I sit here writing this article in balmy Vanuatu, having spent the day snorkelling amongst the most beautiful marine life, dining at a café overlooking the harbour and capped the day off by falling asleep on the beach with my trashy book in hand. I am a physician who happens to be female and one who travels alone. I have a self-diagnosed clinical syndrome termed ‘wanderlust’ that has pleasantly plagued me for the past three years. This syndrome presented late and was insidious with clinical signs that are now apparent to all my family and friends.
My foray into solo travel began in 2013 and will serve as an introduction to this article. I had just started my first year of physician training when I left a relationship that was toxic to both my soul and mind. Then my father fell horribly sick. To top it off, I was balancing this with an extremely demanding career of caring for other sick people. It occurred to me one starry night, at 2AM, while sitting alone on my front porch swing. I was fatigued, the sort of fatigue no amount of sleep can abate.
The next day I walked into the medical director’s office and requested to take three months off work. Getting into a medical training programme is not an easy task and taking a whole three months off meant that I would have to delay my specialty exit exams by a full year and along with it, opportunities to subspecialise and leave myself exposed to the mounting levels of competition each year brings. To top it all off, there is no guarantee one can pass their medical specialty exit exams at the first go. My colleagues stared at me as though I was mad. Why waste time? My answer was: Why rush?
I secured the three months off but what followed was, what now?
Let’s volunteer, I thought. So I booked myself into a hostel for a month and volunteered in a primary care community clinic about half an hour from Krabi, Thailand. That was my first ever experience travelling solo. This was followed with a few weeks around London. I was officially hooked; since then my solo travels have ranged from local Bundaberg to far flung Glasgow to the bright lights of New York.
It has been three years now and I have just passed my exit exams, at first go.
I have also since been a strong advocate of solo travel. It has changed me in the most remarkable of ways.
To my surprise, I encountered much resistance along the way and I have narrowed down the sources to two main categories.
The first are those closest to you and the second are strangers – from my (rightfully so) worried parents, to my current partner who tells me I am ‘weird’ for visiting such a romantic island on my own, and even my dentist who exclaimed: “You are too independent, young lady!”
If not for the fact that my innate self-control has been well exercised via multiple solo trips, I would have clamped down onto his fingers. The idea of this highly-educated, barely middle-aged healthcare professional telling me I was too independent revolted me to my very core. Would this statement be casually flung upon a male counterpart who was going to travel solo? I think not. It would instead have been: Enjoy yourself mate! Why does the word ‘independent’ hold a negative connotation when it comes to women?
This resistance is also encountered in the form of judgement, and unfortunately largely from other females, especially in the more rural spots. It is indeed a very odd phenomenon; I once, in my own naivety, thought I would be welcomed with open arms by any females who came to learn that I was travelling alone. After all, isn’t this world a big and bad enough place for us females?
I thought I would attempt to encapsulate the essential reasons behind solo travel and why everyone should try it, at least once.
What could be worse than fear? Regret.
Travelling solo allows you to do something that scares you, and it can be as menial as catching a local bus which I have just done in Port Vila, Vanuatu or sitting alone in a fancy restaurant ordering a three-course meal, or something daredevil like skydiving.
The conquering of this fear translates to a sense of confidence that not only encourages you to dream further but more importantly, to explore those dreams. This is how pioneers are born.
Independence or loneliness? That’s divided merely by a matter of opinion
Solo travel encourages you to face something most people would rather die than face: Loneliness. You are, most of the time, surrounded by other couples, families or a gaggle of friends just hanging out. It can be awkward sitting alone in a beautiful restaurant or being the only passenger without a partner in a group tour. People often stare and you imagine they’re thinking along the lines of: What is wrong with her? Does she have body odour? Is she a serial killer or worse, is she a really dull conversationalist?
Let me assure you it doesn’t matter how good you smell, how normal you are or how fantastic a social butterfly you can be. You may still get those looks. It is occasionally made much worse when a waitress or tour guide screams at the top of his/her lungs: TABLE FOR ONE? JUST YOU ALONE?
Soon enough though, you will get past that and start to enjoy the solitude of your mind or the lack of consultation required before you visit a new attraction. Battling loneliness, overcoming it AND enjoying it changes you. It moulds you to live with your greatest enemy and friend – yourself. That is how warriors are born.
Retrospective insight, a girl’s best friend
Finally, it allows for self-reflection in all facets of life. Many underestimate the importance of this. They don’t realise that this retrospective review promotes insight, which I believe is an essential tool for change and for improvement. It inspires future goals and a sense of self-worth that is invaluable to any woman.
Never have my 5- and 10-year plans been so clear. Never have I come to such astute awareness of my strengths and weaknesses as a partner, what I can bring to the table and what I require from a partner. This has allowed me to put in dedicated strategies for my future in both career and financial planning. It has also resulted in me being with a man who not only loves me for my personality and looks, but one who respects my goals and aspirations. That is how leaders are born.
So to all like-minded women reading this, I congratulate you if you are at a stage where you have trailed this path less travelled. For those who are at the brink, I implore you – do it wisely and there will be no regrets. A quote I favour: It always seems impossible, until it is done.
Signing off before another day of snorkelling, seafood BBQ and cave hunting in Vanuatu.
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