I had a long, sleepless bus journey from Mendoza to Bariloche – sat next to the bogs, awoken by my fellow pasajeros frequent toilet trips and the pungent smell of bleach, smelling salts and recycled poo. The hostel then put me in an 8-man dorm with 7 blokes. How lucky! you might say. Well no, 7 stinky snoring grunting blokes [although see update below], one of whom was cleaning his feet with his pen knife when I came in and two who bowled in drunk at 4am, the smallest proceeding to barf loudly shortly thereafter. I got a top bunk – I who have terrible vertigo and once cried when trying to get down a friend`s rickety attic stairs when hungover. Every time I got off my bed I narrowly missed my lower bunkmate´s head (although it was he of the feet-cleaning so I didn`t try too hard).
The champers didn`t quite make up for the bog smell
Your worst nightmare? Perhaps. Travelling alone can suck, especially in your thirties. I have had bad experiences before – like the three days I spent in Pushkar crawling to the toilet on my hands and knees with Dehli belly and without a companion to bring me water, only cured by a colonic massage by an old Indian woman.
But a bad experience is still an experience, and is often a story you tell again and again, embellish, make your friends laugh with. My friends just love the India poo story, especially when told in intimate detail over dinner. These experiences can teach you about yourself, like I know that I`m pretty tough, but I also cry very easily when shouted at. And they make you appreciate the good things more - a warm shower after a long bus trip, the first time your supper doesn`t flood directly out your bottom (sorry!), or even being able to move to the lower bunk (hurrah!). Life`s simple pleasures become better.
I have friends who say they`d never travel alone but I`d still say it can be fantastic. I travelled alone in India and again on a round-the-world trip and met some fantastic people, many of whom have remained friends, some who have visited me in London and I even went to a wedding of an Essex boy I met in Hanoi who I travelled half-way across the world with.
Fact is, if you`re in your thirties or forties and single and have an urge to backpack round South America, it is more likely than not that your friends don`t have the time or money, or want to travel in a different way to you. In this case you have little choice unless you want to give up your dream. I say be brave and go alone.
The benefits far outweigh the crappy bits. Without a friend to hide behind, you meet a ton of people - and if you`re backpacking and in hostels it`s likely that you will meet people from all walks of life, from different countries, who will inspire you. In this Argentina trip alone, I`ve met a number of brilliant people who I know I`ll see again and who have made me think about the way I live in London in a different light. And dining alone can be great - you can people watch, observe the world around you and think about things harder and deeper than you have for ages. It helps if you enjoy your own company of course. You have no-one`s timetable to stick to but your own. For example, I MAY be in a place where you are supposed to do lots of treks but I MAY have decided to have some wine over lunch and then a snooze and then a manicure instead. Which is FINE. I`m a big fan of hanging out when I travel – not that I`m lazy but because I think you get to really understand the vibe of a place, how the people live, and not tick it off as a place you`ve “done” because you did three different tours. And also I`m a bit lazy.
Treating self to a nice lunch at the Park Hyatt in Mendoza – not too shabby
Here`s some tips if you are planning to travel alone:
- Don`t feel ashamed if you find yourself dining alone. Think of yourself as a fabulous, mysterious stranger and don`t hide your head in a book.
- Take your time over dinner, don`t rush to eat and leave. Have that second glass of wine, watch the world go by.
- Of course you want to share your thoughts and experiences - best way is when you meet new friends, but when you are alone, try not to go on the internet too much, try to disconnect – a diary is brilliant.
- Everyone here seems to have a laptop (I remember when there wasn`t even internet when you went travelling blah blah) but if you have your nose in a book or a laptop you give off real “leave me alone” vibes. Put it down, grab a beer and make friends.
- If you´re a woman travelling alone, you may be preyed on by sleazy men (yes I`m looking at you, Juan the car mechanic from Buenos Aires). One of the great things about travelling alone is being open to exciting romances but if you aren`t interested it`s totally your prerogative to be a bit pushy and let them know.
I`m also a big fan of roughing it. I make decent money in London and I like the occasional long weekend in a nice hotel. But the problem with that is that money and materiality is so evident in some of these places, so you never really get out of the endless rat race of earning and spending your money. I really like the freedom of living with only two changes of clothes, both slightly dirty, in a place where everyone is skint and money doesn`t count, so you concentrate more on the things that DO count – like meeting people, and learning about a new place, and thinking about life. I find I do that better somehow wearing grubby old clothes in a hostel with other grubby people. The other thing is that in a posh hotel there is often a real distance between guest and staff, whereas in a hostel you are more on a level with the people that work there – you chat and drink together – which means that you find out more about the place you are visiting. That`s not to say I`m a total tight-arse – I`m spending money on the occasional lovely dinner (La Cabrera in Buenos Aires and Francis Mallman in Mendoza – more later), shopping and I`m staying in a lovely boutique hotel on my last night, where I shall be reading my book with a “do not disturb” sign on. And of course there are times when you are a couple when you just don´t want to speak to anyone else, especially if you are busy and don`t see much of each other. Sigh. OK so maybe I`m just a little jealous :)…
UPDATE: Ok so turns out the remaining non-drunken stinky boys weren´t so bad, in fact one was a very nice Aussie law student who taught me about rock climbing and Scott´s expedition to the antartic and sperm whales. And who also might read this post soon hence the update :). Although I stand by my statement that dorms full of beer-laden boys do stink, sorry.