For a blog that is purportedly about a couple travelling, a lot of the stories that appear on these pages are, somewhat confusingly, about going solo.
I travel a lot for work. Whether it’s in a cool and trendy European destination or slightly far off the beaten path, I have the privilege/curse of being shipped, with the whole kit and caboodle, to some far-flung corner of the world to take photos and write about events taking place there. It’s good fun, it’s an eye-opening experience and it’s definitely cost-effective but the most immediate downside is that the better half, whose job is way more rooted in one spot than mine, cannot often come along for the ride (one other downside is that, when I’m travelling for work, I actually have to devote most of my time TO MY ACTUAL JOB, but we’ll talk more about this on a separate occasion.)
Most of my travel in the pre-spouse era was solo, so the experience is not something I am unfamiliar with. I have gone for city explorations, hitch-hiked the length of England with pretty much all my worldly possessions in a backpack and ended up in establishments of questionable repute without the relative comfort and safety of a friend, or a group of friends, by my side – and all this in the pre-smartphone era. This is not due to an inherent misanthropy that I may harbour – I love spending time with good people – but simply to the fact that either my friends didn’t want to go where I wanted to go; or that my ideas of travel – its rhythms, objectives, and endurance requirements – didn’t really fit with the dynamics of the group. I am a firm believer that, when time and money are scarce and you get few chances to see what you want to see, compromise can be a bad thing; combine that to my “now or never” attitude and you’ll see why I’d often end up setting out on my own to see that one thing that I didn’t want to miss out on (and that all of my friends thought was a dump).
Teaming up with my wife didn’t really change the dynamics. Sharing a travel philosophy (except for attitudes to sleep – a necessary nuisance for me; a moment of bliss that needs to be prolonged as much as possible for her) means what we’re engaging in is effectively solo travel with slightly more crowded selfies. It’s the only compromise we can live with – one that does not feel like a compromise at all.
The joys of finding the perfect travel-mate aside, as I pack for another work trip sans la femme I look to the next week as an opportunity to refine the art of squeezing the most out of every second of free time I can muster on one of the busiest weeks of the work year (hello, Monaco Grand Prix). Knowing you will only have limited time on your trip – I am, after all, there to do a job – can focus your mind: you do your research – where to eat, what to try, what to see – in advance, making sure to make a realistic plan that will allow you to tick as many boxes as you can before the time you’re back at the airport to fly home. Being unprepared is not a luxury you can afford.
Travelling solo is not for everybody. There are downsides, ranging from safety issues to the slightly humiliating look of pity you get whenever you get into a restaurant and ask for a table for one. It can be lonely – imagine sitting for hours on a train looking out the window to wonderful landscapes, or visiting some of the world’s greatest sights without anyone with whom to be excited about them. For all the potency of social media and the thousand ways you can instantly post your photos, travel is very much a sharing activity in a very there-and-then way – and solo travelling deprives you of that.
As in any trade-off, however, for every negative there is a positive that being on your own affords – most importantly, it’s about freedom. Freedom to go wherever you want. Freedom to go whenever you want, be it in the middle of the night to get a floodlit tour of Austin or to see the dawn off the Italian coast. Freedom to try, to make mistakes, to learn. It’s liberating and exhilarating.
Travelling solo teaches you about yourself, as you discover the limits of what you are willing to do, and risk, and pushes the boundaries forward. Unlike the self-absorption of a group, where interaction between members is key, being on your own forces you to engage with the environment and its players. It’s a more immersive experience.
This, for me, is possibly one of the most important elements of solo travel. From being a layer over-imposed on an existing scene, when on your own in a foreign environment you become part of it. It’s when you crave human interaction that you end up bartering with local shopkeepers, venturing in the kitchens in backstreet restaurants and meeting people you’ll remember forever. It’s when you stop being an external onlooker and become a player yourself.
Sure, you’ll have to take a lot more selfies, but it’s a small price to pay for all you gain from it.