As someone who lives alone and who has spent much of her career freelancing, it’s safe to say that I’m pretty comfortable in my own company. When it comes to travelling, however, it’s a different story. I like sharing the experience with someone else, be it a friend, boyfriend, family member or colleague. I like having someone to share thoughts and ideas with, someone to put me right when I’m heading down the street in the wrong direction, someone to fret with when it’s 3am and the bus that’s meant to take me from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville is 2 hours late.
I recently stood over the spot Hitler’s bunker used to be – the place in which he spent his last days before taking his own life. I looked around at all the residential buildings in the area and thought: ‘Jesus, can you imagine waking up every morning and looking out onto this?’ Alas, there was no-one to whom I could ask the question, for I was in Berlin alone. I don’t make it a habit to travel this way. I’ve been to around 20 countries, few of which I visited without some sort of company. As such, I may not be best placed to issue this advice, but I have a couple of stories to share that might be useful.
1. Don’t feel like you have to make friends
All the travel experts bang on about how you’ll meet amazing people and make lifelong friends on your travels but sometimes that’s just not true. Granted, locals are usually friendly, surprising, eye-opening and delightful but fellow travellers are often of the single-serving variety. I recently boarded a plane and chose a seat next to two young women, thinking they would potentially be good to hang out with. Almost immediately they began to talk 100 words-per-minute about bags and shoes and shopping, and which shoes to wear while shopping, and which bags are best to store shoes in when swapping shoes from heels to flats when shopping. Groaning inwardly, I put on my headphones and turned up the volume.
I made a few acquaintances as the trip wore on, but none with whom I wanted to become ‘lifelong’ friends. If the same happens to you, don’t worry about it. Make as many single-serving friends as you need to, join a tour if you feel lonely and then go home and be happy in the knowledge that you never have to spend another hour talking about bags and shoes and shopping with those people again…
2. When in Rome… don’t be an idiot
If you’re in a big party town, go ahead and go crazy. If you’re at a peaceful retreat then try your hand at pretentious Pilates. There’s nothing wrong with getting into the spirit of the place that you’re in, but just don’t be stupid about it. A couple of years ago I was on the beach in Miami when a green-eyed model specimen of a man came up to me (green eyes and dimples are my two biggest weaknesses in life so bear with me here). After a short conversation, he asked if I wanted to go for a swim. My British reserve mixed with my Asian conservatism (and the fact that I just felt a bit pale and flabby next to him) prompted me to decline. I’ve never done the casual thing so I denied his gentle attempts to persuade me.
Eventually, he looked at me with admonishment and said, ‘Come on! You’re in Miami!’ Those words triggered something in me. He was right. I was in Miami for Christ’s sake! I had just come out of a messy divorce and if I couldn’t go for a swim with a model type in Miami, then I was too square to even be there. And thus with a warning that it would be ‘just a swim’ I stepped out of my dress and waded into the warm water with him.
A few minutes in, he began to get tactile and almost immediately I froze up. Gentle persuasion quickly turned into forcefulness and with his arms locked around me, I began to panic. ‘Relax,’ he kept telling me. ‘Just relax.’ I tried to push him away to no avail. My protests grew increasingly panicked until, eventually, I spotted someone walking towards us. I told him in no uncertain terms: ‘Let me go or I’ll scream,’ which had the desired effect. I ran out of the water, gathered up my things and rushed back to the hotel.
I don’t think I felt truly threatened while in the water; it was only when I was back safely that I realised how shaken up I was. I realised how wrong things could have gone if I had made that snap decision in a slightly different place at a slightly different time. I’m by no means saying that anyone who makes a similar decision is an ‘idiot’ as the title suggests; it’s just a way of saying be careful. Yes, travelling is about releasing inhibitions and having fun, but just keep your wits about you and don’t do something you’ll regret.
3. …But do keep an open mind
Having said all of the above, it’s worth adding that you should keep an open mind (without compromising your safety). Women in particular employ all sorts of mechanisms for curtailing come-ons. Some walk around with a permanent scowl, others with headphones and a newspaper. Most are well practised in avoiding eye contact when a man is so desperately trying to catch it (yes, boys, we know when you’re doing that). All that armour can form an unassailable barrier when you’re travelling so start conversations and be open and approachable. If you’re concerned that someone will read too much into your interaction then mention a boyfriend or girlfriend early in the conversation (even if you have to make one up). That won’t always work as a deterrent, but at least you’re making your intentions clear.
One thing that travelling will teach you is that people generally have more depth than you may think (unless they spend hours talking about bags and shoes and shopping). Take the gay guy whose overly camp dramatics had me dismiss him as a bleach-blonde, air-headed Mykonos type, but who turned out to be the son of a diplomat that had lived in seven different countries, could speak four languages and who was one of the most amusing people I had met. Or the guy who joined me for a coffee uninvited but who – instead of the sexually aggressive Italian he seemed on the surface – was a real gentleman who regaled me with tales of everything from Perito Moreno to anthropological studies of Polynesian tribes. Be wise but don’t be paranoid. It’s a thin line, but you’ll figure it out.
4. Watch your snacking
It might just be me but in lieu of company, it can be tempting to grab a donut in the morning and then a mid-morning coffee and then a mid-afternoon crepe and of course a nightcap before retiring for the day. Travelling alone means being on your own schedule. Stopping for snacks is a great way to break up the day, but don’t overdo it. Travelling is meant to be indulgent of course but try not to go overboard. It’s not good for your health and you’ll feel worse for it.
5. Travel light… no, lighter
I’m not a girly girl. I never wear jewellery, I hate shopping, I was bored by The Notebook and, as Asian Woman magazine’s former Beauty Editor can attest to, I can barely open a lipstick – but I have been known to take four types of footwear with me on holiday (flip flops for the beach, flats for walking, heels for parties, and boots for the actual travelling part). Streamline as much as you can. I was recently in Cambodia for a couple of weeks and wore about 10% of the clothes I took. Wash and wear if you have to, especially on long-term travel. Opt for a backpack over a suitcase if possible. Travelling alone means there’ll be no-one to watch your luggage and, trust me, trying to manoeuvre in a bathroom cubicle with a suitcase is just no fun.
6. Learn the language (yes, even if ‘everybody speaks English’!)
I was in Tiergarten Park in Berlin watching the Italians lose 4-0 to Spain when it started to pour with rain. The stranger next to me gallantly offered me his umbrella. I stepped under and thanked him, after which he asked me a question (in German). I replied with: “I’m sorry, I speak English.” He tried again and I shook my head. He said, “Tourist?” I nodded with embarrassment. Usually, I try to pick up a few phrases of the local language, even if it’s just je ne parlais pas francais in preparation for Paris, but in this case I hadn’t bothered because apparently ‘everyone speaks English in Berlin’ and since Berliners aren’t snooty about their language like the Parisians, I figured I’d be okay.
The German gentleman managed to ask if I was supporting Italy or Spain. When I said Italy, he pretended to take away the umbrella (since they had beaten Germany in the previous match) and we laughed: a short exchange that needed no words but beyond that, conversation was impossible. I felt pretty ashamed that I couldn’t even say ‘I don’t speak German’. So the moral of the story is: learn some of the local language even if your own is widely spoken!
7. And of course: don’t forget the practicalities
Let someone know where you are on a frequent basis and don’t forego the boring stuff like making copies of your passport, buying travel insurance and using protection (both the UV type and the more fun type). Travelling is meant to be liberating, a way to indulge the free spirit in you, to run wild and free, but people at home care about you so don’t neglect to tell them where you are and where you’ll be.
Overall, seeing the world is one of the most exhilarating things you can do. It can change your perspective on life (it will if you’re doing it right) so if you really want to go somewhere or you just need some time out, but can’t find someone to go with… just go..