Just back from teaching a Wilderness Medicine course. This is my 4th year directing the course, and every year I learn a ton. On this particular trip, I found myself in a conversation with some well-travelled senior medical students. We discussed one of my favorite subjects: traveling alone.
Sweeping generalization, but for many folks in the US (men and women) traveling alone carries a negative connotation, like “why would you ever want to do that; isn’t it lonely?” Turns out, when you travel on your own, if you’re open to it, you find a whole community of like-minded people that have caught the same bug. The trademark of that bug is taking great pleasure in meeting new people, especially locals in a strange land. Traveling solo is a green light to interesting, real and sometimes downright intimate conversations with locals or other solo travelers, reminiscent of the types of conversations people have on a strenuous hike or a long run (what happens on the trail stays on the trail…). I’m not saying people traveling in couples or groups can’t meet others on the road; of course they can. And I certainly have. I’m just saying it’s different when you’re on the road alone.
My students asked about my own solo travel, so I pitched them one of my favorites. It was a long weekend I spent in the Basque Country where after a few short hours of checking in early at a Pension in San Sebastian, I found myself invited by the hostess to join her and her family on the beach for the day. It could have been the early morning calm of the quaint Basque beach town, or maybe the fact that Leire, the pension hostess, wore a cervical spine soft collar (and being a curious EM physician I inquired), but somehow, in those 2 hours of whispered conversation in the pension parlor, Leire and I became fast friends. We dove into each other’s stories, all in hushed tones to avoid waking up any guests (and Leire’s mother who also lived at the pension). By 11am, when my room was ready, Leire laid out several San Sebastian options for me, full of food, wine, tours, beach, but the most enticing part was hanging out with Leire and the gang.
By the end of my 4-day weekend, I wanted to stay on with my surrogate Basque family; they made it one of my fondest memories of all time. Some of that was my alone time, running early in the mornings to the Peine de los Vientos or surfing at Zurriola Beach.
Some of it was the food:
But mostly, it was the people I met, and the way we were able to connect.
To this day, I am in touch with them and another solo traveler passing through the pension. Moreover, I look forward to the day that my San Sebastian friends visit me here in the states. Enter Couch Surfers…
So after telling this story, one of my students asked if I ever couch surfed. The answer was yes, but not in the way she meant. I meant, I’d crashed once or twice, in a prolonged way, with family members when I was “in between” abodes or doing away rotations in medical school. Couch Surfing as she meant it, is a way to stay inexpensively (and by inexpensively I mean free) with locals who are interested in hosting visitors. You register with the site much as you would create a Facebook profile, only the questions are slightly more intimate. This system gets you seeing new places with the guidance of locals, and if you’ve ever had that experience over the Lonely Planet itineraries, you know it’s something special. You can also choose to host visitors in your own city. Furthermore, many cities have Couchsurfing Meet-ups where you can mingle with like-minded folks who like to get out there and do it. The question of safety is addressed as it is with other meet-up sites; supported by the reviews that never disappear – negative or positive, and don’t give your phone number out until you’ve met your host in a public place and have a real life sense of who it is you’re staying with.
The point of this post is not to say that traveling is better alone – no way. But, if you’ve got the itch to go, and there’s no one to go with you, why miss out? In fact, If you go it alone, it just might be the trip of a lifetime.