Blog

A place for me to share some of my travel photography and experiences as well as any other thoughts, ideas or events that catch my eye. 

Travelling alone

Everyone who loves to travel, loves do it in a different way.  Some of us like All-Inclusive vacations while others enjoy backpacking and exploring countries on the ground.  Some like to use a vacation to rest & relax, while others use their time off to explore and see as much as they can.  The same goes for the people we travel with.  There are some people that prefer to travel with family or maybe friends.  Many people enjoy travelling with organized groups.  And some people often prefer to forgo all of this and travel the world themselves. 

There is no right or wrong way when it comes to deciding whom you want to travel with.  Everyone is different and we all have different preferences in regards to what kind of "companionship" we want on our travels.  From my point of view, I've always preferred travelling with a small group of friends (bring too many people along and you have too many differing opinions on how the trip should "run").  Over the last few years (since I started at G Adventures), I've also had the opportunity to travel on organized trips and have quickly learn to love those as well for a variety of reasons (such as being able to visit places that would otherwise be difficult/impossible to do on your own/with friends).  Having done a few organized trips now, I've realized that the most important thing is making sure that you travel with people who have the same "travel values" and are looking for the same type of experience when travelling.  The easiest way to ruin a trip is to have a group of people who all have different opinions on what everyone should be doing.

One thing that I had never done prior to last year though, was travel alone.  Sure I had "travelled alone" before.  My trips to China and India included me flying over from Toronto by myself and in China's case, even spending a day alone in Shanghai before meeting up with my group.  But in the grand scheme of things, I've never really considered that travelling alone.  And for such short periods of time that are mostly spent in transit, the excitement of starting your next adventure usually overshadows anything else.  I still remember travelling to China and spending my first night wide-eyed in Shanghai as I tried to take in everything that I was seeing.

That all changed at the end of 2014, when I finally spent some time travelling on my own.  This wasn't by choice of course.  I was travelling to Bali for work and had a few extra weeks of vacation that I decided to cash-in so that I could explore more of Asia (since I would already be there anyways).  My cousin is currently teaching in South Korea, so I quickly made plans to visit there and then based on my flights/itinerary, I added some extra time in the Gili Islands to relax and in Tokyo, to explore the city a bit before coming back home.  Once I had finalized my itinerary, I saw that I would be spending around 5 days in Indonesia, 2 in Seoul (before my cousin showed up) and 5 in Tokyo before flying back home.

These three solo parts of my trip were all sandwiched in between travelling with other people, so I would never be alone for more than 4-5 days at a time.  Still, I was interested to see what kind of an experience travelling alone would bring.  My biggest worry before leaving for my trip was trying to find a way to navigate myself through countries where English wasn't widely spoken, and by myself.  Getting lost is a lot tougher when you're on your own and you don't have anyone there with you, not to mention that it can seem quite scary and daunting to have to go into a place like Tokyo by yourself and figure everything out.

I've always been a pretty smart traveller though and deep down, I was confident enough that I'd be able to weather any storm that came my way when I was travelling alone.  What I knew I wouldn't be ready for would be the potential for loneliness on this trip.  Never before had I ever travelled alone and I didn't know what to expect in that regard.  My closest experiences were that of some of my close friends who had travelled alone and what I had gotten from a lot of them is that travelling alone can be a very lonely experience.  Even though I was only going to be alone for a relatively short period of time, I still didn't know how I would handle this new (and scary) experience.

My first stop (alone) was my time in the Gili Islands.  This was right after my time spent travelling for work in Bali and I had booked my time in the Gili Islands to rest and relax (and maybe get a tan too!).  I don't know if it was because I had just spent over a week with a group of people, because of the nature of the island or what I was doing there, but my time in the Gili Islands was done in no time.  I spent my four full days on the islands relaxing, going to the beach, eating delicious food and just enjoying my time in the sun.  I was able to do what I wanted, when I wanted.  I'd sleep in, go for a run and grab breakfast every morning.  Then I would just let the day take me and do whatever I felt like doing. Before I knew it, it was my last night and I had to pack for my flight to Seoul (preceded by a boat back to Bali), but not before I was able to climb to the top of the island and watch the sun setting like I’d never seen anywhere else in the world.

Enjoying the sunset on Gili Trawangan.  I was able to explore on my own, climb up the highest hill on the island and enjoy the sunset in a way most people aren't able to.

Enjoying the sunset on Gili Trawangan.  I was able to explore on my own, climb up the highest hill on the island and enjoy the sunset in a way most people aren't able to.

Seoul was a little bit different, as I did not have that much time there before joining up with my cousin.  By the time I had gotten to my hostel and settled in, I had about a day and a half alone before my cousin showed up.  Any fears that I may have had coming in to Seoul, were quickly alleviated the second I touched down. The city is designed for tourists to get in and out easily and with nearly every sign having a version in English, it was easy to get to the city centre and then explore as well. On top of that (and maybe even because of that), I came in to Seoul with such a high that it absolutely didn't matter that I was alone.  I was just excited to get out and explore the city as much as I could.  However, by the middle part of my second day, I was starting to get a little lonely.  I had spent most of the morning visiting Gyeongbokgung Palace, but while I had enjoyed going at my own pace and checking out what I wanted to see, I felt that it would have been nice to have someone there with me.  Of course my cousin came later that day and we had an amazing time visiting South Korea together over the rest of my time there.

In the middle of Gyeongbokgung Palace, you can find this lovely little pond.  I spent some time here on my first day sitting with no one but my thoughts.

In the middle of Gyeongbokgung Palace, you can find this lovely little pond.  I spent some time here on my first day sitting with no one but my thoughts.

Tokyo on the other hand, was where I fully experienced the feeling of loneliness that had been described to me prior to leaving Canada. Tokyo itself is another city that is easy enough to get around (English signs, descriptive maps, etc.) and while I had a bit more of a difficult time figuring out how to get around Tokyo than Seoul, it was still relatively easy overall.  But it was on my first full day in Tokyo that the loneliness really hit me hard.  I spent the day exploring the city and while I once again enjoyed being able to do what I wanted (and when I wanted), part of me felt as if I was just going through the motions.  By the end of the evening, I was happy just to get back to my hostel and relax for a couple of hours instead of doing anything else.

As I relaxed that evening, I thought about how I had three more days to go before flying back to Toronto and how lonely of an experience it was going to be.  I had come to Tokyo to explore an amazing city and experience something that I had never experienced before and while I had generally enjoyed my first day, I didn't want to spend the last part of my trip sad, lonely and just wishing that it was time to go home.

So when I woke up and left to go exploring the next morning, I made sure to start the day with as positive a mindset as possible.  Just as with the previous day, I had fun exploring the city, enjoying the food and experiencing a culture that I hadn't before.  But unlike my first day in Tokyo, where I started getting more and more lonely as the day went on, the opposite started happening.  I started embracing my "loneliness" and embracing the fact that I was travelling by myself.  If I wanted to go visit something, then that's exactly what I did.  Hungry?  Then I went to grab a bite to eat without having to plan it out with anyone else.  Is it time to go yet?  Nope.  If I wanted to stay somewhere a bit longer then that's exactly what I did.  In fact I ended my second day by visiting the Sky Tree and camping out at the top for hours as the sun set over the city.  There was nothing but me, my thoughts and my camera (well a few hundred people as well) and it felt absolutely great.

I snapped this picture of the Tokyo Tower from the top of the Mori Art Museum on my first full day in Tokyo.  The loneliness was starting to set in, but nothing could have taken away from this view.

I snapped this picture of the Tokyo Tower from the top of the Mori Art Museum on my first full day in Tokyo.  The loneliness was starting to set in, but nothing could have taken away from this view.

With that amazing second day in my back pocket, the rest of my trip in Tokyo was one to remember.  I was able to visit all of the places that I wanted to see and on my time as well.  I didn't have to wake up for anyone else, compromise and go visit something that I wasn't that interested in seeing or get into arguments about what the plan for the day was.  Everything was up to me and nobody else.  By the time it was time to board my plane to go back home, I felt the exact opposite of how I did that first night in Tokyo.  I didn't want to go home yet, I wanted to go out and explore the city more.  In fact the combination of exploring this amazing city and doing it on my own is an experience that I had never had before and one that is now one of my favourite travel experiences that I've ever had. 

Does that mean I'm going to exclusively travel alone now?  Of course not.  I will continue to travel on organized trips and with friends.  In fact my favourite form of travel is still travelling with a few people that have the same travel mindset as me.  When I was in South Korea with my cousin, a lot of the time it felt like I was travelling alone.  Because we are so similar, we always wanted to do the same things, try out different things and experience the country in a similar way.  So really it was like I was getting all of the benefits of travelling alone but I had one of my best friends there with me!

But now that I have travelled alone, I know that down the road I will probably travel alone again.  I'll almost definitely have trips like the one in Asia, where I travel with others for a period, but alone for a period as well.  But I can also see myself taking a trip by myself down the road and travelling alone the entire time.  As I've mentioned, travelling alone does have a lot of benefits.  From being able to plan your itinerary, to going at your own pace and doing only what you want to do at that moment, travelling alone is perfect for making sure your trip is what you want it to be.

The Sensō-ji Temple in Tokyo was right by my hostel.  I spent a lot of time exploring the market area nearby during the day, but came back here at night to reflect about my life and my future goals.

The Sensō-ji Temple in Tokyo was right by my hostel.  I spent a lot of time exploring the market area nearby during the day, but came back here at night to reflect about my life and my future goals.

But even more so than that, travelling on your own is an experience that cannot be copied.  I was only alone for a little while (compared to solo travellers who travel for months on end) but even in that short period of time, I changed quite a bit.  I’ve always been of the opinion that travel changes you no matter what, but travelling alone definitely expedites that process. You're forced to figure things out on your own, deal with any problems that arise on your own and count on yourself above counting on anyone else.

Travelling on my own also allowed me to spend a lot of time reflecting (when there's no one else to talk to, you start spending a lot of time thinking or even talking to yourself) about my life.  Oftentimes it wasn't even travel related.  But spending that time alone, reflecting, really allowed me to re-focus on my life, my goals, what I liked about myself and what needed improvement.  I was able to open my eyes to where I was at that point in my life and where I wanted to go from there.  Would I have figured all of that out if I hadn't travelled alone?  Maybe.  But what would have taken months (or maybe even years) of trial & error to figure out, I was able to figure out in just a short period of time on my trip.

So there we are.  This is probably my longest post to date (in fact I'm sure it is), but probably the one that is most dear to me at this moment in time.  Just as with travelling alone, I had certain reservations about writing so freely about my loneliness and how it affected me on my trip.  But being open about your thoughts and fears is no worse than being open about your passions and joys.  In fact I believe I may have come to that conclusion on my last night in Tokyo, where I went to the famous Shibuya crossing and spent a few hours just people watching and enjoying the happiness in my life. 

Thanks for everything Tokyo.


Stephan Popescu1 Comment