Sarah Pollok shares her reflections on an extroverted traveller's solo trip.
Let me start by saying, I love people. I love talking to people, listening to people, spending mornings and evenings and all the time in between with people. Even solitude is better with company. And yet after a month of roaming Europe with no one but myself, I learnt a little secret: solo travel will teach you things no other kind can.
How to be (really) independent
Consider yourself an independent person? Try spending three days in a Czechoslovakian city without possessing a word of the tongue-twisting dialect, a dollar of the currency or a single familiar face. Whether you live alone, work alone or think you know yourself, travel is a tough mistress to all and throws curveballs you can't begin to dream up.
During solo travels, I've learnt how to use coin laundry machines and fall asleep standing up. How to read German train schedules, pull myself out of countless low moods and make $5 go a long way. But most importantly, when the going gets tough and there is no one to bail you out, you'll learn just how independent you are.
How to trust humanity
And for the troubles you just can't dig yourself out of, well, that's when you'll experience humanity as you never have before. In a new city with unfamiliar streets, unusual currency and limited language, solo travel encourages you to lean into the kindness of strangers, often rewarding you with much-needed directions, insider recommendations and a renewed perspective of just how kind the world can be. And perhaps, inspire you to be that helping hand for some other weary traveller down the road.
How to be alone
For those who navigate new social situations with wit and ease, or introverts who adore nothing more than being alone, exploring new places unaccompanied sounds like cake. For the socially-anxious yet extroverted solo-travel-virgin, it can be the most terrifying yet fulfilling experience. Some days, your boldness in the hostel kitchen or sidewalk cafe will reward you with a new friend to explore with. But more often you'll be left to essentially date yourself, eating dinners at a table for one or enjoying sunrises on empty beaches. When insecurities and ugly feelings arise, which they will, you'll face these alone too. Often crying it out in a public toilet or train station staircase before wiping your eyes, giving yourself a pep talk and moving on. It's in the good, the bad and everything between where you'll learn how to be whole and happy all on your own.
How to say hello
If walking up to a fellow traveller and striking up a conversation makes your heart pound and palms sweat as it did for me, this one is for you. When you hop from room to room and city to city without a friend by your side you become an expert in meeting new people and making fast friends. During my travels I went salsa dancing with German policemen, drank Croatian liquor with Americans and ate cheap pasta with Australians – people I never would have met had I been with a friend. Whereas the initial discomfort leaves you feeling like a pre-schooler asking another kid if they want to play, it's a skill that will be invaluable in travel and life.
How you really like to travel
Travelling with a friend or partner is undoubtedly full of perks. However, as good as sharing global experiences can be, everything from meals to schedules is a constant negotiation of preferences. And if your travel companion is particularly opinionated or you tend to be a people pleaser, you can often spend a trip following along with someone else's idea of a good time.
In fact, it was when wandering through yet another museum I realised, with horror at what my mother would think, I really didn't like museums. At all. Art galleries? Sign me up. Sidewalk cafes? I'm there. But it wasn't until I went out on my own I realised, despite every family trip including a museum (or four) it was an experience that always left me tired and bored.
So, with the candour you're afforded when travelling solo, I didn't enter another museum for the rest of my trip. After the guilt of becoming so totally selfish subsides, you'll realise what you really like and dislike.
How to trust yourself
Finally, although travelling solo teaches you how to say hello and how to embrace being alone, most importantly, you'll learn to trust yourself. Because, when the roads are foreign and the horizons unfamiliar; when you're alone and homesick with sore feet and perpetually not-quite-clean clothes, you are the only steady north point you can rely on. Solo travel giving you countless little moments that prove, when you think you have nothing left to give, you really actually do.