"Do you like to travel alone?" she asked, as we braced against the rail of a yacht circling San Diego Harbor.
"Yes," I replied. "For a while I do. Even when I am traveling with someone."
She understood, this young woman who recently had traveled alone to Seville to work on her dissertation. Now she was planning a summer trip to Canada with her husband and sons. This would be pure vacation. The balance pleased her.
On the Plus Side
Solo travel has merits. There is something more intense about the travel experience when the buffer of companionship is stripped away, when the comfort of the English language is erased.
Colors may seem more vivid in the gardens of Monet, or on the streets of Singapore, if you take those steps alone. Personal reflections, confrontations, triumphs and mistakes may be more deeply etched because they were not softened by a familiar voice or touch.
But traveling alone is not for many. Even Sir Edmund Hillary leaned on Tenzing Norgay in the conquest of Mt. Everest. Much depends on the individual: age, mood, health, energy level, spirit of adventure and willingness to be flexible, to be surprised, to be alone. You had better know yourself well if you're going to be your own best friend.
Much depends on the destination. I went with seven others to Morocco and found that was a jolly size for roving in that land. We filled a small van; we dined on traditional Moroccan food, from savory lamb to crisp pigeon pie, which never seems to come in portions for fewer than 12. I took time out to wander alone down narrow 9th-Century lanes, and through the marble majesty of the Saadian tombs of Marrakech, where ornately carved slabs are scattered like prayer rugs.
When I am traveling alone I need a focus, a subject that brightens my mornings and fills my day with discovery, a consuming and challenging reason to be where I am. This sense of purpose may be defined by the agenda of a conference, by the rich stores of a library. It may be framed by the fierce blue line of horizon and the pearly shells to be studied on a talcum beach.
Things happen to the solo voyager that do not happen as readily if you are with a friend, or with a tour. Strangers approach to give advice, offer rides, compliment your hat or inquire what you are doing. Some people say you should not speak to a perfect stranger, but if you don't, how do you know he is perfect? Or she? Whether you give a stranger the time of day often depends on the time of day.
Cafes and Bistros
I learned, when living alone in Buenos Aires, to carry a book or newspaper to the neighborhood cafe when I went out for supper. It made the meal last longer. It gave me somewhere to fix my gaze, other than on food, waiters or the crowd. This is a habit I cling to.
When traveling alone, I prefer sidewalk cafes or cozy bistros to formal dining rooms. I like the merry clatter and changing scene. As a woman alone, I often find it more pleasant to take a midday meal in some well-loved setting and then have an evening snack within a walk of my hotel. Sometimes, if I have bolstered my strength with sandwiches at teatime, I will skip dinner and munch apples or oranges in my room.
The in-house picnic works well in Madrid and other Latin cities where dinner does not begin to begin until 10 p.m. and a woman dining alone is so rare as to be suspect. Especially if her stomach is growling and echoing through a three-star, chandeliered hall.