At a hip hostel in Puerto Escondido, I showered, got dressed, got undressed, changed my outfit, and looked in the mirror. I screwed up my courage. “You got this,” I thought. I changed again one more time and, finally, I left my room. Following the rhythmic booms of heavy bass, I made my way alone to a loud party taking place at the hostel bar.
It’s one thing to enter a party alone when you expect to see someone. It’s quite another when you don’t know a soul, are about a decade older than half the crowd, and likely don’t even speak the same language. I sat at the bar and ordered a Corona. Someone across from me offered a friendly wave and I waved back, smiled even, only to realize he was addressing the woman who’d just sidled up next to me. I dropped some pesos for the beer and promptly walked back with it to enjoy in my room.
On New Year’s Day on a trip to London, I woke up with a slight hangover after celebrating with my sister the night before. She and my brother-in-law had left early that morning, so I was on my own for brunch. I opted for the hotel restaurant, where the hostess sat me at a small table to the side. A trio of young families — couples with little ones crawling over laps — filled the nearby booth. It was a holiday, the atmosphere convivial, and I listened as they traded jokes and other intimacies of a shared history. To my right were two American girls, friends, laughing about the previous night’s events over coffee and pastries. I returned to my room heavy with how much I missed my family, then tuned it out with some trashy British TV and a leftover fruitcake.
Solo travel is exciting, adventurous, and transformative. Still, the one inescapable yet often overlooked fact of it is this: You are alone. With the current pandemic keeping myself and so many others alone at home and physically distanced from loved ones, I’ve realized how much my experiences moving through all this alone-ness when traveling has equipped me to better deal with today’s reality. Here are the lessons I find myself leaning on.
Wherever you go, there you are.
Travel will not fix any real problems; they are neatly packed in your luggage and come right along with you. The old adage rings true: Wherever you go, there you are. There your fears are, your worries, your doubts, and your insecurities. Changing the setting can only serve as a temporary reprieve.
Sheltering in our homes with fewer distractions, we are confronted by many uncomfortable feelings. This also happens to me when traveling alone. It’s frustrating, especially when I’ve looked forward to a trip for so long. But if I let myself face and examine the frustration, I can move past it. For me, this usually involves meditation, journaling, or long pensive walks. Eventually, I’ll begin to feel more at ease. This pandemic is one of many uncomfortable moments we will face in life. The gift of any alone time is an opportunity to practice sitting patiently with that discomfort, to acknowledge and observe it. Going forward, that practice becomes the space between stimulus and reaction, which allows us to live more consciously every day.
There’s no “right” way to be or feel.
When I caved and left that party in Puerto Escondido, I felt like a failure. I judged myself for not trying hard enough to stick it out and meet people. I judged myself for not being the kind of person who can walk into a room full of strangers and instantly make new friends. I judged myself for doing this solo travel thing all “wrong.” But the thing is, there is no right or wrong way to do solo travel, just like there is no right or wrong way to survive this quarantine.
Scrolling through social media presents plenty of unsolicited advice on how we should or shouldn’t be spending this time. Start a gratitude journal! Meditate every day! Do yoga! Learn a language! Frankly, navigating this new reality is exhausting enough without all the undue pressure. Once I understood that the joy of solo travel is being able to do exactly what I feel like doing — whether that’s hike a mountain, see all the museums, or spend the whole day in my bathrobe — I became too busy taking pleasure in that fact to worry about anyone’s preconceived shoulds or shouldn’ts. These are unprecedented times, so giving yourself permission to set your own precedent for what living through it should look like, and in doing so leaving others’ opinions behind, is a gift.
Learn to put yourself first.
Choosing how you want to live under quarantine is the truest expression of self-care. These days the term is so popularized that people often relate it to acts such as lighting a candle and enjoying a soak in the tub. While that is self-care for some, the act itself is different for everyone. At its core, self-care is about taking care of yourself, recognizing that your needs are valid and putting boundaries in place to protect and prioritize them.
When traveling solo, those boundaries become quite literal — as in state lines and country borders. You learn to wake up and think, “What do I feel like doing today?” Some days I want to run through the streets and shop at local markets. Other days I want to sleep in, maybe have breakfast in bed. Today, as when traveling solo, we have the time and space to practice owning and attending to our needs. It teaches us that when we fill our own cup first, we have more to give to those around us.
Wherever you go, you’re not alone.
I was lounging poolside in South Beach, glass of rosé in hand, when a particularly gut-wrenching John Mayer song popped up on my playlist and I was suddenly overcome with ennui. As my eyes welled up with tears, I felt grateful for the sunglasses now shielding them from view. The sunshine, pool, and the palm-tree-filled idyll before me went from feeling like a fantasy to a mockery. Once again, loneliness began to creep in, so I reached for my phone and began texting my friends and sisters. I let them know how I was feeling, and, within minutes, received a string of messages full of love and understanding from across the country.
Some of you might be alone right now, and you certainly have every right to feel lonely. Yet one of the beautiful realities of this pandemic is that we’re all going through it together. We may have physical distance, but our phones, screens, and keyboards can help weave the virtual threads of connection that pull us closer than ever. Use those virtual threads, even if you feel too busy. They’ll remind you that wherever you are right now, you’re not alone.