The first time I traveled alone, I was 16-years old and still very much in my own bubble. I lived with my nose in a book and had a panic attack if the phone rang. I would create elaborate illnesses so I didn’t have to do something — like make my own hairdresser’s appointment or post my own letter.
I forced myself to travel to Germany alone. But even in a new country, I couldn’t make eye contact and I still couldn’t talk to people. I spent six weeks wandering around alone without friends or any real human contact. My German got really good, but I didn’t really fix any of my issues.
Two years later I found myself on another solo trip, this time unplanned and in South America. With one year of college under my belt, I had somewhat improved my eye contact and 50 percent of the time when I said words, they actually came out of my mouth. I had an “Ah ha!” moment when I realized — and here’s the kicker — it doesn’t matter what people think of me.
The majority of solo travelers are just happy to have someone talk to them. Even today, I’m not great at unscripted conversation. Sometimes what blurts out of my mouth is weird, like when I asked a woman who had just entered my hostel: “Do you ride horses?” But I know now that if don’t click with someone, I never have to see them again. And if we do click, I have someone to be with and that’s not so bad.
Even to this day, when I travel with someone else I have a tendency to fade into the background and let them do the talking. We need a room in a hotel? Or tickets somewhere? I instinctively position myself behind my travel companion, and let them take the lead. The same thing happens if we meet someone else on the road. I’ll answer the occasional questions that come my way but other than that, nothing.
For this reason, I naturally gravitate towards traveling with extroverts. They’re not known to call me out on my uncanny ability to become invisible when any sort of human contact situation arises.
If I employed this tactic when traveling alone, I wouldn’t get out of the station — in my hometown. Not only that, but I would get lost because I wouldn’t be able to ask for directions. I wouldn’t have anywhere to sleep because I couldn’t ask around about accommodation. And I’d starve because I wouldn’t order any food. That’s all ridiculous. Traveling alone forces me to get out of my comfort zone and talk to people, quite literally in order to survive, and also for company.
Traveling solo involves a lot of alone time. Sometimes my Couchsurfing host was unable to show me round, other times I’d get to a hostel only to find that everyone there was part of either a couple or a tight-knit group. Hostels can be great places for meeting people, but sometimes they can be a little lonely — reminding you that you came alone. As introverts though, we don’t really care about that.
When I arrived in Taiwan, the first hostel I went to was full of teenage dance groups from China. They practiced all of their routines in the common area and they only moved in packs. At another hostel in Hungary, it was just me and the owners. Both times, I had no choice but to see the city alone.
Other times it would be the travel itself that left me alone, sometimes for days at a time. Long haul flights, overnight trains, and buses between cities and countries are all inescapable necessities of travel. On local transport, often the language barrier alone is enough to stop socialization with other travelers. And sometimes not — like the man on a sweaty bus in Colombia who talked in Spanish at me, showed me a violent music video of Christ being flayed on the cross, and then stripped his shirt off and went to sleep using half of me as a pillow.
While meeting new people is now one of my main sources of pleasure when traveling, I enjoy my time alone immensely. It gives me time to reflect on where I’ve been and where I’m going, and to notice the things I maybe wouldn’t if I was constantly having to focus on another person.
Traveling with a friend always seems like an amazing idea at first — shared experiences, someone to take photos of me so I don’t have to try and do non-selfie selfies, and someone to halve the panic with when things go wrong. “We should travel together!” I’ve said it so many times.
And then I actually travel with people. And I remember why it’s not for me.
As an introvert, albeit a sociable one, I find sustained human contact tiring. I always have a level of nervous energy when I’m talking to other people, even friends. It’s something that a lot of people don’t understand about me. If they don’t know the feeling, they can even take offense. “But we’re friends, you don’t have to feel that way around me!” It doesn’t matter how close to you I feel, I won’t ever stop feeling a little on edge. It’s why I find living alone easier, for example. Sometimes I just don’t feel up to seeing other people and being switched on.
One of the huge bonuses of traveling alone is that when I need to, I can stop. I don’t need to consider someone else before I decide to take some downtime. I find that after a few weeks, I just want to stay in a city, switch off, and recharge.
This is why I personally prefer Couchsurfing to hostels. If I’m feeling worn down, I at least know what I’m going back to at the end of the day.
Last week I ran into a friend on the street. I told him that just before, I had met a pilot while getting coffee at Starbucks.
“You’re so much more outgoing than I am,” he said.
“But I’m not outgoing,” I replied, as an automatic response. Except I am.
When I came home from traveling round South America, there was a part of me that wanted to keep that feeling alive. So I would talk to people. If I was alone in a coffee shop, and the person or people at the next table seemed nice, I’d chat. In shops, I’d spend a while talking to the sales assistant and holding up the queue. I knew the personal lives of my plumber, my postman, everyone who worked in all the cafes I spent a lot of time in. I spent so much time chatting in a secondhand clothes shop that they offered me a job.
I started getting the comment “Everyone knows you!” Kids I had class with for seven years didn’t know my name when we graduated, and now I’m a person who knows everyone.
The confidence and networking skills given to me by travel got me jobs, helped me organize events, and led to me making some of my best friendships.
I have one friend who has known me for all four years of university, and for all of my trips. We’ve also (briefly) traveled together. She was the first person to point out that there is a travel Amelia and a home Amelia.
Home Amelia is quiet and organized. She gets to bed early, barely drinks, doesn’t do nights out, has a schedule filled well into the next week.
Travel Amelia is something else. She never says no — providing the scenario doesn’t involve hard drugs or physical danger, and isn’t (very) illegal.
The thought that no one knows me is freeing. I have been everything from the life and soul of the party to a world-weary recluse. I have no expectations to maintain, and no fellow traveler to remind me who they think I am.
I’ve partied until 6am on the 40th floor of a hotel in Colombia, and I’ve sat in the jungle playing cards and drinking warm beers with Israelis just out of military service. I’ve hurtled down roads in Crimea on the front of a motorbike, and experienced the weirdness of fetish clubs in Berlin. I’ve taken dance lessons and yoga classes in four different languages on three different continents. I’ve also sat alone in coffee shops and parks all over the world, and just read. Because that’s what I’ve needed then.
Every day is a chance to change who I am, and to forget that people know me as the quiet one. Because there is no one who really knows me, and there’s no pressure to be anything other than what I’m feeling at that moment.