This past month I spent traveling on my own. Mainly through Laos, with a week split between Siem Reap in Cambodia, and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
Moving to Taiwan in 2013 on my own aside, this is the first solo trip I’ve taken. I started the journey a bit apprehensive, having no idea what the outcome would be.
It turned out to be an amazing, enlightening experience. I would like to share a few things I learned along the way.
It was the closest thing to complete freedom I’ve ever experienced.
I think complete freedom would be traveling on your own with just a backpack and an unlimited amount of time, and I did meet several people who were doing just that. I was purely on my own schedule. At first it was hard to comprehend that I didn’t have to do anything by a certain time. Everyone who knows me, especially my friends in Taiwan, know I stick myself to a very rigid time schedule during the week, it was hard for me to let go of the concept of time. For the first time in a year, I even took off my watch. It took me a few days to adjust to my newly found freedom. If I decided I wanted to go somewhere new, I could just leave, without thinking any more of it. I could do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. I got up and did my early morning runs, I ate on my own schedule, I relaxed when I wanted, and was active when I wanted. Everything was in my own time. It was nice to be able to be purely selfish, I loved it. I think that it is in these moments of pure selfishness that you get to discover what you truly enjoy. That is something everyone should learn about themselves.
This freedom can be a heavy feeling until you get used to it.
“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Czech author Milan Kundera, describes just that. People don’t know how to handle their freedom, it is hard to be free to do whatever we want because that means the decisions are all under our control, and being in control of your own fate is a difficult task, a path most people choose not to follow. They turn to society, or religion, or something “higher” to tell them what to do, how they should be living. They purposely limit their own freedoms to make life easier.
Why is freedom so difficult?
Because whatever choices I make I have to live with. If I made a last minute decision to go somewhere new and it was awful, I had to deal with it, or change it. If I ordered a dish and it wasn’t good I had to eat it.
This is a major lesson that I hope I can remember when I get back to reality; there is no point in thinking about “should have”. Things you should have done, you didn’t do them and the opportunity has been missed so you need to move on, and make a mental note for next time.
I’m not a sociable person, not even what most people would call friendly. Several of my friends have told me I am not a very approachable person. I’m okay with that, I actually prefer it that way.
I have a specific memory from childhood where my mom made me go into the grocery store alone to get milk, and I was terrified I would have to go in and talk to the cashier alone, so terrified I was almost in tears, but she made me do it, and I’m glad she did. (this was a local small grocery store) I was terrified of speaking to people I didn’t know, of being forced to talk, to make conversation. After this trip I feel like a pro, I can start a conversation with anyone. Because unless you want to go crazy, you kind of have to talk to someone, even if it is only small talk with your restaurant host. But as much as I hate to admit it, and as much as I disdain most of society, people need people. And, as a person, sometimes I need people too.
However, even for me there are times when I need human company. On this trip there were a few days where my only communication would be ordering food or a bus ticket.
I learned to find my balance of how much human company I can handle, when I need it, and when I prefer to be by myself. In Luang Nam Tha, my trekking group and I hung out all together after our trip and though we were all strangers it felt like we were a big group of friends hanging out and it was really nice. But when I got to a 10 bedroom dorm in Luang Prabang filled with people drinking and playing ukuleles I left immediately to go to a cafe alone.
I really think these, and other lessons, are only things you can learn on your own. And traveling alone is the best way to find out who you are and how you like to spend your time. I was surprised at the number of people I met who were traveling alone, especially for those with extended amounts of time or with no time line in sight. I even met quite a few people over the age of 40, both men and women, traveling alone. Which made me recall a line from Tennysons’ Ulysses, after which this blog (and my own personal philosophy) is based;
Come, my friends,/ ‘T is not to late to seek a newer world.
Everyone should make the opportunity for themselves to travel alone, no matter your age, financial situation, familial situation. The only limitations are the ones we cast on ourselves. And those you can only find out by spending some quality time on your own.