Traveling Alone Will Teach You to Unlearn Yourself

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.

meeting friends when traveling alone
This FREE tip sheet will help you make friends while on the road!

I learned that I don’t like to breathe underwater, sure, but I also learned that I carried a lot of preconceived notions about myself that weren’t always accurate.

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.

And to listen to yourself. To really listen in a way that you may have never listened before.

Traveling Alone Will Teach You to Listen to Yourself

When I quit my job to travel the world alone, I did it while I was grieving the death of my partner to cancer.

Northwestern Football game
Me and my fiance, Jeff, before he was diagnosed with 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.

Meditating on Koh Tao on a solo trip to Thailand
I spent a lot of time thinking – and listening – on that beach in Koh Tao

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.

Solo Travel Inspiration
Pin for later!

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.

How to Travel Deeper

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.

Traveling Alone Will Teach You That it’s OK to Say “I Don’t Like This Place”

Sunset on Koh Tao in Thailand
Sunset at Crystal Dive Koh Tao. (Koh Tao means “Turtle Island,” hence the large turtle)

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.)

Sunset in Koh Tao on my solo trip to Thailand
Proper beach bums enjoying a sunset on Koh Tao

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 a few things about yourself, and find somewhere different to explore.

So I got the hell off that island.

Traveling Alone Will Teach You to Stop Being Surprised by Your Own Ability to Surprise Yourself

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.

Koh Phangan
A morning stretch on the island of Koh Phangan.

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?

Attending the full moon party alone
Ready to go to the Full-Moon Party!

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.

Attending the full moon party alone
Applying neon pain – a prerequisite for 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 Key Lesson of Traveling Alone

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.

If you liked this post, you will love my solo travel page. Some of those stories are below.

23 Comments on “Traveling Alone Will Teach You to Unlearn Yourself”

  1. This was such a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing this with us. I think it’s so important for us to accept unlearning things about ourselves as it is to learn them. I feel like I have done both of these when travelling too.

  2. I only had one solo trip in my life when my husband couldn’t take a leave from work, but it made me more self-confident and appeared to be not scary at all! It’s a pity diving wasn’t your thing, but it’s good that you can stop and leave if something doesn’t work for you. Not always possible when you travel in a group.

    • I’m so glad that you took a solo trip! I think people often associate solo with single…but that doesn’t have to be the case! I plan to write about how we should all travel solo even if we’re married with kids. (Ha. Maybe especially if that’s the case!) Thanks for reading!

  3. I think everyone should travel along for some period of time at some point in their life. I am sorry that you had to do it under these circumstances but I am glad for you that you’ve been able to get out there and learn some wonderful things about yourself. x

  4. How lovely to hear that travelling has helped you rediscover yourself after such a horrid time. Love the full moon party. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
    Continue to enjoy your travel 💕

    • Thank you, Rachel! I thought I would just hate that Full Moon Party, but I loved it. I guess that’s why we have to try! Thanks for reading. Safe travels!

  5. Thanks for sharing your story and your lessons. Sooo traveling is such a rewarding experience and so fulfilling. Everyone should try it at least once in their lifetime.

    • I completely agree, Tina! Everyone who loves travel should take at least one solo trip in a lifetime.

  6. I really enjoyed reading your post. It felt like a private conversation and I appreciate you could open up like that. Sorry you didn’t enjoy scuba diving though!! But you’re right, it’s not for everyone. And that festival looks so fun! Thanks for sharing.

    • Thank you so much for reading my post! I hope it serves as a bit of inspiration for those who are considering a solo trip. Safe travels, Arielle!

  7. This was such an interesting read and I couldn’t agree more! I learn (or rather unlearn) so much about myself while travelling, I think that’s why I like it so much. I never stop surprising myself what I can and sometimes even can’t do!

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  8. Pingback: Surfing and Sunflowers in Canggu, Bali | The Lens of Jen

  9. Jen, this is a great piece and tells the real story about travel and life— being open to new experiences but knowing when to bale! Sending hugs from freezing Chicago…Nina

  10. Pingback: Summer Camp at the Cave Lodge | The Lens of Jen

  11. Jen, I admire your bravery at ditching corporate America and have enjoyed reading about your adventures. I know we only met for a few days on one of Allison’s yoga retreats in Mexico but I feel I know you through your interesting, entertaining and sometimes heart breaking writing. I feel even more connected to your story about “life’s too short” and “seizing the moment” because I recently lost a friend of 20+ years to Glioblastoma (brain cancer). She was 49 and left behind her husband and 2 young kids. She had amazing zest for a life and contagious Joy and I still can’t believe I am never going to see her again, hear her laugh or hear one of her many jokes. I am glad to hear you are finding your way to heal. Thanks for sharing!

    • Gia,

      I saw the news on Facebook about your friend. I know quite personally that there are no words, though, please know that you’ve been in my thoughts and that I’m deeply sorry for your loss.

      For me, I turned to yoga and meditation and a book called “Awaken the Spirit Within”. I’m still searching for the person who sent me that book just as I was leaving for my four-month whirlwind through Europe. It just turned up in my mailbox with no note, and it changed me.

      Sometimes I think that moments like that are infused with a little nudge and love from beyond. I’ll never know, but it gives me comfort to think so.

      If you ever need anything (other than a good laugh at how much I suck at swimming and biking!), please don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m happy to chat at any time.

      Sending love,
      Jen

  12. Jen…Thanks for including us in your journey. My husband, Joe, and I are friends of Alan and Susan’s. I have know Susie since Bucknell, and we just returned from a trip to Arizona with them. I look forward to sharing in your adventures.

    Janie

    • Janie…You must have been in Arizona then when I heard from Susan who said…”hey, we all subscribe to your blog, but we never get an email.” Ha. I needed that kick in the pants! It turns out blogging is a lot of work!

      So, thank YOU both for the nudge to get going and for following along on my adventures.

      All the best,
      Jen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.