I am an introvert.
No one believes me when I say this because apparently introverts are supposed to be shy, awkward around people and potential serial killers. I am none…wait…no…I am none of these things.
People, however, make me tired. Getting to know people and suffering through the initial trappings of ‘small talk’ often sees me avoiding new situations or standing in front of a mirror saying, “You can do this Carla!” – like I’m going in to battle. I’m best around people I already know. Probably because I like the deeper part of people more than the surface.
So, when I found myself in Cape Town, at the welcome meeting for Intrepid’s Cape Town to Zanzibar tour, I thought, “Kill me now.” I was sitting in a room full of the total strangers that I was going to be trapped on an overland truck with for 40 days and 40 nights…it filled me with biblical levels of angst.
You would think I would be used to this by now. I have always travelled alone – 34 countries so far.
Travelling solo didn’t start as a choice. I tried, numerous times, to inspire friends or family to come with me on one of my journeys. And, although there were some that were almost at the tipping point, no one took me up on my offer. The reason is simple – I like to go where people don’t usually go. My first trip ever was to Cold War Russia. I’ve been to Syria five times. Slogged it up the Inca Trail. Slept rough in a Bedouin village in Jordan. Apparently, none of these things seem like ‘vacations’ to my nearest and dearest.
I still go.
It’s not actually hard to travel by myself, in many ways it’s easier. And, if I had to wait for someone to go with me, I would have never made it to the first country, let alone the 34th.
That’s okay though.
Because I learned a few things along the way, about myself, and about the world, that has made me enjoy travelling solo. Top of the list is, I like hanging out with myself.
I have discovered that I am always, without fail, more myself when I am travelling. If I had someone with me, watching, I probably would never ‘let myself go’ as freely as when there are no witnesses. Travel can be hard and often not pretty. Sometimes you have to crumble. Sometimes you don’t want your friends posting that on Facebook. Sometimes the only person that needs to know something…is you.
I also know that the world is just about always safe for solo travellers. When you are on your own, you become a curiosity to locals and are more likely to have truly significant interactions with them because of it. My most vibrant travel memories have been at the hands of locals, whether it was climbing through the abandoned cave cities of Cappadocia or drinking too much Palinka with a toothless Romanian gypsy. People helping me, just because they could, has restored my faith in humanity more than once!
On my return from Africa, someone asked me, “Were the people scary?” I laughed, “Um, yeah, at one point I thought I was going to suffocate from too many hugs.” (I’m lookin’ at you Malawi).
Lions are scary! But people? Nah.
I have faith that I will be okay while traipsing across the planet because arbitrary lines drawn in the sand may make a country, but people are people, no matter which border they sit behind.
I have also found a new tribe of travellers. They are out there, floating around the planet, with the same beating heart as me. These people are easiest to find the more I stray from the well-worn path.
I don’t mind the hard edges of a country, if those hard edges are inherent. I don’t think that I should necessarily have it better than the locals when I’m travelling through their world. I like to feel how people live, as close to their reality as I can. So do others.
As I was sitting on our truck rambling towards Namibia, I found myself sitting across the aisle from Rob. It was day 2, otherwise known as ‘still in small talk hell’.
“Soooo, you’re from where again?”
“Eng-a-land,” he said, stressing every syllable like he was teaching me the word.
I hate small talk.
Apparently, so did Rob.
So we skipped that, and went straight to the deeper stuff, and in the process, I realized I had found Traveller #1. Yes!
And there were more. Our diverse (read: wacky) group consisted of 20 people, ages 18 to 82, from 7 different countries. 12 of us were solo.
We camped where lions roam, among the bugs and snakes, at the edge of crocodile waters. We slept on top of the rocks at Spitzkoppe and walked into the emptiness of the desert under starry skies. We sang Africa by Toto at least 200 times. We made meals together, we helped each other. We teased and poked and joked. We dared and encouraged. We shared our Pringles and chocolate and Imodium. We talked about our families, our lives, our childhood, our parents, our fears.
We became a family.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. 14 years ago, I overlanded from Istanbul to Cairo where I met Jeremy, who is still in my life. In 2016, I went with Intrepid to Bolivia where I met Paul and Cassie. They are trying to figure out how to get their newborn baby on a plane for a visit. I’m pretty sure, at some point, someone from this Africa tour is going to come live in my attic.
Back home in Canada, people have asked me what my favourite part of the trip was. I have answered, unwaveringly, “The people I travelled with.”
Life is too precious to wait for someone else to join your adventure.
Inspired to take off on your very own solo adventure? Check out Intrepid’s range of group tours just for solo travellers.
(Image credits: first five c/o Carla Powell. Group shot c/o Danielle Harvey.)