The media and the travel industry sell us the idea that the best sort of travel is with someone else, preferably your partner. The posters in travel agencies show couples lying together on tropical beaches, or holding hands on the Great Wall of China. To an extent, they’re right — travelling with a partner is a terrific way to strengthen your relationship. It also means there’s someone to hold your bulging backpack when you go to the loo in a crowded train station in a developing country — a benefit not to be underestimated.
But there is something magical about travelling alone. Something that the travel agencies and media don’t tell us, and the security warnings try to scare us away from. The people who get closest to explaining the magic of solo travel are writers, such as Emma Ayres, whose book Cadence describes her bicycle adventure from England to Hong Kong with a violin, and Robyn Davidson, whose book Tracks tells of her travels across the Australian desert with a dog and four camels.
I came to solo travel in a slightly different way. In year twelve, I read Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, and loved it so much I decided to travel to India. I got my opportunity a year later, when a university scholarship gave me the funds. My parents were worried that their eighteen year-old daughter was about to go schlepping around the subcontinent for three months, but now that I had the money, I couldn’t be stopped.
My first weeks in South Asia made me wonder if my parents were right. In Sri Lanka, after signing up spontaneously for some sort of alternative medicine treatment, I found myself shut up in a wooden box like a coffin with small holes at the bottom. Someone I couldn’t see started putting hot, aromatic substances under the coffin, presumably so they could be absorbed through my skin. With no language skills to figure out what was happening, I lay there and wondered if I was going to end up steamed to death in the name of a medical procedure I didn’t understand.
On my first day in Delhi, my backpack caught on the back of a rickshaw in the narrow streets of the old city. Still attached to my backpack, I found myself dragged fifteen metres down the street, through laughing and pointing crowds, before the driver realised he’d attracted an unpaying hitchhiker.
At that point, I found a payphone and rang my mum, close to tears. I was thinking about going back to Australia. But instead, I got on the first train out of Delhi. ‘Amritsar’, said the sign.
And it was on that train to Amritsar that I began to understand the beauty of solo travel. I met a group of university students who were travelling back to their home in Amritsar, and they decided I should visit them. So I spent a few days staying with a young Muslim woman at the university’s Girls Hostel. (No males allowed — not even baby brothers.) She told me about her secret relationship with a boy. They’d been in love for years, but they hadn’t even kissed, or told their families about their relationship. As I told her about my friends and our own views of relationships, I began to question aspects of my own culture that I’d taken for granted.
She was the first of many wonderful people who invited me into their lives in India. Each of them shared different perspectives on the world. A young lesbian told me how she couldn’t bring herself to explain to her parents why she kept rejecting the male suitors they brought her. An older trade unionist forced me to question the ethics of being a young, white middle class person traipsing around looking at the developing world.
I often think about many of these people, and their ideas and experiences have informed many of the decisions I’ve made about my own life and career. If I’d been travelling with another person, I doubt I’d have met them — one person is more likely to meet other people than a self-contained duo.
Later, after I’d finished university, I had my first major solo trip in Australia. Lacking the money to go overseas, and with a month to go before I started at my new graduate job, I decided to take my Mazda 121 bubble car from Canberra to Alice Springs and back. It was January and scorching, which was wonderful, because the roads were clear and I had campsites to myself, from the Grampians, to the Flinders Ranges, all the way to the West MacDonnell Ranges. I spent hours each day walking and sweating and thinking, and in my evenings I read. I had never had so long to spend inside my head, nor had I ever had the opportunity to see the Australian desert, with its red earth stretching for miles until it met the bright blue sky.
I didn’t meet so many people on this trip, but one man sticks in my mind. I was camping — alone, as usual — in the West MacDonnell Ranges, when I got caught in sudden, torrential rain. It beat down, soaking me in seconds and flooding my tent. I was taking down my tent, and trying to figure out if it would be safe to sleep in my car, when an Indigenous ranger showed up. He invited me to stay at his place. As a respectful man, aware of the strangeness of inviting an unknown woman to sleep in his house, he didn’t talk much. I went to bed early, and slept gratefully in his child’s Sesame Street-themed sheets. In the morning, he was gone, having left just a note encouraging me to eat as many eggs on toast as I needed.
I know that solo travel is more dangerous than group travel. You’re more likely to meet nasty people and get caught in threatening situations. But you also have the sorts of experiences that just aren’t possible if you’re travelling with your partner, let alone a busload of tourists. You notice things more, and you meet more people.
Now, more often than not, I travel with my partner. But I do still go off on trips of my own — admittedly with a few more safety precautions than in my younger days. I’m aware of the dangers, but I think they’re worth the risk. Solo travel has made me who I am, and it continues to introduce me to new places, people and ideas, and make me question aspects of my life and culture I’d otherwise take as given.
This essay was first published on Penny Jones’ blog: www.pennyalicejones.com