Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?
—from “Questions of Travel” by Elizabeth Bishop
One interesting aspect of growing older is that you forget you have grown old. Particularly since I am often in the company of those younger than me, I lose track of the calendar. When I’m chatting with someone forty years younger, it never occurs to me that I could be their grandmother. (Although sometimes I do realize I have read more books.) Not to malign people my age over 60, but the knees and spontaneity are the first to go. So, if you are the intrepid sort don’t wait for your old familiars to catch up with you before you set sail. Go now! The sun is setting and you aren’t getting any younger, sweetheart.
Peace Corps Volunteers are inveterate travelers. When you are plunked down in the middle of an obscure corner of the globe you get curious about your neighbors. PCVs are on duty 24/7—even if we aren’t at the school or clinic, we are representing our country and way of life just by walking down the road in the village. It can get exhausting just being you. So, when it’s time for Annual Leave, many of us pack lightly and go as far as we can, if only to refresh our perspective. I have had great fun tootling about Cambodia with family and friends. Yet, there are occasions when travel opportunities occur when other travel companions aren’t available. What about going solo? Is it safe for a single woman? Is it advisable? Most importantly, is it fun? Absolutely—don’t hesitate! But do prepare. Since I’ve done a fair bit solo flights myself, I’d like to pass along some ideas on the sport. Here are Five Things Single Travelers Can Do To Have a Wonderful Trip:
1. TALK TO STRANGERS
On the bus, waiting in line, or at a restaurant talk to strangers. Don’t just ask, “Where did you go in Mondulkiri ?” Say, “What was the most fun you had on your trek?” Interview those around you. Listen more than talk. Ask for advice. Travelers love to share reviews.
2. PUT YOURSELF IN THE CENTER
This I mean physically. Even if you are a shy person, get yourself out there. Step away from the wall. At a restaurant, sit in the center, preferably at a community table. Speak up if the waiter wants to seat you behind the kitchen door. Don’t whine; don’t pout. Smile and say, “I’d prefer to sit there” and head towards a sunny spot with intention. Thank your waiter or host. Be pleasant company. Talk more about what is good than what sucks.
3. GIVE YOUR PHONE A REST
This next suggestion will probably be universally ignored. But just for the sake of data collection, for science, try to be present even if no one else is. Put your phone or electronics out of reach for the duration of the meal—half an hour. Now hear me out. It’s an interesting experience to just sit and slowly sip your coconut. Even if you don’t make conversation with anyone you can daydream. Advanced practitioners: Try being present without a book, journal, or even a sketchbook. Be a bit bored. Watch the ants. Make up stories about all those other people who are sitting together not talking, looking at their phones.
4. BE APPRECIATIVE
Tell the waiter, guesthouse owner, or trekking guide what you liked best about your experience. It’s helpful for them and sets you apart as someone who cares and is appreciative. Be specific, “Loved the green beans in the omelet!” You will be remembered a pleasant person, and not an old cranky American who thinks everyone should speak English.
5. RETURN TO THE SCENE OF A GOOD TIME
Some like to cast a wide net when they are in an unfamiliar town and try everything new in sight. That can be amusing, but I like to find at least one place, usually for breakfast, to return to each day. The wait staff will remember you and how you like your coffee. You may encounter regulars with whom you can have an ongoing conversation. And there’s a sense of coming home, even if you are only there for three days.
Whatever attraction has led you to wherever you go, it is not the thing itself that matters, it is the context and connections. Once, long ago, I remember watching the full moon rise over an island village. I was not with my lover or family or friend to share the experience. It was still beautiful with only myself as witness. Just the moon and me.