For a while there solo travel was just taking off, the world around it was small, but filled with honest wonder. More and more people were stepping out of their comfort zones, pushing their self-imposed boundaries, and returning with exalted promises to travel alone more often. Countless blogs and travel columns were dedicated to the trend, packed with sound advice and heartening tales, imploring travellers to step out alone and unencumbered.
That was then. Today Instagram has replaced blogs for advice and inspiration both.
A quick look at #solotravel on Instagram today throws up a random collage of attractive women in bikinis and influencers (models?) advertising haute couture on a beach or against stunning mountains in the background. I’d clearly missed the memo because, in my experience, travel – let alone solo travel – didn’t look like this. Today’s solo travel diaries seem less about looking inward and more about a photo opportunity. In the real world travelling solo is equal parts frustration and wonder, but you can’t find this easily on the photo sharing app. Instead, there’s carefully curated diary replete with perfect selfies, flowing dresses, gorgeous landscapes, fit physiques, and a smattering of smiling locals in the frame.
Instagram is adept at hiding the grime and projecting an aspirational view of solo travel. But solo travel has always inherently been about pushing the limits to engage with yourself and the outer world on a deeper level. So where are the learnings, failings and words of encouragement?
The challenges of solo travel remain the same as ever but now social media adds an additional layer of obscurity to the art of winging it alone. Solo in the time of social media is not what it seems. The glossy, jet-setting ways of influencers are not what the average traveller is likely to experience on their trips. Frustrations at missed connections. An uneasy feeling of arriving at a daunting new place after dark. The niggling unsurety about the overly friendly stranger. None of these truths find their way to social media in the same torrent as the images of striking beaches, resorts, horizons, and more. This is a great disservice because solo travel is very much like a bitter gourd. It’s not for everyone, but it is excellent, if you take the time to truly appreciate the flavour.
With my timeline saturated with perfectly curated images, I am left wondering how a single, hackneyed narrative replaced the stories that ran the whole gamut of emotions?
Solo travel is not the answer to all of life’s quandaries (it never has been). But its many virtues remain as relevant as ever. You learn to do things alone, without waiting for company. As a culture, we place companionship above independence and look askance at people who are fiercely (or quietly) independent. The self-reliance and self-confidence that stems from knowing you can handle your own responsibilities is invaluable, in travel and in life.
All of my adult life I dreamed of visiting remote corners in Mongolia. I had travelled solo in India, but remote, international territories was a daunting prospect. Over months of planning, a friend and I bought several guidebooks and put together a plan, and I was giddy with excitement. A day before we were due to catch the flight, my friend backed out due to an unavoidable situation. Talk about Murphy’s Law.
I sulked and seethed with furious intensity, for a week before deciding to reschedule my trip and go it alone. I ended up having the time of my life.
So yes, please venture out solo, undeterred by the odds, because there’s plenty to redeem any dispiriting obstacles that may come in your way. Instagram won’t show you this but the most significant gift solo travel gives you is knowing yourself a little bit better than before. And that, is always worth any challenge.
Neelima Vallangi is freelance travel writer and photographer specialising in offbeat and adventure travel features.