By the time I woke up at 4:30 a.m. and realized that the bus that was supposed to carry me on the first leg of my journey to the airport had been rerouted, I was well-versed in the many trials and tribulations of travel. Standing at the bus stop alone, I silently cursed myself for not thinking ahead — if this flight home, last of my six-week-long trip, was the only one that I missed, it would cast a huge shadow over the otherwise largely successful trip.
As darkness covered London, I trudged to the nearest tube station, only to discover that the first Northern line train wouldn’t be running until 7:00 a.m. — knocking another option off of my “transportation to airport” list. This time, my silent cursing of myself was related to the fact that I had only $40 left in my bank account, which was not enough to hail a cab to the airport, either. My only available option was to walk the mile to Waterloo Station and hope to find some other running tube line.
As sunlight began to color the city and I walked on the empty streets, I thought back to my first darkness-filled travel day and how differently I had felt about being alone in an unknown place back then.
On that first evening, I took a cab, but even that didn’t ease my anxiety. The driver, despite his superior knowledge of the city, was clearly lost. We had looped around the same neighborhood about three times, unable to locate the small side street where my friend’s empty apartment awaited me. Night was falling, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that I was getting scared. Images flashed through my mind of solo female travelers being abducted in faraway places or getting lost and stranded in unknown cities. My phone, normally a handy tool, was rendered useless by the outrageous data roaming fees (although I have to admit I was tempted to use it nonetheless — this was an emergency, right?), and the mazelike organization of the Athenian streets was disorienting compared to the straightforward grid system of my home.
Eventually, by then the clock reading 11 p.m. and the streets shrouded in darkness, we found the building, the key hidden precisely where they said it would be. I quickly ushered myself in, craving the comfort of walls and a door to protect me from the unknown city outside. As I threw my backpacks on the ground and allowed my tense body to relax into the couch, what exactly I had gotten myself into started to dawn on me — I felt supremely alone, and it occurred to me that I would be for the next five weeks.
Walking through London at the tail end of those five weeks, I realized how silly I had been. At the beginning, I had conflated being alone with the feeling of loneliness, but now I knew that although the two were not mutually exclusive, I almost never felt them in combination. While I had been alone in many places, I had rarely felt truly lonely.
And despite my continued state of being alone, I seldom felt the fear about it that I did that first night. I quickly learned that while unknown cities can be hard to navigate, they aren’t rife with unknown horrors. And once I gave in to the fact that I would be alone while traversing the continent, I enjoyed them all the more. I relished the feeling of wandering at my own pace — discovering things that piqued my interest and partaking in activities that I truly had a desire to.
Before I traveled alone, people told me how dangerous it would be to be a woman on her own in an unknown place — how people would try and steal from me, take advantage of me and lead me astray. But the more I trekked across Europe, the more I realized that the opposite was more true. Nearly every person I met along the way was helpful, accommodating and eager to meet new people and embark on new adventures.
And in the many hostels and homes that I stayed in, I met women who had traveled or were traveling alone — astonishing women who over and over again impressed me with their strength, courage and independence. I discovered that navigating a city alone is the best way to learn about oneself and the world at large. It opens up opportunities to meet new people and try new things — free of the whims and desires of others. Most of all, though, traveling alone provided me with confidence in and understanding of my own abilities. I learned that eating alone with a book can be enjoyable, that walking home from a club in Berlin at 3 a.m. can be cathartic and that visiting historical sites alone can be more meaningful than visiting them in a pack.
If you had asked me that first night in Athens if I would make it to the airport on that London morning given the circumstances, I would have told you that there was no way. But as those five weeks passed, I came to understand that solitude and darkness were not things to be afraid of, just merely different conditions of experience — and that lucidity is something that one can only learn through the undertaking of solo travel.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion columnists have been selected.
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