When I was younger, I would never go anywhere new by myself, to the point where I would not even go to a new restaurant on my college campus without others. I can say that I never felt comfortable going out of my comfort zone which, at that time, was primarily activities that did not require me to physically leave my home. I used to play a lot of video games with my friends, and I also wrote occasionally, both of which could be done from wherever I happened to live at the time (and honestly, considering that I am writing this from my bedroom, I guess that has not changed).
Until recently, pretty much all of my travels was done with other people. Probably the best example of these were my family vacations, which were happily spent with my parents and my brother over the past several years. We definitely had some memorable trips, especially the more notable ones outside of the U.S. like London and Paris. But as I got older, I realized my tastes for traveling had begun to change.
I’m not referring to the fact that I was getting tired of the more “juvenile” places we went to (which was bound to happen as I got older). Even my travel philosophy changed over the years, and I didn’t realize it until my trip to Japan. I learned that I enjoyed doing trips at a more relaxed pace, and being able to stay in one place for some time to take everything in. The older I got, the less I enjoyed rushing everywhere and treating each landmark as a box on a to-do list. And of course, I started to wonder about going to more adventurous (or at least less touristy) spots than my parents would want us to go to. There were times I was able to strike a compromise with my family, such as having us eat at a random food truck as opposed to a typical sit-down restaurant, but there was only so much freedom I could have when traveling with a group, especially when that group is blood-related to you.
As I prepared for my trip to Japan, I realized that I had planned out my own schedule to the point where I had a spreadsheet listing out each place I planned to visit, the operating hours, the cost, and directions. Despite the amount of time it took researching for everything I wanted to see, and all of the logistics behind an international trip (things like currency exchange, local customs, and so on), I really enjoyed preparing myself for what was my longest trip to date. I went in knowing that a lot of my schedule would probably change (and it did), but I felt proud looking at my itinerary and knowing that I did my research and due diligence in planning everything myself. And choosing a place like Japan was not how I envisioned my introduction to solo travel, but that added more to my own personal satisfaction, knowing that even if I hadn’t been meeting with friends in Tokyo, I still would be able to know what to do and where to go during my two weeks there. I won’t say that my time in Japan was truly spent traveling solo, considering I spent most of the two weeks traveling with friends who helped show me around and talk to the locals in Japanese, but I still felt much more independent than I did on any previous vacation that I have been on.
This sense of accomplishment returned as I planned out my trip to Montreal this past April. Unlike when I used many vacation days for Japan, I was taking advantage of a convenient 3-day weekend (courtesy of my employer giving Good Friday off). With that in mind, I knew I would only have about three days in the city, so compared to being in Japan for two weeks, I felt more pressure to see everything I wanted in a shorter amount of time. Unlike my trip to Japan, however, I quickly felt like I had complete control over what I wanted to do.
On my first day of Montreal, the weather was gorgeous with sunny skies and a refreshing, light breeze. I took advantage of it by seeing almost everything I wanted to see on that day alone, like the Biodome, the St. Joseph Oratory, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the downtown area. Every time I stopped at a new place, I had the choice to stay as long as I wanted, or to leave if I felt the need to. Did I want to walk around Old Montreal for a few hours just to take in the sights? I didn’t, but I could have done that if I wanted to. Did I need a break from getting lost because the bus never announces individual stops? Yes, that happened to me, so I stopped for lunch and got directions from a local Italian restaurant (which served some darn good pasta, luckily enough). What if I wanted to stay in one place to try to get a nice photo? No rush, I’ll take as long as I need to since I’m not following anyone else’s schedule. In retrospect, even if I was going a little faster than I would normally enjoy, it worked out since snow interfered with the first half of my second day there.
This was a pretty stark contrast to my trip to Japan. In Montreal, I had nobody to visit, nobody to guide me, and no contacts at all in the area. I also do not know any French; although pretty much everyone spoke English, I was thrown off by the lack of English in certain restaurants, most buses, and other areas. With that said, Montreal is still a Western city and not nearly as much of a departure from “normal” as Tokyo or Kyoto, but nonetheless, I started to gain more appreciation for traveling by myself. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy traveling in a group, as it can be awesome to share these experiences with others. But knowing that I prepared for everything on my own (and got myself out of my own messes), is truly one of my biggest accomplishments in a long time.
As of this writing, I’m already planning for a few more potential solo trips this year. Though I won’t be flying off outside the U.S. anytime soon (at least, I’m not planning on it), I still want to explore new places and meet new people within my own country. It’s also a chance to go to things that none of my friends or family would want to go to (such as a writers symposium several hundred miles away), and especially at this time in my life, I have the flexibility to get these experiences. Only time will tell how these trips will play out, but I’ll be sure to write about them and what I learn from each one.