We travel to discover the world. To experience different cultures, different landscapes. To see exotic places. To try new foods. To make new friends. To buy souvenirs. To take loads of beautiful photographs and to collect memories. Travel equals discovery.
When planning to travel, many times, we debate between organized trips or DIY ones. Both options have their pro’s and con’s and it depends on our situation for what suits us better. The same with traveling with someone we know, or on our own. Hitting the road with someone we know well and already traveled with is an optimal option. We can share the costs, it’s safer and we always have company. So is traveling solo such a bad option?
My first solo travel was to Brazil and Argentina. It happened a bit by accident, because my travel companion pulled out claiming that South America is too dangerous for tourists. I went on my own and had a great time. At the beginning I was joining locally organized trips to the popular sites. I started in Rio de Janeiro and was taken in by the beauty of this city. I stayed in Santa Theresa, a neighborhood full of charming old villas. My hosts plainly refused to let me go anywhere on my own, as they thought it was too dangerous. On a walking sightseeing trip we were told every so often to hide our cameras as someone could snatch them from us. In favela we were told not to take any photos, or we would be shot. Right…. After few days I took a bus and went south, towards Argentina, which was meant to be safer. I stopped at the Brazilian side of Iguazu Falls and took an organized trip to see the marvel. The following day I moved to the Argentinian side and went for another organized trip. Everywhere in Argentina there was heavy presence of police and army. Army checkpoints on roads were common, policemen were at the front of nearly every second building. Maybe my friend was right, South America was not a safe destination at all! And, as she said, I was naïve coming here! But as I was determined on going there, I was going to see as much as possible using organized tours only. So I booked another one, this time to the Jesuit Missions.
On the day of the tour I was waiting for the pick up, but none came. I went to the tour operator, and it turned out the group had left without me. I got apologies, money back and a suggestion to take a local bus to the missions. How difficult could it be was my thought. From the guide book I got the impression that I was going to a big, busy town; Loads of tourists, a safe place. So I went to the local bus station and, with my broken Spanish, I bought bus ticket. Next I went through an army checkpoint, where I had to show my ticket and my passport. For the next 5 hours I sat on the bus, where I was the only non-Argentinian, a truly a local experience. The bus pulled into so many small towns and villages, that I stopped paying any attention to where we were. Then suddenly it was my destination. The driver and passengers were talking to me, so I stood up and got off the bus… on a side of the road…. If I could say it in Spanish I would ask to be taken back on the bus….. I was in the middle of nowhere!!! The bus was gone and I was standing on a side of an empty road. I looked around and noticed a cluster of buildings with a few benches at the front. Fifteen or more indigenous men sitting on them, all in silence looking at me with a bit of curiosity. I had to find out what to do next, so I entered a tiny shop and asked the lady for directions. It turned out I had to follow a quiet road to reach the ruins. And no, there was no sign of busy town, full of visitors, only a quiet road running at the back of some gardens. I started walking, felling pretty vulnerable with my obviously non-local looks. As I walked through the quiet road towards the ruin, I was wondering again, if my friend was not right, maybe it was not such a safe idea after all? After a mile or so, I reached the ruins and bought myself an empanada (pastry) in a local shop. Not hungry any more, I went to the ruins and had a good look around. Afterwards I walked to the road where I hoped to catch a bus back. I got lucky. I arrived very late to my accommodation, but very happy with the day’s outcome. I am cringing while typing this, but at the time, I realized how “Touristy” I had become; how stuck in the protection of organized tours I had relied on to see the sights. This takes away from really seeing a country and the locals who really make the personality of a destination. The locals there were of indigenous origin and there was no way for me to truly mix with the crowds otherwise.
This day trip was the beginning of my truly independent traveling. Since then it has happened many times, that there were no other tourists around. Soon afterwards I started seeking places where there were not many visitors from the western world. Even if that meant eating, standing in a street and not in a local café catering for visitors. There is always places where other tourist do not venture. The following year I went to Central America for a partly organized tour, partly on my own, both parts very enjoyable. Later I did cycling trips to Cuba and South East Asia, both a mix of organized and solo travelling.
Later I traveled with my life partner and we always had a great time. We have similar interests and we are a perfect match for each other while traveling. Last year, because I was back to third level education, I suddenly had the whole January free. I could not waste such an opportunity! After a long humming and hawing the destination was decided upon: India. January is the perfect time to visit most of this country, and it seemed like an ideal place to visit. Endless opportunities of sightseeing, food sampling, and wildlife watching. The decision was made and then the reality of traveling on my own hit….. My first worry was that India is not considered a safe travel destination for a woman. I got over it quickly, but there were other things I worried about. Who will I talk to, and the worst one, how will I go to a restaurant on my own?! Suddenly sitting by myself in a café was an issue! On the day before my departure I had dinner with a few of my female friends and they liked the idea of traveling alone, ”you will enjoy yourself” they reassured me.
The first few days in India were bit hard, I met few fellow travelers, but all the time I thought I should make more effort and socialize more. Luckily after few days I settled into a kind of a routine. I followed my travel plan, I did my sightseeing, I wandered the streets, went to local eateries and shops. I enjoyed doing things my way and not having to worry about anyone else. Looking back, India is the last place to worry about being on your own; In one of the most populated places it seems to be almost impossible!!!. In the local eateries I was seated between strangers, parks and sites were packed with people.
For the next leg of my trip, 3 weeks in Europe I went with confidence. Sometimes it is good to be on our own. This is my lesson from Argentina: being on our own can be very enjoyable. I like it and I seek it………sometimes…….