When I finally looked up at the gothic belfry of Big Ben, during a trip four years in the making, I was profoundly disappointed. Was I doing something wrong? Why wasn’t its grandeur as life-changing as I’d expected it to be? Travelling alone was meant to be a self-actualising adventure of a lifetime, as everyone had said.
It wasn’t. I was just looking at a fucking belltower.
Like so many highschool graduates, I subscribed to the notion that life began when school ended. Growing up queer in an Evangelical school had made me want to run far away, so I saved up throughout my adolescence, planning a European getaway to experience the emotional liberation that so many articles and stories had foretold. I planned relentlessly, overhearing quixotic recounts from ex-solo-backpackers who — I later realised — were only divulging 5 per cent of their journeys, leaving out the unglamorous remainder.
The internet is saturated with idealised depictions of backpacking solo: travel guides, itineraries, retrospectives, and Instagrammable selfies push any dissenting opinions deep into the recesses of the Google algorithm. Interlaced amongst images of lone backpackers in beautiful landscapes or cities, you’ll find subheadings about discovering amazing hostels and hidden cultural gems off the beaten track. Naturally, the page always ended in an advertisement for their ‘Guide to Backpacking Europe’ paperback.
These sites totally neglect the melancholy of solo travel. If they do imply a modicum of sadness, they’ll sugarcoat it so much that you’ll somehow look forward to feeling it. One site even suggests it might be the best part of the trip.
On my first day, sitting on the concrete steps of Trafalgar Square, I realised the extent to which I’d been misled when the reality of my isolation sunk in. Everyone I knew was 17,000 kilometres away; my family, my friends, my boyfriend, and my entire support network were incomprehensibly distant. This wasn’t liberating at all. I still felt like an outsider, and my crushed expectations now stewed in an ocean of homesickness, making everything worse.
With wide-open bunk beds and shared bathrooms, don’t expect your hostel to provide much emotional respite. I found it nearly impossible to decompress when some burly man could burst in at any moment and ask if I had any cigarettes. The most privacy you’ll get will be bathrooms, and even then someone is often hacking up phlegm or wrestling with last night’s curry. I’d highly recommend the basement toilet of the Omniplex Cinema in Galway for a peaceful cry.
Despite the trials of hostels, their temporary residents often provided me with some solace. Between gulps of cheap cider we’d tell our stories, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable because we knew we’d never see each other again. I miss the friends I made overseas dearly, some of whom were so fleeting that I didn’t get their contact information (Michael the urban planner from The Hague, please contact me if you happen to be reading Sydney University’s illustrious newspaper).
However, these travellers often (albeit unintentionally) othered me, gasping as they found out I was soloing at eighteen and remarking on how far I was from home — like reminding me fucking helped. But, regardless of age, we all shared having left something to be here, whether that was highschool, university or something else.
I’m doubtful that any of us found what we were looking for. Early into the trip you’ll realise that the meaning of life isn’t found in a tin of couscous eaten on a street curb. It’s unlikely you’ll have life-changing epiphanies, so don’t think you’ll find a Shakespeare-worthy beginning to a new act in your personal development.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret travelling solo. I’ll never forget fulfilling my insatiable appetite for history with a private tour of the Somme battlefields or exploring the desolate Aran Islands off the coast of Ireland. Internally, I mostly conquered my anxious overthinking of social interactions, allowing me to feel content with my friendships back home.
Additionally, if you asked me how my trip was I’d rave about these wonderful experiences I had. I would just skip some of the details. I’d tell you about slipping onto a guided tour of Westminster Abbey, but I wouldn’t tell you about having to walk for two hours to find an accessible tube station. I’d rant about my newly-kindled love of France, but skip the prolonged mental breakdown caused by the Parisian airline losing my backpack. I too am part of the problem, spreading these false narratives.
Once you fly home, you’ll be equipped with amazing stories and experiences, but let’s start being honest about the reality of solo travel. Much of the time you’ll be bored, lonely, overwhelmed, and stressed, feeling guilty that your trip isn’t life-altering and amazing. So if you plan to travel alone, expect no profound, life-altering wonderment while gazing up at Big Ben. Be okay with just thinking “that’s cool”, and walking away to continue your journey.