Image description: a picture of Bath, taken by Sonia on her travels
Early on, I mistook my teenage self for an extrovert. I loved socializing and cracking jokes, and a good date felt like some sort of magic. I wasn’t necessarily bursting with confidence, but I had come to assume that being introverted meant being shy, or worse: meek. It was a negative trait, reserved for those who sequestered themselves in self-reflection and only thought of the fated return to their dirty plate-littered bedroom. I, on the other hand, had always enjoyed bringing people into my space. Hosting friends meant I could set the atmosphere and craft the menu. At the end of the night, I’d simply put everything back together and re-enter my space anew and alone, able to wake up to the comfort of my own independent thoughts. Most of this sentiment I hold on to. Yet, I now realize that I am equally content with both the welcome solitude of the morning and the event itself.
I began solo travelling after a fairly amicable breakup in an attempt to be physically and emotionally kind to myself. I had some money saved from waitressing, and I bartered with an Airbnb host for a 2-night stay in a beach town at the cold start of spring. It wasn’t so much “travel” as a one-hour drive to a house much too large for a lone 19-year-old girl. Yet, it meant I could do little things like grocery shop and cook for myself or write about how I was feeling wrapped in a blanket on the beach. When I attempted to go kayaking and my fingers quickly went numb, no one told me to keep going, so I turned back and watched a movie over a cup of tea instead. My final night there, I drank wine until I couldn’t read anymore and fell asleep weary of the ghostly creeks in the floorboards of the old house. No one reconciled my childish fears. Instead, they kept me from any sense of loneliness as I drifted off to thoughts of the monsters under the bed.
I am equally content with both the welcome solitude of the morning and the event itself
Solo travel has continued to be a valuable means of unapologetically escaping into my own introversion. As an international student in Oxford, I even plan on spending at least a month of this summer travelling on my own through Europe, relying on cheap rooms and bread and cheese to keep costs low. However, my anticipation of this experience remains clouded by the inevitable concerns of family and friends. The ideal of solitude I attempt to construct on these trips is put at risk by the unfortunate fact that I am a woman, and therefore, perpetually in danger.
I obviously don’t mean this in a literal sense. I am neither helpless nor weak, and one is never truly far from assistance in a world bent on safety. Yet, the fact of the matter is that the very image of a solo female traveler is that of vulnerability. One sees a woman alone at the bar as if she is almost asking for someone to saunter up and talk to her. The woman reading alone in the park is assumed to be melancholy and lonely, or better yet, single. I have been told not to traverse the streets alone at night for as long as I can remember, and it comes as no surprise that my direct rebellion against this advice is not received wholeheartedly by most. My sentiment is sound, but the fact of the matter is that the world can be a dangerous place, particularly as a lone young woman. It is a fact that I simultaneously resent and have come to accept.
I am fortunate enough to have been reasonably safe on my solo journeys so far (touch wood), apart from the normal influx of catcalls and overly friendly encounters. Still, reconciling the fears of myself and others while continuing to travel as I love to is no easy journey. The new monster under the bed, surprisingly enough, is not the prospect of loneliness, but my very gendered presence in the face of an unfamiliar world.
I do feel increasingly comfortable maintaining a sort of dialogue with myself
Still, the purpose of this article is not to sway you from attempting solo travel – whatever your gender. In fact, managing such warnings or suggestions such as “why don’t you find a guy to bring along” has been the only downside to my experience. Sure, loneliness will inevitably catch up to you. About two weeks ago, I took the train to Bath and found myself in an empty 10-person hostel room despondently watching Psycho. However, I think it is an invaluable skill to learn to reconcile with one’s own sense of social detachment. We spend every second of our lives with ourselves. At some point, we must find comfort within this state.
On the same night of my Hitchcock whim, I decided to go for a walk out of pure boredom. It was 10 o’ clock at night on a Sunday, so I made sure to keep my phone in hand and a friend in Oxford at the ready in case of the worst – but nothing happened. I walked across Pulteney Bridge and listened to the waterfall for a bit as passing couples looked at me with varied degrees of confusion. This is a feeling I’ve grown used to. Somehow, it is no longer normal to stroll detached from the arm of another.
I do not necessarily feel safer this way, but I do feel increasingly comfortable maintaining a sort of dialogue with myself and the novels that come along for the ride. Alone, I am able to engage deeper with my own motivations and passions, drifting towards whatever compels me and getting lost along the way. Part of this experience is expectedly terrifying. Another part allows you to make friends with the monsters under your bed as you wander alongside them.
Image credit: Sonia Richter