Tales of a Solo Traveler
Graphic: Peter Natkin
Trudging up the hill, sweat forming small rivulets across my back, I tried to let my mind fall into the haze of summer heat. Every movement and sound seemed to slow down as the weight of my backpack and the very swollen purplish foot I was pulling behind me became my singular focus. Earlier that morning, I had arisen at the crack of dawn to take one last run through Dubrovnik, Croatia, before catching a bus out of town. Only 50 meters from my hostel, I had stumbled onto the ground, resulting in what I would later find out to be a serious ankle sprain and small fracture.
The busy marketplace in Split no longer seemed endearing as hawkers forced their wares before my lowered eyes. Tourist laughter turned to cackles. If this was the trip of a lifetime, that dream had left itself somewhere back at the bus station when I had been spit out into an oppressive heat. Even the Dalmatian coast doesn’t look beautiful when you are in a bad mood. With each stumble, I muttered another curse word, and when I had run out of English ones, I racked my mind for the few I knew in other languages. When I finally reached my hostel, I realized there was no elevator, and my room was on the fifth floor. I let out a low, pitiful moan. The travel gods were not with me today.
I had had my fears long before I set off on my solo-backpacking-Europe adventure that something might go wrong but I certainly did not anticipate winding up barely mobile on the third day. I felt like I was failing my own personal Survivor challenge and I wasn’t even on a remote island. Now it seemed uncertain: Should I go to the doctor? Stay a few extra days and lose the money on my flights? Would I need crutches?
When thinking of travel, adjectives like “adventurous” and “spontaneous” come to mind. Travel is supposed to be glittery and relaxing, full of memories and brimming with photos that make your friends jealous. Truthfully though, the real test of a traveler is in their ability to handle the spontaneity of an unfavorable situation, and to make the best of what happens. Perhaps my greatest lesson after traveling through six countries and boarding countless buses, trains, and planes was that I was the sole keeper of my reaction towards the outcomes of the day.
For as much as that meant handling problems—fevers, fractures, and finding the lost arc of the low-cost bus station (why are they always hidden behind random buildings?), it also provided a lot of freedom. There was no one else to complain about a bad restaurant choice or grumble as I made countless mistakes. When I returned home and talked about the trip with friends and family, I was the only one to provide input on the experience, freeing me to emphasize the wins and losses to my own liking. I could string every event and place together through a singular lens. Every perspective was my own. Perhaps if I had been with someone, the trip might have had a different shade.
I think many people are afraid of solo travel because they believe it will be lonely and unpredictable. And it is, sometimes. There is a certain vulnerability to sleeping in a room with seven men as the only female. Celebrating the Fourth of July by yourself in northern Italy downright sucks, even if you manage to find potato salad and cranberry sauce on a menu. I worried constantly about dropping things or leaving them unattended. Despite all of this though, being by myself forced me to seek out other people when I needed help and to be approachable.
Later after I had settled myself into the hostel in Split, I went back to my room and met an Australian civil engineer who was having a kind of existential crisis about his future. After being on the road for several weeks, he saw his job contract at home as a vice wrapped around the next chapter of his life, even if he knew going to work was unavoidable. For the next several hours, we exchanged conversation across bunk beds as if we had known one another for much longer than fifteen minutes. Because we would never see one another again, there was no need to pretend to be someone else. His and others’ willingness to share personal stories with perfect strangers was one of my favorite parts of traveling. As I lay on the sofa, confined to icing my foot for the evening instead of going out to explore, I realized I was happy to stay in, and surprised that this engineer, whose name I never caught, was willing to divulge his hopes and fears during our eight-hour friendship.
Before I went traveling, I wanted to watch out for a lot of different types of people: pickpockets, strange men, abductors. Yes, it’s important to be cautious, but when it really counted and I needed help, watching for friendly faces wasn’t hard. They were everywhere. Cheerful pharmacists handed me ibuprofen and bandages. Understanding ushers let me into the ballet after I had lost my ticket on the street. A lovely group of 70-year-old bicyclists in Bolzano offered sage advice and encouragement. A Russian hostel worker celebrated the World Cup finals with me when I came down with a bad cold. A vegan traveler made quite possibly the best lentil stew of my life for our Austrian hostel. These were all people I met when things did not work out the way I planned.
Maybe what the best traveler needs is not a positive spirit in every situation, but an understanding that things will sort themselves out. Missed transportation is a common occurrence. Delays are inevitable. Unruly and drunken hostel mates are guaranteed. But the lows of traveling mold themselves into a compelling storyline just as the lows of life do. Things will always happen when you are on your own, but what you do with them is up to you.