Not so very long ago, if you’d asked me my opinion about solo travel it wouldn’t have been an entirely positive one. For a long time I traveled with other people be it with my partner or part of a group and I honestly never thought of myself as a solo traveler. I always saw them as intrepid backpackers, going around the world on a gap tour or something similar. But of course that’s not reality. No, the reality of travel in 2017 is that more and more of us are solo travelers and as I looked back on the last few years of travel, I suddenly realized that the vast majority of my travels have been as a solo traveler. More than that though, I also realized that some of my most important, most impactful travel experiences have been while I was alone. Left only with my thoughts and the purity of the moment, there have been some travel experiences that go beyond the norm and have helped shape who I am today. So I thought I’d share some of those moments, those instances of clarity when a trip became so much more than just a nice holiday.
While not a religious person per se, I am a spiritual one and learning about the world’s religions has always fascinated me. While traveling in Jerusalem, it was impossible not to be lured in by the most important sites for three different religious, including the Via Dolorosa. The Path of Suffering, these are the Stations of the Cross, the path Jesus took as he was forced to walk through the city with the cross on his back. We’ve all seen the depiction hundreds of times, but in Jerusalem you can walk the very path itself as it winds from the Lion’s Gate to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Think about that for a moment. The sites and places in Jerusalem are the real deal. These are the places we’ve all spent our lives learning about whether you’re Christian, Jewish or Muslim and to be there, to visit these oh so important places is almost too much to process intellectually. That was a recurring theme for me throughout my time in this most ancient city but by the end of the trip it had all resonated and I think changed me for the better. While I may not necessarily believe every word of scripture, I do appreciate the intent with which it was written and it was deeply humbling to be there in Jerusalem, undergoing my own sort of personal pilgrimage.
Standing on the banks of the Charente River in southwestern France on a drizzly May afternoon, I tried to concentrate as my tour guide explained the architectural marvels of the bridge that loomed high above my head. But I was barely listening. All I could think about was the phone call I’d just received. Five minutes earlier, my boss had told me he thought I was on the wrong track in life; that being a Washington DC lobbyist probably wasn’t the best use of my skills. Standing there, as a light mist fell from French skies, I agreed to resign from my job. Still numb, I made some excuse to leave the tour group, sat in my rental car and sobbed. What had just happened? It was a life changing moment in every sense of the word and although I didn’t realize it at the time, it was the firm closure of one chapter of my life and the beginning of a very exciting new one.
When I was 22, newly graduated from college, I used all of my meager savings and spent a month backpacking around the UK – England and Scotland to be more specific. I’d never done anything like that before. It was my first time backpacking, traveling internationally alone and while I was scared out of my mind, I had never been more excited. It was a lonely month, 30 days with my thoughts as my only companion. Sure, I met folks in hostels and on the road, but I was mostly alone and that was fine with me. I was at a personal crossroads, about to enter graduate school and uncertain about my own future. I also hadn’t come out of the closet yet, and was dealing with that mental torture simultaneously. But the UK cleared my mind. Gone were the thoughts of exams and family woes and in their place a certain mental freshness, a reawakening that I so desperately needed. There’s a lot to be said for solo travel, and that experience forever changed my life.
Hippos snoring in Africa
My first trip to sub-Saharan Africa was an epic one, as it is for most first-time visitors. There is something special, almost infectious about this part of the world whether you go on safari, scale Mt. Kilimanjaro or experience cities like Cape Town. One particular special moment happened though when I woke up in the middle of the night while floating on the Chobe River in between Botswana and Namibia. One of the most remarkable experiences of my life, the entire luxury cruise in this special part of the world was extraordinary, but listening to the sounds of hippos mere feet from the boat was something that changed me almost instantly. Alone with my thoughts, the magnitude of the situation fully hit home. There, in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Africa was about as far away from The Familiar as I’d ever been and I treasured every moment of it.
Standing on top of the world in Antarctica
If any continent lures travelers with the promise of special moments, it’s Antarctica. Hard to reach and hard to travel around it’s one of the last few truly adventurous trips still available to us in the modern era. My own trip to Antarctica did indeed deliver those unique moments in spades. Aside from the impossibly cute (and slightly dirty) penguins though, it’s the seemingly impenetrable landscapes that impressed me the most. After hiking up a snowy switchback path to the top of a hill, I was met with one of the most impressive scenes I’ve ever witnessed. The icy waters extended into the horizon and all I could see were vast quantities of rock, ice and water. It seemed to go on forever and I have never felt smaller in my entire life. Standing there on the bottom of the world, it was an important moment to help quantify the immensity of the planet. It’s a fact that we modern travelers tend to forget. In an age when I can hop on a nonstop flight and be in Hong Kong tomorrow, it seems as if the world has never been smaller. But we forget just how massive this beautiful planet is and how many unique experiences there are to be had. We forget about the small inlets and villages nearly lost to time. It was an important moment as it put into context what I do now for a living and how it isn’t just part of my life – it IS my life. This quest to seek new answers and discover new things will never end, just as that horizon in Antarctica seemed to have no boundaries.
Whitehaven Beach, Queensland Australia
Routinely named one of the best beaches in the world, it didn’t take me long to understand why. Part of the experience is in the getting there; Whitehaven is reached only by boat, seaplane or helicopter. I opted for the latter and admiring the views of not only the perfectly white beach, but the swirling sands of nearby Hill Inlet is a travel moment I know I’ll remember for a long time. The best part wasn’t an activity, not really, it was just being there. Grabbing a picnic lunch I had packed just for this occasion, I left the helicopter far behind me and found my own private spot on the massive beach almost completely devoid of human life. I felt like the last person in the world as I took a dip in the warm waters and relaxed on the beach, enjoying the cheese and crackers and basking in the hot sun. It was a rare moment of downtime, of being alone and I loved every second of it. I tend to be an active traveler, usually too active, and these moments of quiet and calm are something I cherish greatly.
While in China last year I had the chance to blow up my travel bucket list and I took full advantage of it. For years, whenever someone asked me about my bucket list I would jokingly say, “Hug a panda.” It seemed so outrageously unlikely that I thought it a good #1 for the list. It would never be ticked off because I’d never actually be able to hug a panda. Well, I was wrong. I traveled to China last year year for the first time and one of the cities I wanted to visit more than any other was Chengdu for one reason – the pandas. The home of the giant panda, there are several rescue and research facilities around the region, including the Panda Ark where I found myself bright and early one morning. Covering about 126 acres, walking into the facility it looked just like a panda rescue center should look. Set in amongst mountains and natural bamboo forests, it has an ethereal look to it, a place where you’d expect to find pandas. But it’s also a very modern facility, with large private enclosures for the pandas, a hospital, research area and an educational center. The goal of Dujiangyan from the beginning was to create a new kind of eco-tourism in the province. A way to study and preserve the species while at the same time allowing the public access so that they can learn more about the beautiful Giant Panda. And that’s why I was allowed to hug a panda. While brief, the moment sitting next to the young panda as he ravenously devoured a stick of bamboo was a personal thrill, the culmination of decades of pining. While a little expensive, the cost didn’t bother me because I realized just how unique and extraordinary an opportunity it was to give a Giant Panda a giant bear hug. The fact that the money goes back to help further panda research was even better and I hope to return and spend the day volunteering with these beautiful animals.
I’m not normally a “relax by the beach” kind of guy, but while spending a near perfect 24 hours at a resort on Bora Bora, I couldn’t resist. I’d dreamt of visiting the South Pacific for decades and the entire week spent sailing around the islands was as amazing as I had hoped it would be. But at Le Meridien I experienced relaxation and contentment the likes of which I never knew possible for me. Sitting on the deck of my overwater bungalow as the sky went from blue to orange, I was as content as I’ve ever been. While part of me wished I could’ve shared that moment with someone else, I was also glad to be alone. There’s a lot to be said for getting lost in one’s thoughts and the entire day spent on Bora Bora was an important period of self-reflection.
In high school, I was lucky enough to be an exchange student for a month in Paris. It was my first time crossing an ocean and was an adventure I couldn’t wait to take. Until I got there. For the first half of my time in Paris, I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t like my host family, I was having a hard time with the language and the city seemed bewildering to me. Plus I was homesick. I had never been away from home that long and it was taking its toll. Then I decided one Saturday afternoon to explore on my own, away from friends and teachers. I found a riverside cafe, ordered lunch and watched as hundreds of people walked by on a beautiful early summer’s day. A mental switch went off, and I fell into the scene, no longer an observer of what Paris should be, but a participant. Lunch that afternoon changed forever my thoughts about Paris, it instilled in me a deep love for the city that persists still to this day. Looking back, it was a crucial moment in my life. I was beginning to doubt if my long supposed love of travel and seeing the world had been incorrect. I was worried that like Don Quixote I was tilting at windmills, chasing a dream that was just that, a dream. That afternoon though saved the trip, and in the process saved me. It was a beacon, showing me the path I needed to follow in my life, telling me that my gut was right after all.