Why Going Solo Is The Most Rewarding Way To Travel

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Why Going Solo Is The Most Rewarding Way To Travel

Words by Mr Tom M Ford

12 June 2022

If you google “solo travel”, the first three hits are rather revealing. Is it weird to go travelling alone? Is solo travel boring? Is it lonely? Unless you own harem pants or have a YouTube channel called WaNdRlUsT, going away alone for an extended period can be daunting. Most people never try it. Much like going out for dinner companion-free, pull it off with aplomb and you feel like the protagonist in a stylish film. Fail and you spend your time thinking about something mildly embarrassing you said 10 years ago.

These misgivings were plaguing my thoughts in January this year, when I had decided to use a three-month work sabbatical to travel alone through Ghana and Colombia. I had been contractually permitted to take this leave for six years, but due to a lifelong devotion to indecisiveness, I just sat on it. I have always sought the excitement of far-flung destinations – Vietnam, India, Uganda – but often for only a fortnight and always with a companion who can drive, read maps and make all the difficult decisions.

However, unless your friendship circle is made up of dukes, Instagram influencers and octogenarians, you will be waiting a lifetime to fritter away 12 weeks with someone. Having spent two years happily living alone, I had become confident in my own company and, at the risk of sounding all Ms Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love, some positive changes in my personal life had invited me to disconnect from friends, family and work and exist with myself for a while. I wanted to struggle, I suppose, to embrace risk and uncharted situations.

I am not the only one with a newfound desire to go on a solo adventure. Ms Tracey Nesbitt, the editor of Solo Traveler, says lockdown has made people impatient. “The idea that the option to travel can be taken away at any time gives travel decisions more importance now,” she says. “Some people are focusing on visiting destinations they’ve been putting off for many years. Not having to adhere to a schedule or wait for someone else are all aspects of solo travel.”

Ms Jenny Southan, who runs the travel trend forecasting agency Globetrender, says the tone of travelling alone has altered. “Solo travel has most commonly been associated with student backpackers, but there are certain shifts that give it a new spin, especially when it comes to digital nomadism,” she says.

I met many solitary people travelling and working while I was away. I took my Mac because I thought I might write or watch Netflix on imagined lonely nights, but I did neither and instead resented its weight in my backpack and its association with a life I was escaping. I fantasised about giving it to someone or throwing it in the sea.

After landing in Accra, the capital of Ghana, I was so enthralled by its intensity, friendliness and vibrancy, there was no desire for downtime. I met interesting people in my hostel with whom I could potter about the place, but I realised quickly that I wanted to experience the country for myself. In a place such as Ghana, you’re never really alone anyway.

After a few days, I had enjoyed the bustle of Makola Market, where I sat on the floor and ate fufu, partied with young Ghanaians in ramshackle bars in the more westernised neighbourhood of Osu, and watched boxing and got hustled out of £20 in the poorer area of Jamestown. Soon, I had about 15 Ghanaian phone numbers stored in my contacts, from Vogue-featured fashion designers to a teenager I met on the street who insisted his name was Pressure Lord. I travelled around the country on fantastically chaotic tro tro journeys, always the only non-Ghanaian onboard these clapped-out minibuses packed to the brim with various cargo, from whole families to sacks of ginger. I spoke to as many people as possible and learnt about the struggle of living in Ghana from taxi drivers and farmers.

“If you find yourself at a football match in Colombia and some heavily tattooed ultras take a liking to you and want to take you to their town on the back of their motorbikes, do it”

On the more isolated far west coast, I took myself off for day-long walks across beaches and villages, encountering only boys with machetes and fishermen. Trust, spontaneity and an obsessive need to try any food I saw provided me with the community and lessons I was after. If you meet a group of kindly masons on a walk through a village and they invite you to eat banku and drink gin with them, it is rude to say no (many Ghanaians want to share their fantastic food culture, often with the wonderful phrase “You are invited”).

If you find yourself at a football match in Colombia and some heavily tattooed ultras take a liking to you and want to take you to their town on the back of their motorbikes, do it. One evening in the southeastern city of Cali, some hostel acquaintances deemed a huge salsa street party too dangerous to join. So I went alone, made friends (via the Google Translate app) and learnt how to dance salsa (very badly) until the early hours.

If you are not hoping to expose yourself to things you don’t understand or with you are less than comfortable with, to connect with and learn from people who live where you are visiting, what are you seeking? If you are alone, a small measure of calculated risk is required, simply because you are not at home watching Gogglebox. But surely that’s the point.

I travelled to three areas in Colombia that the UK government deems dangerous and advises against visiting. After doing a bit of research, speaking to locals, hostel owners and fellow travellers, in all of these “red zones”, I found kindness, community, fun and beauty. Although Ghana and, to a lesser extent, Colombia are known for their welcoming inhabitants, in my experience, most people in the world are programmed to be nice. A question I often got asked by travellers in Colombia was, “Is Ghana safe?” Which feels like an absurd and rather prejudiced question to ask. Why would it be any less safe than Colombia? Unless it is in a war zone or under the control of terrorists, how can a country be broadly safe or unsafe? What is your definition of safe?

“I have made vows with people I met in a hostel for 10 minutes more solemn than I have made with members of my own family”

Mr Dwayne Fields is an explorer and TV presenter preparing for his Disney+ show The 7 Toughest Days On Earth. He echoes my thoughts on making connections on solo trips. “If you were to believe the newspapers, you’d think everyone in this world is out to get you,” he says. “Ninety-nine point nine – I can’t say enough nines – per cent of people are decent. They just want to get by, make a living, educate their kids. We all have so much in common. If you move in a suspicious way, you won’t be received well. If you’re warm and show some vulnerability, most people won’t take advantage of that. Most of the violent things that have happened to me have happened in London.”

This is not to say that bad things do not happen when people travel on their own. I had my phone and money liberated from me on my last day in Colombia – a minor incident, worthwhile lesson and something I could have prevented had I been more careful. I met plenty of happy solo female travellers on my trip, but I know that some may have their own personal safety concerns. Southan had some negative experiences when she went Interrailing as a 19-year-old.

“I was often getting followed, cat-called or groped,” she says. “In Paris, a group of kids tried to mug me. You have to learn ways to extricate yourself from situations like this pretty fast. Women have to be especially street smart when going solo. That said, it’s so much easier to stay in touch with friends and family now. At the time I had no mobile, no Google Maps, no way to pay for things when my cash and travellers cheques got stolen, so some things have made solo travel safer.”

She recommends companies such as Much Better Adventures for solo travellers who want to join trips with other people. For more peace of mind, Mr Pat Riddell, the editor of National Geographic Traveller, believes in doing your homework. “It’s much, much easier than when I first started travelling in the 1990s,” he says. “The resources available now are countless. If you pick your destination carefully, do your research and stay alert, the risks are much diminished.”

Hostels are a great way to get local, insider information on the move and make immediate connections. They cost a fraction of the price of a hotel and yet their private rooms often provide as much privacy and comfort as you need.

Because of the nature of their inhabitants, every hostel in the world exists in a parallel pocket of space and time that does not adhere to terrestrial laws of physics. Conversations move at an incredible pace and they all go exactly like this: “Hey, how’s it going? How long have you been travelling? Where are you from?” (Germany. It’s always Germany.) “Cool. I’m heading to the jungle tomorrow. It takes two days to get there and we’re doing an eight-hour night trek. Would you like to join us? Great! What’s your name by the way?”

“Often solo travel is about therapy, recovery, a rite of passage or a kind of pilgrimage”

I have made vows with people I met in a hostel for 10 minutes more solemn than I have made with members of my own family. You will be best friends with these people for five days and, despite adrenaline-fuelled promises and swapped social media contacts, you will probably never see them again.

“You are never alone for long,” says Southan. “When you stay in hostels, you always make friends. In many ways, it is the most communal way of experiencing the world.” Fellow gringos are a lifeline, but they also provide a welcome dose of reality. There is nothing like hanging out with a man who lives 15 minutes away from your parents, or a scouser called Dean, to shatter the illusion that you are somehow doing something exotic. This is a good thing. You are not Mr Anthony Bourdain. You are not Mr Bruce Chatwin. You are a slightly confused man with some savings and a comically large backpack.

I met people who were travelling on their own to get over a break-up, who had given up their flat and their job and were just seeing where they landed with no real plan. There were people who had just finished their degrees and were making the most of their youth. And then there were weathered, hoarse men who, three beers down at breakfast, were simply avoiding real life and had been doing so since about 1974.

Southan sees how open solo travel is to everyone, whatever your age or motivation. “I think it’s now interesting to see how older generations are hitting the road alone, perhaps after a divorce, when the kids have gone to university, in retirement or after a bereavement,” she says. “Often solo travel is about therapy, recovery, a rite of passage or a kind of pilgrimage.”

I relate to the idea of therapy or catharsis. Rather predictably, my experience has made me a more confident, happier and understanding person; I know I don’t have to rely on anyone. “When you’re alone, you have to be totally self-reliant,” says Fields. “You learn a lot more about yourself than if you were with other people. We need time alone and it’s so hard to get that in the society we live in. In a larger group, it turns into a tourist trip rather than an experience. Going solo feels unique because you’re not witnessing it happen to anyone else.”

The only companions