I like the freedom of solo travel. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want and without the headache of having to consult your travel companion about it first. There are no debates, no compromises and best of all, no worries that your partner will find you lame and uncultured for ditching that 5th century Mayan temple for the air-conditioned Starbucks down the street. You can get down with your dorky side and spend 20 minutes taking pictures of the funny signs in the Mexican market bathroom if you want. Or shop for cheesy souvenir mugs to your hearts content if the moment moves you. There are no prentences, no pretending to enjoy reading The Quest for Autonomy in the Age of Globalization poolside when you’d really rather be reading US Weekly.
But then sometimes you find yourself in a situation where no matter how many pep-talks and “You’ll be stronger for it in the long-runs” you tell yourself, you can’t help but think that traveling alone just plain sucks.
Like this past week in Mexico, for example, when I found myself facing a dilemma that every solo traveler faces at least once in their lifetime:
Who should I ask to put sunscreen on my back?
Okay, so in the big scheme of travel trials and tribulations this one probably ranks pretty low on the list. But when you’re on your own, wearing a low-cut backless top and facing a day of intense, ‘hole-in-the-ozone- near-the-equator-September-sunshine’, suddenly a sunscreen dilemma becomes a matter of great importance. It’s like, should I risk the chance of a getting blistering second degree sunburn and and just skip it? Or should I approach some dude at the beach and risk having him mistake my desire to keep my pale skin from frying…for a desire for something else?
These are the questions you ask yourself when you’re in a foreign country alone. And last week I spent a good chunk of my morning trying come up with a solution.
Maybe if there had been another female staying at my hostel this wouldn’t have been an issue. I would have had no qualms about asking another girl to do me the quick favor. But as it was, the only other person staying in the hostel dorm room with me was a bearded backpacker sleeping naked in the bunk across the room.
Okay, not naked exactly. He was wearing boxers. But bare in my mind that we hadn’t so much as exchanged two words with one another. No, not even a hello. And try as I might, I couldn’t work out a conversation where me asking a half-naked stranger in an empty dorm room to rub sun tan oil onto my back, wouldn’t seem like a come-on.
The only other person in the building was the 12-year-old Mexican boy working at the front desk…and there was no way I was going to ask him.
But I imagine that as dire as a predicament that it was for me, it would’ve been even worse for a guy. I’d imagine that no matter who a man asked, male or female, young or old, they’d all get the wrong idea. I mean, what would you think if some shirtless stranger handed you a bottle of lotion and mumbled in broken Spanish: “Hola Seniorita…Do you mind helping me out here, por favor?”
But let’s say that you’re able to find someone; some grandmotherly type sees you struggling to slather sunscreen between your shoulder blades with the corner of a beach towel and volunteers to help out. What do you do when you when you finally arrive at the beach and want to go for a swim? Being solo means that you have no one to watch your stuff, which was a fact that I’d failed to consider before I decided that a dip in the Carribean sea would be a good idea. And Mexico or not, I’d never leave $50 in cash and two credit cards unguarded on a beach. Not if I wanted them to still be there when I got back.
So not only do solo travelers have to risk sunburn and theft but they also have to contend with the fact that they have no one to take their picture. And what’s the point of surviving an adventure if you don’t have a shred of photographic evidence to prove it? This leaves leaves you with two options.
1. You have to snap the photo yourself…which usually results in some blurry, off-center close-up of the inside of your left nostril.
2. You have to ask someone else to do it for you. And that someone else is always some grandpa who’s never operated a digital camera before and thus you’re left with yet another blurry, off-center close-up of the inside of your left nostril.
But the number one reason why solo travel sucks? You don’t have anyone to share in the experience. And somehow this diminishes it. Afterall, how can you fully enjoy watching a sunset like this one, for example, if you have no there to marvel at it with you?
I’ll finish with one last example of why solo travel sucks.
While I was hiking through the jungle in Mexico this past week, a large, four-legged, black and white striped animal ran across the path, startling me.
“Did you just see that?” I said to the hiker behind me. “It was like, this giant zebra-cat thing!”
But the man just stared at me and smiled the vacant, confused smile of someone who
1. Thinks I’m completely crazy
2. Didn’t understand a word of what I said
I know that if I’d had a boyfriend and he’d been with me, he probably would have known precisely what the zebra-cat creature was. And he probably would have said something along the lines of:
“It’s actually a cross between a zebra and a panther, known to zoologists as a Zanther. It’s extremely rare and indigenous only to the jungles of Central America. And it’s a herbivore, so there’s nothing to worry about. The Zanther’s diet actually consists of mostly coconuts and tree bark.”
But alas, my fictitious zoologist boyfriend wasn’t there and there was no one around to ask. So I spent the rest of the excursion nervously looking over my shoulder; prepared to hurl my water bottle at any animal that so much as looked my way.
I still don’t have any idea what it was that I saw out there.
I think that given enough time, even the most enthusiastic solo adventurist grows tired of it. I certainly have and so has Nomadic Matt. Read his post about the havoc that long-term travel can have on relationships, if you don’t believe me.
Because the truth is, all that’s left from a solo vacation after that high of accomplishment wears off, are a few stories that no one at home will care to hear, a collection of badly shot photos and a blistering sunburn.
And what doesn’t suck about that?