There is a line from Oh, The Places You’ll Go! that often occurs to me while I’m traveling:
Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean feeling lonely (an important distinction, I think), but for most people, being alone tends to be an uncomfortable experience. We’re so used to being surrounded by family and friends, whether physically or electronically, that being alone can feel strange. It can feel overwhelming at times.
When you’re traveling, this feeling is amplified. Everything feels a little strange and uncomfortable, and so we might feel a little lonelier than usual. We feel the lack of family and friends more deeply than we would at home. It’s tempting to numb that loneliness by scrolling aimlessly through Facebook to see what everyone is up to back home and try to feel like we’re part of it. It can even make us feel guilty, like we’re not making the most of our experience – after all, we’re the ones who are supposed to be on the Big Adventure!
So what’s the best way to handle loneliness while traveling? I certainly don’t have any hard and fast answers, as it’s something I’ve often struggled with and still do. But I think the best thing you can do is immerse yourself fully into wherever you are. Whether it’s for a day or a week or a year, the place that you’re visiting is your home. That is the world that you’re inhabiting, and you should become part of it. Once you relieve yourself of the pressure that everything has to be exactly like it is back home, you immediately open yourself up to more opportunities.
That said, you’re not going to love every single place that you visit or even live. The time that I spent living in Malaysia was one of the loneliest, most difficult times in my life. But I’ve also never regretted going there. It ignited my passion for Southeast Asian culture, and allowed me the time and space to launch my freelance writing career. It was an isolating experience much of the time, but it also transformed me as a person (for the better, I’d like to think). I certainly would not have gone to Cambodia this time around had I not spent that time in Malaysia.
Like being alone, traveling can be an uncomfortable experience. It stretches you to live differently both physically and mentally, because you’re always having to adjust to your surroundings. It’s undoubtedly exciting, but it’s also exhausting. For that reason, I think that traveling and solitude go hand in hand. Being alone gives you the space to experience your surroundings more deeply, and learn things you might not have had you been with other people.
Was I nervous about going to Cambodia on my own? Sure. The prospect of taking all of this on by myself was definitely intimidating. But it turned out to be absolutely worth it.