We are waiting for our ride to a desert island. This is not a private island party with the super-rich but an informal gathering of pretty much everyone in the tiny village of Neiafu, in the unknown archipelago of Vava’u, in Tonga. The island is owned by a couple who are building an eco-lodge. I expect fine sand, coconut trees, laughter and some tents from those who decided to spend the night on the island and wake up to the sound of solitude.
The local kids are bemused, laughing at us and playing with these few foreigners in their beautiful land. They have yet to learn what shame is.
It is getting dark, the sun setting behind the horizon and the full moon, about to rise. Fast. Although it is still very early, hours before dinner time in Spain, it feels as if we are approaching midnight.
Time has a new meaning in the Pacific. Or should I say, time has no meaning. The boat will arrive when it does and nobody seems bothered. After 6 weeks in the area, I, too, couldn’t care less. I don’t wear a watch and I have learned that the sun, not a ticking wrist-accessory, is what determines life here.
The boat is nothing more than a fishermen’s tool and we are not dressed up for a fancy party, we are wearing shorts, flip flops, a tan for make-up and a few props. We tuck into the boat and cruise to the island. It is absolutely dark by the time we are at sea but you can distinguish several tiny islets all around us. The captain finds the way, he proves that he can navigate the area with his eyes closed.
The full moon provides guiding light and our eyes have accustomed to the darkness when we finally arrive. Approaching this slice of paradise brings memories of summer in Spain. From the distance, the music and the lights give a Mediterranean vibe.
There is already a small building with a roof and a DJ, looking very professional, spins international music for all palates. The attendees drink whatever they brought from town and dance, like no one is watching.
Fast forward to 2015. I finally decide that I should re-read the diary that I kept for my entire Pacific adventure. Eight weeks of practically solo travel with a small battered notebook as companion. Evening writing was a soothing and reflective time which I treasured. It is thanks to those pages that I can re-live the moments lived so vividly.
In the disconnection and isolation of the island party is when Damo said to me: “Everybody is dancing, like no one is watching”. I read these words, which I seem to have remarked upon three times during my week in Tonga, and I finally understand what it is that makes solo travel so special and so powerful: the freedom to be just who you are, anew.
I have been reflecting on the reasons that lure me into solo travel a lot recently. It is when I started finding myself secretly preferring to go places alone that I realized that solo travel wasn’t relegated to being the Plan B but was, indeed, my preference in certain trips.
It was all in those words: “Dance like no one’s watching” – Be yourself, freely, devoid of any attachment and independent of any prejudice or pre-conceived notion.
Traveling solo affords you that because of three reasons.
Firstly, you are open to the world. That means that you are observant of everything that happens around you. You don’t get distracted by the conversations had with someone else, you watch, you look, you smell, you hear and you take it all in. By doing that, you learn about new perspectives, you inquire, you become curious. Solo travel means you are not scared of asking or of interacting with other people. And you have every opportunity to do so. A single traveler is approachable and interesting. People want to know why you are traveling alone, what brought you to their land, what you have learned.
Being open also means having the opportunity to inquire, innocently. When somebody doesn’t know anything about you or your background they are less likely to be offended by a culturally insensitive comment. I am not saying you should empty your mind without thinking but that, as a foreigner in a foreign land and, as a solo traveler, the courage to take over the world will give you a wildcard to be curious. And, who knows, a question may lead to an invitation.
Secondly, when you are surrounded by people you know you are likely going to behave like your old self. There is no chance to simply be or to re-set those expectations because the ones around you have a preconception of who you are built over years that will push you towards your old self. But everyone needs to let go. Traveling solo is like rebelling against the person you have become and trying to return to the one you want to be. It feels s good. And as my friend says, if it feels good, why stop it?
In Tonga, I knew nobody. In the eyes of everyone around me, I had no past or future. They just knew where I came from and what my name was. They knew I was traveling solo and they had formed an opinion based on the previous couple of days. They didn’t know anything about my career, about my person or about my financial standing. There was no pigeonholing me into any category, I was just myself and I was only what they had seen. They didn’t know that back home I would wear suits to work everyday, they didn’t know I spent hours in planes every week, flying Business Class, to some exotic destination. They had no idea I had a successful and glamorous career. They couldn’t tell I can’t draw and I am inherently averse to risk-taking and irrational adventures. I could be as silly as I am and I could dress and look like everyone else. I fit in, with a group of people completely different to me, I was happy without the societal pre-conceptions of what I should say, do, eat, dress or behave like. Traveling solo allows you to return to who you truly want to be without the expectations of who you have become.
Thirdly, solo travel is freedom in its most essential form. I used to be the type of traveler that plans every-single-moment. I had itineraries of all the places I wanted to see, booked excursions, planned dinners, breakfast and lunches. I had a fully packed itinerary at every destination. And I knew everything about every place. I had to. After all, I had very limited time off and a long wish-list of places to see and things to do. Over time, I realized that that type of traveling did not leave any chance for serendipity to occur. There was no down time, no relaxation and limited interaction with locals. And in those interactions, I was after something, I had an objective. I either wanted to buy something or hear a story or ask all the questions I had mentally written down. I did not just seek to let a destination or a trip teach me, I sought to extract everything it had.
I slowly evolved into the other end of the spectrum. As a solo traveler, I do the absolute opposite. I let the world tell me what to do and my plans are determined by my mood, by the weather and by the chance of something unexpected happening. And I don’t have to let anyone else decide for me, I don’t need to compromise and I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. It may sound selfish but it is incredibly freeing. I wake up to see the sunrise if I want to and I can go to bed after sunset.
This is why solo travelers get the most out of their trips: they are not afraid to take over the world as if no one is watching and, that, is a powerful and addictive medicine.
If you’d like to read more of my travel reflections, check these posts…
- Experiencing expat culture shock with the expat sub-culture
- Travel Stories Part 7: Moments that will restore your faith in humanity
- Travel Stories Part 1: Moments that will restore your faith in humanity
- Travel Stories Part 3: Moments that will restore your faith in humanity
- The Perpetual Tourist on shark diving and endless youth