Traveling Solo for the First Time

This beginning of the end of my year in Spain starts with my solo trip to Lisbon. (And first solo trip eva.)

Now starts, after a 3 month hiatus, the travel-bug life for me. And it couldn’t have come at a better time. After many months of down time, sickness, and a little bit of missing home, I’m so ready for the next few months.

Traveling Solo

I travel alone all the time. But it’s normally transit-travel. I’m going from one place to another and by the time I reach my destination, there is usually someone I know on the other end. (Except for that time I moved to Spain by myself…) I’ve heard so much good about solo travel that I wanted to take a stab at it just to see where it would take me.

I had both good moments, weird moments, and meh moments.

The good.

Traveling solo means you are in charge. You decide where your feet take you and when they take you. Where you want to eat, where you want to go, how much time you want to spend in said destination. Having traveled before, I knew my chances of encountering others traveling alone was high. It helped too that I was staying at a very popular hostel (more on that later.)

It throws you a bit out of your comfort-zone, though mine has been shattered these last few months, so I didn’t feel that as strongly. What I did feel was a sense of purpose. I made it a point to meet everyone in the main lounge area of the hostel. We shared stories, adventures, where we were off to next and what to do in Lisbon for those that had been there days before. It’s awesome to learn about other people’s lives, to hear their stories, to brush past the stranger-danger that seems to always be on other’s minds when you mention traveling solo.

The thing is, the world is big, but it isn’t that scary, and it isn’t as separated as we might lead ourselves to believe. I met people from the US, from Australia, from Ireland, and China. I met a girl who works in Washington, D.C. and another that is studying abroad in Madrid and attending university in California. Our stories have things in common. And at the end of the day, we are all there to explore a new part of the globe. So what brings strangers together? Passion and a tiny bit of wine. No one who doesn’t want to be there is going to show up in that hostel. We all chose our destination and we all made it happen on tight budgets and a window of time. It breaks down walls faster then a handshake.

Traveling alone gives you the opportunity to make connections you wouldn’t normally bother with. Some may call bull on that, but think about it. When you are traveling with a friend or family member, how often do you take a moment to connect with others around you? It’s more likely you just focus on the person with you.

I felt more relaxed. I wasn’t worrying about keeping someone else happy or constantly consulting what our next move was. This, in turn, made me feel less tired.

I used my self-stick without shame. I enjoyed my own company.

The weird.

I traveled to Belem by train my second day to explore. There is a beautiful monastery that looks more like a palace, gardens, a free museum, and a less crowded vibe once I got outside of the main city-center. Only a 15 minute tram-ride, it was simple to get there and calming to walk along the water’s edge. The views of the 25th of April Bridge were amazing, and the wind off the river was refreshing.

I wandered down the main walkway, people watching, listening to Ed Sheeran’s new CD and considering how far I’ve come, and I’m sure an array of other thoughts. I stumbled across a boat yard surrounded by restaurants along the wharf. It was sunny and beautiful, and I was starving at this point of the afternoon. The sound of laughter and conversation washed over me, and as I walked I realized two things. The first is that company can be a wonderful thing in life. The second was that I was going to have to eat alone in a place full of people joined together by conversation and food.

There is something about the culture of meals and coffee over here that heavily encourages doing this with others. It’s refreshing. You don’t see a girl drinking a cup of coffee alone. You don’t see anyone alone, in fact. It’s the Spanish influence of family and appreciating the time to sit and have conversation over a meal. It’s their slow way of life.

So as I stood at the end of the wharf, I debated what to do. Which seems silly now, but it wasn’t at that moment. Eating alone in a room full of people eating together is intimidating.

And that’s when I decided to hell with it and sat down outside. The waiter came and asked me what I would like to order, and following my order, asked if I was waiting on anyone. Well, strike one to my pride of mustering the courage to eat alone. But a strike in the right direction. “No,” I told him. “I’m not.” And he gave me a confused smile, and carried on to put my order in.

Then, as you do, I got all deep and philosophical about the inability to enjoy our own company. Paper, pen, this is what I wrote;

“You know what’s strange-eating meals by ourselves and how we struggle to appreciate our own company. We feel self-conscious or overly aware, like we should be ashamed to love ourselves. Like we should feel embarrassed. But the truth is, no one cares. If you glance around or force yourself to be awkward, then people worry you don’t like your own company. Then people stare.

There is so little accomplished in being negatively self-aware. Maybe because people make us feel pressured to look busy. Like being on our phones as we wait for a friend to meet up with us at the coffee shop. Or avoiding entering a restaurant until our company has arrived. But how often do you see a couple sitting on their phones, ignoring one another over a meal? All the time. And the truth is, we allow little to no time for ourselves. Our true selves. Who we are and what matters and why what matters to us matters.

A great many people, and many great people, spend time alone doing a wide array of things. Why can’t eating alone be one of them? The trick is to do fantastic things and ignore the gnawing feeling that you need someone to be doing them with you. You don’t. Reading, writing, painting- the arts are achieved in the absence of others and the solidarity of self. And though a meal can often be more appreciated with company, it’s okay to eat without it.”

Boom. Did I take my own advice? Kind of. I ate my meal of shrimp and bread watching the ships sway back and forth in the wind, and I didn’t get any concerned looks or more questions from my waiter. I still prefer to eat with company, but now I know I can eat alone in a crowded place and it won’t be what I made it to be in my head.

The bad.

Traveling alone can be lonely. I won’t go and ignore that little piece of my experience. Five days by myself was exhilarating, and magical, but, I also had my moments.

My last day, I traveled to Cascais to lay on the beach. The weather was fantastic, the sun hot and bright, the atmosphere everything you want a beach town to be. It was perfect. But as the hours passed and I laid alone on the beach reading, it occurred to me how nice it would be to have a friend. A friend to take pictures with, and pass the hours in idle conversation. To wander the town and eat gelato. Essentially, the sharing of a memory is sometimes nicely shared with another. We very rarely reminisce by ourselves.

The other worse part? Not having a friend to get your back. I tried. Oh, how I tried. Alas, there is something about sunscreen and getting your own back that so rarely turns out right. And I have a nice patch of red to prove it. Yes, yes, I know. Kate, why didn’t you ask someone to get your back? Well, friend, the idea of approaching a stranger and asking them to rub lotion on me was more than I could do with a straight face or without getting weird vibes. So yes, so much for self-growth when you aren’t even brave enough to ask someone to put sunscreen on the one spot you can’t reach. Slow clap.

Would I do it again?

Honestly, I don’t know. I think traveling alone is something you get more comfortable doing over time. Like breaking in new shoes (which I did while walking hill after hill…I do not recommend it.) I did, however, learn a lot about how I prefer to travel because I had no one else’s ideas or desires to build my own off of. And that, I think, is a very important thing to find out.

All said and done, Lisbon is the perfect place to travel solo. I never felt in danger and never ran out of things to do. So there’s that.

P.S. You can read more about Portugal here and here!

Belem and 25th of April Bridge.