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The beauty of solo travel

Solo travel

Solo travel (Michael Robinson Chavez, Los Angeles Times)

I have been a professional travel writer for nearly six years, which requires not only frequent travel but frequent solo travel. I have explored Hawaii alone, France, Mexico, several Caribbean islands and nearly 40 U.S. states.

When someone asks about my job, the first or second question is almost always the same: "Don't you get lonely traveling alone?"

The answer is as simple as it is honest: no.

But I find the inevitability of the question interesting and suspect it betrays a certain cultural bias that says constant stimulation, activity and companionship are necessary for rich living. When it comes to travel, I argue the opposite: quiet and solitude can teach us about the world and ourselves.

I relish the comfort and camaraderie of travel with friends, family or a significant other. But we spend so much time insulated in the familiar — people, places, routines, even the same route to work every day — that solo travel can force us to act and think with refreshing clarity. Not only do we find excitement and adventure when traveling alone, we discover what excitement and adventure mean to us.

Whether it is a road trip across the state or wandering around an unfamiliar continent, solo travel jars us in a way that isn't always comfortable but that can bring growth, knowledge and a bravery that lasts much longer than a refrigerator magnet.

Traveling solo is a beautiful monarchy; we do what we want when we want. If I don't want to go to the Louvre in Paris, I don't (and I didn't). No negotiation, no explanation. Compromise is inherently necessary in a civil society, but a little selfishness can be liberating; there is no better time than when being inundated with new experiences.

But my favorite part of traveling alone isn't solitude (though I will forever tout its merits), it's being exposed to the new: new perspectives, new experiences and new people.

Because we are largely social creatures, traveling alone inevitably leads us to form new relationships. We pass a delightful couple of hours with some of those people and never see them again (even if they won't be forgotten). Others we know forever.

On a recent trip to Hawaii, I was preparing to hike a grueling trail on an obscure island when I met a couple from Oahu at the trailhead. The female half of the couple asked if I was hiking alone. I said I was, and she said, "Great, we'll hike with you!"

The three of us spent that Saturday bounding through the lush Hawaiian jungle, chatting, laughing and learning about people we didn't know existed 24 hours earlier. Would I have met them if I were traveling with someone else? Maybe. But I doubt I would have spent a joyful day with them. I probably would have retreated into the familiar.

Weeks later, the couple alerted me that they found jobs in the city where I live. Now they're my new friends at home. And I only met them because I was traveling alone.

I suspect the bias against — or more accurately, fear of — solo travel is so ingrained that I invite you to share a brief (emphasis on brief) story of an encounter or experience you had while traveling alone that likely happened only because you were alone. I will print responses in a future column.

jbnoel@tribune.com

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