December 19, 2018

Everyone talks about the liberation of travelling solo. You’ll never have to ask someone what they want to do, eat or see. You can wake up at 2pm,  spend a whole day at the local bookstore, mingle with the locals, and experience a lot more things. Exploring a new city on your own can be an empowering, transformative affair. The 15% of travellers, surveyed by Abta for the Holiday Habits Report, who flew solo in 2018 can probably attest to that—however, there’s a side people don’t often talk about—the intense bouts of loneliness.

While it’s possible to make new friends on your journey, it’s likely that they’ll end up as temporary connections, rather than newfound partners to enjoy the rest of your vacation with. Likewise, with every stranger you meet, the time you spend chatting is usually confined to small talk, instead of deep heart-to-hearts.

This empty, listless sense of melancholia doesn’t hit you when you’re peering over the rugged cliffs of the Grand Canyon, or soaking in the hot springs of Iceland. It hits you when night falls and every shop in town has closed. It hits you when you’re in your hotel room, alone in the silent darkness. After five or ten days of this sustained solitude, you’ll miss home and wish your friends were there, bringing you comfort and laughter. And don’t get me started on those honeymoon-type destinations. No matter how stunning the sunset or beautiful the beach, any solo traveller will feel the sting of being the only person there without a lover or even a friend.

Loneliness, a feeling pegged as negative and unwelcome, ruins the romance of solo travel. It supports the naysayers and tells us that perhaps travelling is better with company. However, there’s a power to being alone. If anything, it elevates the sojourn, as much as the solo trip gives travellers the rare opportunity to reach an acceptance and transcendence of it. Douglas Coupland once wrote, “Remember: the time you feel lonely is the time you most need to be by yourself. Life’s cruellest irony.” In this manner, loneliness can turn a solo trip into a journey of self-discovery.

This feeling is part of the human experience, just like every other “unsavoury” emotion. It forces us to confront our weaknesses like our excessive dependency on others, or our lack of capacity for self-love. Most run away from it out of fear of emotional pain. I say the best thing you can do is to embrace it. Here are a few ways how.

1. When your mind is occupied with how lonely you feel, allow those thoughts to flow. Don’t distract yourself. Marinate in whatever you’re feeling. Close your eyes and let the discomfort seep into every fibre of your being.

2. Write down your thoughts, your inner dialogue. Describe specifically your loneliness. Why do I feel this way? And don’t be afraid to face your true emotions head-on.

3. Take a walk outside. It doesn’t matter where you go, as long as there’s fresh air. If you don’t feel safe venturing too far, you can just go to the nearest bench or sit on the sidewalk. Be silent and meditative, while experiencing your loneliness from a place of inner and outer peace.

4. Channel your loneliness into creative mediums like art, music, dance, etc. Instead of letting it possess you, release it and turn it into something productive and beautiful.

By tuning in to this feeling, you’ll come to realise the larger issues you’ve been plagued with, or the truths you’ve hitherto been blind to. You’ll learn that loneliness is everywhere—it’s just more visible when you’re physically cut off from your loved ones in a foreign country. The truth is, even in a room full of your closest friends, you can still feel lonely.

Another lesson the loneliness of solo travel teaches you is that we don’t really need pretty things to feel happy—and that includes breathtaking skylines, mountains and architecture. Joy, fulfilment and contentment come from within. Sure, the beauty of a new, unfamiliar destination kindles much pleasure. But you can be happy in the crappiest, most uninspiring places too. In the same way, the pain of being lonely can render the most scenic spots inadequate. The choice is yours to see things from a different perspective.

With this sturdier sense of self, your concept of independence will take on a new meaning. In solo travel, you’ll have no one to blame or rely on for anything. You’re accountable for yourself, including your emotions. The fact is, we all enter and leave this world alone. If the one thing you can’t escape from is yourself, why not learn to love it? Treat every day during your solo trip like you’re taking yourself out on a date. Get to know your complexities and compliment yourself (in spite of and because of them). You’ll grow to appreciate and see value in them, with a deeper understanding that your greatest weakness can be your greatest strength. Being alone is the best way to discover all this—and that’s what makes solo travel truly life-changing.