Tag Archives: solo travel

How to Travel Alone, pt. 4

This is part four of a four-part post on the joys of solo travel.
In this last installment, I will share my thoughts on the need to meet as many people as you can and be confident as you roam the world.

7.  Be open

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

Today, people say that I am a “good connector”.  That is because, whenever my friends travel to a new place, I put them in touch with the people I know there and make sure they show them a good time.  But this is decidedly a skill I have picked up in the last two years.

When you travel alone, you have to be willing to strike up a conversation with anyone.  People you meet on the road tend to be some of the more interesting, offering a perspective you don’t get every day.  This is especially true in countries that are off the beaten backpacker path, which attract some of the more out-there individuals.  And, for an American, Asia, in particular is a great place to meet interesting folks, since most of them tend to be from the other sides of the proverbial ponds.

Out of a mix of laziness and self-involvement, I’m going to break the cardinal rule of respectable travel-writing and quote myself speaking about the subject of people on the road in a post titled “Dispatch from a shrinking planet“:

When you travel, you meet people on the road.  The relationships are short, but what they lack in breadth they make up for depth.  You become closer to them in the three days you spend together than you do to the people renting the apartment below you for a year.  You stay in touch and email from time to time.  When something happens in their country, you reach out to see if everything is all right.  When you move to another country, you blast an email to your friends and tell them to put you in touch with everyone they know in that city.  I moved to Nairobi on a hope and a prayer, and, because of the people I’ve met along the way, managed to land an apartment and a handful of job interviews before I touched down.  Seeing the world is nice, but meeting people and making friends is truly the best part.

People, to me, are the best part of traveling (which is somewhat paradoxical to say in a post about traveling alone).  But tou never know who you are going to meet.   And, in the information age, Facebook makes it much easier to stay in touch once you go your separate ways.  Traveling by yourself makes you crave human connection, which causes you to open up.

8.  Be Confident

“A ship in harbor is safe.  But that is not what ships are built for.” – John Shedd

La Castellana, Negros Island, Philippines

The first few times you do it, traveling alone can be tough.  When you are living in a familiar place, with a support network around you to fall back on for advice or companionship, you are challenged in different ways, but having to rely on your wits tends not to be one of them.  When you get off that bus in a place you have never been, where few people speak the language and there is no one around to tell you that your guesthouse is just over that hill, or that immigration won’t let you in the country unless you get your visa in advance, you have to be diligent, adaptable, and creative.

You need always keep your eyes open, but also accept things as they come and not be so risk-averse that you avoid contact with everyone who doesn’t look like you.  At the same time, you need to be wary not to get ripped off or robbed, and be persistent in figuring out where you need to go and how you need to get there.  Sometimes, you need to be polite and patient; other times, a pushy asshole.  But what you can’t do is rely on anyone else but yourself to make the right decision.

And when things go wrong, you learn from your mistakes and take that wisdom with you as you move forward.  When things you go right, you get the satisfaction of knowing that, even with the odds stacked against you and no one to show you the way, it was you, and nobody else, that made it happen.  When you travel alone, you come to realize that, in this world, you make your own luck.

Sometimes you might not have a conversation beyond a few cursory beyond, “Could you tell me where…” or, “a beer, please.”  for a few days, so you have a lot of time to think about life and how to live it.  That kind of introspection can be lost in the daily grind.  The solitude of a language barrier in foreign country is sometimes enough to elicit some great thinking.

When I was in Ghana, I went through a rough patch for a few weeks and was calling my brother practically every day for advice.  He told me to chill out and not call him for a week, since all the noise was clouding my thinking.  “You’re out in the wilderness – it’ll be good for you,” he said.  “Jesus was out in the wilderness for 30 years, except he didn’t have a cell phone.”

The point is well-taken.  When you travel alone, you are in good historical company.  Jesus, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, the kid from Flight of the Navigator.  Sometimes it gets a little lonely, but you’ll be stronger as a result.  As the great travel writer Paul Theroux once said, “Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.”

The cliffs of Malapascua Island.

Without a doubt, traveling alone makes you more confident.  The same can be said for any time you venture outside your comfort zone, but putting yourself out there in a place foreign in all senses of the world is enough to give you the confidence that you can handle any situation.  That feeling translates to other aspects of your life as well, and allows you to move through life with greater confidence and a belief that you can handle what comes with poise.

In Salt from My Attic, John Shedd wrote, “a ship in harbor is safe – but that is not what ships are built for.”  So, if you are thinking about throwing your life in a backpack and can’t find anyone to join you, don’t be deterred.  Just go for it, and enjoy the freedom of being out there on your own.

Below is a short photographic retrospective of all the places I’ve been these last few years.

Treble Cone, Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

Bamboo Island, off the coast Sihanoukville, Cambodia

The opera house, Sydney, Australia

Pai, two hours north of Chiang Mai, Thailand

Lome, the capital city of Togo, West Africa

Ephesus, southeastern coast of Turkey

Sulu Sea off the coast of Coron, the Philippines

Trekking to Inle Lake, Burma

Mendoza, Argentina - otherwise known as wine country

With Master Issa, the farmer I lived with in Tamale, Northern Ghana

The Western Wall, Jerusalem, Israel

Bungy jumping in Queensland, New Zealand

Hell's Gate, Lake Naivasha, Kenya


How to Travel Alone, pt. 2

The following is part two of a three-part post on the joys of solo travel.

The other day I talked about the need to be prepared.  Today, I will talk about going with the flow.

3.  Be adaptable

“A good traveler has no fixed plan and is not intent on arriving.”  – Lao Tzu

I think you need to strike a balance between planning and winging it.  Do enough research to cover your bases and make sure you don’t end up in a situation you can’t handle.  Make an itinerary for yourself, but don’t feel the need to stick to it with a religious zeal.  When you are going to a new place, it helps to book a room in a guesthouse, but only do it for one night, just in case the place turns out to be dodgy.  Try to avoid being homeless, and but don’t commit to one place so and make it so that you can’t bail if you feel like it.

There are a few schools of thought on traveling.  Some people like depth – spending a lot of time in one place, relaxing and enjoying the peace of mind that comes from being able to drop your backpack, knowing that you don’t have to pick it up again for another week.  Others want to see it all, and feel like every minute spent here is a minute not spent there.  My father falls in the latter, while my brother is more the former.  I fall somewhere in the middle, and take it on a case-by-case basis.

Sometimes friends materialize out of nowhere.

In Ghana, for example, I took a tro-tro from my buddy’s place in Winneba down to Cape Coast and Elmina, expecting to spend a day before moving West to a place called the Green Turtle Lodge.  When I arrived at the Stumble Inn, a cheap resort run by a Dutch couple in Elmina, I put my bag down and took a nap by the beach.  Moving west would mean packing up my bag again and taking another four-hour tro-tro down.  Tired of traveling, I decided to kick back and relax.  A week later, I settled my bill and moved on.

I made a friend at the guesthouse, and my buddy and his girlfriend came down from Winneba to a few nights there after a village stay with a farmer fell through.  The water was nice, the bar was stocked, the food was good, and, by pure chance, I happened to have a few friends around.  Why spoil a good thing?

But sometimes the stars don’t align the way you had hoped.  After an amazing four days of scuba diving in Coron, an island in Palawan that was the inspiration for the novel The Beach, I flew to Manila.  I was planning on taking a bus up north to La Union, a town northern Luzon, to do some surfing.  I bid farewell to a friend I’d met on the boat, and walked to the exit to hail a taxi at around 7 PM.  The main terminal in Ninoy Aquino International Airport has huge glass walls with a view of the city.

The view from the bar at the SeaDive Resort in Coron. Also featured in Andrew Sullivan's "View from your Window" contest.

I took a moment to reflect on my plans.  Looking out at the city skyline, I thought about the traffic, the pollution, and the seedy red light district where my favorite guesthouse happened to be located.  After a few contemplative minutes, I turned around, walked up to the Cebu Pacific ticket counter and bought a flight to Cebu that night for $30.  I got on the next flight and arrived in Cebu City at 11, called a friend to get a recommendation for a place to stay, took a taxi there and booked a room.

The next morning, I got up early and took a bus to Moalboal, a town two hours south that someone recommended in Coron.  Twenty meters below the surface of the ocean, surrounded by millions of sardines off the coast of Pescadero Island, the decision to re-write the plan was validated.

Pescador Island in Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines

Sometimes, things work out the way you expect.  Sometimes, they don’t.  The best thing to do is to not worry too much about seeing everything, but also not become completely complacent and stop moving after the first day.  If you can find good people and a guesthouse with a bar and preferably a view of the ocean, then my advice is to just take it easy.

Sweet sea turtle in Moalboal

4. Pick up a  New Hobby

“Most of my treasured memories of travel are recollections of sitting.” – Robert Thomas Allen

Playing cards on the beach in Ghana

Whenever I hit the road, I always bring a deck of cards and my Yahtzee dice.  There are few things more enjoyable than sitting around playing cards for hours, preferably at the beach in a bar overlooking the beach.

Yahtzee is a great one too, since you can play one game for hours and it really never gets old.   According to legend, the game was invented in 1954 by an anonymous Canadian couple.  They called it Yahtzee because they played it when they were cruising around the world on their yacht, which may be the reason that the game appeals to me so much.  With the slogan “The fun game that makings thinking fun!”, Yahtzee keeps the neurons firing after a week of lazy hammock-lounging.

When I went to visit some friends living in Buenos Aires a few years ago, they told me about an amazing game they’d picked up and had been playing non-stop for the last six months.  When I returned to the U.S., I bought the Yahtzee Deluxe edition, with a leather-bound rolling cup.  Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve taught at at least one person to play, and keep the cycle going.

It is cool to pick up a hobby also.  I had a friend living in rural South Korea who learned to juggle to pass the time.  It’s an amazing idea.  So, every since then, when I’m on the road alone and waiting for a bus or just trying to pass the time, I can still be learning a sweet skill.

Juggling in Burma

Juggling in the Philippines

5.  Bring Speakers

You never know when you might want to play some tunes

See the speakers next to the sink.

In the next post, I will talk about the importance of being adventurous and opening up to people on the road.


How to Travel Alone, pt. 1

The following is part one of a three-part post about the joys of solo travel.

“It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others…Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others; then, too, we may become caught up in adjusting ourselves to the companion’s questions and remarks, or feel the need to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity.”

– Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

Two years ago this month, I left my home in Boston and moved to the Philippines.  During that time, I traveled solo through Asia and parts of Africa.  Traveling with companions is easier.  Being alone on the road can be a bit more daunting, but it is worth it.

In Kep, Cambodia - first time on a motorbike.

I’ve explored sunken Japanese shipwrecks in the Philippines, biked through Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and celebrated the Buddhist New Year festival, Thingyan, in Burma.  After crashing a motorbike in Koh Phanang off the coast of Thailand, I spent five days in Bangkok, nursing my wounds in an Israeli guesthouse.  I spent a month backpacking through Ghana, planning my next move a day in advance.  I went on a safari in Kenya with a family of nine Koreans, none of whom spoke any English.

A lot of people don’t like to travel alone.  Some people feel that companionship makes the experience easier and more navigable.  Having someone to commiserate with when your bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere, or to pay the bill at the hostel when you are bedridden with food poisoning.  Others believe experiences are amplified when shared with others.   And some people just don’t like being alone.

I happen to agree with all of these things.  But sometimes, no one is around and you have to go it alone.  The best thing to do is embrace the sense of adventure, uncertainty, and relish in the joys of self-reliance.

So here is some advice to the lone traveler, with only a backpack, a Lonely Planet guidebook, and the inside of their head to keep them company.

Counting kyats in Burma

1.  Be prepared

Before you leave, it helps to have an idea in your head of what to expect when you arrive.  For example, Burma has no ATM machines and they only accept brand-new, mint condition bills.  Two British kids I met outside the IMAX theater in Bangkok (I went to see Avatar) told me to go the main headquarters of the largest bank in Thailand and exchange Thai baht for mint condition US currency.  In the airport in Vietnam I had to lend an Austrian girl $50 to pay for her visa because she thought she could use Euros.

In the old days before the information age, it was more difficult to know what to expect, which added to the adventure.  Today, you can find out anything on the Internet.  Knowing what you need before you need it is important, since you are unlikely to get a whole lot of sympathy from some stir-crazy customs officials.

2.   Be proactive

Guidebooks like the Lonely Planet are useful to get your bearings in a country and survey the landscape.  They have sample itineraries that can be more useful than others.  In Burma, a photocopied version of the guidebook that my friend bought in Cambodia proved useful in planning an 8-day jaunt around the country.   In places like Thailand, however, relying on the guidebook for advice can lead you to the most heavily-trafficked locations, which detracts from the authenticity of the experience.

The best sources of information are who have lived in the country, since they typically know the best places.  If you can, try to link up with friends and friends of friends living there.  Being a Kiva Fellow is nice, since there is a vast network for alumni and people on the ground in developing countries around the world.  In Cambodia, knowing the right exchange rate helps not to get ripped off.  In Burma especially, the ex-pats living in the country have been there for years.  A friend of a friend took around Thingyan, which turned out to be the best party I’ve been to in my life.

Consulting the Lonely Planet at a roadside teahouse in Rangoon

In my next post, I will talk about the importance of being adaptable.