After my first study abroad trip to Kenya, I returned two years later to work as an intern for the same program. I gained Kenyan residency, so it cost very little to visit breathtaking national parks. We had month long breaks in between semesters. I could either stay on site, at a place I lived at year round, which was remote and isolated, or explore an amazing country. You know what I did! But it wasn’t easy. Even before I embarked on journeys, I had to develop some mindset shifts for traveling alone.
Throughout that year, I went across the country – from the eastern coastal island of Lamu to the Kakamega forest in the far west, often with no one to travel with. I even went by myself to trek the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, a country where the people speak French, of which I knew none of. These breaks and no protective “bubble” of study abroad forced me to travel alone. Now I’ve been to numerous countries by myself, and sometimes I prefer it. Here I share with you some of my favorite mindset shifts to help you travel alone.
1. Set Limitations, Especially as a Woman
Different countries have different rules both literally and figuratively. Things that may be okay for you to do in the United States may not be in other countries. You may not be able to blend in with the locals no matter how hard you try, which will cause you to stand out. I lived in Kenya for a year, and every time I went to Nairobi, because of my skin color, people always assumed I was just off the plane.
The biggest limitation I set for myself when I am truly alone is to not go out at night. For all of my nights in Nairobi and Mumbai, I was back at my hotel at sunset. Sometimes this meant getting to my hotel as early as 6:30 pm. While this may sound lame, being out alone was not a risk I was willing to take. Instead, I used my night time to plan the next day, read a lot, and journal about my travels.
As a woman, I would only plan “adventures” that I was truly doing by myself with groups. I might go to a new city or a beach by myself (places where there are lots of people), but I would not go to a national park and hike by myself (at least internationally). Even some forms of travel can be sketchy by yourself. For example, on my way to Kakamega Forest, I decided to take a bus with my boyfriend at the time to get there. He was Kenyan and the bus driver lied to him about our stop and what time we would be arriving at our destination. We therefore arrived in a very small town at about 4 am! Nothing was open and we had to wait on the streets. You do not want to be a woman waiting on the side of the road by yourself at 4 in the morning in a small town!
2. Recognize that Being Homesick/Lonely/Depressed is Normal
When you are traveling alone, it is really common to get lonely. Traveling alone definitely has its perks (you get to do what you want!), but you have to eat alone, explore alone, sightsee alone, etc. Just acknowledge that it is normal, and that your experience is temporary. You will have all the time in the world to be at home with your friends. Enjoy this time now experiencing new things in a new land that you will never see again. To avoid being lonely, you can try hostels or other locally owned cottages/small hotels. It’s a great way to meet other lone travelers and you can often hitch on to their travel adventures too, or come up with plans together.
3. Ask “What Can I Learn From This?”
When I was being picked up for work after my weeks off in Kenya, it would not be unusual to have my coworkers pick me up, literally 4 hours or more later than they told me they would. Kenya is a very different country than the USA and they have different cultural norms. Culturally, it is okay to be late in Kenya. They don’t view this as rude because so many things are outside of their control (e.g. busses break down), and they also take more time with people. When I would be picked up for work sometimes after semester breaks, I would be last on the list of my coworkers to-do list. They would make stops and it would be rude for them to not take the time to talk to people. I was left honestly waiting for hours.
I was not happy about waiting all of those extra hours, but would could I do? What would getting mad do? I looked as these opportunities as times to write in my journal and catch up on good books. Now, I also look at these opportunities to do things like mediate. You might think this can’t happen to you, but they can; your can can get stuck, your bus can break down. One of the biggest lessons in Kenya that I learned was patience. Always bring a book.
4. Don’t Complain
One morning during my student ambassador trip in Australia, we were eating breakfast in a fancy hotel. It was a buffet breakfast and I was eating some very soft scrambled eggs. I made a comment about the eggs being water-y. I didn’t mean it as a complaint, but I stated an observation, which in all honestly was probably annoying to hear. One of the group leaders proceeded to go on a rampage with an announcement to the group saying he was annoyed with all of us complaining and he used my scrambled eggs as an example. Maybe it wasn’t the best way to handle it (I was shamed), but I realized how right he was. We were in Australia. Why was I complaining about eggs?
Yes, I was 12 years old, but this taught me a valuable travel lesson. Things will be different (and this was MILDLY different) and you may not like everything, but complaining doesn’t help the situation. It annoys people and might offend locals depending on the complaint. Even if you are alone and no one will hear you, it will annoy you. A running internal dialogue of complaints is no way to experience a new country!
5. Sometimes You Have to Be (a Little) Rude
One of the biggest mindset shifts for traveling alone is sometimes being rude and just saying no thank you to people. A single female is a prime target for people to sell stuff to! While I highly recommend shopping from the locals and do it often, in some places you will literally get bombarded every time you walk out of your hotel to buy something. You could literally spend your whole day engaging with people trying to get out of buying something. When I really don’t want to be bothered, I just say “no thank you” no matter what the question is. “Where are you from?” “No thank you.” “What’s your name?” “No thank you.” “Where are you going?” “No thank you.” It may sound horribly rude, but I promise you, they are amazing at what they do and if you answer differently you will be wrapped into a 10 minute conversation (at the very least) or buying a boat trip/tour/necklace at the most. Sometimes you just cannot engage.
Those are the mindset shifts for traveling alone that I had to cultivate over 15 years of experience. These tips have truly made my travel experiences more rich and have helped me to grow as a person (except maybe the last one). Now that you have the mindset, if you need some courage, read “Getting the Courage to Travel Alone: 4 Steps to Take.”
Stephanie Schuttler is a wildlife biologist with 17 years of experience in mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her inspirational story, “My Unexpected Journey Into Science” to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology. Feel free to contact Stephanie here.