As the Pyeongchang Olympics come to a close this weekend, I’m reminded of how – in the brief two weeks of the games – the world sort of sets their politics aside and focuses their attention on the events surrounding the competitions. While the games are a forum for competition nonetheless, they are truly more than that. They offer a platform for competition that is entrenched in sportsmanship, understanding and peace.
If only the sportsmanship spirit of the Olympics can transcend our daily existence, right? Well, unfortunately, the world moves at a much faster speed with a much more complex set of things to be considered. But as countries break down (or possibly build?) walls, seek alliances or independence, or even tackle the challenges of terrorism and social or political strife, there is still so much to be seen, explored and experienced out there.
I’ve been blessed to have had my share of traveling abroad; something that even as a child I always knew I’d do someday. While my friends and cousins would want to play “house” when we were growing up, I was always the one pushing everyone to play “airplane.” Taking the lead, I would welcome my passengers to my plane, seat them, serve them AND be their pilot to the most incredible destinations that a 7-year old could think of: Barcelona, Prague, Copenhagen & Hong Kong to name a few. Back then, my knowledge of these places was limited to the things I read in the travel books and world almanacs that I begged my parents to buy me. The knowledge I was able to pass on at that early age was, in my opinion, a mere way to plant seeds with my playmates; seeds of international travel & cultural understanding.
Sounds pretty heavy for the life of a 7-year old, doesn’t it? Perhaps it was. But for me, it was an adrenaline-rush of sorts that I would carry with me through the years. And now, I cannot see a year in my life without even spending a long weekend away in London or Paris. In this day and age, the world is so accessible. There is no reason that we can’t be out there to experience it.
I get a lot of different questions about travel from my family and friends, but a majority of them are around traveling solo. I’ve had my share of solo travel, and it’s something that I take pride in doing. Of course, there is nothing like experiencing an exciting trip with companions. Some of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in my life were from my travels with family or friends. But that is not to say that the experiences traveling solo have been less memorable.
So why do it?
Well, for me the reason is simple: I’m not going to wait around for anyone if there is some place that I want to see. I know that Paris, London or Rome can be an “easy” sell for most, and as much as I love each of those cities, I’ve always been enamored with the rest of the world. So when I wanted to travel to Prague, Budapest or Edinburgh… and no one was jumping at the chance to go with me – without question I intended to go on my own. In those experiences, there was a lot more prep work to be done, and – just the same – I had to become a bit more reliant on the help of locals or fellow travelers to get around. From learning Czech or Hungarian phrases, to understanding how to pass on or receive a business card from people in Asia, there is much to learn and know about traveling abroad.
Here are some important things to keep in mind when you’re traveling outside of the country solo:
Appreciate and be curious about the country you are visiting
After a trip to Venice, someone who had been there before asked how I liked the nightlife as they weren’t that impressed. I knew that the kind of “nightlife” they were asking about was not necessarily something Venice is known for. Personally, I wasn’t looking for that club life experience in Venice. In fact, I was looking forward to nights drinking glasses of wine or Campari along the narrow streets of the city… mingling with locals, and exchanging stories about past travels, or getting intel about neighboring islands and towns worth visiting. Italians are some of the friendliest people in the world, and will jump at the chance to share what they can with you. During the day, I spent my time visiting as many churches that I could to see a lot of original art work from the Venetian school. The city of Venice is a living and breathing classroom of Venetian art, and there is something to be learned at every turn.
Before you visit a city or country abroad, do your research. Knowing a bit of the history of the place, as well as uncovering the social scene, helps you appreciate what you are walking into. And in many cases, it leaves you curious to discover more as you go along.
Break out of your comfort zone
Our day to day can become so routine that we sometimes forget there is much to be desired if and when we step out of our comfort zones. Knowing that you are headed to a place where cultural norms may be different from your own city or town is half the battle. Opening yourself to these differences make the experience even more meaningful, and you come away with so much more. Learning how to greet strangers in Bangkok, to ordering an aperitif in France, to conducting yourself politely in the souks of Dubai… there will be instances where you will need to look past your sphere of comfort, and remember that the way you’re used to is not necessarily the way of the rest of the world. And that’s totally ok.
Find patience in your travel experience
Patience is a virtue as we know, but it’s even more so a necessity when traveling abroad. In some instances, the pace of life can be just as quick in larger cities outside the U.S. as you’re used to. But some of the smaller cities can take an extremely slower pace: public transportation might be less reliable, queues may last longer (or sometimes not even exist!), food service might move at a snail’s pace, or there may not be enough toilet paper in the wash rooms (just sayin’!). Just as I mentioned about breaking out of your sphere of comfort, having patience as you travel through the world will go a long way.
Open up to those around you
When I traveled to Budapest after a few days in Paris with friends, I had a walking tour of the city scheduled. On the tour, I met an older Indian-Canadian couple who were also on vacation. After learning I was traveling solo, they pretty much took me in as their adopted child during the tour. (Perhaps it was the Asian connection? Haha.) It was a sweet remembrance of that trip and that tour.
After Budapest, I went on to Prague where I had another tour scheduled. The other travelers who booked the tour with me ended up being no-shows, so I had the tour guide to myself. He decided to pivot from the normal path, and gave me a more personal tour of the city. His knowledge of the city’s history was so vast, and it left me asking so many questions. I came away from that tour learning so much about the city and country, which made me appreciate it all the more.
Soliciting ideas from locals, or help from fellow travelers makes your experience whole. Be willing to open yourself up to the people around you to make for an extremely interesting trip.
Traveling solo definitely takes some getting used to. It can be as daunting as eating in a restaurant all by yourself, but it’s just one of those things that you need to do once before you realize you can do it again and again. Embrace the experience, and revel in the fact that no one else’s opinion about your trip will matter. You’ll come away with a sense of independence that you can reflect upon, and ultimately pass on to those who might be just as daring as you are!