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The Exquisite Loneliness of Solo Travel

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The Exquisite Loneliness of Solo Travel

And so, I find myself alone again. Coming down from the highs of a trip so fantastic it felt like a dream, from a week inside that odd bubble of suspended reality that being a travel blogger can be sometimes, a week surrounded by a group of people I felt so instantly connected and happy with that it felt like family. And once again I go from a week of that to the sudden, echoing silence of being alone…. and it is poignant, and melancholic, and a heart-twisting mixture of happiness and sadness. It feels good to be alone after sharing a room for a week. Feels good to be still and calm and reflecting after a whirlwind of sights and sounds and colours and alcohol and laughter. Feels good to be being “true to myself” and travelling the way I like to, the way I’m used to, in control and fearless (in that timid, fearful way I force myself to be fearless).

But at the same time it feels horrible. To be so suddenly alone again. To lose that laughter and joy and nonsense of spending a week with a group of wonderful people. It feels awkward and scary and dull and also just outright painful. And because I’ve been told I almost never write about anything bad, I thought for a change I would try to do so.

Travel, of course, has highs and lows. For most people, most of the time, the highs win out. Solo travel is no different – and being alone can be good for the soul. It is surprisingly easy to make friends on the road. There are hostels and tours and meetups and social media. And some days you don’t want friends, don’t want to share, want to be all alone – and then there is solitude in abundance and it feels good.

The Exquisite Loneliness of Solo Travel
Watching sunset on my own in Udaipur, on a boat surrounded by groups and couples.

But lately I’ve notice a shift within myself. Solo travel feels less appealing. Making new friends seems exhausting when I know I’ll never see most of them again. Most of my recent travels have revolved around not being alone: on seeing old friends and pursuing love. In the past few months I’ve sat on a train for thirty hours just to get drunk with a friend in New Orleans. I’ve flown to new countries just to meet back up with someone. I’ve spent longer than I really wanted to in a city, just because some people I love are there.

I write a lot about solo travel. I identify as a solo traveller – and I’m proud to. But I never really talk about the downsides of solo travel, and there is always bad with the good. Some days loneliness overcomes you, a beautiful, bittersweet pain that feels almost good. Like pressing a bruise. You poke at it and indulge it because it hurts in a satisfying way.

The Exquisite Loneliness of Solo Travel

It’s good to be lonely sometimes. To give yourself time to reset, to remind yourself not to rely too much on others because you need to be you first and foremost. To remind yourself how important the people you love are to you by making yourself miss them – and maybe to realise what relationships you need to cut out of your life because they aren’t worth maintaining. So there is a pleasure to the pain of loneliness, and it’s something I often notice when I travel. When I’m sad at the same time as being happy.

I met two girls in Bali, one near the end of her journey and one at the beginning. When we said goodbye at the end of a few days together Carson told Pam, “welcome to travel – it’s just one goodbye after another”. She’s right. A life of travel is a life of goodbyes at times, and the longer I’ve travelled the more that starts to hurt. So I’ve been boarding flights and trains and buses just to get back to people, just to stop the goodbyes for a moment. It’s why I moved home last year and tried to make a more settled life – and why I did so again this year. Because, for now at least, I’m too exhausted by this weirdly beautiful, quietly lingering loneliness.

12 thoughts on “The Exquisite Loneliness of Solo Travel”

    1. It is isn’t it? It can be so good for you – but after a while it can also take it’s toll. Good at the same time as bad! That’s what I was trying to capture with this post :)

  1. Now then :)

    I hear exactly what you’re saying. In April I’m going to the USA for the sole purpose of meeting people, tweeps I know from travel chats etc, and that’ll be quite weird for me to say “hi” and then “bye” to so many people in such a short space of time, especially since most of them are people i’ll have ‘known’ a long time, so the fleeting meetings we’ll have will be all the more bittersweet and poignant.

    On my last trip away, it was a brief two-night stay in a hostel in Sofia, both nights I ended up chatting long into the small hours, deep intellectual chats, with two different people (one each night) that I know I’ll probably never hear of again.

    But you know, I guess it never bothered me?

    I’m possibly an ‘extreme’ solo traveller, in the sense that I live most of my life alone anyway, so I’m pretty much always solo whether I’m travelling or not. So because of that, I actually don’t find it comfortable to be around people that often, or that frequently, and certainly not in huge numbers. I’m one of those people that is more than happy to be alone, and while the more I travel the more sociable I’ve become, that also means I’ve looked forward to the alone time afterwards more too.

    The only time I’ve ever felt ‘lonely’ was a brief period in West Africa where there was literally no-one around, but that was partly also because of my own mental state at the time; crossing the border into a new country and the realisation that I could still cope gave me a much-needed kick up the backside and tho the rest of the trip was just as isolated, it never bothered me as much.

    I’d still rather be alone than with people, and I don’t think that will ever change.

    1. Usually, it doesn’t bother me to meet people and then say goodbye again. It’s part and parcel of travel and it’s often one of the things I like about it. But I’ve been travelling on and off full time for a few years, and when I come back I work from home (alone) so I think for me it’s now about finding the right balance now.

      I actually still love solo travel and I do enjoy the feeling of being lonely. I grew up in a massive family and shared a room till I was 18… so that makes me a bit divided on loneliness. On the one hand, I learnt to really appreciate time on my own. On the other hand, as soon as I’ve been alone for a day or two I start to feel angsty!!

  2. I have to agree with you, Emily. Before 2014, I was always going to these gang trips to Goa and other places in India. But one day, I just went solo to Himachal Pradesh. And it has been the most enlightening of trips to me. It basically changed my life and the way I see travelling. Since then, I have gone to a lot of solo trips and that’s why I love your post.

    1. Thank you so much Rina! I love solo travel too and it gives you such a nice perspective on life and on the places you’re seeing. But I think I just need a balance now where I don’t just do solo travel any more… because it does get lonely!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing! I loved traveling on my own in my 20s; I even preferred to go it alone. I would meet up with friends here and there, but cherished the freedom and other benefits that come with being solo. However, over the last few years as my 20s have turned into my 30s, I’m finding more and more that that utterly wonderful yet superficial bonding that comes with meeting other wanderers and locals as a solo traveler doesn’t fill the void of a more meaningful connection. Being able to share an experience with someone close and relive it together as you reminisce of past travels is also something to be valued. I hope that you are able to find the balance in your life!

    1. Thanks so much for commenting :) I totally agree with you – I think as I get older I crave deeper connections and more permanence. I love meeting people and having those really intense, quick-burning relationships, but they are so fleeting. Which is sometimes a good thing, but not always. I’m starting to feel moe balance these days, I travel less and try to go with friends. Especially friends I’ve never travelled with before, then you kind of have the best of both worlds!

  4. I am on the same page with the Barefoot Backpacker. I spent my past twelve years on my own in a different continent so I get so used to being on my own and as an introvert, I find myself could not being around huge group of peole for very long and feel socializing exhuasting. I remember having a few hours deep converstion with someone I met in Thailand for one night and I have never met her again, but that is part of the travel and I have learned to accept it.

    I did feel lonely one time when i was in Argentina but it is because the city is shutting down and the hostel worker was grumpy for some reason and I have nothing to do. It is more about the circumstance than actually have nobody to talk to.

    I would rather being alone most time and for the solo travel, despite the initial uncomfortable level, it is my way of travel and I will never change that.

    1. I think for me, it all comes after spending a few years travelling solo almost full time, always being in different places with different people. I grew up in a big family (five brothers and sisters) so I really know how to value being on my own – but I also have a tendancy to get lonely, fast!

      Solo travel is still my favourite way to go and I love it. I love meeting new people and I even love the fact that you can have a connection but never see that person again. But I also know that I need balance in my life – so I have my home now, and housemates, and I try to see friends more while I’m back and stay in touch with everyone. That way, the solo travels feel like a break.

      Everyone is different and my post was just me feeling poetical and wanting to explore how I was feeling about travel at the time.

  5. Finally someone has written about the downside of solo travelling. It’s almost as if you can’t talk about the downsides, lest someone’s bubble is actually burst with the truth. I agree in that the good points outweigh the negatives and I love solo travelling (I’m going to South America for 5 months solo soon!) but the loneliness can be terrible at times and the constant small talk can feel a bit tiring. Saying good-byes are really, really sad when you’ve clicked with someone so well that they become like family, and I feel it more because I adore my friends and family to death. I still really fondly think of the buddies that I met when I was backpacking through Asia. We didn’t keep in touch in the end but they were so great! One of the biggest things I remember thinking every now and then when I was on an excursion or at a temple/museum/other wonderful historical site, is how nice it would be if I was with someone else, to be able to share the wonder that I was feeling in that moment or (when it came to excursions) how comforting it would feel if you had someone beside you or looking over their shoulder, making sure you’re not in any danger and waiting for you when you’re stuck waist-deep in a bog or something! Solo travelling and living on my own has made me incredibly self-sufficient, and most of the time I’m really happy and content in this. But every now and then, loneliness can creep in and you have to ride it out for a bit, give that feeling some respect, then shake it off and get on with being the Queen that you are.

    Thank you for this blog, I’m making my way through your posts.

    1. Thanks so much for reading (and for commenting!). I totally agree. I love solo travel, but it’s not without its negatives. And I know exactly what you mean about how nice it would be to share certain experiences with someone. I find myself thinking it more and more lately – and thinking of specific people who would have been the perfect companion at that time. “I wish so-and-so was here, they’d love this”, that sort of thing.

      That said, solo travel is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me in terms of my confidence and inner strength etc. I think the loneliness has been good for me in a weird way!

      Thanks again for your lovely comment!

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