About becoming a solo traveller

I don’t remember if it was me who came up with this crazy idea or if there were no other options at the time, but on a good day in 2008, I decided to go travelling by myself. As you can read in my previous blog post, I found myself in the middle of an emotional rollercoaster in 2008. While going through this intense process, I realized I still needed to (try to) relax and do nice things too. So I booked myself a five day trip to Lisbon. A manageable city, Mediterranean charm and a change of environment. It felt like a calculated risk worth taking. 🙂 Worst case, I told  myself, I would stay in my hotel room, reading a book for 5 days, and never repeat the same plan again. But it turned out entirely different.

First steps into the unknown

I arrived in Lisbon with my backpack and a pocket travel guide in my hand. A little nervous, I found my way from the airport into the city centre with public transport. When I reached my hotel I felt so relieved! No matter what would happen in the next 5 days, I had a roof over my head 🙂 After a short rest, I prepared myself for the next challenge: finding a place to have dinner. I left my room and started wandering through  the surrounding streets. I stopped in front of a small Portuguese restaurant with a warm ambiance. For minutes I lingered in front of the outside menu, too scared to go in by myself. No one in that place was sitting alone at a table!

Not knowing what to do, all of a sudden a young men came standing next to me. I asked him if he was alone. He confirmed. As if we had no other choice, we decided to go in together and share a table. We were so happy to have found each other in that vulnerable moment of loneliness 🙂 I still remember that moment very vividly.

I look back on it as a beautiful interaction with the universe. The moment we have the courage to step out of our comfort zone, there will always be a helping hand along the way. In whatever form or appearance 🙂 I went to bed with a big smile and I felt confident to start the next day.

Big girl in a candy store

Little by little I started conquering the city. Every day I chose a new neighbourhood in my pocket guide and once arrived, I let coincidence and intuition guide me. I discovered a freedom I’d never felt before! For the first time I didn’t have to set up a plan or deliberate with a travel partner. I simply had every moment to make a new choice, change directions, hop on a bus or lay in the sun for hours. Through solo travelling, I got to know my own rhythm. Eve’s rhythm, without compromises. Even while carrying grief, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world at times.

Once back home, this experience left me wanting  more of it. I made a promise to myself that I would solo travel again. After having found a new job in 2009, I made new plans. Little by little I expanded my safe zone,  daring to go ‘bigger’ and ‘further’. In the following years I discovered (among others) Barcelona, Madrid, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Moscow and New York. The latter two left a strong impression on me.

Years before, I already visited parts of Africa and Asia in company, but leaving Europe for the first time by myself was a powerful experience. I remember how scared I was, being the only white woman in the subway from JFK to Brooklyn, the first dozen of stops. I thought I’d be killed by gangs of the Bronx! 🙂 But time and  time again, the discomfort passed and I gained confidence, expanding my horizon and world view.

In New York I literally felt like a big girl in a candy store. The whole world was at my feet! And after I went to Moscow I said to myself: if I can survive in Russia, I can survive any place in the world! 🙂 And the plan to make a 1 year journey around the world was born…

Around the world

Thanks to my boss in my then job, I received the permission to take a sabbatical from the end of 2012 until the end of 2013. For 2 years I prepared my journey, choosing countries and saving money for the big adventure. When I departed, I was completely exhausted from all the preparations, arrangements, goodbyes and emotions. I flew to Cape Town, South Africa on the 5th of November 2012 (one day after my 29th birthday), and spent the first week sick in my hostel bed.

In the next year, I spent 4 months in South Africa, 3 months in Sri Lanka, 3 months in India and 2 months in Vancouver and the US West Coast, both travelling, volunteering and visiting NGO’s. On top of that, I visited friends and attended a wedding in Stellenbosch! The fully packed program, (I was eager to get the most out of my journey) made it the most intense year in my life. I still haven’t digested all the impressions, emotions, sensations and experiences.

If I would repeat the same journey again, I would slow down the pace a little. Or more than a little 🙂 But at the same time I’m happy I did it this way. It’s incredible how many places I’ve visited, how many people I’ve met, how many things I’ve learned and how many cultures I’ve discovered.

During this sabbatical, I wrote a travel blog (in Dutch), describing all my adventures and experiences once every 2-3 weeks. Reading all of this again one year after my return, I realized that the ‘outer’ journey had been an unforgettable lifetime experience, but that the ‘inner’ journey had left an even bigger impression…

The inner journey

The inner journey was about becoming my own best friend. About dealing with fear, loneliness, exhaustion and illness. About being with myself, no matter what happens (see also in my previous blog post ‘Turning Within’). I remember being food poisoned in Hogsback, South Africa. For 5 days I lied sick in bed, throwing up and living on a can of Coke, without seeing or hearing anybody. I was so miserable that I didn’t even have the energy to worry about loneliness. But I felt pathetic. Day by day I learned to cultivate comforting thoughts, because there was nobody who could do that for me.

I remember moments of intense fear in Sri Lanka, terrified to go to India (my next destination) because of the group rape in Delhi a few months before. I saw ‘dangerous’ men everywhere (being stared at almost 24 hours a day) and on top of that, many friends and family projected their own fear on me and made me even more scared, instead of reassuring me. At one point I was so completely taken over by anxiety that I couldn’t even leave my room. In tears, I reached out to a friend with whom I talked for hours, finally sharing the emotion I had been judging for weeks.

Thanks to that moment I learned to communicate with the fear, instead of constantly telling myself to be strong and stop overacting. I realized that I needed to accept my emotions and adjust my plans if needed. I even allowed myself the possibility to book a flight home and not consider that as ‘weak’ or ‘failure’. By developing self-compassion I was able to move on. I stayed and went to India. And I never felt so deeply in love with a country before.

Last but not least I learned to spoil myself when it was necessary. Since I stopped proving to myself that I needed to be strong and unrelenting, I started offering myself well-deserved breaks from the low-budget backpacking life. Whenever I had enough of all the staring, street hassling, noises, garbage, public transport hustle and picture taking, I treated myself to a relaxing day at the swimming pool of a 5-star hotel. What a virtue! I recharged my batteries, ate European food and acted like a princess for one day (without the arrogance of course) 🙂

And the universe clearly agreed, because at one point, at the Oberoi Hotel in Kolkata an unknown person payed for my fancy cappuccino and biscuits. I still remember where I sat and how flattered I felt. I said to myself that, once back home, I would never ever feel guilty again about spoiling myself when I needed to.

Going home

All these experiences brought me closer to myself. To cultivate self-love, self-compassion and self-acceptance. I went home with the wisdom that I never had to prove anything to myself or others again. That loving myself or being loved didn’t depend on conditions. That our ‘mistakes’ are our biggest teachers. In one year I’d learned to become my own best friend. And with this new established relationship I was ready to go back home and pick up my Belgian life where I had left it off on the day of my departure…

I always wondered how other solo travellers experienced their journeys. Often we only see the white sandy beaches, palm trees and perfect smiles on social media. But what about the inner picture? What about the tough and vulnerable moments? And what about coming back home? If you feel like sharing your experiences, I’d be happy to hear from you. And if you didn’t start yet, but you’re thinking about solo travelling yourself, I’d be happy to hear from you too 🙂 I wish you all an adventurous day!