Loneliness: It is the thing that most travellers don’t want to talk about, and for sure that nobody back home wants to hear about (whilst they’re sitting at their desk green with envy at the picture you just posted on Facebook.)
First, lets start with a throwback.
A few years ago I was working in Austria for the winter, and apart from the couple I was working for and his guests I was completely alone in a (albeit gorgeous) villa up in the mountains of Schruns. I had dinner with them every night, and spent the days working in the house or hanging out with them on the slopes. But, despite this company I felt more alone than I ever have.
On my blog at the time, I wrote this piece, and I wanted to share it today as it is quite eye opening as to how I felt at the time… (grab the tissues).
‘Well this is a learning curve. It is cold, snowy, and just beautiful. Yet inside, I feel so cold. Christmas is just a few weeks away and yet the blinking lights and mulled wine only resonate with those who go to bed wrapped in warm arms. This is my first ever time in the mountains, and I still feel shell-shocked, like looking at a beautiful painting it does not sink in any further. I am awaiting the feeling of snowy, wakeful bliss, but so far I could be anywhere, and anywhere would mean more. The only thing that makes me want to stay is the hope of the fire lighting inside me from this tiny spark of a chance at having an amazing winter. Right now I have become numb like I have been left outside in the cold all night.
I look forward to the mornings, that silence of being alone in my awakeness, swimming in the warm pool to the view of those beautiful mountains and the falling snowflakes. And breakfast, when I can feel normal in a routine that I have ironically always ran away from with fear. I am beginning to learn that in life routine is something that we not only crave, but we need as much as we need air. It is necessary to free minds and content souls, regardless of the path you follow or the life you lead.
For now, I will stick out the cold, and remember that those mountains may just become my only friends here. For when there is no one to hear your words the mountains remain, there to echo back your every thought.’
Heavy stuff – right?
I didn’t have a huge following on my blog back then – so I know it was written more as a journal, however it was still there in cyberspace, floating around like an little unanswered cry for help. Many travellers may say that loneliness is not something they are afraid of, and in fact that they might like being alone. But the truth is, regardless of your confidence or sense of adventure, there will be times when you feel the inward tugging of loneliness – it’s only human nature, after all.
I first began travelling at 18 and was thrust in to a large family of similar-aged teens who embarked on the journey with me.
There was no time for feeling lonely.
Surprisingly, back in the days when backpacking was new and shiny to me, I didn’t ever contemplate such things – when you are young you don’t. I know I missed my dog like crazy – but she was the only one who really got any blue emotions out of me – I was too busy getting my first tattoo, bleaching my hair, and discovering the taste of tequila!
The time I felt loneliness for the first time was when I moved to LA in 2011.
I had been several times for holidays to visit a friend (who I had met travelling) and I had so much fun living her life and accompanying her to her work (she worked on a hit TV show) that I just wanted to stay in that bubble forever. So I quit my job, packed my stuff, and headed on over with a one way ticket. But this time I lived alone in a single-room apartment, and she was now really busy working, and I knew no-one. Looking back now, I know I could of been so much more profitable with my time, but then I was a lot younger and not as outgoing as I am now. Instead I turned to shopping and spent all my savings on that and yoga. And then I came home. Of course it was an amazing experience, I did a lot of cool stuff – I am speaking now just about the loneliness side of it, but what I had discovered was very important:
Lesson number one: a holiday is very different to a lifestyle.
Travelling, as a way of life, equally, is very different to jetting off for a month-long vacation. Also, it is hard! – It is hard to make your own way in the world. Suddenly I didn’t have my friend’s life to latch on to, or my family, or travel buddies. This was it – I had my first real splash in the ocean. It was different from the backpacking trips I had done before. It was a commitment to a new life.
After being at home for a few months I had itchy feet again, and I knew that coming home with my tail between my legs (and a suitcase full of new clothes) was not the end of my world exploration. So I kissed my dog (and family) goodbye, again, and moved to Mallorca to work on yachts.
Now came along lesson number two.
I had moved across with an ex-boyfriend. It was his dream initially, but it quickly became mine too. But what it wasn’t was a combined dream. He got a job on a boat, and then I did on a different boat, and alas we went out separate ways for the summer (and actually forever) but this meant that I had suddenly, without thinking it through, landed myself in exactly the same situation as before.
Except for this time I was on a 45 metre sailing yacht with a cabin the size of an aeroplane toilet (that’s ‘airplane’ for you Americans).
The difference was that now I had a purpose – I had a job, and a crew to spend my time with. But I hadn’t found my happiness. In fact over the course of the next two years I had an amazing love affair with yachting. I loved it – the places, the people, the excitement, the money, the glamour, the lifestyle. But what I didn’t love was that inside, somewhere deep within, was a feeling much akin to the loneliness I felt in Austria that month in the middle of my yachting years, where I felt lonely. It’s hard to imagine loneliness when you are surrounded by people – and lots of them are still very good friends – but the feeling was there. I think it was more that I lacked a fulfillment – I knew I still hadn’t found what I was searching for (I very nearly quoted U2 then).
Loneliness can come in many forms, you see
And many people mistake missing someone as loneliness.
Loneliness is something that is very real among travellers, yet no one ever wants to talk about it. Why? because in admitting you are lonely means admitting you are maybe not outgoing enough, or that you aren’t having enough fun, or maybe just maybe, that you feel as though you are in the wrong place at the right time.
The next misconception about loneliness among travellers is that you can’t feel lonely when you are surrounded by people. And this, my friends, is the best use of smoke and mirrors yet. Loneliness is inside, and yes people and drinks and laughter can soothe it, but if you feel this sadness inside, it is something that you have to address yourself. Sure, have fun, this helps, but it is not a long term fix.
It is inevitable that we feel lonely at times.
It is part of being a human and having emotions. But it is important not to confuse homesickness or a night in a crap hostel to actual long-term loneliness. If you are travelling solo and you just can’t snap out of it then something inside you needs to change. Usually it is that you are running from some unfinished business that you need to deal with, and therefore you cannot fully commit to having this time on your own. Or, maybe you are searching for something that you can’t find. Sometimes packing a bag and running off to the airport to go on a trip feels like the answer. But, you have to make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. It sounds like I am speaking against travelling now – that’s not true, you will ALWAYS benefit from travel in some way. I am the biggest advocate for that. However it is important to make sure you are doing it for the right reasons, and that you are fully committed emotionally to what lies ahead.
As much as loneliness in some form is inevitable it is how you learn and grow from it that is the difference. I did learn from every one of my experiences, and have zero regrets when it comes to the trips I have taken and the twists and turns my life has had. But I have learnt that solo travel is not always easy, and unless you are truly doing it for YOU with no hidden agenda, loneliness will creep in.
And that, was my lesson number three – you can grab your passport, wave goodbye as you walk off into the sunset and fly away. But unlike movie endings, you are there on the other side. Just you.
And the rest of the adventure is down to you.
After leaving the last boat I ever worked on in Panama I was so ready for alone time. I just needed to be alone, re-set, have no distraction and see how I felt from then.
I didn’t feel an ounce of loneliness.
I felt liberated, happy, empowered. And this, my friends, is how solo travel should feel! I made friends straight away, but didn’t cling to them as an aid for a emptiness inside. Instead I did my own thing, and then caught up with them along the way when I felt like a glass of wine and a chat (I drank wine on my own too – but I didn’t talk to myself – that would be a step too far).
On this trip I met my now other half, completely by accident and without effort. We crossed paths, and ironically as much as I was happy being alone for once, I now had a travel buddy for life.
I actually, without meaning to, made friends with everyone! And looking back it was because I was there for me and me only. I felt fulfilled, and that is when solo travel is something to embrace – and guess what?
It embraces you right back.
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