ she said.

It made us laugh for years. 🙂

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