One of the many ways in which living abroad has changed me has been by forcing me to become more comfortable with my own company. Since before coming to Chile, I have enjoyed spending a certain amount of time each day alone with my thoughts; if I can't, I become anxious and, I would venture to say, a bit unpleasant to be around. However, living in Santiago and Quito has taken my alone time to a whole new level.
First of all, I have a more limited support system abroad than I do in the States. This isn't to say that there aren't people here and in Ecuador whom I laugh with, confide in, trust and love. It's just that there are fewer of them. This means that frequently, I deal alone with problems that, were I in the States, I would discuss with family or friends. I've had to learn to trust my own instincts, form my own criteria and analyze my own decision-making process. The fact that I've been able to successfully take on challenges --negotiating my rent, assembling a bed, standing up for myself when I feel I've been scammed -- by myself means that I've grown more confident in my own capabilities. Additionally, reflecting on things like cultural differences, my home and host countries' places on the world stage, and my place in Chile has made me spend a lot more time inside my own head -- and realize that I'm pretty comfortable in there. That's fortunate, because judging from the blank stares I get whenever I try to crack jokes around here, very few others would be.
The result of all this is not constant loneliness -- although there certainly is some loneliness involved -- but rather the realization that I rather enjoy my own company. Last year, this led me to try something that, despite having moved halfway across the world by myself twice, I'd never done before: going on vacation alone. I guess I'd just always assumed that travel was something people did with other people.
This changed last year. I made my first solo excursion last February, when I spend four days traveling by myself in southern Chile's Chiloe archipelago. I made my second this past weekend, when I ditched Santiago for Laguna Verde, a small beach town just south of Valparaiso.
"Why?" the server at Laguna Verde's vegetarian restaurant demanded to know when I told her I was traveling alone. Her surprise probably stemmed from the fact that this is not something many women do in Chile.
"Because I needed to relax," I replied.
This was absolutely true. Work, school and other projects had conspired to not allow me a moment's peace for the past eight months, and the stress had taken its toll. I needed a few days to sleep, read and just plain lie around on my own.
Laguna Verde turned out to be the perfect place to do this. The town is tiny, and the only paved road is the one that goes into and out of it. Don't let the presence of a vegetarian restaurant fool you: Aside from a handful of places that rent rooms and cabins, tourism infrastructure is minimal. The beach, which borders a large cove, is long enough to afford visitors with personal space.
Since Sunday was election day in Chile, the beach was virtually empty -- as virtually empty as a beach on Chile's central coast can be on a weekend in the summertime, in any case -- meaning that my weekend looked like this:
Of course, even while stretched out in the sand, I made sure to always be aware of my surroundings. Contrary to popular belief, I try to be careful about safety and realize that a young woman traveling alone in a foreign country unfortunately faces certain risks. I probably would have thought twice about traveling alone had I been less confident in my Spanish and in my experience living and traveling in Chile. Before I left for Laguna Verde, I e-mailed both my mom and a friend in Santiago letting them know where I was going, when I was going there, where I was staying, and when they should expect another e-mail letting them know I had returned safely to Santiago. During the trip, I tried not to broadcast the fact that I was alone, and I had an "I'm traveling with my boyfriend but he's sick and is resting back in the room" story ready, although I never had to use it. And I made sure to return to the lovely Hosteria El Tilo before dark.
Safety concerns aside (not that they ever really can be), I really enjoy traveling alone. There's no schedule to follow but my own. There's also no pressure to be the "perfect" tourist -- i.e., going on a hike in the hills when all I really want to do is lie around. And, perhaps most importantly, I have plenty of quality time to spend with myself.
Anyone else care to share solo travel experiences?