The first time I traveled alone I wasn’t really traveling alone. My ex-boyfriend, a television journalist, had gotten an assignment to spend several weeks in Hong Kong, so of course I tagged along. It turned out to be the perfect vacation: I had lots of time on my own, but most days and evenings, John or a couple of his colleagues and their significant others (also tagging along; who wouldn’t?) were around for meals or enjoying the city’s nightlife.
Being on my own so much while most everyone else was working was hard to get used to at first. “Took the tram up to Victoria Peak,” I wrote in my trip journal one day early on, “where, on a moonlit night, if you’re not young and in love, you may as well fling yourself over.”
But it wasn’t long before I embraced the chance to explore, first getting lost among the shops and alleys of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, then venturing farther, to the walled villages of Kam Tin and the colorful ports and quiet beaches of Cheung Chau and Lamma islands. I called complete strangers — friends of US friends — and went to visit them in Macau, then a Portuguese territory, and Sha Tin. Even though we didn’t share a language, I still think often of the locals I encountered in Mongkok’s markets, at the Po Lin Monastery in Lantau (which at the time had neither an airport nor a Disneyland), and in the fishing village of Tai O. In the end, my solitary sojourns proved more indelible than hanging out with the gang back at the hotel.
Why should that be? It’s partly a matter of gaining the kind of independence you’ll never find while going about your regular life. Driving to work, stopping at the store on the way home, picking up the dry cleaning, even checking out a new restaurant the next neighborhood over with your spouse on a Friday night; it’s not until you are thrust into a completely unfamiliar environment, with no one to fall back on, that you realize you’ve been doing all of these things on autopilot. Negotiating the bus schedule or buying train tickets in another country, where the language is one you can never hope to master, is somehow empowering. It can also be heartening, as when someone inevitably breaks in to translate and give you a little insider scoop about your next stop.
Dealing with the little — or sometimes pretty big — challenges along the way makes you feel like you can handle anything. Even asking for a table for one in an English-speaking city can seem daunting until you do it a few times and find that more often than not, you’ll end up striking up a conversation with someone if you’re in the mood to talk. Sitting at the bar always helps; you’ll definitely walk away with a few new friends if you want them — not that you always do.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t travel alone exclusively. I love exploring new places with my long-distance beau, and we rarely disagree about what to do while on the road, even if that includes splitting up for a time to go our own ways. Traveling with friends can be a little trickier, and can reveal that you don’t know them as well as you think you do. I recall a weekend in New York with a friend who proved more inflexible than I ever would have guessed from what I knew of her in Boston. That weekend had its satisfactions, of course, but all in all, it couldn’t end soon enough for me.
And that’s another of the joys of traveling alone. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want, setting your own pace, with no judgment if you want to, say, make lunch of a box of cookies and a soda, as I did once in Paris, also known as gastronomy central. You can take a tour if you want to learn more about a place, but if you do, you might miss the chance to dawdle.
Once, on a warm fall weekend in P-town, after having a couple of sociable drinks at a local bar the night before, lunch with colleagues the next day, and a chat with a woman about the pet chicken she was carrying around the streets, I had had enough of the crowds. With an hour or so till I had to be at the airport, I leaned against an overturned dinghy on the nearly deserted beach and read Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The peace and quiet of that hour, with my bare feet in the hot sand and the sound of the surf in my ears, made it feel like a daylong retreat. Because the conversations you have with strangers en voyage are by necessity rarely more than a few minutes’ or hours’ diversion, you have to know how to enjoy solitude — and for some, learning how to do that is a journey in itself.
Elizabeth Gehrman is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to email@example.com.
THE RISE OF TRAVELING ALONE
> 37% — The increase in solo travelers booking with the company Intrepid Travel between 2010 and 2015
> 68% — Percentage of Intrepid’s solo travelers who are women
> 32% — Percentage who are between 30 and 39 years old
> 356% — The increase in solo travelers booking trips to the Caribbean between 2010 and 2015
> 265% — The increase in solo travelers booking trips to Central Asia