10 reasons to travel alone

By Caitlin Kelly

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I went to say thank you and good-bye to one of the waitresses at my last hotel, and we chatted for a bit.

Then she exclaimed: “But…you’re alone!”

True.

I’d stayed a week at a 23-room historic hotel and I hadn’t seen anyone else there who was traveling solo.

In my time here in Europe, now five weeks, most of the travelers I’ve seen are in couples, or families, or packs of friends, whether teens or seniors.

I’m clearly an outlier, and I’m fine with that; my mother traveled the world alone for years and I spent four months alone traveling through Portugal, Spain, France and Italy at 23.

 

Here are 10 reasons I enjoy traveling solo, even (yes), while female:

 

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No one dictates my schedule

Unless it’s a travel day, and I have to meet a plane, train or bus on time, it’s no one’s business when I get up or go to bed or do anything. Total freedom is priceless to me.

No one is insisting we must do this or must see that

Again, if I want to retreat to my cool, quiet hotel room at mid-day to escape 90-degree heat, no one is having a (literal) meltdown or tantrum because they want to do something else.

I’ve missed all sorts of must-see’s and must-do’s on this trip, (all those museums! all those famous sites!), because I wanted to just rest and relax and see only what I want to see.

People can be much kinder than you’d expect

This trip has been savaged by a lot of right knee pain and right foot pain. It makes walking slow and painful. It makes stairs slow and painful. I also do poorly in heat, and everywhere people have been very kind, offering to help me with luggage or stairs.

 

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Pauly Saal, the Berlin restaurant where I met two new-to-me friends for lunch

 

Making new friends is easier

When you travel with others, their wants and needs, of course, matter to their enjoyment of their vacation. If you just want to sit and have a long conversation, sometimes even a short one, that can impede your companions’ progress.

I’ve really savored the long conversations I’ve had along the way, and have learned a lot about the places I’ve been.

I don’t want to just slide past, taking lots of photos.

And yet….

 

Silence is truly golden

When traveling solo, you don’t have to talk to anyone beyond the most basic questions. I can go an entire day without conversation, and what a relief that is.

As the waitress agreed, about having to be charming and social: “It’s exhausting!”

 

You’re present in a way that’s usually impossible when traveling with others

I’ve been amazed at how I just sit, still, for an hour. No book, no magazine or paper. No screens. Whether I’m watching someone in a cafe, or the local cats who shimmy down the garden trees, or admiring kids splashing into the Adriatic at sunset, I can pay all of it my full attention.

I’ve gotten some astounding photos at all times of day and night, able to see clearly without interruption or distraction. I spent one happy afternoon sketching and painting.

 

No fights!

I witnessed a furious mother and her mutinous little boy, (and his brother and their fed-up grandparents), at a table near me in Rovinj, a seaside resort in Croatia. It was clear they were all totally annoyed with this kid, and he with them.

Thank heaven it wasn’t me; having had some monumental arguments while very far from home — out alone with my father, my mother, my husband — I know how stressful that is since you all still have to get back into the same hotel or flat and/or the same means of transportation later anyway.

 

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Time to reflect

I’ve had all sorts of new-to-me ideas while away, for more travel, for some different ideas about designing our home, about how to work.

I’ve been reading a lot — books for a change  — and loving it.

 

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The trams in Zagreb — fast, cheap, efficient

 

You (re)-learn to be self-reliant

My favorite French words are “se débrouiller” and “débrouillard”...which means “to figure it out for yourself” and, loosely, “a self-reliant person.”

Solo travel turns you into that person, and quickly!

At 25, I won an EU journalism fellowship based in Paris that required four 10-day independent  reporting trips throughout Europe. No one was there to hold my hand or to show me stuff. I loved it!

Whether you’re madly calculating currency differences, (try 276 Hungarian forints to the U.S. dollar!) or trying to read a map in another language or making sure you’ve caught the right bus/train/boat heading in the right direction, it’s all up to you.

If it goes pear-shaped, (as the British would say), everywhere has some sort of medical care and usually someone who speaks English. Absolute worst case, you can contact your consulate or embassy for emergency help.

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The Washington, D.C. Metro

The self-confidence solo travel creates is fantastic, lasting and can inspire others to take the leap

I’ve been traveling alone since I was 17 and first crossed the U.S. border by train to attended a photo workshop — although I took my first flight alone, from Toronto to Antigua, at seven.

Once you realize how to navigate the world, and see that many people — like us — just want to make a living, help their kids and grandkids thrive, and to enjoy their lives as much as we do — it’s a much less intimidating place.

Yes, some spots are tougher than others, and some truly no-go zones for women alone. But fewer than you’d think.

 

Have you traveled alone?

 

How did you enjoy it?

 

An art adventure: NYC to Philadelphia

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s not very far from one city to the other — about 1.5 hours by train.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, its broad steps familiar to anyone who’s seen the film Rocky, is a lovely place with interesting shows, so I took the bold and costly step of traveling from our home in New York to see a show there, paintings from Mexico 1910 to 1950.

It meant taking a train into New York from our suburban home, changing train stations, then another train to Philadelphia, then a brief cab ride to the museum.

But the train ride there proved, as it often does, to be the highlight of the day.

Three African American women got on at one of the New Jersey stops and one sat beside me, swathed in a leopard print cape, and wearing leopard print gloves. She wore a simple black wool hat and beneath it a sheer black scarf printed with images of Jesus.

I’m not sure how we started talking, but we were soon trading stories and recipes for all our favorite foods. She was raised on a North Carolina farm. She bore nine children; her first-born, a daughter, and her mother, were burned to death in a house fire.

One of her grown daughters, a pastor, sat behind us, wearing a large necklace in rhinestones that spelled out the word Queen.

This, to me, is one of the joys of travel — to break my daily bubble and speak with people I’d never meet any other way.

We’re not wealthy, so we don’t fly first class or take costly cruises or stay in luxury hotels, certain to only meet people at a similar income level. That means, de facto, meeting a broad cross-section range of fellow travelers.

My seat-mate was 89, and the best company I’d had in weeks. When I got up to leave, we hugged goodbye.

The museum show was impressive, and exhaustive.

It took me 2.5 hours to see it all, although I’m an outlier now at museums because I actually look at things. It’s become normal — how depressing! — to quickly snap a cellphone photo of the art and/or its wall text and simply move on — without looking at the art itself.

I lived in Cuernavaca when I was 14, and have been to Mexico many times, a country I love and miss. It’s also the birthplace of my husband’s grandfather. So I was very interested to see the art, which included some famous and familiar images by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, including many lesser-known works.

I enjoyed lunch in the museum restaurant, now closed for 15 months for reservations.

On Friday nights, the museum offers live music and serves food and wine on its enormous central staircase. It creates a great welcoming atmosphere, and the stairs filled up quickly with people of all ages.

I needed to call Jose, (of course I’d left my phone back in New York), and a woman lent me hers and we fell into a long conversation; she was a Phd student from Belgrade.

I sat for a while in the Philadelphia train station before heading back to New York. It’s a classic — very high ceilings, tall white glass Deco-style hanging lamps, long polished wooden benches.

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A statue at one end, an angel holding a male body with torn trousers, is a WWII memorial, one of the most powerful and moving I’ve ever seen.

I finally arrived home around midnight, having traveled further in one day than I had in six long months — my head and heart newly filled with ideas and memories, refreshed and recharged.

A few post-vacation epiphanies

By Caitlin Kelly

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My hotel room in Flagstaff at the Hotel Monte Vista, completed in 1927.

Here are a few of the things I realized while away for two weeks:

I need to spend time alone

I work alone all day every day. How could I possibly need more solitude? What am I — a hermit manquee? But I also live in an apartment building filled with neighbors I have known for decades, work with dozens of editors and fellow writers and spend a tremendous amount of time and emotional energy, every day, interacting with the world, often doing my best to find, woo, please and keep paying clients for my writing.

It wears me out!

Silence!

Few things are as nourishing as total, profound silence: no beeps, buzzes, cars, kids, pets. A silence so thick your ears feel blanketed. Step below the rim of the Grand Canyon onto one of the trails and just sit still for minutes, even an hour, surrounded by milennia, in silence.

Aaaaaah.

Being in nature/the outdoor world is deeply and profoundly healing

I can’t explain why this is so deeply affecting to me, but it is. On this trip I saw: rabbits, deer, elk, ravens, condors, road-runners, jays, robins, lizards of several sizes, squirrels, chipmunks. I did not (whew) see a rattlesnake or mountain lion, both common in parts of Arizona.

My favorite natural sound in the world — the wind sighing through pine trees. My favorite natural scent? Dried pine needles. The ponderosa pine forests bordering the Grand Canyon are, in this respect, heaven on earth.

The hell with “the news”

I read no newspapers, watched no TV, did not listen to the radio for five days. No access to the internet unless I paid for it. When, in fact, so much “news” is not new at all and is often telling me something stressful, distressing and/or something over which I have absolutely no control.

It is wearying to listen as much as I do, try to process it and make sense of it, whether the latest tornado devastating Oklahoma or the riots in Istanbul.

No technology

I spend much of my time processing/refining/producing, and most of my time is spent staring at a screen or tapping a keyboard. Ca suffit! I was thrilled when I “lost” the bit of my cellphone charge cord that plugs into the wall — giving me days of being truly out of touch. (Turned out it was buried in my duffel bag the whole time.)

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Vanity is a time-suck!

In my tiny hotel room in Flagstaff, I dropped my Sephora brush, shattering the mirror. So much for worrying about my looks! A week without makeup, perfume, even deodorant — bliss! (I may be an 1860s rural bachelor in disguise.)

In dismay, I watched young women at the Grand Canyon showers flat-ironing their hair, applying mascara and generally fussing way too much about their appearance. You’re camping!

Traveling alone is key

I really like being out on the road by myself. I like relating to strangers as me — not “the wife of” or “the writer for” — and just roaming about spontaneously. I read maps, on paper, old-school. I like having to figure shit out on the fly, alone. I just love to travel, and it’s a great luxury to do exactly what I want, when and where and how I choose.

My husband is a protective sort of guy, forever worrying about me. If he’d seen some of the paths I was walking on…oy.

The Grand Canyon is missing (!) 1.5 billion years of geological time — called The Great Unconformity — which does rather put one’s own life into perspective

My brain shuts down trying to fathom a thousand years. Now, try a million. Now, a billion.

To walk across rocks and touch fossils 270 million years old is a terrific/sobering reminder how utterly insignificant we are, and what a blink we each represent in time.

I like learning new stuff

I love to learn new things — how old a cotton-tail is when it abandons its babies (three months, I was told); or how to avoid a mountain lion or what to do when you see/hear a rattlesnake. Or how to pitch a tent (and re-fold it. Hah.) All too often, at home, everything I learn is work/income-related. I am very very bad at hobbies. Travel, de facto, forces you onto a learning curve, especially solo and somewhat rugged travel.

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It’s good to remember, and use, a bunch of stuff I already know

As a new friend said — competence! I bought 40 feet of cord at a hardware store and a small, sharp knife, with no plan but a sense I’d need both. And I did — to string up a tarp over my tent, to attach to my glasses frames so they could not fly off while horse-back riding through the desert. To attach all those ropes meant making figure-eight knots and clove hitches, stuff I learned as a kid and used as a sailor.

Horseback riding meant remembering (ouch!) how to trot, how to guide a horse, how to not fall off and how to mount and dismount.

It’s great to leave the husband behind once in a while

It’s great to miss him — and be missed!

Most people are rushing-around-in-an-insane-non-stop-noise-producing frenzy. WTF?!

Tell me, please, the point of going somewhere as mind-blowing as the Grand Canyon, then never, once, not for a second, shutting the hell up and appreciating its beauty and mystery — in silence. Not sketching or drawing (which takes time and contemplation), but quickquickquick snapping tons of pix. It was exhausting listening to them all shouting at their unruly children or barking instructions at one another in French/German/Japanese.

It made me want to put Xanax in the damn water supply. Good God, people. Can you just sit still for 10 minutes?

Doing less, more slowly, is not a sign of weakness or defeat

This was a first. Sigh.

This week — June 6 — I hit yet another birthday and, for the first time, feel (ugh) a little bit my age. The last trip I made to the Grand Canyon I was 39, had just fenced sabre at nationals in Salt Lake City and had thighs of steel with stamina to match. I hiked four hours down and eight back up to the rim.

This time? Not so much.

With my left foot injured, walking a lot seemed unappealing. The altitude — 7,071 feet at the spot where I watched one sunset — left me a little breathless when ascending a steep trail.

So I just said the hell with it, something that would have been impossible for me to admit a few years ago. I watched everyone biking and hiking and striding with great purpose and intensity — and yawned. I sketched and took photos and sat still. I walked the rim, and did only one 1.1 mile walk on flat ground, albeit at noon, which was way too hot.

Pretty fucking geriatric!

Whatever. I had a great time.


There are some amazing women out there!

I’ve so enjoyed some of the women I’ve met in Arizona, from the nurse and doctor who treated my foot injury to the 27-year-old esthetician/ barrel racer who drives 18 hours one way with her horses and dogs and young son from her home in Wyoming to her childhood home in Tucson.

Talk about a skill set…

Then there were the two lady park rangers, in Stetsons with badges, patrolling the desert on horseback. What a neat job!

I miss being around women whose highest priority is not being thin/rich/powerful (New York) but being strong/cool/competent and fun. I like a woman in spurs! Maybe, one day, I’ll be one as well.

A Woman On A Beach, Alone

Woman at the beach. Porto Covo, southwest coas...
Image via Wikipedia

There’s a new poster at Grand Central Station, the terminus for commuter trains into Manhattan, of a woman wrapped tightly in an orange towel.

It’s an ad for Hyatt, and it’s unusual for several reasons. It shows — counter-culturally — and to my delight:

— a woman alone

— a woman wrapped up in a towel

— a woman who is not a size 4

— a woman by herself on a deserted beach

— a woman who is not accompanied/validated by a husband, partner, gal pals or children

She is staring at the ocean. She’s lost in thought: no tech toys, no earbuds, no distractions. No fruity drinks with little paper umbrellas in them.

The photo shows us a woman comfortable in her own skin, in solitude.

It’s how I love to be, and many of us wish to try, but are perhaps too committed to others’ needs or too afraid of going somewhere all alone. What if it’s scary or dangerous or expensive?

For me, it’s a photo of a woman living her very own life.

Very cool.

Rough Day? Grab Your Bear

Teddy bear - Rory
Image via Wikipedia

Had a rough day? Reach for Teddy! A survey of 6,000 Britons finds that many still do.

From The Telegraph:

The survey also found that 25 per cent of men said they even took their teddy away with them on business because it reminded them of home.

Travelodge said that in the past year staff have reunited more than 75,000 teddies and their owners.

Spokesman Shakila Ahmed said: “Interestingly the owners have not just been children, we have had a large number of frantic businessmen and women call us regarding their forgotten teddy bear.”

Corrine Sweet, a psychologist, said cuddling a teddy bear was an ‘important part of our national psyche’.

She said: “It evokes a sense of peace, security and comfort. It’s human nature to crave these feelings from childhood to adult life.

I get it.

Alone, ill, in Venice 30 years ago, my only comfort was a small, furry bear I’d packed in my duffel for my four-month solo journey. Neither of us spoke Italian, so I was lucky to have some company.

I still sometimes pack a bear, even when traveling with my sweetie. He’s cool with it.

My battered little white bear has been all over the world with me, amusing chambermaids from Ireland to Quebec. I’ve had him since I was maybe three or four — that sort of loyalty is rare and sweet. He tucks easily into the smallest corner of my smallest suitcase and doesn’t even protest when I jam him into the outside pockets. Wherever I go, he’s happy to follow.

We should all be so blessed with soft, portable comfort.

Do you travel with anything inanimate but cuddly?

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The Pleasure Of Solo Travel

Cover of "Come, Thou Tortoise"
One of my vacation reads. Loved it!!! Cover of Come, Thou Tortoise

There are couples who boast that they have never spent a night apart.  Cue violins!

I think: Shoot me. Just shoot me.

I think every long-term couple needs serious time apart. Granted, this is much more difficult if you have kids, especially  very small ones, when time without another person’s labor can feel like drudgery.

I am home now in NY after 14 days away from the sweetie. He couldn’t pick me up at the airport because he was working, but I came home to flowers and, while away, to a half-bottle of champagne sent to my hotel room.

My Vancouver room, at the Sylvia (go!), was barely 150 square feet, but bright, airy, quiet — perfect for one person. The beach was, literally, across the street. (And, of course, turned out my grandmother lived there when it was still an apartment building; built in 1911, it’s a Vancouver landmark.)

While away, I did a variety of things I love to do, some of which he hates. (And vice versa.)

He hates crowds so, last night, alone, I sat for 5.5 hours (yes, really) on the beach awaiting the U.S. entry in Vancouver’s annual fireworks festival. I wanted a good spot; by the time it began at 10:00 p.m., some 200,000 people had joined me. I read, slept, listened to music, read, slept, watched all the people around me.

I sat still. I don’t think I’ve ever just sat anywhere in New York, ever, for 5.5 hours without moving. Or, more to the point, feeling restless or bored or that I should be doing something. Vancouver is a city jammed with slim, blond, lithe folk. I saw no one one obese and few over 30. Everyone’s in spandex or on a bike or roller-blading. And, even mid-week, many people were on the beach.

Doing a lot of nothing productive, for once, meant I fit in right in. Whew. I can’t wait to go back and do a lot of nothing again, soon.

I spent six days with my Mom; as her only child, she likes my undivided attention. She whipped me at gin rummy; I beat her at Scrabble. Competitive, us?

Instead of reading three papers a day and listening to the radio and TV, I listened to music and scanned a few papers. I read three lovely novels: Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin, The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald (a Canadian writer) and Come, Thou Tortoise by Newfoundland writer Jessica Grant.

I liked “Brooklyn”, and loved the others. As a Canadian, I really enjoyed the many references that resonated for me, whether the name of a colored pencil set or landscapes I know well.

I went out for dinner with Colin Horgan, a fellow True/Slant writer whom I’d never met before, a brave move on both of our parts — what if we were bored? Or awful in person? We had a terrific Indian meal and a great time.  Solo vacations are all about adventure and meeting new people without the easy out and familiar comfort of your partner.

The sweetie played a lot of golf and watched the Golf channel uninterrupted and worked hard and caught up with his friends. We spoke  and emailed — and missed one another.

When you’re partnered, do you go away on your own? Do you enjoy it?