We solo travelers like to say that you will learn a lot about yourself when you travel alone. Though I completely agree, I think it’s more accurate to say that traveling alone will teach you to unlearn yourself.
Here’s what I mean:
I couldn’t wait to learn to scuba dive while traveling solo in Thailand. But within two days of arriving on the island of Koh Tao, I threw in my fins and quit my open-water dive course.
Yep. I’m a scuba-school dropout.
I learned that I don’t like to breathe underwater, sure, but I also learned that I carried a lot of preconceived notions about what I should do in Thailand rather than seeking out the activities that I wanted to do in Thailand.
When we travel alone, we learn to listen to ourselves in a way that we’ve never really listened before.
When I quit my job to travel the world alone, I did it while I was grieving the death of my partner to cancer.
It is an understatement to say that I was doing a lot of thinking while I wandered the world.
But that doesn’t mean that I knew how to really listen to myself. Honestly, I think I learned that lesson in a dive-school classroom in Koh Tao – some seven months into my solo adventure.
On day one of the classroom lessons of the PADI Open-Water Course at Crystal Dive Koh Tao, we learned the importance of always having your “buddy,” your dive partner, in your sight.
That’s when I looked around in horror, was anybody else in that room alone? Answer: no.
Shit. I had no buddy. It was such a simple thing but, at that moment, my grief was triggered.
I was up all night wrestling with the idea of dropping out, but I didn’t want to fail. So I returned with trepidation the next day to find that I was paired up with a group of five (very) young friends.
My assigned buddy was a quick study and a water lover. I, on the other hand, need to read every bit of the instructions carefully, and I need to mess it up before I get it right.
It would be fair to say that my nervous approach to the whole endeavor was like a lead weight to my buddy’s buoyant enthusiasm. After a day of feeling like a floundering, drowning idiot, I decided to drop out of dive school.
It was seriously disappointing and not just because the course fee was nonrefundable. I felt like I let myself down. I had failed.
My habit was to chastise myself rather than to really listen to my mind and my body. But in Koh Tao, I listened. I thought back over the class and, for the first time, acknowledged that my grief could be triggered by something simple. Something so simple as the buddy system.
When I looked around for a possible scuba buddy on the first day of dive school and nobody met my eye, the full weight of the fact that my buddy – my dive partner, my life partner – is gone hit me hard in the chest.
It was difficult to breathe at all, let alone breathe underwater. And you can’t float when you’re drowning in grief.
I write constantly about the idea that life-changing moments occur outside of our comfort zones and, for me, scuba diving was definitely outside of that zone of comfort. I am glad I tried it.
But rather than guilt myself for quitting, I realized that I should have quit earlier. I should have listened to my body when I was triggered, and I should have searched for comfort at that moment and tried scuba diving another day. It wasn’t the time to push myself. It was the time to listen.
With a whole lot of time to think on that beach, I unlearned my ingrained habit of chastising myself for failure, and I learned to search within myself for the reason that I might be drowning.
I didn’t like Koh Tao. That was the first time that I ever really admitted when I didn’t like a travel destination.
Now, it’s possible that I was just adjusting to island life since Koh Tao was the first of the Thailand islands that I visited. I mean, by the time I finally left the islands for the mountains of northern Thailand, my sunburned skin was bronzed, my makeup was forgotten, and I had embraced the fact that my stupidly thick hair was never going to be truly dry.
In those first days on Koh Tao, at the beginning of my 45-day solo tour of Thailand, my wetsuit irritated my constant sunburn, I was still trying to use a credit card in an entirely cash economy, and I hadn’t yet learned to take my shoes off before entering a store or to throw tissue in the bin instead of the toilet. (Click here for the 10 key things I learned about traveling in Thailand.)
But the reality is that it wasn’t just an adjustment. Koh Tao is a place for true beach bums. The kind of folks who look good in wetsuits, whose hair naturally dries in soft curls around their shoulders, and who seem born to surf or play the guitar on the sand.
I had this preconceived notion that I would love learning to scuba dive among the beach bums of Koh Tao. And I hated it.
But the beauty of traveling alone is that you don’t have to pretend to like a place if you really don’t jive with it. You can give it an honest try, sip a last beer on the beach, thank the place for teaching you to unlearn yourself and find somewhere different to explore.
So I got the hell off that island.
I left Koh Tao for the neighboring island of Koh Phangan and found an entirely different vibe that was much more my style.
While Koh Tao felt almost pretentious about being unpretentious in its “beach bum only” attitude, Koh Phangan felt like a tiny little country where you could find people who loved to dive, but also people who loved yoga, or hiking, or skinny dipping at sunrise.
My only plan on Koh Phangan was to attend the legendary Full-Moon Party and, after my experience in Koh Tao, I was nervous about going to a party alone. In fact, I was only going to the thing because I knew how much my late partner would have loved the Full-Moon Party.
My goal during my solo-travel adventure was to step outside of my comfort zone in an effort to see the world the way that Jeff saw the world. And he saw life as a neon-colored opportunity to dance.
So, despite the fact that I have always insisted that I hate crowds and festivals, I went.
And guess what?
I loved it. I loved every part of that flame-throwing, neon-colored night.
The truth is that, if not for Jeff, I would have missed out on an experience that I’ll always remember fondly because I thought I would hate it. I had a preconceived notion about myself that because I don’t love crowds, I wouldn’t love the Full-Moon Party.
And I was wrong. Today I go to festivals and concerts with open-armed, open-hearted joy. If I don’t like that particular event, I don’t blame it all events with crowds, and I just leave.
I unlearned my hate for crowds in Thailand.
The moral of this story is that, while we cannot entirely chuck away the emotional baggage that we carry with us, solo traveling will teach us to do away with the preconceived notions that we have of ourselves and to really listen to who we are.
Traveling alone is like unwrapping a gift when you think you know what’s inside, but finding that what really lies inside is so much better than what you imagined.
Traveling alone will teach you to unlearn yourself.