Beating Loneliness on the Road

by Suzanne Scala

There are some people who seem to make friends everywhere, effortlessly. They head off alone to the supermarket and come back with a new buddy. They go on vacation and return with invitations to stay at the homes of people they met there. Such extroverted people likely won’t need to read this article.

For the rest of us, traveling alone can be daunting; the thought of perhaps not talking to anyone for a week or two can be enough to make you rethink the whole idea. Granted, some solitude can be wonderful. When you travel alone, you get to do whatever you’d like all the time. The eternal vacation struggles over where to go, what time you’d like to leave in the morning or how late to stay up are simply nonexistent. If you want to wake up at the crack of dawn to be the first person through the door of the Hummel doll museum, there’s no one around to complain.

I embarked upon a solo trip to Madrid last year with some trepidation. How would I make friends? Would all that time alone turn me into a recluse? Would I be the only person eating alone in a restaurant? My trip turned out even better than I had expected. I found that, alone, I paid more attention to details and experienced artwork more deeply. I was more aware of the street life around me. I noticed bent old women chatting as they wheeled their carts to the market. I recall standing transfixed in front of Picasso’s Guernica and carefully sketching the pattern etched on a fountain in the museum garden.

In the midst of all this, though, the spectre of loneliness did appear. After a few days alone in Madrid, I felt a bit starved for companionship. I had a tiny cell of a room at a hotel and, not being naturally extroverted, I hadn’t managed to meet anyone in the city. Before I became totally unfit for human society, I headed up to Santiago de Compostela and enrolled myself in a language school that offered home stays. After that, I was seldom lonely, since many of the other students in the school were also alone and looking for companionship.

Below are some general tips for beating loneliness while traveling alone.

Stay in a Hostel
Don’t make my mistake! Inexpensive hotels offer isolated single rooms, but hostels offer more opportunities for interaction with other travelers at the comparatively small price of sharing a room with others. Many hostels have communal television or computer rooms. Some even have bars! Your hostel is a good place to meet a traveling companion or just find someone to check out the nightlife with. Online hostel booking services are a good places to turn for locations, rates and reviews of hostels the world over.

Classes
If you’re staying in a place for a fairly long period of time, taking a class can be a good way to meet people. A language class will introduce you to foreigners like yourself, many of whom will also be in the country alone. Other kinds of classes (yoga, cooking, wine tasting, etc) can be good ways to meet natives.

A Short-Term Romance
I have heard more than one story of quick backpacker liaisons in romantic foreign locales. One friend spent a memorable week motor biking around Capri with a perfectly unsuitable man from Iowa. Or if you’re staying in one place, a short tryst with someone from the area might also be a fun way to keep loneliness at bay. If you feel the need for firm plans, why not take out or respond to a local personals ad?

Write
Keeping a journal or a web log (or writing for Bootsnall!) is another good way to beat loneliness. When I kept a travel blog, I felt less lonely just knowing that my friends and family at home were keeping up with my adventures. Plus, instead of feeling isolated when sightseeing or wandering around, I kept in mind that I was collecting information for future log entries.

Religion
If religion is a part of your life, a trip to the local church, synagogue, shrine or mosque will connect you with like-minded locals. A friend found a whole social network in Italy by volunteering at a local church-run soup kitchen.

Volunteering
Finding a place to offer your services is yet another way to meet people. While a web search will turn up dozens of independent opportunities, organizations like Amizade organize more structured programs for volunteering abroad.