“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it.”
Freya Stark, Baghdad Sketches (1932)
Packing all of your belongings onto your back and setting off with just a Lonely Planet guidebook in hand has become a modern rite of passage amongst twenty-somethings looking to ‘find themselves’ and avoid the responsibilities that come with ‘real life’.
University students travel alongside career-breakers and school leavers for the classic grand tour of Europe and ‘gringo trails’ of South America, as well as paving their own path off the already-beaten track. Along the way they meet like-minded individuals from across the globe, rub shoulders with the locals to live off an unthinkable budget, and learn more about the world than can possibly be taught within the confines of a classroom.
Yet many young people are put off from taking part in this life-changing adventure for lack of a travel companion, with their peers caught up in jobs, internships, and life. But what this group do not realise is that there is another option available to them: solitary travel. And this option could actually be viewed as a blessing rather than a curse.
Travelling solo opens up a whole world of new possibilities, free from the restraints that a constant companion can bring. Alone, you can decide your own route and timetable, set your own budget and, most significantly, be free to fully engage with the new culture that you are facing. It gives you the chance to stop and think, to strike up conversations with strangers on a bus, and to feel like you are leading your own pioneering expedition of discovery. And it’s through these slight pauses, these momentary encounters, that you learn to see things through another’s eyes.
Announcing to friends and relatives that you have planned a solo trip might, however, leave you at first greeted by myriad concerns for your safety, as worried voices fret about crime and the dangers associated with cultural misunderstandings. Yet with forethought, consideration, and awareness it is easy to plan a trip which satisfies both your craving for adventure and your parents’ fears for your life…
- Learn the lingo
Whilst it is unreasonable to expect anyone to reach anything near competency in the number of languages that would be necessary for the average backpacking trip, everyone can remember a couple of phrases. Just being able to greet people in their native tongue can earn you that much-needed favour in your hour of need, and being able to comprehend signs may stop you ending up on a night bus to the opposite end of the country.
- Book a night in advance
As appealing as it is to allow yourself the flexibility of booking nothing in advance, you may regret that policy when you find yourself in a new city at night without accommodation. Reserving just one night ahead gives you the safety of being able to get off the streets, whilst not taking away from your wandering ideal.
- Dress conservatively
As much as we would like it not to be so, in most cultures assumptions will be made based on the clothes that you wear. Adhering to local customs, especially in religious buildings, and covering up more than at home is likely to give a better impression of your native culture and leave you more welcome, and thus safer, within the community.
- Stay in the centre
When searching for hostels always look them up on Google StreetView before booking. Avoid staying in commercial areas which will be dark and empty at night, in favour of streets full of restaurants and bars which will remain busy and lit up until the early hours.
- Avoid unmarked taxis
As should already go without saying, never get into an unlicensed taxi that you have hailed on the street. Reports range from drivers pulling up for bags to be snatched from the boot to violent robberies and assaults, so always ask your hostel or restaurant to ring a trusted company for you.
- Wear a money belt
Keep anything valuable, as well as some extra cash, underneath your clothes, meaning that you won’t be left destitute in case of a pickpocketing or mugging. Also make sure to have copies of your passport and other important documents stored away from the originals in another safe place.
- Never accept anything
Unless you know the person well, never accept any offerings from people on the street. Whilst this may seem like obvious advice in the case of food and drink, in some countries even leaflets handed out have been found to contain skin-penetrating chemicals with the aim of sedating the recipient to aid a robbery.
- Put your valuables in the hold
If you are taking a long distance bus ride, particularly if the journey is overnight, think about putting any valuable items into the hold instead of carrying them on as hand luggage. Robberies are normally carried out by passengers on the bus who will usually demand your small bag but not get as far as the hold, meaning that you can minimise your loss by only keeping the essentials for the journey with you.
- Listen to the locals
Pay attention to any advice that you are given by the locals as to where or what to avoid, as well as noting their dress and behaviour. They know the city and the culture far better than you do and following their customs and warnings is invaluable in keeping safe. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice either – people love to talk about their home!
- Remember: people are nice!
And that leads perfectly onto the fact that the most important thing to remember is that people are essentially good. The vast majority of people that you meet on your travels will want to chat to you, learn about you culture and language, and help you to enjoy your trip. Trust your instincts but relax and enjoy yourself too – talk to new people, listen to their stories, and discover things for yourself.