I’ve been home from my first solo travel experience for about two weeks now–and on some levels I’m still processing it. The experience of taking off on an unplanned trip to a country where I did not speak the language was daunting. And it was surprisingly easy–I didn’t really have any major fears or concerns and everything turned out beautifully.
What strikes me is the way I handle being a single woman, going out alone, here in my hometown and halfway across the world. I’m much more conscious of being the lone woman at the table here than I was during my travels. In Portugal it felt fine; here it sometimes feels awkward. I don’t think I’m alone in this one. Admittedly it is partly my old hangup about how people perceive me and partly it is just plain awkward at times. Where to look, what to do with one’s hands. I don’t always take a book because I enjoy observing what’s around me, but sometimes I feel odd just sitting there alone if I’m surrounded by couples and groups.
Is that about me or our cultural messages about women? A bit of both. Is it specific to older women? Do men feel self-conscious out alone?
One of the things I discovered about traveling alone is the sense of freedom that comes from being unhampered by others; free from the opinions of others. When you’re alone you are free to step out of habit, to do things with more abandon or less of something… no one knows you and no one knows what the typical you looks like–so you can do anything without someone commenting on your changed behavior. I don’t know to express it fully, but I had this sense that traveling with acquaintances or even a partner would have changed everything–because that expectation of how I/we typically do things would have accompanied us–like a piece of luggage you feel required to carry along.
The solo traveler me was more curious about things. She took better pictures—with an eye to detail and future viewing. She wandered down strange streets because she could. She tried new foods and took risks. She didn’t endlessly research a restaurant, she went by instinct. She let herself be carried along with the flow–being an observer and occasionally a participant. She smiled at people on the street and she lingered. She spoke to people–mostly men, because that’s her natural preference. She said yes to an invitation for lunch with a complete stranger, with only a momentary consideration. She let herself be uncomfortable, stepping away from her usual patterns in order to learn about the customs of the Portuguese people–something she couldn’t have done while insisting things go her way. She had to interpret and intuit all along the way when she didn’t understand the language or couldn’t quite figure out what to do. She sat with her discomfort.
I learned a lot on this trip. About me, about Americans, about travel and the world around us. I’ve been abroad before but this was my first prolonged trip where there were no planned activities, no one to negotiate or handle the small details. It was all up to me. So when I waited too long to make plans for the 2nd leg of my journey I found myself on a bus rather than a train–that turned out beautifully. My seat companion and I managed to communicate with hand gestures, shoulder shrugs and my English to Portuguese dictionary. He gave me a ride to my hotel from the bus station. Only once did I make a mis-step which took me off on a little adventure where I didn’t want to be with aching legs and uncertainty about my location in relation to a Metro stop. I made it safely just a little later and a bit more frazzled than intended.
My sense of self and those around me is a little disrupted after my travels. It’s no longer something I can attribute to jet lag and I’m just sitting with it. Writing and thinking and waiting. Every bit of life is a journey, as trite as that sounds. For now I’m moving about my days. But, in my dreams I’m thinking about the next trip.
Also published on Medium.