There are many things I found difficult during my first few weeks of solo travel. Jet lag (I suffer from massive sleep problems enough as it is). Loss of appetite. Difficulty adjusting to the heat and humidity. Feet that weren’t used to flip-flops. The language barrier. Panic that I wasn’t enjoying every single minute of every single day. Thoughts about what the f**k I had done giving up my stable job and life to pursue a pipe-dream.
I’ll write more about all of these soon, but for now I just want to focus on one specific struggle: figuring out what my travelling style was.
It’s not like I’d never travelled before, but all previous trips had been under very different circumstances. When travelling with friends you obviously have to find a compromise, a middle-point between your individual styles, and when volunteering and living abroad your style is dictated to you somewhat. And while I’ve done solo city breaks, they’re a very different type of travel to long-term.
The thing is, if a few months before I left you asked me how I was going to travel, I would have said something similar to what I am actually doing now, but I stupidly spent the weeks before going obsessing over other peoples’ adventures, and this threw me off track somewhat. I stayed up late reading travel blogs and magazines, desperate to find out how other solo travellers had managed long term. I would think “Yes, I want to do it THAT way. THAT’S how I’m going to do it.”
I could totally cycle home from Beijing on my own. I could hire a motorbike and go off exploring the furtherest corners of a country. I could stay in a little hut on the beach for weeks. I could go to a meditation centre and not speak for three months.
And, well, yes, I could do all those things. Except, I don’t want to. And I would, quite frankly, be pretty rubbish at all of them as well. I’ve never ridden a motorbike on my own, and not talk for three months – pah!
I fell into the trap of thinking too much about other peoples’ journeys and how I could emulate them, rather than my own. I was looking for comfort, something solid to cling onto as I faced the uncertainty of what I was about to do. I thought if I did it how someone else had done it, and they had been ok, then so would I. And it worked. In those nervous few minutes before sleep, I would read female solo travel blogs and be comforted. Maybe it was just a necessary stage I had to go through in order to figure out exactly how I did want to travel.
But I then started travelling and fell into yet another trap – travelling how I felt I should, rather than how I wanted to. I felt I had to stay in the typical backpacker places: beige, bland guesthouses and hostels. I felt I should constantly be making an effort to be sociable, to meet people and team up with them for a few days, forgetting that the whole point of this trip was to travel solo, and that I actually enjoy being in my own company the majority of the time. I felt I had to move quickly, every two or three nights, as that’s what everyone me was doing. And that I had to pack in as much as possible into my days. I tried to fit blogging and writing in around this, and it just didn’t work.
The pressure to travel in a certain way is quite strong I think. From the other travellers you meet, who engage in a “how far off the beaten track have YOU been?” or “what’s the longest bus ride YOU’VE taken?” contest, and from yourself. There is that constant niggle that you should be travelling better than you currently are. That you should be seeing more, doing more, eating more and roughing it more. As if travelling is some sort of test and people are marking you on it. But who? And to what standards?
One of the many things that I love about solo travel is that there is no one to judge you on how you are travelling, and there is no point pretending you are enjoying something when there is no one to pretend to. And with no one else’s emotions to modulate your own, it becomes very obvious, very quickly, what you enjoy and what you don’t. As someone who has always been a bit confuddled about who she was, a bit too quick to pick up on the values and opinions of those around her, it’s been bloody refreshing. It might have taken me a few months, but I do feel like I’m getting there, that I’m starting to travel in a way that works for me, is sustainable in the long run, gives me time to work, and plays to my strengths.
But it’s taken a lot to commit to it. It takes guts to silence both the voices in your head, and those around you, and to say, “right, ok, this is how I want to travel”. Especially if the way you want to do so is bucking the norm. But doing so was the turning point of my trip. I felt like I gained control of it. Just because I was in Thailand it didn’t mean that I had to wear elephant print trousers. I could wear what I wanted, and travel in my own way.
Travelling style essentially comes down to money and how you choose to spend it. Unless you really have nothing, then you have to make decisions everyday about how you are going to spend the money you do have, and the proportion of it that goes on certain things. I’m in the fortunate position to have a little extra to play with, but certainly not enough to spend willy nilly. I try to spend what I do have on the things that make a big difference to my day-to-day happiness, and spend as little as possible on the things that don’t.
I’m not saying I’m quite there yet. I’m still ironing out the kinks, still making the odd choices that turn out to not be quite right, and then kicking myself for wasting money. But this is what I’ve learnt about how I like to travel so far, and how I plan to travel going forward.
- The first thing that quickly became obvious to me was that where I stay massively affects my mood. I get down staying in bland guesthouse after bland guesthouse, and I do get a really kick out of finding stylish little places to stay. I love guesthouses, B&Bs and boutique hotels that are completely unique, and that feel very much like the country I’m in. Places with friendly staff and just a few rooms. With clever little design touches. They don’t have to be luxurious or expensive (although I do love treating myself to the odd night at places that are), they just have feel like someone has put effort into creating nice surrounds. I’m happy spending a little more on these places, and then balancing it out with cheaper nights elsewhere, and spending less on other things.
- Cities. I heart them. I will always feel more comfortable in one than in the countryside. I love finding little independent coffee shops, visiting buzzing food markets, and wandering the streets, smiling and chatting to people. I like getting away from the main sights, exploring parts of cities where people actually live and work, and have realised that this is my idea of ‘off the beaten track”. It might not be everyones’, but I do feel strongly that seeing the “real” side to a country doesn’t have to mean five buses, a boat and a motorbike ride to the darkest depths, it just means seeing how people live. This doesn’t mean that I won’t push myself to explore smaller towns and little villages, but cities are where I will spend the majority of my time.
- I’ve realised I need, and want to, slow down. On past holidays I’ve tried to fit in as much as possible into the two weeks I’ve had, and as such often ended up more knackered at the end of it than when I began. But this is my life now, and I don’t want to wear myself out. I’ve met so many travellers suffering from ‘temple fatigue’, travellers who have basically given up on sightseeing as they are, quite frankly, bored of it. I don’t want to ever get to this stage. I want to spend longer in fewer places, making an effort to see one or two things a day, and then spending the rest of my time living: writing in coffee shops, poking my nose into little shops and eating where the locals do.
- Food. It will always be at the heart of how I travel. It’s how I meet people and connect with cultures. But I’ve also realised it’s not something I need to spend a lot of money on. In South East Asia at least you can eat exceptionally well from the street, for very little, and I also have the odd meal of cereal and biscuits in my room. I don’t mind this at all, and am happy to do it to balance out the nicer places I stay in. That being said, I do love Western coffee, and will spend what I need to get a decent flat white.
- I’m no longer drinking alcohol. Full stop. While there a number of reasons why I’ve chosen to do this, and I’ll write fully about it another time, in this context it’s because it saves a lot of money. Money I’d rather spend on other things. So I’m sorry but there won’t be any cool cocktail bar recommendations on here for the foreseeable future.
- Bike tours and food tours. I’ll always be an independent traveller, but I have realised how much I love doing both of these things, and they have been a fantastic way for me to spend the day with Westerners when I’m feeling a bit lonely and isolated. I’ve realised on this trip how much I love cycling, but I’m not yet confident enough to just head off with my bag strapped to the back on my own. We’ll see though.
So there you go. I feel like this reads almost like a manifesto. Maybe it is. I hope anyway it will give you more of an idea of the sort of traveller that I am, and what I will write about on here.
So what is your travelling style? What do you like to spend your money on? What have you learnt about yourself on the road?