At the singing sand dunes in Qatar which is a 45mins drive from Doha.
Those who know me, know that I am not a ‘glass half-full’ kind of person. I have an annoyingly optimistic ‘filled to the brim’ attitude towards life. It’s not always possible to travel with family or friends -- due to their availability and interest -- this has never stopped me from venturing on my own, especially when combined with travel for work.
Likewise, my responsibilities as wife, mother or daughter to an aging mom, have never been justification for not creating opportunities to plan a solo break, over these past three decades.
I do not have a bucket list of places I want to visit nor a target number of countries to cover, as I would rather land up where I am meant to be. I am not part of the backpacker brigade; I’m not keen to pamper myself in luxury, neither do I feel the need to behave like a local. I am a week-long independent traveller and live it to the hilt, three to four times annually. I fly economy-class, stay at business or tourist hotels, eat at street-side cafes and generally walk, take the local transport or hop on a guided tour to get around.
Here are six tips based on my experiences in solo travelling:
1. Put the pleasure into the planning
During a work-related travel to the Philippines in the early 1990s, I discovered the joy of solo travel when I set off by myself, from Manila to Tarlac to see the effects of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption. Since then, I have combined my work travels with opportunities to explore different parts of the globe. In addition to exploring the final destination, figuring out the airline that will help me see places enroute, is part of the pleasure of planning. Hence flying to Stockholm via Doha on Qatar Airways; to locations in UK on Lufthansa with stopovers across Germany; to Guam on Air Nippon via Japan; to Mexico City on United Airlines with stopovers across USA and making the best of the various code-shares within Star Alliance or One World to go and return via different routes makes my customised itinerary a conversation starter in any setting. These ‘longer’ routes are often cheaper than direct flights.
The road-less travelled -rolling greens of North Lantau Island, Hong Kong.
2. Make the most of your time
Like longer routes, I also like taking the ‘red-eye’ flights. This way one gets a full day at both the departure and arrival locations. Spend the night on the plane, thus covering transportation and accommodation fees all in one!
Ear plugs, eye-mask, window seat, a do-not-disturb sticker on the headrest, handy bottle of water to keep hydrated is what it takes. Most importantly, set the watch to the time at the destination as soon as you get onboard, rather than when you land. This gives you the entire journey to re-calibrate your body clock. While it may be late night at your departure location, do internalise that it is morning at your destination. Hence hang in there – watch movies, read, clear pending work, have ‘lunch’ and keep yourself awake for 5 to 6 hours into the flight. Then sleep as long as you can.
One of my unforgettable ‘arrivals’ has been in Istanbul. I landed at 3.30AM local time, having got 7 hours of sleep on a nearly 12 hour-flight from Singapore on Turkish Airlines. After immigration and freshening up at the airport, I went to the information desk to ask for early morning sights to see. One option was I could just go to my hotel, put my luggage away and set out to explore the city. The desk staff who was ending duty however offered to take me to the ‘Little Hagia Sophia Mosque’ as he could go there for his dawn prayers too. Presented with that kind offer, I chose the 2nd option, of course!
As we drove to the mosque I had the most interesting conversation about local culture, the Taksim Gezi Park protests the previous year, off-the tourist map sights to see and more. I sat on a park bench in the mosque compound that cold November morning and heard the most spiritual Azaan (Islamic call to prayers) recited by the muezzin from the minaret.
A feeling of bliss overcame me, a state so rare in our everyday life. After his prayers, I was dropped off at my hotel and he refused to be compensated for his time or vehicle, until I insisted that he take it as a gift for his 3 little children.
How do I ‘judge’ a person when deciding my options? I don’t. I genuinely believe in the goodness of humankind and I have not yet been let down. The ancient Samskrit adage “Yatha Drishti, Tatha Srishti” – whatever is your view, that is the reality you attract, has held me in good stead on these matters.
The 400 years old Dodda Aalada Mara is a single Banyan tree which covers 3 acres (12,000 m2) and is one of the largest of its kind. It is located in the village of Kethohalli in the Bengaluru Urban district of Karnataka, India
3. Get an overview of the place
After I settle in my accommodation, I am usually off on the first available ‘guided walking tour’, many of which are free with a tip-based payment arrangement, and led by passionate, multi-lingual locals. These provide a good overview of the place, the local culture or lesser-known information like local festivals or certain taboos to be aware of. With online registration services now possible, I generally book these in advance. Over multiple trips to London (UK) I have walked the Westminster and Lisson Grove area for its art history and antiques; the residential area of Bloomsbury with its historic homes and the gossips about the ‘Bloomsbury Set’; Central London and it’s ‘magic circle’; East London to explore the urban street art scene, to mention just a few.
On one such walking-tour in Brussels, an Indonesian family with 2 teenage daughters approached me at the end of the tour and asked me if they could talk to me. The mother’s first question was: “Are you travelling alone?”. When I replied in the affirmative, she asked “Are you single?”. When I replied that I am married and mother of three, “Do you work?” was next. I told them I am an entrepreneur. The mother proclaimed to her daughters that I seem to be a confident (little) Asian woman to be travelling on my own (despite being so petite). Hence she was keen that I shared with her daughters some quick insights into being confident and self-sufficient. When they found out that I have travelled extensively in Indonesia, loved their country and can speak Bahasa, they insisted that I joined them for lunch and we spent a fabulous hour trading stories of courage, curiosity and overcoming insecurities.
Bellagio is a village on the highland that juts out into Lake Como, in Italy.
4. Enjoy your own company
If I don’t like my own company, how can I expect anyone else to, is my philosophy. Additionally, when traveling solo, do not worry about ‘what people may think’. Those around us are too busy with their own schedules to be judging us. Enjoy the alone-time and discover the joys and benefits of solitary pursuits. Travelling solo affords us this luxury.
Reading when travelling or having my air-pods plugged to my ears are not my solitary pursuits. I would rather take in the sights and sounds around me. I love people-watching, iPhone photography and talking to locals. Especially when eating alone, the locals will walk up and say hello more spontaneously when you are not reading or busy on your gadgets, be they service staff at a restaurant or the owner of the street-side cafe. They are the best local intel you can gather on things to do around there, how to pronounce the names of their places or their dishes accurately and much more.
At one such discussion with a local café owner in Beijing, I was told about the Mutianyu Great Wall, which is 73 km (45 miles) north of central Beijing. Using Baidu’s (China's Google equivalent) voice translation app, he also gave me a detailed local bus route complete with written instruction in Mandarin that I could show the bus drivers. When I got there, I had the 1,400 years old well-preserved wall practically all to myself! Unlike the overcrowded ‘touristy’ segment of the Great Wall closer to Beijing. It was a hike that took me back in time and a solitude that cannot be described in words.
While the subjects of my photographs are the sights of the places I visit, I do take a few with me in it so that I can share it with my family and friends. For this I always walk up to random people and ask them if they will help take a picture of me with my phone. If I can spot a fellow Asian, especially from East Asia (Japan, Korea, China) they are my go-to photographers, because they will ensure the best light, angle and timing – leaning back, bending down and whatever it takes to ensure they give you a perfect composition.
The wall that is actually a bridge! The Mutianyu Great Wall, China
5. Respect local sensibilities
This conduct is all the more important when travelling solo. Being respectful of both the laws and customs of the country is basic common sense. Hence it helps to recognize our own prejudices and biases and to stop ourselves when we are tempted to judge a culture or convenience through the lens of our own.
The easiest way to know what is locally acceptable is to observe. If bare arms, shoulders or legs are not the norm, then don’t wear such attire. I advise my children and it is relevant while travelling too, “the way one dresses is a reflection of respect for our host or guest”. I believe I can do a lot more for gender equality by being confident yet respectful than being incompatible and uncongenial with the locals. Be authentic and humble because like us, others can tell when we are not either or both of these.
Find the good in others, this helps us stay on the right side of safety too. Like the time I hiked alone from the Qutub Minar to see the lesser-known 11th century step-wells within the Mehrauli Archaeological Park in Delhi, India. It was getting dark and as it is off the beaten-track it is a deserted place. A guard on duty arrived and asked me to leave. He said there is no ‘closing hours’ at the ruins as such, however it’s my safety that is of concern. I smiled and told him in Hindi, “you are watching over me now, so why should I worry?” He seemed surprised but smiled back and said “OK I will keep a watch over you. Go ahead, but don’t take too long”. Those additional moments at the Rajon ki Baolli at twilight were mesmerising. I time-travelled back to the present as I walked the long, overgrown semi-jungle path that led on to the street, with the guard following me the entire time on his bicycle.
6. Trust yourself – if it feels right, just do it.
Be mindful of your surroundings, both to absorb to the fullest what the place and its people have to offer and enough to ensure your safety. Keep an open mind, do not let constant sensory vigilance while traveling alone wear you down. I have found that generally people anywhere on the globe want to help, rather than harm.
It was late morning by the time I was done with my meetings in Johannesburg, South Africa. I rushed over to the concierge of my hotel to ask how best I could spend the rest of the day. I was informed that all ‘guided tours’ have departed and venturing out on my own was not advisable. While I thumbed through the National Park brochures, I was tapped on the shoulder by a lady who introduced herself as an ex-field ranger at the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. She now was into real-estate and she too had just finished a business meeting at that hotel and had overheard my conversation. She had the rest of the day-off and would love to go meet her ex-colleagues and I could go along with her. Having provided the hotel her details and my plans, I set off on one of the most awe-inspiring safaris. Right at the gate she was welcomed with much warmth by the Reserve staff and was allowed to take the trails not open to the tourists. She taught me how to train my eyes -- to look carefully at what seemed like barren landscape till a whole pride of lions became visible as if by magic. To steady my camera and keep it rolling while a Rhino came charging towards our vehicle. We spent the entire journey to and from the reserve sharing her experiences in the wild and my travel stories.
I have been to Budapest a few times and it just felt unfair that I had not made time to crawl through the claustrophobia-inducing passages of the Pál-völgyi Barlang. The caves are noted for both its spectacular stalactites and rock formations. I decided to do so in one of the coldest recorded February in 2018. While the temperature was -6°C in Budapest, the temperature in the cave was a constant 11°C. Despite the advice of some due to the weather, it just felt that nature had conspired to have me there, so I could experience the exceptional 5 hours of cave-crawling beneath the Buda Hills.
No gloves! Just me and mother nature, before my cave-crawling expedition.
Buda Hills, Hungary.
There are occasions when I do follow every safety, weather and health recommendations, because it felt like the right thing to do. Hence to travel from Queretaro, Mexico after my speaking assignment to Teotihuacan, I decided to take a taxi with an armed bodyguard, just because there had been a spate of kidnapping cases when I was there. I could enjoy the monumental pyramids, hike to its top and feel the energy emanating there, without a worry for my safety.
We will all look back at 2020 as the year when global travel came to a standstill. However solo travel lessons continue to be relevant even at such times.
Like we shouldn’t do for Covid19, don’t attach travel tribulations to any ethnicity or nationality and be empathetic to the people we meet in our travels. Constant focus on the outbreak or travel disasters can cause us to stress more than we should. Find opportunities to amplify the voices, positive stories and images of locals and their beautiful places just like focusing on Covid19 survivors to help us live through this pandemic.
Honour the ones who work in the front-line, be they healthcare workers or airport personnel, drivers, guides, service staff, local vendors in your travel destinations. Avoid using unhelpful coping strategies such as tobacco, alcohol or other drugs to face both the pandemic and your solo travel insecurities. Even in situations of isolation or lockdown, let us stay connected to our family and friends just like when travelling solo.
“The time will never be just right. Start from where you stand” ~ Napoleon Hill
Wishing you curiosity, courage and wellbeing. I would love to hear your travel insights.
My iPhone photography: https://www.instagram.com/usha.menon1/