Before my first big solo trip last summer, solo travel was something I eased into for a long time whether intentionally or unintentionally. Daytime wandering through foreign cities alone, breaking away from tour groups for a day or two and even a few times where I went to shows solo were all things that helped me build the confidence I needed to take a longer trip by myself.
As I wrote in my previous entry, about a year ago I went up to Seattle to visit some friends. I had five days and I wanted to devote two of them to Vancouver, Canada. One of my friends agreed to go with me, then backed out at the last minute. At first I was annoyed, but then she offered to let me use her car to go to Vancouver. I decided to look at it as an opportunity for a little mini solo road trip adventure.
After a long brunch with another friend, I picked up my friend’s car and ventured out into Washington’s damp nothingness. Even though I was still in my own country and going to a fairly similar country just a couple hours away, there was a sense of freedom that came with heading off into unknown territory by myself.
On my way, I decided to stop at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival (mentioned in my contribution to Tripbase’s “My 3 Best Kept Ttravel Secrets”). I didn’t really know where to go once I got to Skagit Valley, but as soon as I pulled off the highway, I found a visitor’s center where they gave me a map an all the information I needed. I know everyone likes flowers, but I love flowers. Probably more than the average person. So needless to say, the experience was thrilling, especially combined with a backdrop of snow covered mountain peaks, a perfect sky, and an old school barnyard here and there.
Back on the road, as I approached the border that same fantastic thrill of freedom crept up, but was squashed a bit by a long wait and silly border booth questions. After crossing the border, the biggest difference I noticed was that people drove much better in Canada than in Washington State.
Some rush hour traffic slowed me down, but in the late afternoon I finally approached the Granville Bridge and the part of Vancouver I’d be staying in. In the forefront, city buildings sparkled in the few rays of sunlight that shone between the clouds. Behind them were mountains that seemed to anchor the city.
Over the next couple of days, I wandered around the Sea Wall and Stanley Park and into little shops and restaurants. Everywhere, people were incredibly friendly without a hint of being fake. Militant “friendly” customer service drives me nuts in California, but in Vancouver there was genuineness to people’s helpfulness. When I entered any restaurant or cafe, I felt everyone treated me as if I had been going there for years. As I tried to navigate the city on foot, people would stop in the middle of the street to let me jaywalk. Vancouver was a nice combination of city energy and country interactions. Maybe it’s just the way things are done in Canada or maybe it’s that the proximity to and visibility of nature keeps people grounded.
As much as I love wandering cities alone during the day, I am a social person and always enjoy checking out the nightlife scene in the cities I visit. So on my second night, I signed up for a night out with hostel guests. A good chunk of the people at the hostel I stayed at seemed to be solo travelers. Some were passing through and many were staying in Vancouver to work for awhile. On the day I was leaving, I wasn’t in a rush but the weather was awful. I hung around the hostel and had conversations with my dorm roommates and people I’d met the night before until it was time to check out.
I think a bit of the fear of traveling solo comes from being used everyday routines and forgetting how travel accelerates social connections. One day you’ve never met a person and the next day you’re sleeping in a bunk above them, sharing meals with them and likely learning more about them than people you see everyday. Remembering this and that there are always going to be travelers who want to meet other travelers are key when it comes to overcoming the fear of solo travel. And the helpfulness of people in Skagit Valley reminded me that many people who live in more off the beaten path destinations tend to have a fundamental desire to share it with out of towners who happen to wander over. So while my short road trip to Vancouver was far from challenging, it was just the experience I needed to give me the courage to eventually book a solo trip to South America.