1 September 2015.
For South Africans, this date announces the first day of Spring. While many Stellenbosch students are likely to be prancing around Victoria Street in floral sundresses in the cold and rain today, I am celebrating the half-way mark of my epic Round-The-World Adventure in sunny Miami. And today, I would like to reflect on what I’ve learned about solo travel over the last 3 months.
So, Solo Travel: Awkward or Amazing?
6 Reasons Why I Love Solo Travel
1) You can change your plans at a whim
When you travel solo, you can do whatever the hell you like. It’s all up to you. In the three months that I’ve been travelling I’ve made countless changes to my plans on a moment’s notice. Here are two of my favourites
Late Night Chats in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
I was planning on setting off to Arslanbab the next day. Just before going to bed I made idle chit-chat with a guy in my dorm. He told me about a National Horse Games festival in Osh that was taking place in two days time. And just like that I decided to go to the horse games instead and ended up travelling with him for several days. Not only did I get to see the horse games, I also got to take a trail blazing day trip to Toktogul, a town that hardly gets a mention in the Lonely Planet.
FOLLOWING WHIMS IN THE USA
While studying a map of Amtrak routes aboard the California Zypher, I decided to change my plan of travelling from Washington down the east coast to Miami via Savanna and to rather travel from Washington to New Orleans through the Deep South. Which ended up to be one of the best decisions of my life. I met amazing new friends – with whom I share amazing memories of eating messy Po’ Boys in Magazine Street, dancing to Jazz tunes at Frenchman, watching the Saints get beaten by the Texans, wiping tears while listening to Katrina stories and getting our Spiritual groove on Sunday morning at the Church next to our hostel.
2) I can eat and drink whatever I want.
If grabbing a bagel from the hostel breakfast table for lunch means that I can ride the Chicago Navy Pier Ferris Wheel – great! Or, if I want to indulge in pulled pork burgers and grapefruit shandy while appreciating some live blues at Smoke Daddy – I can do that too. Although, I can hardly think of anyone who would say no to that.
3) You can “do” sights and attractions much faster
This gives you more time to just relax and take it slow in a park or coffee shop or the rooftop deck of your hostel. I’ve already read 11 books this summer!
5) It’s easier to meet people.
When you travel in a group you tend to keep to your flock. But when you’re flying solo, you are more likely to engage with strangers. In fact, locals are more likely to engage with you. In Kyrgyzstan where white females traveling by themselves are exotic sights, the locals were practically falling over their feet to ask me where I’m from, why I’m not black if I’m from Africa and why “I am one.” And it wasn’t just personal questions. On a marshrutka ride from Karakol to Kochkor, I spent a good few hours chatting with a fellow passenger about goods made in China and Canadian gold mining companies. When we ran out of words, we just pointed at places on my map of Kyrgyzstan. He ended up inviting me to his house, promising that he would slaughter a lamb in my honour. Although this is a gesture of great respect in Kyrgyzstan, from a safety point of view it wouldn’t have been wise to accept. Besides, I hate lamb.
5) You Get to Staying in Hostels
If you travel solo and you want any type of social interaction, you pretty much have to stay in a hostel. I love it (for the most part). It takes me back to boarding school and university residences – both places that I have very fond memories of. A lot of hostels, like Generator in Paris, are so posh these days that you might as well be staying in a hotel. Yet, some of my most sociable experiences has been in hostels that felt more like student digs than hotels, notably Hostel Nomad in Bishkek, Capital View Hostel in Washington, DC and Auberge Nouvelle Orleans in New Orleans. I guess the social dynamic in a hostel depends a lot on the guests present at the time, but so far I think that if a hostel resembles a real home, guests would be more likely to interact like they would at home.
Actually, as far as I can tell, living in a hostel is similar to living in a house with small children: there’s shouting and crying at night, walls are covered in crayon scribbles, there are never any sharp knives in the kitchen and if you don’t want them to get their sticky hands on your stuff you have to lock it up.
Two things I have been sorely missing on my solo travels
1) Real Interaction With My Friends and Family
I am missing out on a lot back home. While I’ve been travelling, my friends have announced pregnancies and plans to buy property and I’m missing out on all of it. Whatsapp and Facebook keeps me in the loop, but it’s not the same as sharing the experience over a cup of tea. And no matter what they say about global villages, it’s darn difficult to schedule Skype calls if there’s a massive time difference. And reliable WIFI is not a given, not even in the USA.
2) Real Mental Stimulation
I know this sounds counter intuitive. I’m out in the world and constantly surrounded by new sights and experiences. Isn’t that stimulating? No, not in the way that I realise I need. To me, this is assimilation, like a child soaking up new languages and concepts like a sponge. It is wonderful and I treasure it and try to immerse myself in it.
But it’s not enough.
I am used to the hamster in my head sprinting at break-neck speed in his little wheel to help me solve complex problems, follow my friends’ insanely clever conversations and just orchestrating my limbs during karate training.
At the moment, my mental hamster has left its wheel completely and can be found grooming in the corner by the water bowl.
And I guess that is what is happening. My mind is being decorated with wonderous experiences, but it’s not actually getting any exercise. I’ve only started to get an idea of how intellectually intense my job had been, now that I’m deprived of it. This is a big issue that none of the articles on long term travel have warned me against.
However, it’s not an insurmountable problem. Earlier this week, I’ve had a wonderfully satisfying conversation with a park ranger for Amtrak’s Trails and Rails program. She’s a former meteorologist and, since I was on my way to New Orleans on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we talked for hours about the formation of tropical storms, tornadoes and all kinds of science-y weather issues. But these conversations are few and far between.
There are other ways. I have managed to snag a freelance job ghost-writing a children’s book. Fiction is a new mental challenge and it has been helping to get my hamster back into the wheel. I still miss science, though.
Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, I’m enjoying the down time. And I know that soon I will be back in Cape Town, with a hamster running in its wheel listening to the sound of horses galloping across the Kyrgyz jailoos while looking at a motivational poster of tropical waters surrounding Gili-Tragawan. So, I’m doing my best to assimilate as much as I can, while I can.
So, if you’ll excuse me, I am off to paint some pictures of Miami’s South Beach for my hamster cage.
Life List Entry: Travelled (mostly) solo for 3 months