What I Learned by Traveling the World Alone

It’s been a year and a day since I left.

(Well, not quite exactly, but it has a nice ring to it. Also math is terrible and that’s why I’m a writer. Poetic license!)

But really, it’s been just over a year since I set out on an uncertain and exciting path. Setting off as a solo female traveler for a year of life-expanding travel, I had a vague idea of what would happen – languages learned, confidence gained, mornings watching sunrises over rivers I’ve never seen and evenings falling gently over ancient ruins with new friends.

A break and then a return to normal life (Boston, apartment, job, cat), right?

Right and yet so wrong.

So here’s my story.

A year as a woman traveling alone

All told, I was gone from September 3, 2018 to July 15, 2019. Nearly 11 months (but I round because again, math ugh).

Here are some numbers for you math nerds: 24 countries, 4 pages left in my passport, 1 solo female travel blog kept (mostly) updated, 13 times my phone number changed, 1 parasite, $0 earned, 3 outfits in a 35L backpack, uncountable cats petted, 121 books read, 11 languages I can say hello in now, 1 nephew born while I was gone.

The nephew in question: the smallest Walt with the biggest eyes.

But those numbers don’t add up to the whole experience (this is why math is the worst). So here’s the brief rundown of the five big things I learned while traveling the world solo.

1. People are alike and also different.

This is a vague and obvious statement. It’s also true. People all over the globe (well, I’ve only been to four continents so I don’t speak for Antarctica or Africa) generally want most of the same big things.

They want to live a good life. They care about other people. They want other people to care about them. They want a good life for their children and they will work hard to get it. And they are almost all kind and caring and good.

(This should go without saying but in a country where we’ve decided that people who speak different languages and come from different countries are bad/scary/other/lazy/threatening it’s really, really important to remember.)

With those big and very beautiful similarities in mind, it’s easy to spout some questionable hippie thinking like “we’re all exactly the same!” And while I think it’s wonderful how many essential and deeply human traits we have in common, and powerful to think about that, we are also different in many thrilling and important ways.

We worship different gods or none at all, and we believe in that fiercely. We have very different ideas of what is polite and what is rude (spitting in Thailand? Fine! Crumpling a baht note? Extreme disrespect to the king who is pictured on it.).

A little basic knowledge goes a long way, and also an amused detachment towards your own feelings of right and wrong in matters of etiquette. And we value different things – community vs. individualism, politeness vs. directness, how much food a person needs you to eat before they know you love them (in Greece, all the food in the whole world).

Also coffee is so different and still so beautiful everywhere, you guys. (This has potential to be a great metaphor except that it’s complete shit in the UK and Ireland, where it’s somehow both watery and bitter? You’re great countries, but honestly get it together. Coffee isn’t that hard.)

An iced coffee at a cafe in Athens Greece
Coffee in Greece, a place where they know how to make it.

2. Being alone is hard. That’s why you should do it.

I am a solitary bean much of the time by nature. This might have something to do with growing up the oldest of five siblings very close in age, with an additional 20-something cousins also very close in age and geography. I love them all and value my family deeply, but I also loved reading books as a child where the protagonist just sat somewhere alone quietly for an extended period of time (books set on islands alone, in giant houses alone, and Ferdinand under his cork tree). I think we all got a little too into this introvert-extrovert dichotomy in previous years, and I’m actually a slight extrovert in a family full of introverts. But I also adore my solitude and crave it.

So you’d think after a few years of living alone, of quick solo trips, of reading endless solo female travel blogs, of enjoying my own company that this would be a breeze – a whole year alone.

It was tough. I won’t lie.

And I’ve never learned so much about my own damn self as I did in this year.

When you’re your own full-time companion, with unlimited leisure time and unfettered choices, you learn right quick what you love, what you hate, what you fear, and what you might want hidden in a very quiet and frightened corner of your own heart.

You can’t rely on other people to decide things for you or to distract you all the time or to tell you stories about yourself. Even if you’re the most social traveler in the world, you’ll still find yourself in so many quiet honest moments with deep truths about yourself laid bare.

Does that sound fucking terrifying?

That’s why you should do it.

If you never really know yourself, if you’re too scared to spend any time with the person inside of your skin and learn what you want and what you fear and where your mind goes on an 11 hour bus ride in Cambodia, what kind of life is that? A life you spend hiding yourself from yourself, seeking distraction and numbness in any form, eager to devote your life to work or booze or unhealthy relationships just to escape your own inner being. Then you die! What a waste of your one wild and precious life.

And I’m not saying everyone is like this (you might not be! I kind of was and I know a lot of people like this). And you don’t have to travel the world to figure this out. Just maybe sit quietly eating your dinner alone one night at your table with the tv off and phone out of reach, or at a restaurant where no one knows you, and see what happens. What do you find?

Maybe nothing. But maybe also a part of your whole lovely lonely self.

Solo female traveler on the Isle of Man cliff walk
Go do a cliff walk alone on an island! (This was actually not a thing I’d recommend alone but hey I lived.)

3. Whatever it is, I can do it. But only if I want to.

In this year of traveling the world alone, I discovered all the things I’m capable of: surviving a parasite in a country with not-so-great healthcare with very minimal freaking out, living for a month without coffee because of said parasite, figuring out how to get around and feed myself and not die in places where I don’t speak the language, walking across England wearing a Longchamp backpack and a Fendi scarf, killing giant spiders in my bathroom, crossing the street in Bangkok, wearing the same three outfits for months on end, wearing socks and Tevas for a month straight (honestly that might have been harder than the parasite).

And also harder things – not seeing a single familiar face for four months, not being there for my friends through family separations and the sickness and death of a parent, the sickness and death of my beloved cat, learning about the impending and totally unexpected coming death of that cat while stuck in a shitty Montenegrin hostel where the host popped in every ten minutes asking if I wanted to come “do some shots” (nah bro, please go go away so I can cry in this bunk bed that’s just two normal beds nailed on top of each other), a fight with a shitty creepy dude with his dick out in the women’s bathroom at a family hostel (one of many times traveling alone as a woman can be really tough), days where I just lay in bed overwhelmed with the choices and the missing and the want and the unfamiliarity and the all-too-familiar feelings.

And yet I did it. I did it all – and more. I found reserves of resilience and patience and strength within myself I didn’t think I had. I found friends in wildly unexpected places, like the one who gave me the warmest, deepest hug after I found out about my cat even though we’d just met the day before on a rattly bus ride and exchanged basic pleasantries.

I grew in ways I never thought I could – my shyness has lessened, my hesitation to do what feels right in the moment is slackening, my capacity to endure the boredom and discomfort and fright of being a woman traveling alone has increased by leaps and bounds.

Even the sadness sometimes was beautiful – a reminder of my own aliveness and undulled sensitivity and the need we humans have for each other. I did a thing that scared the living hell out of me, that was even harder than I imagined it would be, and I loved it.

But I also learned I don’t have to do what I don’t want. (That’s mostly hiking, fuck hiking, hiking is terrible and don’t tell me to do it.)

Taking selfies with a cat traveling on the Croatian island of Korcula
I do like cats and the sea and Croatian islands, though.

4. There’s never enough time.

Time is our most finite resource, and also the one we waste the most thoughtlessly. I’ll never get back that hour of time I just spent curled on my couch looking at Rihanna memes on Pinterest, and now I’m one hour closer to death. And now Rihanna is one hour closer to death too. Being a mortal human is sometimes full of sighs.

And sure, this year I checked a lot of dream places off my list. But the more places I went, the more places I wanted to go. I’d check into a hostel in Cambodia and make friends with the cool hippy girl in the next bunk over, talking about the glories of New Zealand and Myanmar and China and oops now I want to go even more places. I want to go everywhere. Well, maybe not Oklahoma (sorry, Oklahoma, you’re just not on the list). And I want to go everywhere for a long time.

Sometimes I lie awake in bed at 2 am and feel a sad weight on my heart at the realization that I cannot live in Athens and Paris and Singapore and Los Angeles all at the same time, that I cannot go to every single tiny Greek island for a year, that I can’t live on a sailboat in Croatia all summer and also spend every August in Boston with my family.

There’s just a finite amount of time, and the possibilities around me are ever-expanding. With every place I visited that I fell in love with, and there were many (Siem Reap, Crete, Singapore, Vienna, Bangkok, the Isle of Man, Athens, Budapest), I also felt that tinge of blue that comes from knowing it’s not possible to do it all. That’s the reality of a finite lifespan like ours – mortality can be a curse.

But it’s also the best kick in the pants to get out there and do what your heart wants. It might not be travel for you, but maybe it’s starting your own business, buying a little Vermont farm, getting that yoga teacher certification, writing a book, starting that solo female travel blog, adopting seven cats (that’s a lot of cats though so maybe get a second opinion).

You get one life, and if you’re incredibly lucky it will be long and healthy, but it very well might not be. So accept that truth, look it in the face, and figure out what your fear is keeping you from and what you’ll regret at the end.

We don’t get to do any of it over. We don’t get time back. I’m learning how to live like that.

Solo female traveler along Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England
And with my time left, I plan on doing a whole bunch of lovely walks.

5. I am so grateful.

I’ve just had an experience that so few people in the world will ever be lucky enough to have. A whole year spent just traveling and eating and meeting new people, learning about history, reading every book I’ve ever wanted to, eating pain au chocolate in bed in Paris and sailing around Santorini and watching the sun set over Angkor Wat. Yes, I worked hard to make this happen: to save up all that money, to have to courage to actually leave a job I liked and an apartment I adored and the family and friends and cat who love me.

But let’s be real – this was pretty easy for me because I’m very privileged. I had a high-paying corporate job that made saving easy, a wonderful friend who took amazing care of my cat for me even when he needed daily intravenous fluids, my family who were incredibly supportive and let me crash with them at various points.

I have an American passport so I can go pretty much anywhere easily, without any questions asked (literally, most of the time at immigration I didn’t get a single question). I’m not caring for an aging parent or struggling with a chronic illness or paying off college loans. I can visit countries where women traveling alone is no big deal.

So I’m really grateful to have been able to do it, and also grateful for the incredible kindness I found along the way. So many people helped me when I needed it – my guesthouse owner taking me to the Bali clinic when I was ill and checking on me every day, the Lufthansa employee who kindly went above and beyond to rebook me after I missed a flight, the fellow walkers who cheered me through the tough patches in my walk across England, and all the tiny daily acts of welcome and joy.

There are too many to mention, and I’m grateful to have a reminder that really, almost everyone out there is kind and caring. What a gift.

A grey and orange cat lying on a cushion in Thailand at a yoga retreat, named Pinky
Grateful for each and every cat I petted, especially Pinky.

A blog post, no matter how long, can’t possibly cover everything that happen for me, to me, and around in a year as life-expanding as this one.

But these were my biggest takeaways, as I would have said in my former corporate life before I quit my job to travel (oh how far away that feels now!).

Beauty, pain, gratitude, growth, kindness. And cats. Always cats.

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