GOING SOLO – Solitary and Safe

Not rushing is the key to avoiding trouble on the road

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“I could never ever travel by myself. I’d be worried something would happen and I’d be alone. Aren’t you scared?”

I get this all the time when people find out I travel the world on my own. It’s as if they imagine I am truly alone, out in the middle of the ocean by myself instead of folded into a social fabric with plenty of resources.

In general, I trust the social fabric to hold people in common circumstances to common self-interest in safely. Which is why sharing a backpacker hostel room with six other people, male and female, from around the world, or taking a night train sleeper with strangers, I feel perfectly safe. It doesn’t mean I leave my bag unattended or tempt the sticky fingers of opportunism. But I have that habit of listening to my intuition, of planning time for hiccups, and am able to wander of the world pretty confidently. 

The Atlantis hostel in Picton, New Zealand has a 60 hippie vibe and is a warm, friendly place to stay right by the ferry to Wellington.

It’s not that I don’t believe there are bad people or terrible situations you can blunder into, but if you’re paying a little bit of attention to what’s going on around you, you can go anywhere. I think that statement of fear is really the uncertainty of not being sure how to judge what’s okay and what’s dangerous. My big rule for that is to slow down. Build in time so that you can just stop and figure out what’s going on. Have a coffee, or if you’re really stressed, a treat. Ego depletion, a fancy term for having used up all your reserves of adult control, can be replenished with bite of something sweet.

The French make elaborate sundaes that are a treat for the eyes as well as the mouth.

Anxiety you’re going to miss a train, say, means a lot of your attention is elsewhere and you’re not paying as much attention to your surroundings. You’re confused about where to go and someone crowds into the turnstile behind you, and you’re feeling ashamed because you think you’re delaying other people who just need to get to work. So you override your instinct – because it’s another country right? – and before you know it, your bag is gone with your passport in it. Having time means stepping out of the flow and figuring out if this is the right entrance for the right train for the direction you need to go. You can ask someone. Ask several people until you’re sure. Because you have time. 

The saddest sight in the world is the empty track after your train has gone

It is not my nature to arrive early. All my life I’ve been the kind of gal to shave time close and enjoyed the thrill of just squeaking on board before the doors shut. That works fine at home, where I have broad knowledge of alternatives and a network of friends to cover if you mess up. Missed my train to NY on my way to the port and a cruise ship departure? Take the Megabus. Get my sister to drive me to the pickup. Done.

Abroad, I don’t have that option. So I leave time for the mistakes I almost always make. I speak most of the languages in Europe passably well, and still, nothing makes me want to panic like a four-year-old lost in the Costco when I can’t find my train and realize I’ve gone to the wrong station. I want to stand and wail and wait for the nice lady to come give me a cookie while she calls my parents over the loudspeaker. Instead, I remind myself I have time. I give myself a pat on the back and proceed calmly. 

Missing a connection to NY from DC can be solved with an intercity ride on Megabus that takes you right downtown in about the same amount of time.

And really, you are far safer as a tourist in a foreign country than in your own bathroom. It’s just that humans are not built to fret about the everyday risks of living. We have to tuck those fears into a dark corner of our minds just so we can get through our days. But it doesn’t hurt to remind yourself of this. To repeat it when you start to stress.

A post-earthquake tsunami warning had residents and tourists spending the night on the hill by the hospital after the Kaikoura earthquake.

So yes, I was alone in my car after a 7.8 earthquake on a hilltop in New Zealand because a possible tsunami was predicted. And I was pretty darn safe. Safer than I was at home. And yes, I wandered the Medina of Tangiers by myself, the only woman alone, or rather the only woman I could see in the whole market place. And I was safe. It just doesn’t always feel that way. You have to be a grownup with your fears and tell them the monster under the bed isn’t real, but that you will check the closet and leave on a night light if your fears promise to go right to sleep.

San Francisco at dusk.

Read the next Going Solo column: Going Solo: Trying New Things

Susan diRende travels the world on her own and has been living with no fixed abode since the end of 2014. This twice-monthly column aims to encourage others to try going solo and explores what can be gained from the experience. All photos ©Susan diRende

Susan hiking the Anza-Borrego Desert



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