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Three and half years ago, I packed my life into a suitcase and set off on a solo adventure around the world, going home only for a brief break over the holidays to repack my suitcase, give some long overdue hugs to my family, and split some long-awaited bottles of wine with friends.
Once back home, I am often asked:
I simply shrug and give my honest answer:
Cancer changes everything
After my fiancé died of cancer, I’ve come to accept that I will sometimes feel lonely even when surrounded by family in my hometown of Portland or laughing with friends in my adopted city of Chicago.
In fact, I sometimes feel more lonely when I am at home — a place where I built a life with someone who just isn’t here anymore.
I am working through bouts of unpredictable fury that are framed by long stretches of gratitude for every day that I am gifted on this planet. These are feelings that I must navigate no matter where I am on this planet.
This isn’t to imply that making the decision to work through these volatile emotions on the road — rather than with my support network — is an easy one. No, there were times that I was seriously worried that I would collapse under the weight of my own grief in an unknown country where I had nobody to call.
But, if losing my lover taught me anything, it’s that life is too damn short to postpone dreams — even for one day.
So, I set off to fulfill my dream to see the world, fully expecting to be awed by my experiences while simultaneously enduring periods of exceptional loneliness.
Ups and downs
I’ve certainly had days when I needed to pick myself up off of the floor. It’s key to note that I had to pick myself up because there was nobody else to do it but me. And, as strange as it may sound, I needed this imposed self-reliance. I needed to prove to myself that I could be alone again.
It’s also important to note that every step of the way, I have met a fellow traveler or a friendly local who has taught me something new about the world and about myself. These connections have sustained me.
A new friend in Kuala Lumpur explained it this way:
It’s true. Out here on the road, I meet women and men of all ages who just want to share a drink, tell a life story or two, and maybe experience a travel day together. We eagerly share stories of heartbreak that we might hide away at home — all with no expectation other than friendship.
I hopped on my first harrowing Tuk-Tuk ride and rode taxi boats through Bangkok with a 40-something New Yorker recovering from a divorce, rode my first scooter on the Thai island of Koh Phangan behind a 20-something Canadian still healing from the sudden death of his mother, and took the strangest boat ride I’ve ever been on in Indonesia with a 30-something Hollander still reeling from providing the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation that would ultimately save her husband’s life.
In the same way that we can pass by a botanical garden in our hometown without so much as a glance, but we will travel to great lengths to see the same flowers on display in another country, we search for beauty in the faces and in the lives of our fellow travelers who we might pass by without so much as a nod back home.
So, while Shakespeare’s Juliet contends that a rose by any other name smells just as sweet, I would argue that a flower in a foreign land smells just a bit sweeter.
In our daily lives, we hide behind cell phone screens when we are on the train, at the bar, or finding a date; on the road, we crave face-to-face human interaction, and, once found, we truly listen to the stories that we hear.
It’s easier to meet people traveling solo
In the end, I don’t feel more lonely while traveling solo. In fact, I have started using cliched air quotes when calling myself a “solo” traveler. Because I’m alone out here only if I want to be.
I have learned far too much from the people I’ve met who share beautiful bits of wisdom to stop listening now.
For instance, if I hadn’t listened to the story of that 20-something Canadian who lost his mother to a sudden brain aneurysm, I wouldn’t have heard him put into words something that I have written about at length, but never hit on so simply or so profoundly.
With just one sentence, before tearing off on his scooter down a dusty path on one of Thailand’s islands, he summed up the reason that I am spending so much time traveling the world solo:
About the Author
Hi! I’m Jen!
I’m a freelance writer and travel blogger who quit my nine-to-five after my fiancé, Jeff, died of cancer at the age of 40. When he died, I realized that life is just too short to delay our dreams. Since my dream was to travel and write, I now travel and write full-time. Today I wear hiking boots instead of heels and collect experiences instead of things.