Four years ago I up and left my life for a life of solo travel across the world. You hear people say how fantastic it is, how much you learn about yourself, how you meet people you wouldn’t otherwise meet etc etc. And it truly is all of those things. From my teaching position in Thailand to tubing solo in Laos (a slightly scary experience but I won’t digress), buses across Vietnam without any other English speakers, visits to the ‘medicine man’ in Bali and skydiving in Australia I thought I was a confident and experienced solo traveller.
However, it seems to me that being comfortable travelling solo is not something ingrained in me, nor is it like a bicycle-I haven’t ridden for years but when I got back on the saddle it unfortunately wasn’t like I’ve never been away. These past few days travelling alone has brought back a lot of distinct, yet fond memories about travelling solo, it has given me lots of time to think and to reflect and to simply relax. However, I can’t say that I have particularly enjoyed it.
As wonderful as solo travel is, I think that the value and enjoyment of the experience is very much dependent upon the time and place and where you are mentally at that particular moment in time. When I travelled before I was thirsty to see the world, to tick as many destinations off the list as possible. I was single, had no specific career ambitions at that time (although don’t get me wrong- this has always been important to me), and no real reason to want to come home. I valued every moment of my travel experience, even the ones that were a bit tough. I will never forget going to sunlit yoga on Gilli Air each evening, walking along the Gold Coast admiring the fact that I was the opposite side of the world from my friends and family at home or going to get pancakes and mango shakes each night whilst I was stuck in Vang Vieng because of torrential rain. I also appreciate the hard times, the harsh Vietnamese people that refused to help me, leaving me stranded, the crocodile pit that I almost fell into, the very eerie place I stayed in whilst in Phnom Phen. All of these experiences have made me what I am today and I wouldn’t change a thing.
However, although it was a wonderful experience that I had four years ago, I am in a very different place now, both physically and psychologically. I am now two years into my PhD research and this is the reason that I am travelling solo at the moment- to present at a conference in Switzerland. The conference has been very good and very developmental for me. But the travel experience, the aspect of this trip that I thought would be second nature for me, has been somewhat less enjoyable. I’ve had time, so much time, to sit and to think. Waiting at the airport, waiting for a train, sitting on the train, eating evening meals alone, going out for walks on my own, exploring on my own. None of these things would have bothered me in the past, in fact I would have enjoyed them. But today, this week, I haven’t enjoyed them nowhere near as much as I used to.
I’m busy. I have resigned myself to the fact that I will have very little social life outside of work and my PhD until my studies are complete. Ask any PhD candidate or graduate- they will agree with me- the PhD takes over your life. I think about my literature review whilst in the shower, I analyse my data whilst driving to work, I decide how best to word a particular section of my thesis as I fall asleep at night. There really is no rest for the wicked, but I strangely enjoy it. I have barely stopped for more than an evening for the past few months, yet all of a sudden, here in Switzerland, I am faced with so much free time. ‘That’s fantastic-relax!’ you are probably thinking, but it’s not that easy. I have so much to do, where is the sense in taking time off to do nothing? I beat myself up for doing this at home, I’m not technically on holiday, how can I justify doing this now? But I don’t have all of my documents, my books, internet access or the correct mindset right now- I am having a fight with myself and I’m not sure who is winning…. I guess to combat this I have decided to write this blog post, just as I would have during my times of prolonged solo travel.
My PhD workload however, is not the only reason that I haven’t particularly enjoyed this solo travel trip. My life is different at home now, I have ‘settled down’ (what ever that is?!); I am a home owner, I have a professional full time job (for those of you that aren’t aware I was recently offered a new job as Senior Lecturer in Aviation and Tourism at Bucks New University!), I am getting married, I have a cat. I haven’t travelled on my own for years, I predominantly travel now with my fiancé and as you would expect we work together to manage our travels. For example, I do the pre-trip planning and he reads the maps whilst we are away. I have never been very good at map reading and have notoriously gotten lost on solo trips, but Philip does that now, he navigates and as a result we thankfully rarely get lost. So without him to take care of this rather important matter I have felt somewhat lost! There is also the art of conversation, it has been almost a week now since I have had a conversation with somebody that I haven’t just met. Keeping up a façade and never feeling truly relaxed when having a conversation is exhausting. Eating is another dilemma. When I travelled in Asia I would generally choose a relatively low-key, quiet place to eat when travelling alone. Here however, everywhere is so busy. Just now for example I am sat at a lovely Italian restaurant on a terrace overlooking Lake Neuchate and it is rammed- as is every other restaurant I’ve seen in this town. Perhaps it is just me, but I find it rather unnerving walking into a busy restaurant asking for ‘un table per un’. In fact, I am hiding the fact that I am alone by sitting behind the screen of this laptop. It has also been nice that some small birds have come to join me for dinner, I am less fond of the wasp that keeps buzzing around me though- he is company that is not welcome!
Anyhow, I digress…. Travelling without company has been different this time. I have missed my home comforts, being able to relax in my own home, being able to talk about my pre-presentation nerves with Philip or enjoying a glass of celebratory wine after it all went well. I miss my cat (the second love of my life, after my fiancé of course), and I am concerned that I am not up to date with the news back home. It’s a funny life really, because all of these things would have been inferior in my previous life of solo travel. Now however, they are central to my happiness and as a result have impacted on my enjoyment whilst here in Switzerland.
I think it is also worth mentioning that I am bored. This place is stunningly beautiful, but there isn’t much to do. When you leave the rat race for a turtles life there’s got to be an adjustment period right? I guess I just haven’t had long enough to adjust, or perhaps more accurate is to say that I haven’t had the will to adjust.
So I guess the point that I am trying to make here is that solo travel is fantastic, but it needs to be at the right time for the right person. You have to be in the right mindset. I am a strong person and an experienced traveller so I can get by of course, but that doesn’t mean I particularly want to anymore. I’m looking forward to my trip in a few days to Spain and Morocco (did I mention I am climbing a mountain!!!) with Philip, where we can enjoy each others company doing something that we both love.