Sunday, 10 July 2005

why travelling alone can be fun!

Chatting to a friend on MSN last night (who was voicing concerns about the mate he is due to travel with) got me thinking about travelling alone and what it is that I enjoy about it. I am always quite surprised by the reaction I get from people when I tell them I'm travelling alone as a single, white female. It is often a mixture of wide-eyed shock, crossed with a crumb of awe and mingled with the wrinkled frowning that denotes that they think I suffer from some sort of mental disposition.

Firstly, I imagine not everyone would enjoy an experience of travelling alone. It does take a personality with hermit tendencies. You have to be very comfortable with your own company. I have spent hours in the past sat on my own reading books or playing patience. It also requires an element of confidence. Because you are on your own you can't rely on anyone else to do the talking for you or to provide the moral support when it comes to walking into somewhere new and unexplored.

My philosophy if I am torn about whether or not to do something whilst travelling is 'this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, if you don't get some balls and do it now you will never get to do it'. I have had some of my most rewarding experiences whilst travelling when I have gone with my gut instinct, thrown aside my Rough Guide and just done it. And I am getting better at it. The more I travel, the more confident I get at straying from the path of the Rough Guide and trying out something new. I would go so far as to say that the only useful bits of the Rough Guides are the history of the country you're in, the section on culture and customs (important if you don't want to offend the local people) and the maps (although they are notoriously bad, it can sometimes be hard to find a map in some of the smaller towns so any map is better than none at all).

Secondly, I enjoy travelling alone because the decisions you make are yours and yours alone. There are no arguments over food or places to go or how much to spend on a hostel or what time you should or shouldn't get up in the morning....i could go on! You get up, you decide what you want to do and you get on with it. You also get to meet people and cut ties as and when you want. Some nights I want to chill out on my own, other nights I head out for a night out on the town (Khao San road for example). The trick I always use is to head out with a book at hand. Find what looks like a happening bar either with locals or with co-backpackers, buy a beer, find a table that has some friendly looking people on it and start reading. Inevitably, they start chatting to you and hey-ho you have friends for the evening. I've used this technique loads of times and it works every time. Often I spend a couple of days travelling with the people I meet before we head off in different directions. Then again, if they turn out not to be your kinda people then you owe them nothing and you can cut your ties at the end of the night.

Thirdly, travelling alone makes you more amenable to experiencing the local culture. In Peru for example, I ended up with a Peruvian in each town who befriended me and showed me round the town. Through this I often met their families, they would take me to the local Peruvian haunts and teach me about the local customs. I don't think I'd have experienced this to such a great extent if I had travelled with other people.

There is obviously a downside to travelling alone. The worst one being the logistical issues you encounter whilst trying to navigate yourself into very small toilet cubicle with a very large rucksack. If you don't have a mate to look out for your bags when you need a pee, it can be troublesome.

There are also safety issues to be concerned with. There are certain areas of town you wouldn't want to go to alone, Patpong in Bangkok being an example. It is always good to be on the lookout for potential friends to recruit if you plan to go to such areas.

You also end up paying more for rooms in hostels because you are not sharing...but then again, if your mates snore, not having to share could be a blessing!

I'm going to put together some top tips on travelling. I know some of my friends reading this are expert travellers, so feel free to add some more top tips that I miss out, in the comments section.

1. wet wipes - its an odd one to put at number 1 but their usefulness is consistently underestimated. If I can name one thing that I wouldn't travel without it would be wet wipes. They have solved so many issues in the past that I won't go into....just put it this way....when there is no loo roll around and you have a little 'tummy trouble' they can be a very refreshing necessity!

2. contact details for the folks- like the well organised Girl Guide that I am, I always prepare a set of documents that has all my emergency contact details, insurance details, embassy contact details (in the country I'm visiting), bank account details and photocopies of all my important documents...flight tickets, passport, yellow fever vaccination certificate e.t.c so that in case of emergency my parents can get easily into contact with the various authorities and organisations they need to. This is something I feel is extremely important and it is worrying that so many backpackers head off without providing adequate details. If you are stuck in a hospital abroad you are not likely to be in any fit state to be dealing with insurance companies, banks e.t.c. If something happens at home i.e recent terrorist attacks, the larger the network of contacts you have, having provided people with contact details i.e my mother having my boyfriend's phone number, the easier it is for people to get into contact with one another. I always carry an extra set of documents with me (minus bank account details) that i give to people I travel with so that if I get ill, they can contact my folks e.t.c. Another very important tip is HAVE YOUR BLOOD GROUP HIGHLY VISIBLE. In an emergency you don't want transfusions of the wrong blood group. I have a list of phone numbers and my blood group with me at all times. One copy in my passport, one in my wallet and one in my first aid kit -the obvious places people will look when they need to find out who you are in a medical emergency.

3. A Rough Guide- I mention this point with some misgivings. It does, as I have stated above, have some uses but I would say take what they say with a pinch of salt. I have read in Rough Guides that an area is safe, only to be informed by locals that it is the most dangerous area in town and certainly not a place where the likes of me should walk alone. Only use the hotels in it if you arrive after dark and don't want to spend time walking around. Find a road on the map where there are a few hotels and pick a hotel next to the one mentioned in the book. Chances are it will be far nicer and half the price.

4. A decent first aid kit goes without saying. Even if you never use it, having it there for piece of mind is certainly beneficial. I carry a tropical first aid kit, medication, a syringe kit and a dental kit. It sounds a lot but in places like Laos where healthcare doesn't exist I'd be happier carrying my own (clean and unused) needles e.t.c!

5.Always hide 50 dollars about your person in case of emergency. Under the insole of your shoe is a good place.....except in the jungle....notes get a tad mouldy if your boots accidently get wet....i say this from experience.

Well that's all I can think of right now...I shall add more tips as I think of them

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