Bridget Gleeson writer + illustrator

One for the Road

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On traveling alone: accepting solitude, tolerating jerks and being your own best friend.

I recently finished a nearly five-week backpacking trip through northern and central Chile for Lonely Planet’s South America on a Shoestring. I went alone, and it was wonderful.

There’s little need to go over the obvious pros and cons of going it alone, which generally seem to hold true – the solo traveler is more likely to interact with new people, for instance, and can do exactly what he wants to do – but is also likely to spend more money, take awkward digital self-portraits, and feel lonely at sunset vistas and restaurant tables. I can certainly relate to all of that.

But for me, the big takeaway from this solo trip was of an almost meditative nature. This trip forced upon me the same lesson, over and over – how to look at the world, and at oneself, with a little more gratitude and a lot more patience. Not like it’s hard to feel gratitude when you’re hiking a volcano, soaking in desert springs or drinking Carmenere while gazing at psychedelic rock formations. But the challenge is to revel in that moment, to accept it for what it is and what it is not – and to tolerate the headaches and inconveniences that it took to actually make it there.

Here, elaboration on traveling (happily) alone, in a few key points I learned this time around:

Try to realize that ‘I won’t be sharing this with anyone. I won’t get the perfect picture of it. I won’t be able to explain it to anyone else, and even if I could, they probably wouldn’t be interested.’ Because that’s how travel is. Long ago, I gave up showing people my travel photographs or trying to explain how amazing something was. Because at the end of the day, these once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences are really for one’s own individual benefit. The challenge is to accept that the joyful moment is all there is – and whether or not you properly enjoy it, it will soon be over. You can catalogue it for yourself and treasure it in your own memory, but that’s it – and that should be more than enough.

Revel in the absolute peace of solitude. Let’s face it – travel can be a gigantic headache. Even with the most agreeable travel companion, there are moments of desperate irritation when you don’t want to do the same things, when one or both parties are jet-lagged, hungry, disappointed by a hotel room, running out of cash or frustrated by the language barrier. When you’re alone, you can sidestep the drama. If you’re starving, you can find food, if you’re exhausted, you don’t need anyone’s permission to take a long siesta. It’s a lot easier to go with the flow when you have no one to bounce your own judgments and complaints off of – if something is disappointing or you’re stuck at the bus station for six hours, you can just say ‘oh, well’ and have another coffee and read your book. It’s blissful trying to please no one but yourself.

Bring more than you think you need, and shed weight as you go. When I left California for Chile, my sister and brother-in-law said ‘that backpack is heavy.’ But I couldn’t figure out what to take out of it. And now I can see it was with good reason. When you’re alone, you have to take care of all your own needs – there’s no borrowing a sweater or an electrical adapter from a friend. You do not want to be at high altitudes without a winter coat, you don’t want to be without an umbrella (or cough drops, or reading material, or a corkscrew) when it’s pouring rain in some tiny Chilean town and there’s no bus out until tomorrow night. I ‘lose’ things as I go – I left my beat-up down jacket in a hotel room in Iquique because I just didn’t need it anymore and I didn’t want to carry it.

Allow others the same rights you’d claim for yourself. People can be… jerks. Not exactly news. But it’s easy to let other people – the surly girl checking you into the hostel, the obnoxious guy who rolls his gigantic plastic suitcase over your foot – ruin your good time. But maybe these people aren’t that bad – it’s just that we’re quick to complain. I thought about this a lot in Chile, where I had to take a lot of long bus rides. So I’m seated on this bus, I have my Macbook open on my lap – because for me this is a work trip – and the guy in front of me reclines his seat all the way back so that it’s crushing my knees and I’m forced to close the computer. ‘Come on,’ I think, ‘it’s 11 o’clock in the morning, do you really need to sleep for the next six hours in a fully supine position?’ Yes, apparently he did, and I was fuming inside – I hated that guy. But the longer I stared out the window, I thought, well, why not, it’s his right, I guess, much as I hate to admit it. If I were exhausted and I wanted to sleep on a bus, I guess I wouldn’t want anyone to tell me I couldn’t. He was inconsiderate, maybe, but the lesson is that sharing space and practicing tolerance with other travelers goes a long way to having a peaceful journey.

Figure out how to delight in your own company. Without anyone else to talk to, I’m left with my own thoughts and reactions and moods. Traveling alone brings oneself into sharper focus. It makes you realize your own weaknesses – in my case, being a little antisocial and impatient and afraid of physical danger – but it also makes me see the great things about myself. Hey, I think, I’m a pretty fun person to travel with – I’m open-minded, I’m low-maintenance, and I’m not afraid to be alone. I’m good at talking to the waitresses in Chilean seafood markets to figure out what the best dish on the menu is. And I am really, really good at enjoying it.