I spent last night surrounded by a group of strangers at a bar in downtown Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand. I was there to meet Russell, a kiwi who is part of New Zealand’s extensive Couchsurfing network (don’t know CS? Check it out online at www.couchsurfing.org). Russell had offered to host me overnight at his place while I was visiting Wellington, and had suggested we meet up at this bar once I arrived on the ferry from the south island. Also meeting at this bar were a motley collection of couchsurfers from around the Wellington area, who had seen me walking around with my entire life stuffed into (and attached to the outside of) the bag on my back and had plucked me out of anonymity to join them as we waited for Russell. We introduced ourselves – Fleur from Germany, Marco from Spain, Nadim from India, Brendon from England, Sam and her friend, North Americans like myself but from Canada, and Russell (soon to arrive), the one kiwi of the group.
I kicked back with a beer, happy to relax into a group of quick friends, who were mostly travelers like myself, some in New Zealand long-term and some there for a holiday. Out of those on holiday, most also shared one other thing in common with me – they were traveling alone. For the past 10 days, I’ve been catching buses, hitchhiking, and trying to take the train around the north and south islands of New Zealand completely solo. This has been both the start of a new adventure — a trip including NZ, Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Estonia — my way of taking the long road to Malawi, where in August I’ll start working for a sustainable backpackers’ camp; and the continuation of the unifying theme of the past few years of my life – travel. For 16 out of the past 21 months, I’ve been on the road – 7 months with one of my best friends from Japan to Greece, and the following 9 months alone in Africa and the US. Out of this trip came the opportunity to work in Malawi this year, and also the desire to continue traveling alone – flying solo on this new adventure in the southern hemisphere.
Why travel alone? Ask any traveler you meet at any backpackers’ hostel all around the world, male or female, and the resounding universal reply will be “freedom” – the freedom to do what you want, when you want to do it, without needing to consider anyone else’s priorities, wishes, or plans. Don’t get me wrong – I never would have even considered traveling alone without having had the previous opportunities to travel with others to work out the kinks associated with solo travel — and I had a wonderful time with my best friend this previous year. But this freedom, the opportunity to have your cake and eat every last crumb of it by yourself – is intoxicating. For the past ten days in New Zealand, I had stayed only one night in Christchurch because I felt like it; hitched a ride across the entire south island with a New Zealand-born Australian citizen named Les because I could; changed my plans on a whim to travel with two Israelis to the Pancake Rocks in Punakaki because they asked if I wanted to; and shared hilarious yet intimate details regarding my albino freckle (which I’ve named Seamus) with a group of other solo travelers at a hostel in Nelson because I knew I’d never see these people again and if they wanted to laugh at or with me, that was fine with me! I also knew that if I wanted to get away from everyone, all I needed to do was spend a night or three at one of the many campgrounds in New Zealand – and if I wanted a longer traveling companion, sitting down and introducing myself at the next and nearest hostel was the way to get one.
The choice to travel alone is deceptively simple – taking into consideration only interpersonal simplicity and this elusive freedom, it is easy for many people to want to do it alone. But in practice, it’s a more complicated decision. Logistically, it tends to be more expensive (per person) to travel alone than as part of a duo or more. Food, accommodation, activities, and methods of transportation – especially if you want to get “off the beaten path” – often decrease in price the more participants you have. Additionally, especially as a single female, you have to be more conscientious of the situations you decide to put yourself in and the safety associated with these decisions. You can certainly manage to get into every sort of trouble as a group, but predators of every type identify their victims by perceived vulnerability – and very few things seem more vulnerable than a single foreign female.
Flying solo, you have to be more conscientious about where you go at night, what sort of individuals you choose to stay with if you’re into homestays and couchsurfing, and even what countries you choose to go to. I hooked up with a group of Swedish males while traveling in Egypt because I found it nearly impossible to get anyone to pay attention to me as a single white female in this male-dominant (and tourism-jaded) society (even dressed appropriately, wearing a headscarf, and attempting to speak Arabic). Cultural expectations of single women traveling alone can be entirely different from your personal expectations of such.
You also have to consider your own personal enjoyment of travel – one of the best parts of traveling for many months with my best friend was the knowledge that, in years to come, I always have someone I can call and say, “Hey, remember that sunrise in Uzbekistan?” and I know she’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. You will certainly meet people on the road, and will travel with them for a day or a week, will share experiences and stand in awe in many of the same places – but you will be responsible for picking which experiences you choose to have, and working through the emotions associated with travel and these experiences, on your own. It really does comes back to this idea of freedom , and the hidden responsibility associated with it – not only do you have the capacity to fill every minute of your day with things that only you want to do – but YOU are the only one who’s going to do it. I can’t even begin to tell you the number of hours I’ve spent poring over guide books, travel blogs (like this one, only not as cool), asking advice of people I meet, weighing time constraints against questions of budget before I even get to a place – and then doing it all again the minute I arrive to be sure I haven’t missed anything. 24 hours is a really, really long time to have entirely to yourself, with no obligations except those which you choose. Paradoxically, then, both the main driving reason behind solo travel and the hardest thing about it, in my opinion, is this complete, complex freedom.
I envy those who have the confidence to get out on the road alone on their first trip – to leave home at 18 or 19, perhaps between high school and college, or at 23 or 24, between college and a career—and spend their first months ever out of their country by themselves. Had I not traveled with friends, family, school, and other travelers and had the opportunity to work out the kinks of travel and to learn what I found difficult on the road, I never would have set off to the southern hemisphere so confidently. I also had experienced the wonderful hospitality of people I’d met in every country I’d been to – other travelers, couchsurfing hosts, and random people on the streets when I would be exploring or lost. I’ve developed a deep trust of people everywhere, and the ability to make flash judgments about a person’s intentions, and it hadn’t failed me yet. Throughout my travels in 25 countries, I have never once been harmed, put in a dangerous situation, or felt unsafe.
And my experiences thus far flying solo in New Zealand have more than paid off. I’ve met incredible young people like myself, and traveled with them for a few hours or a few days – French Edward, whom I hiked through Lord of the Rings Mordor with; Canadian Evan, who told the worst jokes ever to a group of primarily non-native English speakers, who would proceed to translate the bits that were missed into 6 or more other languages (What do you call a fly with no wings? A walk.); and Spanish Marco, who had joined us this evening because I had met him two nights before on the south island and invited him to join us if he could make it tonight. But the moments I’ve been truly alone — gazing at a stunning emerald lake from the top of a mountain ridge that I had just struggled up for an hour; walking through a dried-up river bed to come face to face with a glacier, a living, moving river of ice; laughing aloud at myself when walking back from the ocean in a thunderstorm, small lakes of water collecting inside of my shoes and unable to get out because, well, they’re waterproof – that remind me that each of these decisions was mine alone to make, and that I chose well each time. They help to reinforce why I travel alone, to have moments of silence and wonder in all corners of the world.
So I appreciate nights like this, surrounded by a welcoming community of new and fast friends, partaking in conversation and offering stories in exchange for hospitality. But when I leave in the morning, Auckland and Australia bound, I’ll take my gratefulness, my new friends’ emails, and my awe at the world passing by outside my window and savor each alone, licking every last crumb of that cake off the plate and always going back for more.
Jess Scott is a foreign correspondent for Pink Pangea. She will continue to write as she travels Australia, the Netherlands, Sweden, Estonia, and finally Malawi, where she will live and work for 9 months beginning in August. For more stories, visit jpscott.blogspot.com.