Traveling Solo

A friend of mine just returned from a weekend retreat; it was the first time in her 46 years that she traveled solo. She made new friends, learned new things, and discovered something about herself that many of us spend a lifetime trying to find,  inner-peace and the strength of knowing it’s perfectly acceptable to be alone.

My first “career” began in 1986, I was in training to become a flight attendant. During training, I met Kathy, who was older than me (and by older, I would guess she was in her mid 30s, but since I had just turned 18, a thirty-year old seemed middle aged!) Kathy retold stories about camping. Alone. I remember thinking, “What sort of freak goes camping alone? I would NEVER go camping alone. I would never go any where alone.”

Fast forward three years – I was coordinating a trip to Africa with a fellow flight attendant. Our initial plan included flying our own carrier to London (gratis), then hop aboard another carrier to Nairobi (again, gratis – oh, those were the days!) We planned to stay at the Nairobi Hilton (the nicest hotel in Nairobi at the time) and were in the process of narrowing down our various safari options. I got my malaria pills and various shots. It was all coming together. Once our flight schedules for the month were released, we would confirm details and finalize dates.
When our schedules were released we excitedly compared them only to discover my friend had the first two weeks of the month off and I had the last two weeks of the month off!!  Based on the level of coordinating two opposite schedules, we soon realized it was simply impossible to restructure and salvage a vacation to Africa.
My friend postponed his trip.
I was so disappointed after months of untold preparation and planning, obtaining pills and shots, getting visas and reciprocal airline passes to not follow through. I was also becoming more disenchanted with the business of air travel and was contemplating “clipping my wings” and heading back to California.
I knew in my gut, this may the last chance to get to Africa at virtually no cost. I simply couldn’t let this opportunity pass by. I decided to go to Africa. Solo.
My fellow flight attendant roommates all strongly discouraged me not to take this trip alone. We were savvy travelers, and though none had yet traveled to Africa, they were nervous for me. They thought it unwise for a single female to make a trek that far alone. I appreciated their concern. I heard their arguments. I remained steadfast. It almost became a challenge. I needed to do this. I needed to take this trip. I had something to prove to myself.
On the first leg of the trip from New York to London, I had several friends working the flight, and was able to snag a seat in the upper deck of the 747. Oh, it was glorious in that cozy, private din, as though I were travelling on my own private jet. I settled in and thought I had made the right choice.
The second leg of the trip was extremely long and unremarkable; London, Frankfurt, Mombasa, Nairobi – some 17 hours.
I lost track of time. Zones. Dates. Life.
Upon arrival in Nairobi nearly two days later, I was catatonic. It was the middle of the day, but I felt like I was lost in the Twilight Zone. The sun was blindingly bright, and I stumbled outside the airport, squinting, trying to get my wits about me. I barely remember gathering my bags and hailing a taxi to the downtown hotel.
Once in the backseat of the taxi, I rolled down the window, allowing the hot desert air to swirl around my face, causing discord with my hair. I thought to myself, “I’m in Africa! Alone! A girl from Petaluma!” It was exhilarating. I felt powerful.
One thing about traveling solo, you are forced to extend yourself in a way you wouldn’t if you had a companion. I found myself meeting people at every stage of the trip, and am happy to say, I never ate a single meal alone.
africa katie

A self-timer selfie, circa 1989

On my first safari, I stayed in a double “tent cabin” alone – and that first night was damn scary! There are no locks on the front of the tent, but rather a ZIPPER! It was storming that night, the winds were howling, and I wasn’t sure if I should be more afraid of critters in the night, or the fact that any strange man could waltz right into my tent! Thankfully, neither “animal” bothered me the entire trip.
Near the end of my second safari, I was getting lonely, and wished I had someone to share this unexplored continent with me.
I returned to the Nairobi Hilton on my last night in Africa. I was in the “lift” about to exit on the floor to my room, only the lift floor wasn’t flush with the hallway floor, and when I attempted to step into the hall, I tripped. I fell flat on my face – half in the lift, and half out.
After picking myself up and collecting all my crap that had scattered in several directions into my room, I began to cry.
Ten days of traveling solo had taken its toll. I craved companionship. Someone to banter about all of the exotic animals and landscapes we had seen and experienced. The new foods eaten. Meeting African tribes people. Except there was no one in the hotel room. Only me.
Just then, there was a knock on the door. The hotel staff was delivering a fruit basket to me to thank me for choosing the Hilton.
It was as though God was there saying, you’ve almost made it! Stay strong!
This experience was more than 30 years ago and I haven’t had a solo vacation since, yet it remains one of the most revealing times of my life.
I achieved something I never thought possible; traveling half way around the globe solo.
Have you ever traveled solo? What did you experience? Would you do it again?
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