5 things solo travel has taught me
I have just returned from a 10 day solo trip to Russia, Estonia and Sweden and I've learned a few things along the way. As I was in the planning stages of this trip, almost everyone I knew expressed some reservations about the wisdom of this undertaking. Hell, even as I was on the road, people looked at me like I was crazy, or called me brave, when I told them what I was up to.
1. Sometimes it's A-ok to stand out.
One of my big concerns while planning this trip was tied to whether my race would make me a target. Would I be safe as a Black woman traveling to Russia alone? In the end, I think the fact that I was alone and looked so different endeared me to many of the people I met along the way. As a result, people really went out of their way to help me. Police officers dug deep and gave directions in what little English they had, passerby on the street pulled out google maps when my data plan ran out to give directions, and little old Russian ladies expertly guided to hidden church entrances.
2. Being alone is a lot less scary than we make it out to be. Embrace it.
Yes, you will sit in full restaurants on a Friday night and eat by yourself. But it also means that you're more likely to get a table in all the best places with no reservation. Being in a place where communication is extremely difficult means you spend a lot of time thinking. When you're as talkative as I am, that quiet introspection can seem daunting. And then you get over it. You read more about where you are, figure out the next place you're going to visit and get on with it.
I went to dinner, tea, the opera and jazz clubs. I made friends as I went along, and refused to deny myself new experiences just because I didn't have a buddy tagging along. Most importantly, traveling alone gave me the freedom and space to step back and disengage which I think we should all do more often.
3. Escape from your bubble
Most travel is a step out of your comfort zone. And depending on how you do it and where you go, that step can be greater or smaller. For example, have you ever seen a group of Americans traveling who are super loud, obnoxious and oblivious of their surroundings? Well, I'm convinced that's mostly because those folks are so firmly rooted in their comfort zone, in a bubble of English menus and tourist attractions carefully designed to replicate the familiarity of home while integrating some element of novelty, that they never fully take in their surroundings. There is nothing like traveling alone, as a stranger (in every sense of the term) on the outside looking in trying to piece it all together.
Stepping out of my bubble meant I was able to talk to people I ordinarily wouldn't have. For example, in Moscow I met Klara, a Swede, and Siobhan, an Australian. We had a blast in Moscow and then met up again in St. Petersburg. When we met up in St Petersburg, they introduced me to more people, and I was able to go visit another attraction with one of them.
In my hostel in St. Petersburg, I had amazing conversations with Katia. Her Russian language skills also came in duper handy when I booked my bus ticket (see point 5). I met Raymond and Dulcie, two Brits in the street. After bonding on the treacherous ice and holding on to each other to keep from falling, we visited the cathedral of the Sacred blood together.
4. Smile and embrace what people share
For some reason what I saw of Russia, Estonia and Sweden included a whole lot of non smiling people. I'm tempted to nickname Russia the land of Bitch Resting Face. My first reaction to all of the scowling was to bring whatever joy I could to each and every person I interacted with. And guess what? They all smiled back. Babies cooed, little old ladies waved and young soldiers gave directions on a freezing bridge. I think that a huge part of what made this trip so much fun was the warmth I got from people -- many whom I was completely unable to communicate with.
I think smiling also got people to tell me stories about themselves, their families and their hopes for the future. So much has been made of the Cold War and how different Americans and Russians or Eastern Europeans are. But in the end, I find that were remarkably similar. We have hopes and dreams, and complicated family histories. One woman I talked to was born to parents and grand parents who had been deported to Siberia. What surprised me most was that despite being Estonian, she harbored no ill will towards Russia for what had happened. I also had a two hour conversation via google translate with Liana on the train from Moscow. This was super funny, but extremely enlightening as she told me about where she was from and what she hoped to accomplish. It was also funny to see someone born the same year I was, interested in similar music and art express the same exasperation with government that many of my peers have.
5. Have a plan, and have a back-up
My initial plan was to head from St Petersburg to Helsinki by train, explore for a day and head to Tallinn by ferry. Then I got a text message from the ferry company telling me the ferry was cancelled. If I had been anywhere else I could have waited an extra day and just left later.
But Russian visa was issued for a specific number of days, and overstaying would have meant having to get some sort of exit visa -- something both expensive and time consuming. I had to leave immediately and not be stuck in Helsinki where accommodation is pretty scarce and expensive. Luckily I'd read about the bus lines that head from St Petersburg to Tallinn and was able to book at the last minute. That said, had I not had any inkling of what my plan B could be, things would have been far more complicated