Travelling solo has the uncanny ability to reveal aspects of your personality that no other experience can. Often times, the unpredictability, bumps and general out-of-the-boxness of travel push you to the limits and expose nerves that would otherwise remain hidden.
I am no travel expert by any means, but I am a usually an introspective person. Travel allows for introspection. Plenty of time to think about your experiences and how they’ve changed you, hopefully for the better. You’ve got to have something to do when you’re travelling on an overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok with all the lights turned out and you’re lying in the top bunker of an ancient train hoping not to fall off.
Here are some of the little lessons I’ve picked up along the way. Lessons that made my travels enjoyable, memorable and relatively stress — free. There were moments of personal growth and opportunities for me to learn about myself.
1. BE FLEXIBLE.
This has to be the number one lesson you learn before embarking on a travel experience. Think contortionist flexible. There are things that will go inevitably wrong despite your best efforts and meticulous planning. Getting upset or flustered will not help and can actually make things worse. Be open to other options, plan B or C or even D. Sometimes, you have to take the 12-hour bus ride instead of the 2-hour plane ride when your plan fails. Go with it. You never know what adventure awaits you.
2. DEVELOP A THICK SKIN.
As a black woman travelling, I’ve had to develop the skin of an elephant. There are times when people have pointed at me and laughed, or talked about me in front of my face. At first, it was upsetting, but I realised it was their ignorance that caused them to behave that way. They have the problem, not me. Now I just look at them and graciously say hello. And they are often times very embarrassed and quickly look away. The reality is that sometimes you are the anomaly. Some people have never seen anything like you before and they are curious, shocked, appalled, whatever. Don’t let it ruin your experience.
3. EAT WHERE THE LOCALS EAT.
It’s often cheaper and chances of getting food poisoning is greatly reduced. I employed this strategy in Thailand and Istanbul as I made my way along the streets in search of street food. I ate soooo much street food from places that were seriously questionable in my very Westernised mind. But because the locals flocked to these places, I figured I’d be ok. Not sure if it’s a fool-proof strategy, but it worked for me and I had some of the best meals.
4. BE OPEN MINDED.
The truth is not everyone lives the way you do, values the things you value, or look the way you do. Things will shock your senses, surprise you, and maybe even scare you a little when you travel. A different place can do those things to you, but when you accept this, your experience will be so much better. I am not going to lie, Thailand was my first trip to Asia, and it was a lot different from anything I’d ever experienced. I was a little overwhelmed in the beginning — the squatting toilets, the language, the traffic (Bangkok) and the grime and dirt (again Bangkok) was a lot to handle. I had to take a deep breath and look beyond those negatives to see the wonderful things the country had to offer. I am glad I did. I thoroughly enjoyed my time despite all the unpleasant factors that existed.
5. SAY HELLO TO STRANGERS.
I know your parents taught you otherwise. But I am going to tell you that this is one time you don’t have to listen to them. When my travel buddy got sick, I had to go out on my own. A simple hello was all it took for me to meet some very cool people. Along the way, my friend and I met other travellers at restaurants, bus stations and at our hotels. We exchanged experiences, advice and laughs. Some of these people are now friends which means I have places to crash and people to hang with in the future.
6. PUT THE PLAN IN YOUR BACK POCKET.
Random experiences are what have made my travels memorable. Getting in a cab and driving 150km each way to see a waterfall in Oman, getting on the back of a motorbike with a stranger, saying yes to dinner with someone I met while walking in Istanbul. All unplanned and unscheduled. Loads of fun and good memories. Man, do I have some great stories to tell!
7. USE YOUR BRAIN AND TRUST YOUR GUTS.
I love adventure and will pretty much say yes to any opportunity/invitation for adventure. When you travel, especially as a lady, you will get many invitations to do things, i.e, spending the night with someone (turned that one down). I’ve said yes to many things, but I’ve also said no quite a few times because I didn’t get good vibes or things just didn’t seem kosher. Use your brain and take the necessary precautions to be safe. Trust your instincts — any slight feeling that you shouldn’t do something must not be ignored.
8. GET OUT OF THAT BOX.
Demolish those four self-erected corners and get out there. Be willing to do things you would never normally do. Eat something that you would never usually try. I ate silk worms and crickets in Chiang Mai. Not as bad as one would think. The point is, don’t limit yourself to things you’re comfortable or familiar with. Travelling will present many opportunities to try new things. Go for it! You may be pleasantly surprised.
9. BE YOURSELF.
Authenticity is your best accessory. Those who will like you, will and those who don’t, well, they can piss off. Lol. Honestly, when you travel no one really cares what you wear or how awesome your matching luggage is. I know I don’t. I care about meeting people who come across as being genuine and real. Those are the people I want to spend all day at the beach with and drink Chang beer while sharing our crazy travel stories.
You’re travelling for heaven’s sake. You’re a pretty lucky cookie. Plus, people are drawn to smiling people and they will tell you how beautiful you are. You’ll make friends and be invited to share an elephant ride. It’s especially useful at hotels. The staff will be glad to do anything to keep you smiling. Trust me, this really works.
OKAY. THOSE ARE MY PEARLS OF TRAVEL WISDOM.
KAHLEEL (LEELA) HAMILTON is an international educator, travel enthusiast and guru who hails from New York City.
Follow Kahleel on Instagram @theunfetteredjourney