A tale of backpacking adventures
I grew up going on road trips with my family every summer. We had a van with three seats and, even though there were four of us, that didn’t stop us from crossing borders with kids sitting on top of piles of clothes and food in the back of the car. It was the 90s, and we didn’t care.
These early experiences engraved in me a passion for the road. All my life, I have been lucky enough to travel regularly all over Europe. I am grateful that my parents kept taking us on trips every summer, even when we reached adulthood.
But that delayed in me the urge to travel solo. It wasn’t until I turned 29 that I decided to go on my first solo backpacking trip: a tour of the Balkans. It changed my life in so many ways!
Most of all, it made me realize that solo travel is my favorite form of adventure. Here is why.
1. You Meet More People
It was a warm summer morning when I stood in line to take the bus from Ljubljana to Zagreb. “Are you traveling alone too?” I heard someone ask me. I turned around to see a smiley face of a guy around my age. “I am Benedikt,” he said, introducing himself.
We sat next to each other on the bus, and we giggled together as we approached the border, hoping the Croatian officials would stamp our passports, even though we were crossing an internal EU border, and we were both EU citizens. They did stamp our passports, and we stuck together the rest of the day, exploring the city. Benedikt went back to Ljubljana that evening, while I continued my journey through Croatia.
We never talked again. But we didn’t need to. We spent a beautiful day in each other’s company, and we served our purpose in each other’s lives.
Other times, meeting someone on the road led to a much more permanent connection. The summer after meeting Benedikt, I was backpacking alone again and found myself in Budapest. I met someone. Someone so special that I ended up moving to Hungary, and we were in a relationship for a year.
These are just two of the people I met while traveling, but I met so many more. Some are still my friends, others I never talked to again, but it doesn’t matter. They all meant something, they all made my life more beautiful and my trips more exciting.
When traveling with family or friends, I never met new people. We tend to close ourselves, within our circle, and establishing new connections becomes harder. That’s why this is my favorite perk of traveling alone. The more alone I am, the less lonely I feel.
2. You Learn to Figure Out Everything on Your Own
I was in Montenegro, on my way to Serbia, to attend a yoga and meditation retreat at the Tara mountain. The retreat’s location was impossible to reach by public transportation, so I had to make sure I would be at the pick-up place at the agreed time.
The only problem: there were no buses from Montenegro to Serbia that day. For a split second, I panicked. I thought I would miss out on the entire retreat that I had paid for already and was anxiously looking forward to it. I thought I would miss my connection at the end of the retreat from the mountains to Belgrade, and my plane from Serbia back home.
And then I paused for a moment. Breathe, Diana. I realized I could figure this out. I bought a bus ticket for the next day, from Montenegro to Bajina Basta, in Serbia. The city was in the middle of nowhere, but it was the closest I could get to the retreat’s location.
Then I tried to find a taxi to take me to the retreat, but nobody spoke English. I wrote the name of my destination on a piece of paper and showed it to the only taxi driver at the bus stop. Luckily, it was a woman, and I felt safer. But, somehow, she didn’t let me get in the taxi. She kept repeating words in Serbian, that I didn’t understand. I thought she wanted me to wait. I just had no idea why. We waited.
A few minutes later, another taxi driver arrived, and she told me to get into his car. I did. He also didn’t speak English, but at least he started the car and drove me somewhere. We were going up the mountains, green scenery all around us, and not a living soul. Not even one.
We drove through the mountains for 45 minutes, until we saw a big house with some people. I got out of the taxi and asked, “Is this the yoga retreat?”. They said, “yes.” I had made it.
You don’t always need to take a taxi in a place where you don’t speak the language. But you need to solve countless problems in your daily life. The lessons that you learn on the road empower you and help you navigate life with a more relaxed and confident attitude. You still learn if you travel with others. But there is something beautiful and powerful about relying solely on yourself.
3. You Don’t Need to Compromise
The Greek summer was unbearably hot. I was in Athens with two friends, both History lovers who felt like little kids in a playground amongst all the historical sites in the city.
I am more interested in the present. Sure, I want to see the Parthenon if I’m in Athens, but I can do it in 15 minutes, especially if I feel myself melting like chocolate under the torrid sun. And then I’m free to roam the streets of Athens where today’s Greek citizens live while sipping on a cold coffee and sitting on shady terraces watching the buzz of the city.
It was hard to combine our interests, so we ended up parting ways for the rest of the day. They went back to the V century BC; I stayed in 2018.
You can travel with other people and not spend the whole time together. You can cater to your own interests sometimes, sure. But it’s harder. Especially if you are traveling with only one more person, you might find some resistance in splitting up for a few hours, also because your travel partner might not like the idea of being alone in an unknown place.
But if you travel by yourself, you are free to decide. You are free to decide everything. What to do, what to visit, where to eat, when to start the day, or when it’s time to wrap it up and get some rest for the next day adventures.
Your trip is your own, and nobody has a say in it.
How You Can Do It Too
Traveling alone can be scary, stressful, and lonely, especially if you’ve never done it before. If you would like to try it but are afraid, this is my suggestion for you: start small.
You don’t need to travel halfway across the globe to have a memorable experience. Book a long weekend not too far from home, maybe to someplace you already know, or another city in the country where you live.
By taking this step, you already face new challenges that will start building up your confidence: you organize everything alone, feel the responsibility of relying solely on yourself, experience going to a restaurant on your own, and maybe even meet some fellow travelers on the way.
Once you are comfortable with this, take a step further. Go abroad, to a nearby country, but make sure it’s a safe place. You don’t want to add the safety concern on top of everything at this point.
These experiences will tell you very clearly if traveling alone is something for you or not. If it is, the world is yours. The next steps are up to you: you can try extending the duration of your trip, visit remote places, or even adopt a nomadic lifestyle.
You don’t even need my suggestions at this point. You will realize that one trip gives you ideas for the next one, and, suddenly, your travel bucket list will be filled with more places than you can handle.
Traveling alone is the ultimate learning experience. You learn about yourself, about others, and the world. It opens up your mind in ways you never thought possible, and it shakes your foundations while making you feel more alive than you ever felt before.
At least once in your life, go on the good old road alone. I promise you that you will be wondering, “why didn’t I try it sooner?”
And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions. Facing the blind deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head. — Primo Levi
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