Travelling Alone for a Greater Sense of Cultural Immersion
December 8th 2019
Single or ‘solo’ travel has become one of the hottest trends in the travel industry in the past few years and rightly so. UK travel industry leader ABTA has produced reports (2017-2019), all of which highlighted the rise in the numbers of people overcoming their initial reservations about ‘doing it alone’ and taking the plunge into a different type of travel experience. The UK has shown a 3x increase in interest and books relating to solo travel since 2011 so this does not appear to be a trend that looks like it is slowing anytime soon.
It is an amazing experience to be able to choose to travel, volunteer, or set up a temporary ‘home’ base in a country which is not one’s place of origin. It must be acknowledged that to do this without longstanding friends or family takes a level of courage, determination, and a positive mindset, but all of these things pay dividends in both the long and short term, on the trip and after it.
Once over the initial uncertainty, anxiety and hyper-awareness of being a single person adrift in a new land the realisation of the depth of human kindness comes quickly and offers a balm to that sense of vulnerability. It makes perfect sense that without the buffer of another person to focus our interest on, our gaze is much more externally focused and our availability to positive interactions is that much more evident to those around us. When there is no longer a ‘we’, the people around us are much more able to approach us and offer us the sort of culturally immersive, special, and enlightening experiences that most of us crave.
‘How can you be so sure?’ you may ask! Well, I know this from personal experience as a predominantly solo bicycle traveller of 27+ countries. The few occasions when I cycled with a companion really highlighted the difficulty that can arise for others, who may be curious and want to interact but who may find it difficult to ‘break through’ the barriers surrounding people who are inwardly focused on their friendship and interpersonal interactions. Those times with others, whilst fun, in the main didn’t offer the sorts of opportunities that I received as a solo cyclist. There is space in my life for both of these experiences. The important aspect for me is to be conscious of the choices I am making and accept the different opportunities they each offer.
As a woman travelling alone I have received numerous invitations for interaction. I have eaten on the floors of more kitchens than I can remember, with the sounds of a newly encountered, excited family surrounding me and the smells of the local dishes being prepared for me. Through these precious moments I have learnt more of the local languages and dialects, more about the local customs, and more about what we all share in common than at any other time in those countries. For me, those are the experiences that resonate far beyond the borders of the country. In addition to being offered the sort of ‘real’ interpersonal experiences that I see as the heart of my travels, I have been told of local places of interest, given advice on (tourist) areas to avoid, and received a very different way to view the countries I visit than a lot of ‘tourists’ on guided tours get. All of this simply by being available, open to positive interaction and willing to ‘repay’ with my attention, enthusiasm, and when appropriate with a cash ‘gift’ to ensure that no-one is losing out and that we all gain from the experience.
The overwhelming reason that most people offered to ABTA when asked about their interest in travelling alone was “choosing to take a holiday by themselves because they don’t want to compromise on where they go and what they do”. This is a far cry from choosing to go simply because you have no-one to go with. The stigma of the single traveller as a loner and a difficult person to ‘be around’ is naturally reducing as a result of this shift and is being supplanted with the idea of the intrepid, curious, open-minded individual who is making choices to dive deeply into a cultural experience and offer back the sort of positive, engaged interaction that they wish to receive.
In addition to the opportunities for deeper cultural immersion as a single traveller are the multiple opportunities for developing friendships with others on similar paths as you momentarily transect at common points like hostels and local places of interest. These moments of meeting may be transient but are no less important and meaningful for their short duration. The sorts of discussions that can ensue as a result of knowing that you only have a limited time together can cut to the chase and mitigate a lot of social small talk giving everyone the chance to share the beating heart of their travel experiences and their wealth of gleaned knowledge.
In short, to travel ‘one’ is far from being a sad and sullen affair. It is an incredible experience in opening up to a level of internal and external personal, social, and emotional worlds which will deepen your experience of the trip as you undertake it and will continue to inform your development as an individual when you eventually return to wherever you call ‘home’. I know because my trips alone continue to touch my life and make me the ever-evolving person I am today.
Solo volunteering is a great way to experience a new culture on your travels. Click here to view our list of volunteer projects around the world!
Article & Pictures by Workingabroad Blog Writer Rae Hadley