Monday, March 20, 2017

Solo Travel: My Thoughts

Hello from Houston! I am back from a most marvelous vacation. A much-needed escape from reality. A trip to a part of the country I had never before experienced. And it was absolutely beautiful. Cold and rainy much of the time, but absolutely jaw-dropping. And it reminded me, as every trip I take reminds me, that there is so much beauty in this world if we only take the time to get out there to explore and appreciate it. I am always so grateful for the opportunity to travel, and I will never regret money the money I spend to see other parts of the country and world. Even if it means I’m never shopping at Anthropologie again. But there is nothing I love more than sitting down on my couch and scrolling through photos from a past trip, remembering how I felt in that moment, reflecting on everything that I learned (though I still don’t know what was in that lotion that I was allergic to … ), and appreciating the fact that I put myself outside of my comfort zone.

And nothing puts me more outside my comfort zone than traveling solo. Actually, my trip to Argentina this past summer was my first TRUE solo travel experience. I had traveled with friends, I had vacationed with family, but this was my first time having to plan out everything on my own. And then execute it. And I shocked quite a few people with the announcement that I would be traveling to South America 100% by myself. I have friends who still don’t really understand why I did that. And in the days leading up to my departure, I wasn’t really so sure myself. But once I got over there, and I experienced the freedom that comes with traveling solo, I vowed that I would do it again. So, I did. I stayed in the country this time around, but it was an adventure nonetheless. And for those of you who remain skeptical about the benefits of traveling solo, I’ve put together a list of reasons why I think everyone should do it – at least once.

1. You’re forced to spend time with yourself
It sounds silly, but how often do you spend time with just yourself? As a high school teacher, I don’t have a ton of moments to myself. I’m either teaching English or coaching volleyball, and when I’m not, I’m talking to a student or colleague before school. I’m helping a student with test corrections on a recent exam. I’m talking to an assistant principal about a student. And I love everything about my job. But traveling solo forces me to learn how to be alone with my own thoughts. It forces me to make my own decisions. It forces me to reflect on the day and my relationships and what is truly important to me. The things I sometimes miss when I’m constantly surrounded by others.

2. You meet and converse with new people
When you travel by yourself, you don’t have the ease of turning to your friend or family member and tuning out or ignoring everyone around you. But when you’re by yourself, you don’t have that option. Sure, you can talk to yourself, and have people think you’re crazy, or you can keep to yourself, which I definitely do much of the time, but you can also engage in conversation with those around you. People are so interesting if you just take the time to listen and talk to them. And as someone who loves hearing other people’s stories, this is such a gift of traveling solo. I fifth wheeled (literally, on a biking wine tour) with two of the most fascinating couples when I was in Mendoza. They weren’t much older than I am, but they have been ALL over the world and have experienced so much. It left me hungry for more! And on the bus back to my place in Seattle, I had the most lively bus driver, and I overheard a conversation he was having with a fellow passenger about college basketball teams and March Madness. When that passenger got off the bus, I chatted with him about my beloved Longhorns, and he had much to say about Mack Brown, Charlie Strong, and the recent hiring of Tom Herman. I got off the bus with an unexpected smile on my face due to an unexpected conversation with a stranger.

3. You realize that there are still kind people in the world
Going along with the meeting and conversing with new people, you realize that there are still kind people in the world. When I travel, my faith in humanity is restored. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely some goonies out there, but more often than not, you realize how wonderful other people truly are. When I was in Argentina, people were more than willing to point me in the direction I wanted to go. Most recently, I was cutting it extremely close to make my flight back home to Houston from Portland. The airport shuttle was running late, and a man, who happened to be standing in the lobby when all of this was going down, so graciously offered to take me to the airport so as to not miss my flight. He expected nothing in return, rather he offered the parting words that he had experienced the ordeal of missing a flight, and was glad to be able to help to make sure that I did not have to go through that.

4. You feel a sense of freedom and independence
One of the best things about traveling solo is being on your own schedule. I can wake up when I want, I can eat what I want, when I want (dessert before dinner? Sure thing!), and I can spend as much or as little time as I want at each of my destinations. One of my biggest regrets (annoyances?) is that I didn’t get to spend as much time as I would have liked roaming Shakespeare & Company while in Paris, but my cousin wanted to move onto a museum. But being on my own allows me to spend hours in a bookstore, and enough time in a museum to appreciate the artwork, but not so much that my eyes glaze over. I prefer to walk everywhere, as that’s often when you discover the most hidden gems, but not everyone is down to walk a mile or two in the cold rain. And while I typically like to pack my days full of activity, I can also slow it down if I want to, and not worry about messing up anybody else’s schedule. I can march to the beat of my own drum – the true sense of being an “independent woman”.

5. You learn how to handle bumps in the road
It wouldn’t be a vacation if you didn’t hit some sort of mishap. And I’ve managed to have a couple of them with each trip that I take. And while I can call my dad and moan to him about my problems, ultimately, he’s in Houston, and I’m wherever I am, so it’s up to me to get it figured out. If I’m lost, I better figure out how to read a map and get myself going in the right direction. If I’m having an allergic reaction, I better get myself to the closet medic. And the best part is – you do adapt, and you do figure it out. You may have to ask for a little help along the way, but you get done what you need to get done. I’m so used to calling my parents whenever something doesn’t go my way, but traveling solo forces me to make the decisions that I’m more than capable of making.

6. You step outside your comfort zone and experience new things
I’m an introvert to my core. And I’m also Type A to my core. Which means I love having a routine. I live and breathe by my schedule. I wake up at the same time each day, eat very similar meals at pretty much the same time each day – it’s what’s comfortable for me. But as much as I love having a routine, it’s also so necessary to get out of that routine every once in a while and experience something new. Growth happens outside your comfort zone – trying new food, trying new methods of transportation (side note: I absolutely LOVE figuring out public transportation systems when in a new city or country!), walking with no direction, and being okay with things not going according to your plan. My days spent traveling are never anything like my days in Houston, and I’m pretty okay with that.

7. You read a lot of books
You’re traveling alone, but you still have to eat. And for whatever reason, the very thought of eating alone terrifies some people. And while I love a shared meal, I love dining solo, with just a book to keep me company. It’s crazy to me how, when I’m eating at home, I tend to reach for my phone to keep me company. But when I’m traveling, I always reach for a book over my phone. Maybe it’s because I feel as though I’ve taken a step away from my typically fast-paced lifestyle, and I can put the phone away for more than 45 minutes. That whatever book I’m engrossed in is more important than what was posted on Instagram. While I’m definitely posting pictures of my trip as I go, I also feel less pressured to keep up with the social media scene, and instead escape into the world of the characters in my book.

8. You learn what’s important to you
I learned that I am the type of girl who spends all of 20 minutes getting ready in the morning. I throw on athletic clothes, brush my teeth, and pull my curly mane back into a braid. I don’t have to have every hair in place before I leave, nor do I spend any time putting on make-up. I get up early, and I’m quickly out the door ready to begin a jam-packed day. I learned that I’m the type of person who values outdoor adventures over spending hours in a museum. There is definitely a time and a place for museum exploration, but I cap off at about an hour. I learned that I’m a planner. Okay, I already knew that, but I like to start my day with some sort of plan. I may add and subtract from there, but I like to have a sense of direction to my day. Otherwise, I often feel as though I’m wandering around aimlessly. I do some of my best wandering when on vacation, but I like to have a purpose to my wanders.

And most of all, you learn. Traveling – be it solo, with family, or with friends, is such a learning experience that I hope I never take for granted. I will never feel guilty about the money I spend to travel because what I learn while traveling is not at all possible to learn from a book. In fact, as my uncle was driving me home from the airport last night, we were talking about that very thing. I may continue to get shocked responses when I tell people that I explored a new place alone, but I will continue to be thankful for each experience. Even a weekend alone in a city just hours away from where you live is a solo travel experience, and I promise it’s one you’ll look back on and remember forever.

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