Natalie Hume had been planning to take the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage for months back in 2011. What the research assistant at the Art Gallery of Ontario hadn’t planned was to spend the first night sleeping outside a church cemetery in rural France.
The Camino de Santiago is a large network of ancient pilgrim routes in Europe, winding up at Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where — legend has it — the remains of St. James the apostle are buried. Hundreds of thousands of people walk the “spiritual” trails every year.
The 32-year-old described her first day in the small french town of Vézelay as a disaster. She wandered off the trail and got lost only to find herself sleeping alone in the dark with nothing but her hard-wired human survival instincts. She loved every minute of it.
“It was such a freeing feeling because every morning you wake up and all you have to do is go for a walk. And all you do is think about your life,” Hume said.
The Calgary native walked almost 2,000 kilometres across rolling green hills that slowly flattened out, a mosaic of vineyards, a barren desert, and rugged mountains. The food, the wine, and the people changed along the way.
“I embraced the idea of travelling solo and focused the trip around all the things that I love most: nature, art, history, food and wine. Once I started to walk, my trip became more of a spiritual journey; an opportunity to get to know myself.”
“Your mind wanders. I had a lot vivid introspecting dreams. You feel in a very visceral way, the beauty of the world.”
Hume has always been big on solo travel and hopes other women will be inspired to do the same. It’s the ultimate opportunity to figure out who you are, she said.
“I think it’s something everybody should do at least once in their life because it simply allows you to know yourself better and to get away from the distractions,” she said.
Solo exploration is perhaps a reflection of women’s growing independence, increased equality and the cultural trend of women waiting longer to get married and have children, if they decide to do so at all, travel consultants say.
Roughly 25 per cent of people travelled alone on their most recent vacation, according to the 2015 Visa Global Travel Intentions Study, which was conducted across 25 countries.
And for those thinking about a new solo adventure, Hume says to start small. “First, try eating by yourself for lunch and then graduate to a weekend away. Then, when you’re ready, book a big trip,” she said.
Here are reasons why a women should take at least one solo trip in their lifetime, no matter their age, or situation, according to Hume.
Travelling alone forces you to deal with yourself, Hume said. Being away from your daily routines and out of your comfort zone, you learn a lot about who you are, what makes you happy and what you want in life. You’re free from distractions and have a lot of time to think, she added. So rather than thinking about your to-do-list or what plans you have on the weekend, you’re able to achieve a level of clarity that is not possible at home.
Solo travel does make you feel independent because you have to rely on yourself to get around, find places to sleep, meet new people and navigate the challenges that are thrown at you, Hume said. It’s a confidence booster knowing you can navigate a new city, negotiate transactions and learn cultural faux pas and norms, she added. By taking in a new environment unfiltered by the prejudices, tastes or preferences of a travelling companion, it can be rewarding experience.
It can give you perspective
There’s no better way to gain compassion, empathy and cultural tolerance than travelling solo, Hume said. Being on your own, you’re forced to be open minded. Seeing new things in life such as how food is eaten, how children are raised and how a career is treated makes you understand that there isn’t just one way to do things, Hume said.
More opportunity to meet locals
Not having a travel companion forces you to meet new people, Hume said. It opens up the opportunity to perhaps be invited into a local’s home, eat a meal with them and learn about their lives. You’d be surprised to find that people are much more inviting when you’re on your own, Hume said. You will find that you receive more invitations to dine, party, and observe or participate in a cultural ceremony. Using common sense, you’ll find these will be your best memories, Hume said.
We’ve all had those moments when we’re travelling with a friend or partner and we find ourselves fighting or bickering over directions. Travelling on your own avoids that. You travel at your own pace and your mistakes are your own, Hume said. You can use your energy to focus on your travel experience instead of negotiating with a travel partner. Fore Hume, studying and discovery medieval art and architecture took precedence over anything else. Whatever it may be, you can do it, guilt free, she said.
Things a woman should consider when travelling alone
Perhaps the biggest concern for a woman travelling on her own is safety, according to the Solo Traveler’s Hanbook. Without someone with you to watch your back, you may be more vulnerable to people trying to take advantage of you, Janice Leith Waugh says in her book. It’s no surprise that tourists are at risk of theft, violence and scams.
If it’s your first solo trip, you may want to consider where you’re going and make sure to plan accordingly, the handbook advises: pick countries and cities that are known for being safe. Also, be street smart. Know how long it takes and how much it costs to get from the airport to your hotel. Always ask for an estimate before.
Always book hotels or hostels with a 24-hour front desk: trains do get missed and flights do get delayed, the book advises. Always carry identification and have a backup somewhere else, the handbook also says. Lock up your stuff, keep your purse or backpack close to you. Be confident when walking down the street. Don’t look lost. And lastly, get familiar with a transportation system in advance and give an itinerary to someone back home.
One thing people often say is: I could never eat dinner alone, it must be so lonely. The thing is, you get used to it and after a while you start enjoying it, the Solo Traveler’s Handbook says. The best thing to do is make friends with yourself. Also, it’s important to be open to new experiences and meeting new people, the book says. Perhaps if you see another backpacker, why not ask them if you can join their plans for the evening.
If you’re considering a trip, here are the safest countries in the world, according to Vision of Humanity, an economic and peace research institute. It takes into account the global peace index.