So far, solo, so what?

Deviance editor Nine is no shrinking violet these days, perhaps never was. Here she recounts how she overcame the fear of travelling alone

Feature by Nine | 19 Oct 2008

After a delayed flight I landed in Munich, a city where I didn’t know a soul. It was late at night. I followed the directions I’d been e-mailed: train, bus, another bus. Except the second bus didn’t work out – I saw it leaving just as I was getting off the first, and although I didn’t have a watch to compare with the timetable, it looked like it had been the last one scheduled. I had no phone, no map, and only a smattering of pidgin German. There was nothing for it but to follow in the same direction on foot, and hope for the best: that it would lead me to the Kafe Kult, the punk venue I’d contacted after booking my flights. Happily, I found it sometime after midnight. There was something kind of invigorating about being in an unknown place far from home and figuring stuff out by myself.

When I was a teenager, travel was scary. I wanted to do it but I didn’t have much by way of self-confidence. I was afraid I’d wind up hopelessly out of my depth. I felt awkward around people even as I was trying to perform my whole charade of “I am eighteen and I’m cool and I know it all”. I believed, without even trying it out first, that I would be useless at navigating, so I had to meekly follow whoever I was with. Plus, enough scare stories abounded that I pretty much expected to be mugged or abducted at every turn. It’s possible I was sick with nerves the first time I took a transatlantic flight on my own, not trusting that I could even make it to my friend’s suburban home without incident.

It’s not like I’m jet-setting all over the world these days, jungle-trekking and skydiving and whatnot. Still, travel has become something I’m always ready to do at a moment’s notice, and solo travel is a particular victory. I’m open to the unexpected diversions that come from chance encounters; for all the times that I glare out the window with a sullen look on my face, hoping that no-one will ask me to move my belongings from the adjacent seat, I know that I could be moments away from great conversation, a new friend, a lift home, a place to crash. I’ve learned that people are actually very nice, and when they’re not, I can trust my instincts to warn me about it. If there’s going to be some kind of spanner in the works, I’m not going to be the one panicking - coming up with a back-up plan is one of my favourite things to do.

I guess it didn’t take long for me to work out that a fully planned out holiday would be far too safe for me. I built up confidence and stopped being so timid as I started to travel more, adapting to unforeseen circumstances. It was a lot more fun to push my boundaries and open myself up to less common experiences – and plus, it gave me better stories to tell. It seemed reasonable, a few days after my nineteenth birthday, to cross England on a motorbike with someone I met on the internet. It seemed appropriate to hitch to London for my friend’s funeral. It seemed convenient to bluff my way onto a Dublin-Prestwick flight with a fake name, no ID and a hastily improvised signature (note: kids, don’t try this one at home). When I went to Japan for the first time, it was to visit someone I’d met on the overnight bus from Edinburgh to London. When I wanted to catch my favourite band on their European tour, the piddling detail of not knowing anybody in Munich wasn’t about to stop me – the punk scene could help me out. And last year, when I just plain needed a break, I took the plunge and booked the first affordable flights I found – Bergen, it turned out – knowing I could later use to find someone to stay with.

Sometimes in the middle of these experiences, I pause and think: wow, younger-me thought she couldn’t handle this stuff. But isn’t this part of the independent lifestyle I’d always dreamed of? So why didn’t I think I could actually do it? I know plenty of people who could never entertain the prospect of opening their home to someone they’ve never met before, or who won’t travel anywhere unless they can afford to pay for accommodation. Reasonable concerns, I guess – we all have our own boundaries – but I’m relieved not to be thus limited. Since learning to adapt to surprises, to put a little trust in the unknown, and to have faith in my own capacity to make it happen, my travel experiences have been richer.