If you really, truly want to know who you are, take a trip by yourself. Alone. Ideally, take many of them — day trips, long weekends, week-long adventures — and enjoy as much solo time as you can. Because the more time you spend in an unknown place, the more you find the freedom to figure yourself out. (Also, you get to do what you want, when you want to do it.)
That’s been the guiding principle behind most of my life’s travels, anyway.* I’ve spelunked in Belize, watched geysers erupt in Iceland, climbed Mayan ruins in Guatemala, gorged on gelato in Italy, trained it around Germany, and so forth. These were wonderful, unforgettable, life-changing adventures. I did everything alone, which often led to lady friends saying, “Wow, I wish I had the courage to travel by myself.”
That always seemed odd to me, because — unless you’re going to a conflict zone or a supremely sexist place — I never felt like traveling alone was a brave thing to do. It was just the only option for most of my trips, and if I’d waited for a companion, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere. The thought process went something like this:
1. Oh, a good airfare to _____!
2. I really want to go to _____, but I have nobody to join me.
3. Okay, I’m buying my ticket.
I mean, yeah, I’d do some preliminary research to make sure a destination would be enjoyable as a single-lady traveler. But mostly, I realized that if I wanted to see the world, I’d have to make it happen. Even if that meant going it alone, which wasn’t too difficult, since I’m an introvert who likes alone time. Sure, I enjoyed making friends and meeting the locals, but for the most part, I liked taking pictures and journaling by myself.
My years as a solo traveler had plenty of fun adventures, but I usually booked a trip when I needed to sort my shit out. There was the 2005 trip to Paris, where I sipped cheap wine and flirted with Frenchmen and finally started to heal a broken heart. A year after my father’s death in 2009, I spent a few days driving around southern Iceland. I’d go for hours without seeing another human, and the solitude forced me to process some serious grief. These scenic shifts helped me see the world differently, consider new perspectives, and lay the groundwork to becoming a wise old lady with tales of derring-do and adventure.
Then, I fell in love, L-U-V. About six months into our relationship, I found dirt-cheap airfare to Mexico, and we went for it. It was a great trip. The best. Suddenly, I didn’t want to travel alone anymore. In our three years together, Dylan and I have gone to Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Japan, Amsterdam, all over the place. We have the best time together! He’s a great travel partner! He even carries my heavy bags!
When I think about my transition from a solo traveler to a coupled one, I feel a tiny morsel of guilt. Just a little one. Because it’s not just that I don’t travel alone these days. It’s that I don’t want to. I’d feel totally confident taking a trip by myself, but these days, I prefer traveling with him.
This makes me feel like That Girl, the one who gives up her hobbies because she’s finally found a man and secretly needed one all along. As though I can’t live a full life without my man. In other words, a BAD FEMINIST. Rationally, I know this isn’t true, but then an inner voice whispers, “Well, then, why didn’t you do that day trip to Philadelphia without him?”
I have no good answer.
Look, I get that it’s a really easy “problem” to have. I understand how incredibly fortunate I am to be able to travel at all, and luckier still to have a wonderful partner. We’ve been able to do things together that I wouldn’t have done on my own. Poking around abandoned buildings, getting a little tipsy at night, swimming at a deserted beach — I’d have done none of these things without him.
Still, I think it’s worth examining what happens when we go from “me” to “we.” Because women do experience places differently when we’re around other people. I don’t have to guess about the things that you don’t get when traveling with a partner. Heightened self-awareness. Independence. The quiet confidence that develops when you — and only you — start to navigate a foreign place and its culture and customs. I am exchanging these for the companionship and joy that I share with my fiancé when we explore together. (And, to be honest, I feel safer when he’s around.) It’s a good trade-off, but a trade-off nonetheless.
We’re getting married later this year, and I hope we’ll be lucky enough to travel together in the years to come. But I’m also hoping that I rekindle an interest in exploring the world on my own. For instance, I have been saving up for a trip to Thailand for years, but the country isn’t high on my fiancé’s list. So, this might be an adventure I have by myself. Which, when you think about it, could be seen as a spark of courage. A little one, maybe, but one that I want to grow.
* In case you’re wondering, here is how I was able to travel so much. My job involved a good amount of travel, so I’d usually try to tack on some vacation days at the end of my work trips. I learned how to watch for airfare sales and snafus, which helped me get a freaky-cheap $250 ticket to London (among other deals). I used Airbnb to stay in a spare room for $35, rather than drop $100 a night on a hotel. And finally, I have always saved money like crazy.