Traveling can be one of the greatest teachers in life, and the lessons learned tend to be very different from those of a formal education. We may learn about various cultures, the way people act and think in different parts of the world, the varieties of landscapes and ecosystems.
But most of all I find that traveling has the power to teach us about our own self, and this is particularly true when doing it alone. Here are some valuable lessons that can be learned from solo travel.
Meeting new people is almost always rewarding.
And sometimes, it can actually lead to life-changing things that never would have happened without taking the initiative of approaching someone. The most interesting job of my life came about like this, in some improbable turn of events, when I was in Goa, India.
I had left Canada three months earlier after obtaining a degree in film production, and was traveling alone in search of spiritual fulfilment. I remember being at a hostel in Arambol, a beautiful beach community full of yoga and music, when I saw a small film crew shooting something in the courtyard. I took the leap and went up to them, introducing myself as someone with a film training. I asked if by any chance they needed help with the project. They said they were desperately in need of an editor (which happens to be my specialization) and hired me on the spot.
I spent the day working on the edit right then and there, exchanging drinks and stories with the director. Him and I ended up working closely together and he even flew me to Ireland (where he was from) the following month to finish the film. Looking back on that whole string of events, I’m amazed that it was put into motion by one pivotal moment of decision. The choice to put ourselves out there is always available, and we rarely regret what unfolds from it.
Making sense of synchronicities.
Travel seems to highlight the inner workings of randomness, and it can feel truly mystical when things go well. And perhaps there is a deeper meaning to it all, who’s to say, but then bad luck and accidents would have to fit into it as well.
Perhaps that’s what the concept of karma is meant to describe; a universal force that dictates both positive and negative chains of events. And if we can find meaning in the undesirable ones, it truly feels like we’ve cracked the code of rolling with whatever life may throw at us. Meaning-making is a skill that solo travel seems to train us for.
These new and unknown opportunities we encounter always hold the potential of disaster, and fear can prevent us from diving in. A little bit of it is healthy, but too much is paralyzing. Often a leap of faith is necessary, and that’s where having maps of meaning around coincidences can be so helpful.
Total freedom is dizzying.
Nobody can decide how our life turns out but ourselves. This realization is both exhilarating and scary, and it’s made most obvious when on the road alone. Every day is a blank slate ripe with possibility, and can lead to anything from serendipitous encounters to terrible accidents.
In short, the lack of boundaries means the highs are higher and the lows are lower, but ultimately it’s worth it. Experiencing that range of situations and emotions is what makes us grow. Of course, there’s a healthy balance to be found between freedom and structure, chaos and order, but solo travel is the perfect setting to test that boundary and find out where the line lies.
It can be tricky staying in touch with life back home.
I remember getting to Mexico in the dead of Winter, as my friends back in Canada were having to shovel snow from their driveways and scrape ice off their windshields. I spent the day in a jetlag daze marveling at the tropical landscape, all the while trying to keep up with the news and phone calls from various people.
Feeling a bit out of touch with “normal life”, despite social media and other platforms that allow us to stay connected, is an unavoidable side effect of choosing to set off on a lone journey. And in a way, it can actually be beneficial to disconnect. Leaning into that sense of separation, rather than trying to resist it, can yield to a healthier relationship to our regular routine.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and that’s just not just of people but of every element of our lives back home.
We spend most of our lives avoiding it. Of course, there are times where solo travel leads to so many great encounters that we end up barely spending any time by ourselves, and that’s great too. I met another traveler the day I landed in India and we ended up on the road together for the next month. But other times, there will be hours, days, maybe even weeks where we might not form any close connections.
Especially when traveling in more remote areas where there are less travelers with whom we might be able to communicate, it can be challenging to spend long hours alone with our thoughts. This is where tools like mindfulness can be useful and also be allowed to flourish. I had never been able to cultivate a serious meditation practice before spending time on a small farm in northern Thailand. It took a complete lack of outer distractions to force me to go inwards, and those skills are applicable in so many situations in life, from dealing with boredom to staying calm in stressful and chaotic interactions.
We are social animals.
On the other side of the spectrum, it also becomes evident that spending time with other people is a very real human need. We are biologically wired to crave companionship, and as much as periods of isolation can be beneficial, I don’t think they are sustainable long-term for our well-being.
Desire for sex and intimacy is of course something that comes up, but even before that, the craving to simply share an experience with someone can be overwhelming. Whether it’s a spectacular sunset over the mountains, the majesty of a temple or the hilarity of a cow sleeping on the beach, witnessing these things without anyone to share the moment with can be a bittersweet experience.
A bit like meditation, journaling is a practice that I could never really get into before traveling alone, and it really arose out of necessity. The loneliness combined with the amount of new experiences and thoughts that were arising made it almost impossible not to write. Having an outlet is so important when our reality is being stretched on all sides and no one is physically present to hear our deep inner thoughts.
The art of letting go.
Friendships and relationships that form when traveling are more often than not ephemeral. Even in cases where contact info is exchanged and future plans are made, odds are we won’t see most of those travel buddies for a long time. I find this ultimately relates to the way we experience our entire lives and how we see death.
All of us will eventually have to let go of every single thing in this life. By training ourselves to be fully in the moment with the people we meet, yet ready to detach from them fully when the time comes to part ways, we become able to have this attitude toward other things in life. Jobs, homes, romantic relationships, and ultimately our own bodies.
Making peace with that inevitability may be one of the most important things a human being can do, and I found solo travel to be a great teacher in that respect; a microcosm that allows us to get accustomed to that truth.
To sum up, I will invoke this quote from Joseph Campbell. “The hero’s journey is a symbol that binds, in the original sense of the word, two distant ideas, the spiritual quest of the ancients with the modern search for identity” When we set off on a trip alone, we are not only exploring the outer world but also diving deep within.
That is the meaning inherent in all the myths and stories about heroes going on great adventures: the goal is to come back having found the grail, and in our modern times this often means self-knowledge and a new perspective on life.