I was a couple of hours into my first ever solo trip when I realized just how fumbling and awkward traveling alone can be. Like many realizations that come when travelling, this one happened on the toilet.
I had been in Madagascar for a couple of hours, greeted by the red dirt, tumbling jungle, and obligatory pack of taxi drivers who hustle like they will drop dead if you don’t at least glance in their direction when nature called. Being a scuba diver, on this particular trip I had a lot of gear. This included a heaping mound of backpacks that when all perfectly balanced on my body made me look (and feel) like an overladen donkey. One careless shoulder bump had me unbalanced and careening out of control in the wrong direction.
When the time came to go to the bathroom, as it often does when just off an airplane, I found myself peering into the airport’s only facilities with the kind of abject horror that I like to reserve for particularly bad toilet situations. The tiny scrap of hole-in-the-floor toilet had a flap of door and a host of bag-stealing shady characters hanging around outside. Needless to say, Tetris became my inspiration as I stuffed my gear into the cubicle. It was awkward. It was messy. It was a big bumbling “Hello!” to the years of solo travel ahead.
Since that first awkward moment, there have been many, many more. So many that I feel it’s my obligation to pass on what I’ve learnt in the hopes that it will help you through some of the most awkward times of solo travel. Here are four awkward moments and how to get through them:
1. You’re receiving unwanted romantic attention by a man/woman in your hostel
You’ve arrived at your new hostel and notice that a particularly keen traveller is given you a thorough once over…and then maybe a twice over. Now you’re feeling like a juicy piece of fresh meat after weeks of packet noodles. Maybe you even made the mistake of making eye contact and now they’re following you around like a sad little puppy dog.
What do you do?
What can start as mildly annoying can soon progress to something a little more sinister, so I highly recommend nipping it in the bud. Address your pursuer honestly and let them know you’re not interested and would like to be left alone.
If you’re uncomfortable with upfront honesty, let them know you have a boyfriend/girlfriend back home who you’re madly in love with. Make up some fun details of your fake romantic partner. Never feel ashamed to ask the hostel to move you to a different room if you find yourself as bunk partners.
Girls, you might find yourself in this situation more often, especially in Africa where it is unusual for young women to be single and therefore your solo status might attract some attention. My advice? Invest in an understated wedding ring (leave the diamonds at home) and lie through your teeth to anyone who is bothering you.
2. You turn up to a bar and everybody is settled into iron-clad cliques
Rocking up to a bar and hoping to meet some new people is already a terrifying experience. If the bar is already full of people who seem thoroughly uninterested in welcoming you to the conversation, then you’re set for an awkward time.
What do you do?
Friend, I feel for you because this really sucks. If at this point you need a little bit of liquid courage then bottoms up! Sometimes the strong stuff can be a solo travellers life raft in a sea of challenging situations. Just don’t overdo it because that could put you in a dangerous solo travellers situation. Heading to the bar also gives you a few minutes to take charge of the situation and check out your new friends.
Do you seen anyone a the group wearing a t-shirt or wrist band from a hostel or party that you might have in common? If yes, you’re onto a winner and you can introduce yourself with a funny anecdote or story.
If there’s no obvious conversation starter, then you might need to be a little more bold, stick your hand out and just go straight in with your name. If you just can’t catch anyone’s eye, or are feeling a little bit too shy, then it’s totally okay to go home and try again the next night. Making friends can be hard, so don’t beat yourself up!
3. You head out for dinner and forget the usual props for dining alone (book, phone, etc..)
You’ve sat down at your table, waiting for them to do the obligatory clearing away of the second place setting, and you realize that you’ve forgotten to bring something to distract and entertain yourself.
What do you do?
Short of reading your crumpled receipts at the bottom of your wallet, this situation can be a challenge for even the hardiest of solo travellers. Instead of gripping tightly to your menu when the waiter comes to take it away, why not embrace the peaceful, boring silence of eating alone?
Choose something that requires your hands: intricate rice paper rolls, curry with a side of buttery naan, cheesy pizza which goops all over the place. This way, even if you wanted to be flipping through your book, you couldn’t because your hands are full and occupied.
Do some quality people watching! Notice the way the man next to you expertly crochets his noodles around his chopstick. Giggle at the kid who snorts coke out of his nose. Revel in the way the family across the room deftly adds the perfect mixture of condiments to their individual meals. You might find yourself learning a little something- a true experience of culture can often be found in the smallest of details!
4. Your stomach is doing an “Usain Bolt” on you
You’re sick. Like, really sick. You’ve gone through your last pair of clean knickers, you can only seem to make it to the bathroom and back, and you look (and feel) a bit like a walking sewerage pipe. Whether it was the suspicious looking chicken burger you chowed down last night or something more sinister, being sick while travelling and having nobody to look after your ravaged body is the worst.
What do you do?
Now is not the time to be in a dorm. One of the best things you can do is check yourself into somewhere that isn’t so “budget.” It doesn’t have to break the bank, but it does have to have an ensuite bathroom, air-conditioning, clean sheets and privacy. Just what you’ll need at this time of low.
Kindly ask a hostel buddy or one of the staff to go to the store and get the essentials you’re going to need to kick this sickness in the butt. You’re going to need some rehydration salts, tissues, a couple bottles of gatorade, painkillers, and some fruit for when you’re feeling a little peckish. You can pay your saviour with beer and a big hug when you’re all better.
If you’re just getting sicker, I know that overseas hospitals can seem like scary places when you have to face them alone, but please know when to check yourself in. You might be surprised just how quickly they can get you better again and on your way to the next epic adventure. Last but defiantly not least, get travel insurance before you even leave on your trip for situations like these.
Travelling solo can be awkward, but it also brings so much freedom, confidence and exhilaration! Embrace the awkward moments as they will make the best stories later, and you will be laughing (and cringing) for years to come.