Friday, February 4, 2011

Me, myself and the open road

Me, myself and the open road

Theoretically, travelling alone can be scary, but people return to it over and over again. We find out what the big draw is to solo travel...

The comfort zone is firmly established for most people. Home, office, golf course, mall, supermarket, beach… we could probably list our most frequented places on the back of a credit card.

For most people life is lived within those familiar places and for many escape means a trip to London or Rome, en famille, with friends or a loved one; but for some, the only way of escaping normality, of being free from the comfort zone, is to go it alone in a strange land. The idea is anathema to most; a foolish venture into assured trouble, but for some intrepid souls it’s not just one way to travel — it’s the only way to travel.

Wknd. caught up with several committed solo travellers, some on the road, some planning their next departure, to get under the skin of what drives them. With extreme heat not far off, many UAE residents will already be planning their summer holidays, but it’s doubtful that solo travel is on their itineraries. The usual safe trip to the French Riviera or Greece will once again be booked, and whilst many people have to take family/group holidays, there’s an independent minority that might be thinking of change. Maybe all it needs is a little more understanding to encourage them to take that leap of faith into the unknown.

“Crazy, that’s what I hear often. Backpacking solo is a relatively unknown concept so I do get a lot of that, even from my family!” So says travel writer Anjaly Thomas, a committed solo traveller.

“I guess some people think I’m a bit crazy as I do it for long periods of time, and then others think I’m brave and strong,” says solo traveller Sana Rizvi.

These are strong reactions to a relatively simple concept. After all, it’s just a person taking off for travel and adventure, but choosing to go it alone. There’s a beauty in its simplicity, but the idea is unnatural for many as it goes against the grain of evolved human social interaction. But the naysayers are losing this battle. Solo travel is on the rise — and there are many convincing reasons why.

We need to start at an obvious place — the airport.

Often called the crossroads of the world, the airports of the UAE are tantalisingly close to tempting destinations throughout Asia, Europe, Africa and the rest of the Middle East. From here travel can be mastered; the options for intrepid travellers are fantastically varied. Anything from Kazakhstan to Kenya, Beirut to Bombay, is within a four- or five-hour flight.

So there are plenty of flight options to plenty of destinations. That much you already knew. That much was probably available to you whether you’re from Manchester, Mumbai or Melbourne; the UAE is just that much better located than any of those cities for its range of close options, but even so, would that prompt you to go it alone?

It’s a daunting prospect. Stuck in the airport and you need to visit the toilet; who’ll guard your bags? Walking through a foreign city after dark; who can you rely on for security? Or, more positively — who will you play cards with at a bus station in Kuala Lumpur? Who will you talk to in a bar in Brazil?

The issues are numerous, but veteran travellers are quick to point out the pros, along with the cons. Travel writer Tom Kevill-Davies, author of The Hungry Cyclist, an account of his two-a-half years cycling solo through the Americas, says, “The pros are independence, unpredictability, freedom and the chance to be treated very differently by those you meet along the way.

The only con is the loneliness.” His words are echoed by travel writer Anjaly Thomas who says, “travelling alone… is about the freedom of decision.”

It still sounds fairly daunting, though. Freedom and independence are valued when leaving school or flying the nest, but for many the idea of total independence is a terrifying prospect. So what else do they get out of it? Traveller and photographer Sana Rizvi says, “I just feel that choices and decisions are so much easier to make when you are alone. You see what you want to see, stay where you want, eat where you want. Travelling alone makes me really explore a place and its people.”

Spending time alone is clearly a part of independent travel, but for many that’s not such a bad thing. Busy lives in big cities are often (ironically) lonely, as people find themselves focused on work, glued to a computer, or living alone, surrounded by the muffled sounds of unknown neighbours. The idea of solo travel is therefore counter intuitive to the idea of a social holiday, but it can mean meeting many new people — as long as you put yourself ‘out there’.

Taimoor Khan, a long-time fan of solo travel, says, “You meet tons of people — what I call ‘temporary friends’ because essentially what you’re doing is changing the channel. One day you’re in this place, and the next day you’re in the next place, so it’s temporary. You’re just changing the channel.”

The transient nature of these relationships doesn’t scare Taimoor, though. In fact, he relishes the detached nature of solo travel — he actually seeks it out. “One thing that really empowered me was knowing that I could leave somewhere in five seconds. Then, all of a sudden I felt free. This is one of the great things about travelling alone; you are not committed to anything. If you want to go left and other people want to go right, then that’s your way. Off you go.”

So, freedom and loneliness, balanced by new friends and independence are your big draws, but what of the other considerations? For female solo travellers, there are added concerns, but that shouldn’t put you off. Anjaly Thomas says, “If you are a woman travelling alone, it’s advisable to be a little extra cautious; stick to a comfort group you may have created on your travels, namely with other travellers; be careful in selecting where you stay; do not blindly accept a drink from strangers; don’t flaunt too much money or jewellery. It is not hard to travel solo, but it pays to be safe. If you are sure and carry around some of that confidence, people will accept your decision and leave you alone. Learn to say NO.” Sana Rizvi adds, “You just have to be a bit more careful in certain situations and be alert of what is going on around you. Actually, people tend to be more protective of you when travelling alone as a girl and will help you a lot.”

Another concern are the extra expenses that solo travellers can face, but for most people that’s not going to be an issue — it’s budget accommodation all the way.

Tom Kevill-Davies says, “A single room is always more expensive, and food costs are better shared, but by travelling alone you are on the receiving end of so many acts of kindness it more than makes up for it both financially and spiritually.”

Sana adds, “Generally it’s much cheaper unless there isn’t a dorm, and you take a room and can’t split the costs. But everything else is cheaper as you can stick to your budget since you only have to decide for yourself.”

If solo travel appeals by now, then you may be looking into how to book your next trip. The Internet is, of course, where most people start, but you should also ask travel agents for help. It might seem that flights will always be cheaper through an airline’s own website, but that’s not actually accurate.

-----------------------------------Travel consultant Basel Abu Alrub of independent travel firm U Travel says that it’s more than just booking flights, though; it’s about looking after your client whilst they are on their travels. He explains, “We always look after solo travellers — if something goes wrong, or if someone wants a visa, or if there’s trouble with embassies, then they can shoot us an email and we’re there 24/7 for them.”

Basel explains that many travellers want to be free, but also to know that someone is there for them when they are out there on their own. “Often you travel alone as you don’t want any restrictions. You also want to live like a local, but not with local troubles involved. I can help you with that. I want to rule out the bad surprises but keep the good surprises.”

For first time solo travellers the idea of having the support of a company like U Travel is often critical to finally committing to a trip. Seasoned solo travellers also appreciate the support, like Taimoor Khan, who says he can call in the middle of the night from wherever he is and adapt his travel plans without needing to sit in an internet café for hours doing the research himself.

Once booked, either online or through a travel consultancy, you just have the open road and an unscripted adventure lying ahead. All of the travellers wknd. spoke to recommended it, with Tom Kevill-Davies saying, “Try it and see what happens. What’s the worst that can happen? The start is always hard, but once you’re going, the sense of freedom and living in the now is second to none.” Anjaly Thomas adds, “Leave now; don’t spend too much time over the whys and wherefores, for no matter how much you prepare beforehand, you can’t prepare enough for what you haven’t yet seen or experienced.”

Sana Rizvi echoes those words, “Do it! It’s addictive. Travelling solo opens so many doors and you enjoy things in a very unique way. It’s beautiful.”