By Sarah Bence
Read more from Sarah on her blog, Endless Distances
The first time I tried traveling alone, I got trapped in an apartment in Madrid.
But let me start at the beginning. In an attempt to dip my toe in the metaphorical pool of solo travel, I booked a one-day layover in Madrid. I arrived late, so I didn’t get the rundown from my homestay host before heading to bed. This led to me staring at the most complicated inner door lock I’d ever seen at 9 a.m. the following morning, after my host had already left for work. I tried everything, including, yes, running at the door with all the force of my five-foot-two-inch stature. I tried messaging my host about 70 times, hoping she would see my message even though she was at work. No reply. As I stared at that thick, iron door, I felt the panic rising… and the disappointment.
“Well, I wanted to travel alone,” I told myself. And it looked like I was going to get just that: a day in Madrid, all alone, trapped in an apartment.
Eventually, my host messaged me back with instructions for the lock. And as that door finally swung open, something changed. I had all of Madrid in front of me: the city, the people bustling down the street, the potential for adventure.
Allow me this cliché: looking back now, I see that as the door opened in Madrid, it also opened a new door in my life. It was the moment I learned that even when you travel solo, you are never alone.
In Madrid, I had my host, who messaged me even during her busy work day. And once I was finally out in in the city, I realized something amazing: when you are traveling alone, you are that much more approachable. You open up to experiences and people you otherwise wouldn’t have found. That day, I started a conversation with a couple in a museum; I met a fellow solo traveler lying in the park; I hung out with a traveling poet who gave me a typewritten poem that is still hanging above my desk today.
Since then, I’ve become what I fondly refer to as a veteran solo traveler. I’ve shown up alone at hostels, homestays, Airbnbs, and hotels. But what I remember most about my solo travel trips are my interactions with other people, some of whom have even become lifelong friends.
In Iceland, I was alone. But then there was the guy who pulled his car over on the Reykjavik roadside.
“I recognize you from my hostel,” he said. “Wanna go on a road trip?” After looking at him dubiously for a moment, running worst-case scenarios through my head, I climbed in his rental car. This led to an unforgettable day and night, which ended lying in a snowy field staring at the Northern Lights with a new friend.
In Amsterdam, there was the fellow American in my hostel who ate bagels with me each morning. In London, the troop of Canadian soldiers in my hostel dorm room, who woke me from a nap but turned into the most hilarious companions. And then there were all the people who helped me carry suitcases or gave me directions,
and the anonymous seat mates on long bus journeys who could tell when I just wanted to sit in companionable silence.
Solo travel has taught me I’m never alone, but that knowledge has also given me the courage to reach out to others. Last year, I traveled to France, where I volunteered at a charity for refugee women. I lived in a tiny caravan with five other women I’d never met, but who soon became huge parts of my life. I met refugees from all over the world, witnessing their hardships and learning their stories. It exposed me to the darker sides of travel and displacement, but allowed me to become part of a community of people who were trying to make a difference by helping others. Without the courage to get on that train to France all alone, I never would have had that life-changing experience and met the resilient people I did.
You may be scared to try solo travel because you don’t want to be alone. I definitely was. But if there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that when you decide to solo travel, you are the one who determines if you are alone. The potential for human connection is everywhere – it is up to you to open yourself up to it. Travel isn’t just about seeing the world, but also challenging and seeing your best self.
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