When my brother set off for his backpacking adventure in the 80’s I was at Melbourne’s Airport blubbering. His friends thought I was going to miss him. But no. I was howling because he was going, and not me.
Decades on and history had repeated itself. This time I was seeing off my 18-year-old son. He was off for the summer, backpacking through Europe. My concern for him was stabbed with feelings of jealousy. Why did the males in the family have all the adventures? What about me? When would I ever get to travel solo?
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve travelled. Family holidays. A week here or there away with others. I’ve been to Fiji, Bali and Singapore, 10 days in China and even a month in New Zealand. But these were dashes between parenting, working and caring for an aging parent.
After my mother died, realisation hit. Life is short. Better get going. What would it be like to travel on one’s own? To be totally self-reliant? To spend days doing exactly as one pleased? On impulse, I walked into a travel agent. Just to make an inquiry, mind you. That same evening, I answered the usual dinnertime question, 'What did you do today?' My reply, 'Oh, umm, I bought an airline ticket. I’m leaving next month, flying into London and out of Edinburgh and I’ll be gone seven weeks.'
My son looked miffed but continued to hoe into his food. This was not the normal behaviour of the mother who made his dinner and proofed his uni assignments. I looked across at my husband. Plumes of smoke steamed from his ears. 'You mean you’re going without me?'
Now, don’t get me wrong. My husband is fun to travel with but we have totally different versions of getaways. My interests are arts and culture. He likes wedging himself behind a steering wheel and heading for Surfers. The marriage may have been made in heaven but traipsing together on earth is a completely different matter.
And so, I found myself being the one waved off at the airport. The males in the family definitely weren’t sobbing. Not only had I used my son’s travel agent (I’m probably the oldest person to use Student Travel) but also, I’d borrowed his backpack. Thankfully it had wheels, which I took full advantage of as soon as the departure doors thudded shut and I was safely out of sight. My husband’s parting words were still ringing in my ears: 'Just remember, if anything goes wrong, we can always come get you.' His lifeline seemed disconcerting rather than comforting. A reminder that I was 72 hours away from any family help and reliant on the kindness of strangers. But heck, there are some pretty nice strangers out there.
The Kindness of Strangers
Lots of people adopted me on my travels. There was the lovely local I met at the country train station. It wasn’t just her company or the welcoming cup of tea she bought me at the station café but also her help in finding lifts to tote that bloody backpack up to street level. There were my beautiful Stourbridge Airbnb hosts who took me everywhere with them; country fairs, local pubs, and into their house for a home cooked meal of faggots – stuffed intestines – and peas. (A mixed blessing perhaps but a memorable one.)
In transit at Abu Dhabi airport I lost my passport. The gruff airline official warned me, 'No passport. No board plane.' A female employee saw the look of dread on my face and, under his disapproving glare, left her station to help me track it down. When I took her hand in thanks, she grasped mine, and then, kissed me on the cheek. This was my first brush with a Burka and one of the kindest women I have ever met.
Like A Home Away From Home
Many women over 50 prefer backpackers’ hostels, but these were outside my comfort zone. I chose Airbnbs, which ranged from about $47 to $110 per night. While Airbnb has received some flack in the past, the ones I stayed in were all uniformly fantastic. I chose those run by single women. There was always someone to natter with and to help with my itinerary. And, sliding into a double, or sometimes even a king-sized bed, between crisply-ironed sheets after a day of traipsing was a luxury only other weary travellers could ever attest to.
My Airbnb highlight was in Glasgow. At 6am there was a knock on the door and there stood wee Margaret in her tartan pyjamas with a tray of plunger coffee and toast. 'No one leaves my house without breakfast,' she said. In her other hand was a dinky pink lunchbox. She’d packed me freshly-cut sandwiches, home-made shortbreads and little treats including a kindie sized bottle of water.
My day of gaping at Highland lochs, glens and Jamie country were all the more fulfilling because of her kindness. It also felt like payback for all the times I’d laboured over kids’ school lunches at the crack of dawn.
The kind of bathroom you don't mind sharing. Airbnb, Edinburgh.
Photo by Nadine Cresswell-Myatt.
I admit to it. I’m navigationally challenged. But, thankfully, I’ve befriended technology. On trains I used an app that not only bought the tickets for me but counted down the stations. When I hired a car for two weeks Google Maps and Siri were my constant companions. Imagine driving along the M3, that notoriously dangerous motorway. You don’t know the area, it’s sheeting rain, you’re trapped between hurtling trucks and perilous roadworks prevent you from pulling over. Suddenly your petrol light flashes on. I screamed: 'Petrol' and Siri heard my call. It was another half-an-hour’s drive, with me hyperventilating all the way, but she got me to that bowser.
The Dining Dilemma
Solo dining is perhaps the only real negative about independent travel. While people often eat breakfast and lunch alone, dinner tends to be a social occasion. And, in the midst of couples holding hands across tables and large groups of animated friends, you can start to feel like the odd woman out. This was brought home to me in the Lake District, the holiday mecca for couples. As I left the restaurant I heard a woman whisper to her partner: 'Poor thing. She’s on her own. Her husband must be dead!'
I admit to being a bit of a compulsive instagrammer and checker of emails over such meals. A librarian friend enjoys her own company in the form of book. One of my more out-there friends simply fronts other people she sees eating alone and asks them – 'Can I join you?' A number of my friends tend to have their main meal at lunch. At night they enjoy the sanctuary of their rooms curled up with a picnic of local delicacies. One night I ordered a home delivery of one of Glasgow’s famous Indian curries. Admittedly, wee Margaret wouldn’t let me eat it until she’d warmed my dinner plate.
England has more stairs than an Escher print, so choose your
luggage wisely. Photo by Nadine Cresswell-Myatt.
The Perks of Travelling Solo
The benefits of solo travelling far outweigh the minor negative of eating dinners alone. Imagine full days where you can do entirely what you want. For me it was historical or literary pilgrimages. Give me days of visiting a famous writer’s home, local Arts and Crafts pubs, English tearooms, musty castles and I am in tourist heaven. Intersperse all that with places to watch the world go by while I buried myself in some digital nomad writing work and the world really did become my idea of heaven.
Travelling alone teaches you self-reliance. You become your own best friend and perhaps that friendship has been a long time coming. You also meet more people travelling on your own. So pack a good book, make friends with Siri, and don’t take your son’s backpack, even to make a point. As the proverb goes, 'a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,' and that first step just might be as small as stepping into a travel agent.
Written by Nadine Cresswell-Myatt.
Nadine Cresswell-Myatt is a travel, food and opinion writer and trainer at Open Colleges. She has been a contributor to The Age and Sunday Age, and The Canberra Times, and is currently writing for the GAB – Australian Food and Travel blog, and Weekend Notes.