India has a history of solo travellers. In the 8th century BCE, the first mention of sramanas pops up. These were mendicants, holy men, and wanderers outside the pale of society and its rituals. In the Rig Veda, they have a unique title which means both naked and girdled with the wind.
Now, their fashion choices don’t concern me . But the metaphorical interpretation of being girdled with the wind does. It can be interpreted as being in constant motion. I feel that they were on to a good thing.
Think also of the solo travelers who were doing with reed and papyrus what I’m doing with keyboard and Word docs – creating travel narratives. Faxian in the 4th century, for example. Dude walked from Ancient China to Ancient India to get a few copies of Buddhist texts. His travelogues are a great source of information about the time and place. Not entirely trustworthy (he wrote that the original inhabitants of Sri Lanka were dragons. I’m open to the idea but, mate, I don’t think so). And he lived to the age of 85 (walking is good for you. I’ll write about that another time). Faxian wasn’t alone. There were also Xuanzang a couple of centuries later, travelling to Nalanda to study, and Ibn Battuta on a pilgrimage in the 13th century.
We know a fair amount about our history and culture thanks to these adventurous folk who were willing to put in a huge amount of labour for knowledge. Faxian wanted books, Xuanzang wanted to go to university, and Ibn Battuta was on a pilgrimage of sorts. Isn’t that amazing!
What I realise, as I think about them, is that solo travelers rarely set out to terrorize and invade. To do that, you need to be in groups. Then you can take over a place and total it. Difficult if you’re solo.
And isn’t solo traveling a good metaphor for life? (Excuse me, if it’s been done to death). But, you get a solo return ticket out of your mum. Even when you’re twins.
Now that I’ve set up the historical context of it, and explained why it’s not weird at all, here’s why I think present day solo travel makes a huge amount of sense. Even if the world, like Melisandre’s night, “is dark and full of terrors.” It was more so back in the day when dragons inhabited Sri Lanka.
Travel is great for anyone. It’s good to get out and see the world. And here’s why it is especially worthwhile as a solo endeavour.
- You fire new synapses in your brain
Literally. Brain wiring is sensitive to change, as research has proved. And a change of surroundings, of company, of usual habits can help your brain work new cells. What makes it especially potent in the context of solo travel is you are in the midst of this new-ness (of place, people, food, weather, etc).
And as a solo traveler you’re more likely to make the following choices – book an Airbnb in the old city or a hostel rather than a resort, talk to locals, try out recommendations. This might read like an assumption but you are likely, when solo, to yolo. I mean prioritizing adventure over comfort.
This is critical to rewiring the brain. Adam Galinsky, a Columbia professor who researches the connections between creativity and travel, argues that simply going abroad is not going to trigger creativity, but immersing yourself in the local culture will.
- You get confidence
Speaking from experience here. As one of the more introverted and awkward people on the planet, traveling solo was a challenge. Just asking for second helpings during dinner at a host’s place, figuring out the train schedule, getting lost and then finding your way, all give you a sense that you can survive challenges, and that you are capable. On your own. As you are.
Solo travel certainly has done that for me. And that quiet confidence is what you can take back to your everyday life and struggles. Life is all the better for it.
- You are the boss
Daily life takes away a sense of control, doesn’t it? Just booking a cab and the driver cancelling because it’s not a cash trip, taking meetings or calls scheduled for odd hours, or being dragged to family functions you could not care less about. It reminds me of the Zen parable, ‘Ask the horse!’
That changes when you travel solo. You have to appreciate the number of choices that become available to you: where you stay, when you wake up, whether to order soup for breakfast or scrambled eggs for dinner, which sight you see, whether to talk or stay silent all day, . . . everything is your decision!
Guaranteed to make you feel like you can breathe a free air.
- You are away from all the drama
All the drama of arguments about where to go, what to do, when to do it, why were you snoring, go away. As does the hustle of everyday life.
Like that time I was in Udaipur and went for lunch to a cafe that brightly advertised its Trip Advisor credentials only to be really put off by the lunch. But now I know. And I didn’t blame myself for it. So it was all chill.
Solo, you don’t spend a lot of valuable vacay time arguing about the agenda for the day. There is often no agenda for the day.
- You find out who you are
While on a work trip to Philadelphia in 2016, I was steadfastly avoiding beef and pork, because of my Hindu upbringing. However, one breakfast had a nice bagel with scrambled eggs on offer. With the first bite, I realised that it was as advertised with something extra. Later, I found that extra flavour was bacon.
Now, my brain busied itself. Part of me was like, “You weren’t supposed to eat bacon. That’s bad karma.” The other part pleaded, “But I didn’t know. . . “
On the whole, what I found out was I keep away from certain things (alcohol, certain meats) because it’s not a big deal to me, and it makes my family happy. Also, that my religious beliefs are not built on fear. Most importantly, it made me realise that I don’t like bacon (count until 10 before you react, please).
That was a lot of learning for the price of a breakfast. When you travel, if you’re open and let the light in, you’ll see the shape of yourself – that rare thing the sramanas were looking for. And that in itself makes it worth the whole experience.
What say you about solo travel? Do you always need a Samwise to your Frodo? Or are you happiest in your own company?