Just ask any traveller you bump into what the best thing about solo travel is and you can bet your bottom baht that at least one bright - eyed buddy will pipe up:
"Ooooohh you’ll never have a moment alone if you travel by yourself - You’ll meet more people than you ever would with friends!"
So it was I came to be sipping a fresh brew of crystallized ginger tea in a bookshop cum cafe aptly named - Lonely in Pai - pondering this most common of travel platitudes in hippy hang out Pai - Northern Thailand and coming to the conclusion that…well for me at any rate… it ain’t necessarily so.
Now before you throw your hands up in despair and say you thought this site would encourage and inspire solo female travel let me just say this - OF COURSE its easier to meet people on the road. Whereas smiling, making eye contact and inviting someone out for dinner may have had me pegged as a nutter in London - its practically de rigeur once on the road. If you are a natural extrovert: gregarious, charming and full of the joys of spring and being around people is what charges your batteries - then you can easily manage your travels to make sure you are never alone.
But I’m an introvert. I prefer to build a few, deep friendships rather than hit the 1000 friend mark on facebook and I need plenty of time and space alone to recharge. This has had some distinct advantages for solo travel. I like to think its my independent, pioneering spirit that has had me confidently tackle 15 strange new countries in 19 months, got me through 3 days of mountain trekking in Southern China and survived 7 days of silent meditation in Thailand.
But I’ve also realised that its my need to "vant to be alone" that can become my own worst enemy when constantly travelling to and settling in new places. I’ve found it all too easy to use the comfort of being in my own company as "my go to" default setting. How much easier it is to sit and read a book than strike up a conversation with someone new, so much more hassle free to organise the days activities by myself than compromise with a group, so much less work than having to answer "and where have you travelled to so far" for the umpteenth time that day. And because its so damn easy to have dinner by myself that is what I will then do for 5 days on the trot with nothing but a voice in my head for company until suddenly I realise I’m feeling not just alone but…lonely.
And the realisation strikes that what is most easy for us isn’t always what’s best for us. I find when I’m by myself for long periods of time that it gives that voice in the head free reign to rear its ugly head. That’s the problem with us innies (introverts) we have a tendency to ruminate - and before you know it my harmless analysis has turned to anxiety and wondering to worrying.
If, like me, you don’t always find it the most natural thing in the world to make five new best friends an hour ;) then here are 7 ways I’ve found useful in getting myself out of the loneliness trap and out there connecting with people on the road.
1) Just Say YES
It was Guatemala - Antigua, he was a tall, gorgeous, twenty something German with a goatee. I was wearing a strangely ok looking long black vest dress. They were all going off road quad biking and they’d invited me to join them… "I can’t ride a bike" I stammer… eyes locked onto his chocolate browns. "It’s ok, you can ride on the back of mine" he answers. So of course I said…………. "Er no thanks," Whhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy? Perhaps it was not being able to think that quickly off the top of my head or because I was still mooning after my last romance . More likely than not it’s because I was afraid. Afraid of saying yes to the unknown connection. So make a decision to just SAY YES and be spontaneous to whatever offer comes along and not just if the asker is a tall, gorgeous German dude with a goatee.
2) Get Out there and Do Something less Boring Instead!
Even if no one else has made you an offer - make a decision to get out there and do an activity anyway. One of the best ways of taking my mind of …well my mind… and meeting new people is to do a day excursion or an activity. If you’ve been travelling or living somewhere a while on the road you may have decided that your adventure is oh so much more authentic than the hordes of other tourists and holiday makers passing through and heaving themselves up to the temple on the hill or the cooking class - BUT it’s still a great way to meet a bunch of new people and just get yourself out in the (hopefully) fresh air…
3) Have an Impromptu Art Lesson in Hoi An.
Or rather say Hello to someone you’d never normally meet. I ended up having an impromptu art lesson in Central Vietnam when I wandered into an artist’s back room by mistake and asked him where I could buy some drawing paper. He cleared out his own beautiful ink drawings, got out some scraps of rice paper and handed over the brushes to me patiently watching my own half assed attempts at minimalist art with the instructions "no wrong only right." :) Try to cast judgements aside on the road, you may not be sure the strangely bearded man in the bob marley tee and the luminous board shorts is going to be your next best friend, but you never know. Part of the fun of travelling is meeting people you wouldn’t normally ever meet and they could at least end up making a very interesting dinner companion.
4) Slum It in Shared
can be tempting as an older traveller - to go for a private room but staying in a dorm for at least the first night of your arrival somewhere new makes it so much easier to meet people. If the thought of "getting down with the kids" makes you come out in a cold sweat then take heart that not all dormitories are created equal. Some - notably the IHA branches - seem to deliberately cater to teens on their first trip abroad but many are suitable for older travellers as well as being cheaper than a guesthouse. They’ll often have communal hang out areas as well as organising group activities and entertainment.
5) Put down the shield and smile
I read once that if you are attending a networking function you should never eat the canapes because in group situations we retreat back to our primate days and animal behaviour dictates that we leave each other alone when we nosh.(Just think how growly and riled dogs get when you try and get near their dinner bowl while they are eating!)So if you are dining alone be sensitive to that and strike up a conversation before the food arrives. Likewise if people see you glued to a computer screen or engrossed in a book then they are unlikely to start chatting. It can be tempting to take some reading material along for company but its easier to make new friends without the shield of glowing screen or spine of book to hide behind.
6) Surf Couches, Meet UP
Couchsurfing was a godsend when a 3 week trip around Colombia was canceled at short notice and I found myself with an unexpected month to hang out in Buenos Aires. I joined and posted a notice saying I was soon to be arriving in Argentina and got a flood of 30 or so invites out. Yes - if you are a solo female traveller - you may need to pick through the dodgy romantic offers but it’s worth it and when I decided to settle in Chiang Mai for a little while I made a couple of close female friends through the site who helped me discover the eclectic and jazzy nightlife of the little city.
7) Find the Communal in your Community.
There are some places both on and off the backpacker trail that become legendary in traveler circles as natural hang outs where communities form. Pai in Northern Thailand is one such place. Here - as Otto (a long haired, beared Thai hippy and owner of Art in Chai)explains: "It doesn’t matter who you are…what you look like, where you from. In Pai no one judge you. If you love Pai…Pai love you." Perhaps that’s why travellers who visit this village nestling in a valley of Northern Thailand intend to stay for a few days and find themselves here days, weeks and even months later.
It isn’t just the attitude of the cheery Thai Hippies with their skinny tie dye clad frames and long hair that makes this place so relaxed and welcoming, there are some great communal hang outs where you can meet other travellers too. "Art in Chai" that Otto owns is a great place for coming and chilling for an hour or three. They make fresh chai latte with delicious soy, vanilla or coconut milk and grind up the spices in front of you. There are bookshelves for reading material, art (designed by Otto) to browse and its also a place where local and travelling musicians are welcome to turn up and jam. As one long term expat Mike said:
"This is the kind of place where its easy to make new friends."
It stays open late though most regulars move on to the live acoustic music sessions at Edible Jazz off the main walking street once the sun goes down. Another great communal hang out. So there you have it - that’s 7 ways to deal with loneliness on the hoof but the truth is however many friends you make there are inevitably going to be parts of your trip where you find yourself alone.
In Part 2 I'll be looking at how to embrace and accept those moments of down time on the road.