Never doubt the power of the self-timer

Roadtripping alone through a new country, squinting at street signs typed in a foreign alphabet, shifting gears up narrow hills in a rented two-door. Google maps fading in and out, the buzz of the radio reduced to static, no co-pilot to double check the route. Sound like a nightmare? Welcome to my happy place.

Traveling solo can be all the things you imagine: confusing, dangerous, risky. But it’s a challenge that I’ve come to prioritize in my life.

One pair of footsteps starting into the unknown is a soundtrack rich with lessons & learnings. Tackling solitude in a new place may sound intimidating, but it’s a practice worth leaning into. Here’s why.

1. When Yours is the Only Voice, You’re Forced to Actually Listen.

The right company can influence us to try all sorts of new things, but it can also block us from tuning in to an internal dialogue. That inner voice can be considered our intuition. When it’s loud and clear, it may be full of insights, like the answers to these questions: What do I actually want from this experience? Why did I come here? Would I be doing this if it was just me?

Maybe the itineraries you read online urged a visit to ruins on top of a mountain. But when you got to the base, what you really needed was to curl up under an olive tree, to laze the afternoon away sketching the elegant leaves and the matte blue fruits. If you start climbing the mountain and each rocky step fills you with life, your choice is affirmed. If you start climbing and feel the experience is more of a nag than a pleasure, you might discover something else to better serve you in this moment. That’s your choice, and yours alone.

I had to think twice while deciding if I would jump into the early spring’s chilly Mediterranean. There was no one to encourage me in my plunge into the frigid waves. There was no one to ‘gram the brave moment, to share the feat with the world beyond the low bluffs surrounding the quiet bay. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? I felt the singe of the salt in my blistered heels and drifted in, cognizant that it was a moment just for me.

2. Go With the Flow, Positive or Negative.

I noticed something on this last trip. I realized that if I wasn’t vocally relaying the constantly-evolving highs and lows of traveling, it was easier to process my experience and go with the flow.

When things are disappointing or even just ordinary on the road, they can create a sourness that stains the experience. When something goes wrong, it fuels the tendency to dwell. Everyone has that quintessential bad travel story: food poisoning in Thailand, a hail storm in Arizona, or losing your keys at a music festival. When the dust settles, you have a good story to tell. While the dust is a-flutter, however, it’s a mash of panic, desperation, and sometimes hostility… and your travel companions are along for the bitter ride.

But when you don’t have someone to commiserate with, the discomfort of a not-so-positive experience seems to fade as quickly as it came on. Panic feeds off panic, and when you’re just one, you learn to deal with whatever’s happening head on. The flow of the journey remains under control. There’s not a whole lot of room for irrational emotion.

Surprisingly, I also felt relief in keeping the positive reflections of my trip within. Peering into the hills of the majestic Greek region of Mani, I was humbled by crumbling medieval castles dotting the wild-flower dotted hills, the deep blue of the sea fading into the cloudline beyond. But I didn’t have the opportunity to exclaim how amazing it was. Once, twice, or ten times. I used my eyes and my camera to express the grandness of the landscape. I decided to sit with my reflection and channel energy into writing later, in penning a postcard and social post to encapsulate the experience with poignancy and intention. I was free of the warp of the positive-reinforcement echo chamber.

By internalizing your observation rather than lingering on it, you help free yourself of expectation to be more present. And you’ll find there’s no need to cling to the negative. You simply take note, and move on.

3. Let the Experience be The Therapy You Needed.

Foreign landscapes always have a way of unearthing deep-seated emotions and stirring up all of the feels. Why else do so many people treasure their memories of childhood travel, why so many people propose while on the road, why so many people simply journey in general?

While you’d see no record of it on my Instagram, I spent a whole day of my solo time in Greece crying. And I’m not half-sad about it now. I wasn’t crying because I was alone in an unfamiliar place (although that would have been warranted). I cried because I had the freedom to express myself. I gave in to the feelings I’d be repressing with familiarity, routine and, yes, the confident self I maintain around the company I keep.

We all carry grief and sorrow and regret — the feelings that we hide behind our eyes where the stars gather. And those of us who compartmentalize that grief rarely have the time and space to unpack those feelings. But grief and regret and sorrow deserve to see new places, too. They need perspective, far from their familiar hiding place.

While I was on my solo trip in Greece, I unpacked my backpack and let my hurt out, too, because I had carved out the space for it to arrive. If you feel safe enough with someone- a partner, a friend, a parent- to share your darkness, I applaud you, but I’ve found that hurt comes out stronger and it breathes deeper when you’re alone with it.

Why can a beautiful vista bring tears to your eyes? Does an oceanic vista make you realize how far from home you are, and how big the world really is? Does the vastness make you feel even more alone… until you remember that you were born alone and you die alone and then you cry even harder? Does the view help you appreciate yourself, your journey, and the hard work you put into getting yourself to this magical place? Does it force you to bring to mind those whom you wish were alive to see this stunning view with you?

As I tossed my bouquet of wildflowers from the southern point of the European continent, I felt all of it — and then some.

Here’s to traveling solo in 8 countries and the lessons learned along the way. I hope my words have encouraged you to let solo travel be a teacher to you as it has to me.

Writer, designer, traveler. www.mariagotay.com

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