One of the big questions I’m asked about solo travel is ‘Don’t you get lonely?’ and the short answer is nope. I can’t speak for everyone. Maybe the globe is riddled with lonely backpackers, but for me, it’s totally different. I love travelling on my own. The freedom of being able to live like a selfish asshole and spend six hours in a mall or two minutes in a free yoga class before going ‘fuck this shit, I’m off to get my nails done’ is completely intoxicating.
Back home, when I take on a particularly ambitious work project, I can get sucked into shitty cycle of uppers and downers just to get through my day which usually results in burn out. Or hysterically DMing twitter doctors at 2AM going ‘Ok so I’ve taken X, X and X and then threw in a dash of X. AM I GOING TO DIE?’ (Shout out to the eternally patient Dr. Alastair McAlpine!) You’d think I’d listen to people when they offer wise advice on moderation but I don’t. I’m a serial take-on-too-mucher (only because I choose it – more on that later) and often struggle to balance the time I spend working VS seeing the people I love. I also sikkel for ‘me time’. Time when I get to lock myself away and not interact with anyone, both digitally and in real life. But I need a lot of that because when I’m ‘on’ it’s 100%, so I also need a decent amount of ‘hermitising’ which helps me recharge my battery.
So, in short, I find being away for a bit fabulously free-ing. But this doesn’t mean I don’t want to make friends. Fortunately, when it’s time to play, I find it very easy to flick on my ‘social switch’ so I connect fast. It also helps to have good strategy (yep, really!) and – possibly the best advice I can give – creating a certain doggy-mindset, but more on that in a bit.
Let’s start with strat!
If you want to make travel buddies, realise that you won’t make any by watching Netflix in your hotel room. Put yourself where the people are. I could’ve easily painted my nails in my teensy little capsule room in Bangkok but I did so in the common room of my hostel and it soon became a pamper party. Don’t go to the quiet coffee shop. Go to the busy one. Chat to the people around you. Ask them ‘What’s good here?’ If you find yourself a talker keep things going with ‘So, have you done anything awesome yet?’ Advice swapping is serious currency for anyone travelling solo.
Another way to connect is to via taking a class or a tour. I’ve met some of the raddest people via happily signing up solo for snorkelling excursions, island tours and eco-treks. Again, be strategic. The loved up couple probably doesn’t make friends but the Brazilian girl with the glittery unicorn cell phone cover (‘Cool cover! Where did you get that?!’) just might.
Appreciate ‘single serving’ friendships
You saw Fight Club, right? Ed Norton’s character flies a lot. When he meets peeps on the plane that he enjoys he considers them a ‘single-serving friend’. Someone you meet once, be it for a twenty minutes or twenty-four hours, love to bits and then never see again. As a solo traveller you’ll get a lot of that and its fabulous. Every day, my ‘social hours’ involve a myriad of lekker micro-social interactions and, for me, they’re pretty awesome.
If you can skip through your day being made happy by a whole bunch of little things, it’s a real blessing because you’ll forever have a reason to be pleased – as opposed to those that are only impressed by ‘big’ things. That’s a horrible life. A life spent in waiting.
Lastly, and most importantly, be the labrador!
I grew up in l’l ole Port Elizabeth, ‘the friendly city’ where everyone knows everyone, possibly a little too well. (My friends and I used to have a saying about the local hotties when we lived there: ‘He’s never your boyfriend. It’s only just your turn’.) Thanks to my hometown’s ‘get along gang’-type of culture, myself and most of my childhood friends, are natural ‘labradors’. We will probably like you the moment we meet you. We will slobber all over you with our niceness. Yes, we totally want to go out for walkies. If you turn out to be a dick we will run away fast. But you will get the benefit of the doubt.
Colder, emotionally retarded folks mistake our friendliness for a sign of naiveté or fakeness and men who aren’t used to chatty women will confuse the social attention we happily mete out to anyone, hot or not, with flirting. Still, any cons associated with being a labrador-type person are minimal in comparison to the pros. These include doing well in the workplace (in my experience, people hire those they like over those who have the skills), ending up with a big ass contact book and just being a happier person in general. Emotionally, I find it much healthier to rather wear my heart on my sleeve and experience things fully, occasionally getting it crushed to bits than walking around with ‘walls’ that might ‘protect’ it, but also make it hard to fill.
Being a labrador abroad means making the first move in terms of friendliness. I.e. Greeting people cheerfully and initiating random convos wherever you go. People generally respond really well. Especially in Chiang Mai where pretty much everyone is a backpacker. And when they don’t? FUCK THAT PERSON! You’re a labrador! You’ve got love to give. And if they don’t want it, they can suck your overtly-friendly dick!
As a labrador, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Screw that French guy, the one who gave you that ‘why are talking to me?’ look at the buffet when you asked him if the hummus was super garlicky. Fuck him and his stupid mermaid tattoo! Miserable people can’t diminish the glow of your cheery labrador candle. You’re in charge of whether that goes out or not. For every anti-social asshole in the world there is a whole party van full of people waiting for your friendly fabulosity.
I’m aware that I’m a pretty opinionated person that people luuuurve to talk about. I know that I am polarising. You can love me or you can hate me. Merrily, if you’re the latter, I couldn’t give a shit. This is the way of the labrador. You don’t play to your haters.
On that topic…
Now that you’re living la vida labrador, I want you to promise me that you’ll never spend any of your lovely energy on anyone who isn’t going to pat you on the head or give you a doggy treat in exchange for all that free love you’ve got to give. Being someone who’s generally liked is a wonderful thing but don’t ever become someone who needs to be liked by everyone. The only people who matter to me are those I love and who love me back. I do not let the opinions of those who don’t matter be of any kind of importance, let alone a measure to my self-worth and you should do the same.
I see a lot of younger people struggling with this and I do get it. Growing up, I used to be a people pleaser and if someone I had to interact with didn’t like me, for whatever reason, it used to kiiiiilll me. I also used to despise being misunderstood. As a (sort of) adult, my experience is very different. I now realise you can’t control other people or how they perceive you. Only your reaction to it. So why give a shit? Seriously. Think about it. You’re 75, sitting on the porch and can barely remember the names of anyone who was a dick to you. But you spent 100 hours having feelings about it back in the day. How did that change anything now that you’re old and grey? So just stop. Mentally snip out the negative shit. You don’t need it. Rather use that time to learn how to trade Bitcoin or something, okay?
It’s a choice
Right! Having said all that, I hope you’ll consider embracing the labrador side of life. It truly is a choice. Don’t come to me with kak about how you’re a total introvert or might struggle because you’re not a natural lab. If this is truly the case, then yes, you might find in–your-face friendliness a challenge. But I can tell you this. You are only what you say you are. If you walk through life telling yourself you’re a rubbish cook you’ll probably remain one. Why do you have to be the ‘quiet one’ forever just because you were the quiet one back in the day? So much of what we are is what we’ve decided to be. (Really! Think about it for a while tonight before you go to bed!) The great thing about solo travel is that you’re suddenly free of any ‘expectations’ of your old self and you get time out to figure out if you’re still the person you decided you were at 20 VS who you really are now. Maybe you are. Maybe you’re not. Either way, it’s always up to you.
Grow a pair!
A lot of what we do is controlled by fear. Are you really an introvert? Or are you just afraid that if you attempt to strike up a convo with a stranger they might reject you? If it’s the latter, I’d like you to think about the very worst case scenario and marinate in it for a bit. As an example, let’s say you see a solo dude tapping on his phone at the pool. Imagine that you plonk yourself into a chair within convo-shot, say ‘Hey, hey! Where are you from?’ and he looks up at you with dead, black demon eyes and goes ‘HOW DARE YOU TALK TO ME?! GET AWAY FROM RIGHT NOW, YOU HORRIBLE, HORRIBLE HUMAN!’ This would not be cool. You would feel embarrassed and dof and maybe want to curl up into a little ball and roll away. But is that really sooo bad? Surely you’ve lived long enough to garner worse experiences? Is the potential brutal rejection of a stranger (who’s clearly an asshole… or possibly a child of Satan) really a strong enough deterrent to stop you from placing a bet on an interaction that might end up being awesome?
Don’t be passive
You can totally sit around waiting for a labrador to come on over and give you an in-road to a potential friendship, be it a ‘single serving’ or a ride-or-die BFF. There are lots of extroverted, friendly folk in the world, so if you’re travelling solo, chances are it will happen. But know that your odds of making friends will increase dramatically if you’re the labrador. So be the motherfucking labrador!
Still feeling shy? Fine. Fair enough. But at least promise me this. If you’re travelling solo and feeling lonely, take ONE DAY to at least pretend to be a labrador. Totally fake it. Imagine all the worst case scenarios. Brace yourself for them. Prepare for a hellish day full of awful, hideous rejection. Accept that it will be terrible. THE WORST! And then dive right in. Wander the town striking up convos wherever you go. Look up and tell the girl sitting alone in the restaurant that you’re ordering three dishes but can’t finish it. Tell her she’s welcome to join you. Go up to the lost-looking dude and tell him about Grab, the competitor to Uber. Offer him your promo code. Open google maps and see if you can help him on his way. Do this for an entire day. I can almost guarantee you that one of your interactions, at least one, will be a good one. Decent, right? (You got a few bad ones? Fuck those people! Shake that shit off like Taylor Swift.) Now let’s do the same thing tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that. Practise makes perfect. Oooh, look at you. You’re becoming a natural. Oh my God! Are you… a labrador? Yes, you are! Good boy! GOOD BOY!
The world is a big, beautiful place. There’s so much to explore and see. There are so many wonderful, special people in it who deserve your love and attention. Find them. Dig them out. Gift the right ones with a piece of your open heart and relish a rich and rewarding life.
Are you ready? Off you go! You’ve totally got this!