You turn around to look at your best friend one last time as you step into the airport terminal. As expected, she’s still there, smiling encouragingly in a sea of faces. She waves at you enthusiastically until you’re out of sight. You wave right back and think about how much you’ll miss her walking the streets of a new city all by yourself. You almost can’t believe you’re finally board the flight after months of planning, thinking and rethinking. You knew you’d regret not going on this three-month adventure across Southeast Asia and could finally afford, even if none of your friends could go with you. It seems like it was just yesterday that you’d bought your ticket, only to feel in the next minute that your heart would jump out of your chest.
Now as you wait anxiously at the departure gate, hundreds of thoughts rush through your mind like a crowd of runners vying for position in a marathon. What if loneliness begins to creep up? What if you get sick? What if you hate the hostel you’ve already paid for? Will it get exhaustingly frustrating to get by in a city where little English is spoken? Are you about to make the biggest mistake of your life?
Newsflash: You already chose to embark on this adventure the second you booked your ticket. It’s too late to turn back now. Besides, this is going to be the most interesting chapter, so far, in the story of your life.
It’s completely natural to have these fears when you travel solo for the first time. We’re used to navigating our daily lives and routines with the safety net of companionship, our family, friends, colleagues, and other social circles. This, coupled with the monotony of doing what we do every day, means we hardly have time to think about what we’re doing. Traveling solo in a foreign land forces you to pay attention, focus and appreciate every unfamiliar experience, whether it’s landscapes, conversations, journeys, festivals, traditions, local food, or how people interact with one another and with you. There can’t be a better introduction to mindful living.
Contrary to what you might think, loneliness is not an unavoidable consequence of solo travel. It’s often easier to meet people while traveling on your own. Generally, locals are friendly if you’re respectful and genuine. Take as many opportunities as you can to have real conversations - ask for recommendations and tips but also ask about the lifestyle, economy, and other topics that will help you understand the culture. But remember, good conversation is a two-way street and you’ll uncover the best stories only when you’re willing to open up about your past.
You’ll also meet other travelers, some traveling solo like you, in hostels, cafés, bars and on tours, and all it takes is a willingness to introduce yourself. You’d be surprised how easy it is to connect with people you’ve just met - most travelers are open-minded, friendly and welcoming. You can navigate the intricacies of a foreign culture together and find that this leads to invaluable memories and lasting friendships.
Without the distraction of a constant companion, you’ll find yourself in awe of things you’ve never paid attention to before: the burst of flavors as you sample Asian curry for the first time, the fragrance of incense and the playful banter as you walk through a market, the perfect brushstrokes of a street artist and the beautiful smile of the woman selling flowers at the corner. You’ll see firsthand how a simple "thank you" in the local tongue makes people smile and warm up to you. You’ll learn to trust to your instinct, observe and use good judgment in tricky situations. You’ll find that the happiness that comes from laughing at yourself when you fail miserably to communicate with the taxi driver, which can be both humbling and energizing at the same time.
You’ll often face choices - some of which may feel far out of your comfort zone. Venture over the invisible line every time and I promise you’ll learn that you’re a lot braver, smarter and stronger than you thought. Accept when you’re invited for tea, take the zipline across the jungle and join villagers as they sit down to enjoy freshly picked pineapples. You’ll watch in contentment as your prejudices slowly peel away and you realize that people everywhere are warm, inviting and kind. That the world is an amazing place that inspires you to find the kind of satisfaction that no amount of material possessions can bring.
Most of all, as you learn to enjoy a quiet meal by yourself at a crowded restaurant or kayak across a river with only butterflies for company, you’ll get to know yourself just a little bit better. You’ll return home with a new appreciation for the familiar as well as a stronger curiosity for the unexpected. When you’ve learned how to make friends with the world, you’ll be thankful for feet that are restless for your next solo adventure.