By Katrinka Nadworny of Katrinka Abroad.
The first time I travelled alone was born of stubbornness.
I was determined to travel for a full month after my study abroad program ended. When the friend who was supposed to join me for the last half backed out, I decided to go it alone.
It didn’t start well.
Solo problem #1: Getting ill
Solution: Take care of yourself and take it slow
I’d spent the first two weeks in Istanbul and after too many late nights and a 2am flight to Bratislava, my body was exhausted. I planned on catching a bus to Budapest, only to find that the next one didn’t arrive for another seven hours.
By the time I finally arrived in Budapest, I was so sick I had lost my voice.
Not the most auspicious start to my first solo trip.
But something magical happened. Despite the fact that my voice sounded like a dying horse during my week in Budapest, I managed to make friends through my sickness. The wonderful folks in my hostel fussed over me when I stumbled in delirious the first night, and with some rest I eventually felt well enough to go explore Budapest’s ruin pubs with them. I made friends during that sick week in Hungary that I still stay in touch with, nearly six years later.
Things can go wrong anytime you travel, but there’s a particular challenge when you’re traveling solo. I seem to get sick a lot when I travel, but when I’m with a friend, I know there’s someone to take care of me. But getting sick during that first solo adventure in Budapest taught me how to take care of myself… and how to make the best of bad situation.
It was a lesson I drew upon when I got sick this summer in Montenegro– five years after my first solo trip in Budapest. I found myself stuck in Kotor, a beautiful walled city that quickly became boring when I realized I was too sick to go anywhere. But even though I spent most of my time in Kotor desperately trying to sleep off my cold, I still shared dinners with the people staying in my hostel and chatted with everyone in my dorm room.
And despite my sickness, I made a lot of amazing friends who I’ve stayed in close touch with, some of whom have already come to visit me in Istanbul. Slowing down might seem like a horrible thing when you’re traveling and eager to see everything, but taking care of yourself is important—and you can still make friends!
Solo problem #2: Letting your inhibitions and fear of others rule
Solution: Talk to people before you think yourself out of it
Traveling alone is an amazing way to learn how to cope with minor and major difficulties. It can magnify small inconveniences into large problems. It can make little disasters feel like huge catastrophes. Usually, though, it’s just a matter of how you perceive the situation.
For example, this summer I traveled from Georgia to Armenia and the experience was less-than-stellar. I planned to take a marshrutka, or shared cab, across the border and I was assured the journey wouldn’t take more than five hours. I was also told that marshrutkas between Tbilisi and Yerevan left frequently. So I had a long breakfast with a hostel friend and headed to the marshrutka stop in the afternoon.
When I arrived at 3pm, men tried to negotiate a price for the ride and I was completely unprepared. I became convinced they were trying to rip me off (they weren’t, but I learned this much later.) Then I discovered the marshrutka wouldn’t leave until 5pm. I spent the two hours being frustrated with myself and trying to avoid the creepy Armenian man who was attempting to make uncomfortable conversation with me.
Soon after the packed marshrutka left, I felt hungry, but all I had in my bag was a hard-boiled egg. Everyone was speaking Russian and Armenian and I assumed no one spoke English (except the creepy Armenian man). I was too nervous to try to talk to anyone and too mad at myself to relax. The journey took eight-and-a-half hours. I was miserable.
But something interesting happened around hour six, when I was deliriously hungry and seriously starting to believe that we would never make it to Yerevan: the folks in the marshrutka started talking to me. They did speak English and were delighted to chat with an American. They offered me little snacks they had in their bags. They told me everywhere in the diaspora they were from and every famous person with Armenian roots. When we got to Yerevan at 1 am, they paid for my cab and made sure I got to my hostel.
I forgot one of the most important things about solo travel in this situation – you’re never actually alone. Traveling solo forces you to reach out to the people around you, to talk with them, to learn from them. It can be scary to talk to strangers or to ask for help from a person who might not even speak your language. But the reward is worth any initial discomfort.
Solo problem #3: Getting ripped off
Solution: Plan ahead and prepare yourself
Though the Yerevan-bound marshrutka didn’t overcharge me, I didn’t quite make it out of the Caucasus without being ripped off. I needed to get from Tbilisi, Georgia to Kars, Turkey; though I knew the trip was possible, I didn’t quite know how to get from one city to the other. I figured my hostel would be able to help me out.
But despite the cities’ proximity, no one seemed to know how to get to Kars. The hostel gave me some initial directions and assured me that once I made it to the end of the bus line, somebody there would know how to get to Kars.
No one knew. Or at least, I don’t think anyone knew—hardly anyone in at this little bus stop in Georgia spoke English.
When a cab driver offered to take me to a place I could catch a bus, I jumped at it. But that’s not quite what happened.
Instead, he drove me to a gas station just near the Georgia/Turkey border, where I had no choice but to pay more than I should have to a cab driver friend of his, and that guy took me to across the border—not even to Kars, to a city near Kars.
It was a big mess.
If I had only done my research ahead of time, and actually figured out the best way to get between the two cities, I wouldn’t have found myself at that gas station on the border, kicking myself for stupidly getting into this situation. I trusted that someone else would know how to get there… I needed to prepare myself!
Is it worth travelling alone? YES!
I’ve been through so many situations that were harder because I was alone – my shoes falling apart on the outskirts of an unfamiliar city, getting absurdly lost, dealing with the airline losing my booking and not letting me board the plane. I dealt with all of these situations by maintaining a positive outlook and a sense of adventure. Life can throw a lot of crazy things at you, and when you’re travelling alone, they can seem a lot harder.
But they are ultimately the experiences that turn into the best stories, and help you grow into a more confident traveller. Because when you get sick in a foreign country for the second time… or the third… or the fourth… you know what to do.
What problems have you encountered while travelling solo, and how did you fix them? Tell us in the comments…
Photos 2, 3 and 4 c. Katrinka Nadworny