Travelling solo is worth being a childless, penniless spinster
I’m unlikely to find Prince Charming on my lonesome travels. And that empty bed is one I’ve chosen to lie in
“Travelling: it gives you a home in a thousand strange places, then leaves you a stranger in your own land.” Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta, widely considered to be the most prolific explorer of the Middle Ages, wrote this in 1354, and it feels as true today as it did more than six centuries ago.
It was never my plan to become a lone planet wanderer. I always imagined that by the age of 31 I’d be a married mother who was good at picking sofas and wallpaper. I gave up all prospects of that when I opted instead to travel the world for five years.
I fell into travel writing quite by accident, while working for a newspaper in New York. I was on the lifestyle desk, largely covering viral cat videos, inadvisable diets and Ivanka Trump’s shoe collection. When the opportunity arose to review a jungle resort in Costa Rica for the travel department, I gladly took it.It was to be the first overseas voyage I ever set off on alone. To describe this lodge as “rustic” would be kind. My room was accessible only by clambering 94 steps in the feverish heat, and it had no air-conditioning but was blessed with three resident spiders, all gargantuan in size, and a small army of flying cockroaches who paid regular visits to the close proximity of my face throughout the night.
But I befriended the owner’s dog, found a quiet beach close by, took long walks, worked out a way to hermetically seal myself beneath the blanket to avoid the roaches at night, and promptly fell in love with the prospect of travel. Not going on holiday, but travel, which at a certain age (post gap year, pre babies) must by its very nature, if you’re single, largely be done without your friends.
Not that I minded in the slightest. On the contrary, I moved back to London to join the newspaper’s travel team and spent most of my 20s on the road, in the air, or at sea – with months here and there back home at base camp (my mother’s house) but most of it living out of a suitcase, and writing about it.I joined a ship to Antarctica and leapt into the freezing iceberg-dotted ocean; came within feet of several great white sharks in SA; drove through the Okavango Delta marvelling at lions; spent a week living with monkeys; camped in the Tasmanian forest; reviewed a honeymoon island off Mozambique; experienced the oddities of Dubai; and saw the northern lights in Swedish Lapland.
Before I embarked on this foray around the world – during which I ticked off every continent, enthralled at every turn – most of my friends at home were scattered and single, darting between relationships, trying things on for size, rearranging themselves like Scrabble pieces.
By the time I was back behind my desk several years later, the game was over and the board was set. The vast majority of my peers had coupled up, and a surprising number of them by now knew an awful lot about sofas and wallpaper.
I felt far lonelier at home, scrolling past endless engagement announcements on Facebook and periodically peering halfheartedly through the portal of dating apps, than I ever did when I’d been, as Ibn Battuta put it, in a thousand strange places and truly on my own.Couples’ dinner parties (CDP) were now a thing, and no fun at all to attend being the only Bridget Jones at the table. Seeing my now-betrothed best friend – the one I’d spoken to almost every day for a decade, who knew every dusty corner of my soul, and I hers – now required booking a month in advance, such was the weight of her CDP diary.
This wasn’t just stange, it was profoundly sad. Shortly after said-best-friend got married, my wonderful ex-boyfriend died of a brain tumour, and she cancelled at the last minute plans to take me to his memorial service because she “didn’t have time”. I’d seen a lot of extraordinary things on my travels by now but this, to me, was truly staggering. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back; we haven’t spoken since, and my social life became quieter still.
I’ve heard the same stories from people who’ve returned to their hometowns after a stint of living abroad. Those years, wedged in our 20s as we emerge from university to lay our roots, are incredibly formative. Miss them, and it’s hard to rejoin the pack later down the line.
And so I continue to travel, as often as I possibly can, almost always alone. I’ve made dear friends and had romances along the way. I still speak to these people, all of them distributed in countries thousands of miles apart, but I really do remain, for the most part, a stranger in my own land.As for why I’m still single, there are a plethora of possible reasons aside from the fact that I’ve been away so much. I’m restless and stubborn. I talk too much during movies. And until very recently, I had no idea that it was considered rude to recline one’s plane seat.
But say, for argument’s sake, that I’m without a boyfriend because all those travels made me miss the proverbial boat. Was it worth it? I really couldn’t say. Ending up a childless, penniless spinster is a prospect that quietly haunts me. But the insatiable thrill of getting back on another plane is apparently a price I’m willing to pay.
Next weekend I’m bound for the northern reaches of Norway, to review an isolated fisherman’s cabin on a tiny, remote island. I’m unlikely to find Prince Charming there. And that empty bed is one I’ve chosen to lie in.
- © The Daily Telegraph