Diaries of a Solo Traveler
Travel is my Religion
When one thinks of religion, at the most celestial level, words may come to mind including faith, spirituality, hope, and guidance. Each of us, regardless of how religious we consider ourselves gains faith and hope from something. Maybe your religion is companionship, literature, your hobbies, family, etc. Maybe your religion is Christianity, Hindu, Judaism… Whatever it is, to live in this world fully, I’ve come to believe one must have at least an inkling of faith in something to see life’s true beauty.
It wasn’t until my trip to Paris in solitude, that I realized traveling has been my religion for years and the greatest cities, my gods. For me there is something to be said of cities that expand one’s curiosity, cities that intertwine history with our future and cities that make us, even if just for a moment, believe.
Driving through the streets of Paris was paying patronage to the great writers, musicians and creators whom Paris inspired. While textbooks and stories enlighten us to movements and eras, you stop to wonder if the generations, at that time, knew they were on the brink of something. Did Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald know their time in Paris would captivate readers, audiences around the world for decades to come? Did they feel as if they were a part of something special? Or is every generation, while we are in it, ignorant to the evolution we leave on society?
Paris, and this realization, had me thinking back home to the States. I often feel as if we, my generation populating the US, are on the brink of something. I struggle to even write the word something as it’s rather non-descriptive, yet that is the only word appropriate at the moment. You know when you are asked a question and the answer is on the tip of your tongue? You know you’ll recall the answer eventually yet your mind is a little blank; and if not now then you assume it will just come to you (when you are half asleep, two days later). Yet when asked in that moment, your answer is something: a vague, blurry notion you are only reaching for.
The conundrum is I struggle to understand if that something will have a positive influence on our lives. Our everyday lives are centered on technology and instant gratification of what life “should” be like. While our fast paced lives have instrumental benefits, it’s easy to dilute the raw human experience for a Utopian reality of what “should” be. Yet in Paris, a city where physical beauty and breathtaking parallels demand your full attention, traveling forced me to remember what it felt to be unequivocally human – I was put on this planet to appreciate and love and create and make my mark on this plant.
My path forward was to keep traveling. My promise to myself was to keep listening. And the only way I could accomplish both was through exploring on my own.
Let's Start at the Beginning
While I didn't realize it at the time, my promise for a solitude retreat actually began senior year in college, becoming the foundation of my self-realization in Paris. At the time I was studying abroad in Madrid, only a few months into my program. I quickly made friendships and discovered a local boyfriend, who catapulted me into the Spanish way of life. Yet my birthday was just around the corner and I needed an escape from all the social events.
While some use New Years as a time to reset and create resolutions, my birthday has become an annual, bittersweet reflection. It’s as if my internal clock strikes midnight one more time and I’m stuck at dusk: happy and simultaneously tired of everything that’s brought me to this moment, yet ready for a readjustment. I always take this time, even if once a year, to pause and reflect.
How amazing yet how liberating, is self-reflection? I do the most basic thing every birthday, overlooked by almost everyone I know… I listen to me.
Discovering New Paradigms
Anyways, it’s my birthday and I decide to take my first true solo vacation to Seville, Spain. There is nothing extravagant about my trip. I purchased a train pass that was expiring soon and Seville exudes a Moorish, classic Spanish vibe that Madrid, for all its other splendor, lacks. The trip was magical and for the first time since being a kid, I let everything delight my soul. I checked into a solo room which led straight out to a blue tiled, secret patio hidden from the rest of the city. Still in disbelief I was alone in this magical city plus a little apprehensive on what I should be doing, I stopped at a Vinoteca to pick up a bottle of wine and discovered the city was celebrating “the world’s food festival.” Solo traveling means no plans can be the perfect plan - free to do whatever I desired, I headed to the festival. The fair was a foodie's dream, piling vendors from all over the world and filling the city with music. As I strolled back to the hotel before dark, I grabbed that bottle of wine and read on my Spanish balcony until I fell asleep to background noise of a Spanish gameshow.
The next day was equally enchanting, if not more romantic in the most self-adored, unconventional way. The night rain had cast a dewy aura on the city park, all wild bushes and trees scattered between the sun rays. I witnessed the beauty of fathers playing with their children mid-day, something typically reserved for women in the States. I spent a fortune at the most expensive restaurant I could find and enjoyed my first dining experience alone. I couldn’t tell you what I ordered, it didn’t matter. The freedom and sensory overload was more than enough.
I remember waking up that last morning, feeling so sad to leave this town. Seville was my secret garden of a place. I was struck by the solitary amazingness of being the only one to understand what came of this weekend. How rare is it in this world, to have a benign secret that belongs solely to us? A beautiful, harmless secret that fills you with hope. Yet at the same time the realization that no matter how enthusiastically I told this story, no one could laugh with me, no one could turn and say, “you get it, right?”
I had discovered my new paradigm: I embodied both freedom and loneliness in my newly discovered world.
Solitude Becomes Liberation
Tokyo was my most extreme solo-adventurer expedition. Talk about encompassing yourself in solitude; which is ironic, as Tokyo is one of the most populated cities. Yet here I was, completely isolated. And so liberated.
Asia was always daunting to me. Not only do I speak zero words in any Asian dialect, cultural norms there can border on complete opposites to American culture (unlike romance language countries where I can at least semi-guess what is going on). Combine that with a city known for orderly conduct and small spaces, Tokyo wasn’t at the top of my list. Yet here I was, tacking on a few days of leisure before spending a week in Tokyo for business.
To say that the Japanese are not friendly would be stating an injustice to the lovely people of Tokyo. I have never met humans more willing to lend their service or guide a lost soul (me) to the proper location. And while the Japanese are kind, they are the complete opposite of those lovely Spaniards I lived with for 6 months; Japanese respect space and understand boundaries. Quite simply, everyone refused to make eye contact unless for a specific reason.
This might sound foreign or out of place, yet think about all of the times you walk down the street and make eye contact. Maybe you make eye contact with an attractive man, only to quickly pretend like the glace never occurred? Maybe you smile at the girl who opened the coffee shop door for you as you enter? Maybe you just got a raise and say “hi!” to everyone you pass in your office building because isn’t the world more beautiful today?
Yet in Tokyo, I’ve never felt more invisible – in the most respectable way possible. Not that I was, of course. I’m blonde with freckles and green eyes. I am the opposite of most Japanese humans and I stuck out like a sore thumb; though still, no one looked at me. Honestly for a week, I spoke zero words except to check in and attend meetings. It was the strangest thing. As much as I hate to admit it, I adore attention and glances from all sexes make me feel empowered, sexy. And for the first time in my life, I had zero attention on me (not that I consider myself super attractive but I’m an only child so attention is my middle name). All I could think was - this is incredible!
Without obvious attention bestowed upon me, I was free to do whatever I wanted. And that I did. I went to the same ramen restaurant three times in two days. I walked and walked and read my books and marveled at everything. I smiled and ate and shopped and snapped pictures. I became a stereotypical tourist I usually vow to avoid because no one cared what I was doing. Or if they did, they pretended not to notice. How many times in your life have you shed the skin of expectation to just be?
Whatever You Do, Keep Exploring
Traveling has opened my eyes and allowed me to become the person I am today. When immersed in a new environment, alone in your head, discovery of one's self becomes instinctual. Often people shy away from looking internal and understandably so - sometimes it's uncomfortable and a little messy. But underneath that messiness, it's raw and beautiful, as life often is. It's through solo traveling I've come to believe understanding yourself is the only path to contentment. What better place to do that than travel this magnificent planet?
All along my goal for Explore Beyond is to be a source of empowerment, a place where we inspire each other to become the best versions of ourselves. I challenge all of you to find what ignites your soul and if traveling solo is something you are even slightly interested in, don't be afraid to set out on your own. Use this site to find what excites you and never be afraid to follow your passions.
As Cheryl Strayed says, "How wild it was to let it be."