Is long-term solo travel… lonely?
Whether or not I feel lonely in travelling by myself for such a long time is one of the biggest questions I get asked when people hear about my lifestyle of over eight years of solo travel, and something I'll tell you all about today. What you read may surprise you!
“Isn't travelling alone… lonely?” I get this question several times a week, both in person and via email.
I find it very interesting and curious, because the question itself is loaded with presumptions and bias.
To show you what I mean, picture this:
The non-travel lonely lifestyle
For four years I studied Electronic Engineering in UCD (Dublin) – one of the country's most demanding courses, with full time classes (9am-6pm, Mon-Fri), some evening courses, labs, homework, incredible amounts of studying for very complex course material (including quantum physics and very advanced applied Mathematics) and a looming sixteen examinations at the end of the year, where if you fail just one of those many examinations, you have to repeat the entire year!
Because of this it had the highest failure rate of any course at the university, and many people would simply not make it through to the next year. With my drive though, I didn't just want to pass, but to get a first class honours to ensure better opportunities later in life.
The pressures of this course meant that I poured my whole life into it, and barely had any social life in college, and definitely no girlfriend or even time to “play around”. I got up, went to class, came home, studied and did assignments, watched TV by myself to relax and then all weekend long gave private Mathematics lessons to schoolkids to help me fund the expenses of living in Dublin.
I went out to parties about six times a year. Not quite the fun college lifestyle I was seeing on my TV shows.
It doesn't take a big stretch of the imagination to realize that this was a very lonely lifestyle. And yet how many times over the four years do you think people asked me “Are you lonely as an electronic engineering student?”
The thing is, many lifestyles are lonely. A single mother who has to work two jobs, people who are settled away from their home town for work purposes who find it hard to make new friends, unhappy introverts, and thousands of other types of people stuck in situations and routines they see no way out of. And yet nobody ever asks them how lonely they are. I am very sure that so many people reading this post feel the same way.
It has always struck me as unfair that travellers (who do this by choice) are the privileged few to be asked this question, when so many other people who have no choice on the matter would need to share their frustrations much more than us.
And the ironic thing about it all? I'm way less lonely now and way happier about my life than I ever was as a “settled” student in Dublin.
What is lonely?
The thing about the question is that it has really leaves a lot to be defined. Lonely compared to what? Compared to before I started travelling? Compared to you? Compared to locals where I am? Compared to a “typical” single guy my age? Compared to a a married guy with children and an active social life?
The thing is, there are many aspects of loneliness. You can be lonely even if surrounded by people who know you because you feel they don't “get” you, you can be lonely in a long-term relationship because you realise it isn't going great, you can be lonely because you are stuck in a routine and not having deep conversations with people etc.
It just seems so obvious to many people that I must feel lonely as a solo traveller, since I don't have the same person physically constantly there with me. But to me loneliness depends way more on the person's mindset than on their situation.
By getting over the shy delusion, and maintaining some personality when I meet new people, I can make new friends very quickly, generally no matter where I am. Some places have been tougher to do this, but with persistence I always make one or several true friends.
“But you can't make a true friend in just a few months!!” Of course, I disagree. Like learning a language, you can either take many many years to piece together aspects of a relationship, or you can do it intensively and get to know someone quicker and open yourself up to them at a much deeper level, even in a short time.
In Ireland we say “A stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet”. I keep this philosophy on the road, and don't restrict my definition of friend to the sadly restrictive one of someone who I have known since childhood. No matter where you are on the road, if you are open to making a new friend – either with other travellers like yourself, or (more ideally) with those from the location you are visiting – you will never feel alone.
The need to have someone there
As well as this, there are certain people who definitely need company more than others. Despite many crazy posts on this blog implying that I'm a 24-hour party animal, I actually spend most of my time on my computer by myself.
And I'm quite happy with this. Some people may desperately need people there all the time (so-called “extroverts”) and some are quite happy by themselves, reading a book, surfing the net, or working on some interesting project.
Even when I'm on my computer, I'm not actually alone. I video Skype my parents every week and feel like I'm back home with the camera in the living room and the fact that I can show them around my place. I chat to great friends of mine from all around the world to see how they are doing via Facebook. To some this “virtual” connection may seem meaningless or superficial, but to me it's the next best thing to actually being there with someone.
If I've had a rough day, I can tell someone about it. Even if I'm in a country where not a single person knows my name, I can always open myself up thanks to the level of connectivity of the 21st century.
So thanks to the Internet and anybody I know being just a phonecall away, I am never truly alone. And that's forgetting the fantastic local friends I am making that I can open myself up to.
The loneliness and friendships that comes from hurried travel
This year has been a bit different compared to my normal 3-month stays. I decided at the start of the year that I'd have many intensive language and cultural immersion missions, which has ultimately totalled learning six languages. It's been fun, but next year I will be back to mostly three month stays (starting in January by learning a language I'm not even vaguely familiar with from scratch to fluency, more appropriate to the blog title).
One reason that I'm looking forward to returning to my slower pace is that this year has been more stressful than most because of the lack of deeper relationships due to a quicker pace of travel and other obstacles. I only spent a month in Puerto Galera for example, and adjusted to the local culture slower than usual, so I didn't make any local life-long friends sadly. I was in Amsterdam and Istanbul for two months each, but I found the Dutch to be very reluctant to make friends with me when I was honest about leaving so soon, and I was ill for most of my stay in Turkey so I wasn't out much with the very friendly Turks.
Even so, despite these setbacks I made some real friends in these two places that I will stay in touch with for life. It's harder, but it's always possible. Even after a measly five days in Cali, I managed to make some incredibly deep friendships and enter into aspects of the locals' lives that I feel few visitors ever will. Even in short stays you can make friends that count.
As well as this, as the world gets smaller, you start to bump into more and more people as your paths cross again and again. For example, I've met Gary Arndt, Matt Kepnes, Rob “Bloggeries”, Scott Young, Jodi Ettenberg, Karol Gajda and actually dozens of others numerous times in various cities, countries, and continents. Not really intentionally, just that our paths happen to cross frequently from common interests. As fellow travellers, I find it very easy to pick up where I left off with each of them, especially since we understand the life of a vagabond (or vagablogger…) and can relate to one another in that way.
Even here in Peru I've been hanging out with Dave, my friend from Medellín.
The world is smaller than you think
In Couchsurfing, we have a saying that “The world is smaller than you think”, and I genuinely believe this. You can feel like a little spec alone in the vast lonely universe, or you can accept that we have so many things in common with one another, and that this brings us all closer together.
Perhaps I won't be meeting someone who I click with perfectly around every corner, but the diversity is what makes this all the more interesting; especially when you see all the things you do actually share with someone despite thousands of kilometres of separation your whole life and a very different culture and upbringing.
Rather than focus on all the reasons why I could feel lonely, I like to look at it with a more “glass is half full” perspective . Loneliness is a state of mind, not a state of latitude and longitude . I simply refuse to think myself into loneliness, the same way I refuse to whine about how hard everything is. Such negative thoughts are self fulfilling prophecies.
The fact that I travel solo encourages me all the more to meet new people, to get outside of my comfort zone, and of course to learn much more about the local language and culture. The “mission” aspect of my travels and the work I do on this site gives me lots to focus on, whereas if I was just a rich kid bouncing around with no purpose, then I'd probably have plenty of time to think myself into loneliness.
I'm very grateful for my current lifestyle. I know I won't be travelling forever – when I feel like I've had enough, I can always decide to settle down and become a long-term part of a community. Until then, such loneliness questions are not something that I ever have on my mind, other than to assure people asking the question that I'm doing quite OK 😀
Of course, the aspect of finding love on the road and how that can contribute to feeling a deep connection and avoiding loneliness is a very different kettle of fish, which I'll come back to in another post to give it the detail it deserves!