I fought back the tears as I hugged Chelyn goodbye at the airport in Borneo and wished her a safe flight home. Not so much because I would miss her (though I would, of course) but because I now faced 10 days of travel in a third world country– as well as Singapore and peninsular Malaysia–completely alone.
I had originally booked my trip to Borneo as a solo trip, mostly because I had very specific things I wanted to do and didn’t want to have to compromise with a travel buddy. I was secretly relieved, though, when I discovered a friend had booked her vacation to the exact same place and our dates overlapped. We had an amazing week scuba diving and trekking through jungles together, and when it came time for her to leave I was moderately terrified. The most I’d ever traveled alone before was a day or two at the beginning or end of trips with friends. Wasn’t it scary and dangerous being a solo female backpacker? What if I was robbed? Kidnapped? Murdered? Would they ever find my body? Ridiculous scenarios played through my head.
It turned out the worry was all for nothing. I had an absolutely incredible time in my first ten days as a solo female backpacker and I learned a lot about myself and how to travel independently in the process! So here are a few of the nuggets of wisdom I picked up from my first 10 days of solo travel:
1) Don’t be shy: This may seem obvious, but in my first few days traveling I was still in my shy phase. During our jungle trek I had been chatting with a cute Swedish guy who had two weeks of unplanned travel in Borneo ahead of him. We kept dropping hints to each other about traveling together, but neither of us got up the courage to actually suggest we meet up. I spent the next few days kicking myself for not just growing a pair and saying something (and who knows, maybe he did, too).
2) Talk to people like you know them: The trick I discovered to meeting other groups of people is to just join their conversations as if you were already their friend. Not in a creepy way, but if you find a way to casually hop in the conversation, people are generally very receptive. If you’re not welcome it will be made clear instantly, but that’s how I befriended the French girls who I spent the following two days hiking with. I heard them mention jellyfish as they were walking next to me and I said, “Yeah, speaking of jellyfish, check these out!” and showed them my hundreds of jellyfish stings. The rest is history.
3) People are incredibly nice: The kindness of humanity is demonstrated perhaps the most when you’re traveling, and it seems that people are often exceptionally nice to solo female travelers. One night I got caught in a downpour without an umbrella at a food fair. I struck up a conversation with the vendor as I waited under his tent and asked if there were any cabs around I could take back to my hostel. When he told me no, I smiled ruefully and set off in the rain. Just then, a woman who had overheard my conversation ran after me and offered me a ride home. I sat in the backseat with her teenage children, taking selfies and answering their eager questions about life in America until they all smiled and waved goodbye in front of my hostel.
4) You will rarely be alone: I was afraid of getting lonely, but by simply striking up conversations with people everywhere I went I was almost never alone. There was only one day where I felt a pang of loneliness and truth be told some alone time was probably good for me at that point.
5) Be comfortable in your own head: Even though you will be around people more often than not, you will inevitably find yourself alone from time to time and it’s important to feel comfortable with yourself. For those long bus rides, or that time I went bike riding alone on a tiny island and got stuck in a rainstorm for hours, I needed the ability to entertain myself and laugh at myself since I had no one to share the ridiculous experience of biking through the mud holding an umbrella with.
6) Not everyone is as friendly as you are: There were plenty of people I attempted to chat with who clearly either had no interest in making friends or just lacked social skills. When Chelyn and I were stuck in a van in the jungle for two hours with a Swedish couple, we made multiple attempts to talk to them; they wanted nothing to do with us other than to ask the time or utter the occasional complaint. Some people are just grumpies.
7) Pace is everything: When teaming up with new travel buddies, make sure they travel at the same pace as you. There is nothing more annoying than wanting to sleep in and having your travel buddy pressure you to wake up at the butt crack of dawn to go see all 45 of the city’s sights. Likewise, you don’t want to waste time waiting around for someone who wants to take it easy when you are hoping to actually do something before 3pm.
8) You’ll make so many friends: Meeting people on the road and traveling with new friends expedites the friendship process tenfold. I made friends with people who, after only two days together, felt like lifelong friends. Just from those 10 days I now have friends in France, Wales, England, and America that I know I could call up anytime in the future and have a place to stay.
9) It is easier than you think: I thought traveling alone would be so difficult. Who would hold my backpack when I went in the bathroom? What if I couldn’t figure out how to find my hostel? Would I be able to walk around alone at night if I had to? Granted, being alone sometimes had its challenges, but I was surprised at just how easy everything turned out to be. It forced a huge amount of self reliance on me but made me realize that I am more than capable of doing everything myself when needed.
10) You will gain so much confidence: I know it was only 10 days of solo travel, but by the end of my trip I felt so full of bad-assery that I now know I can definitely handle solo travel on my big Round the World trip next year. And not only is being a solo female backpacker doable, it’s totally fun!
Have you ever traveled solo? What did you learn? Talk to me!