5 things solo travel teaches us about losing control

Anna Brech

We’re so keen on control these days; but solo travel is best experienced beyond the strict margins we set ourselves in everyday life

Anyone who came of age in the nineties will remember a time when missing your ride home meant you were well and truly screwed. Forget about calling an Uber, or even firing off a forlorn text to your mum.  Instead, you likely had to trek across town to find a pay phone (preferably one that didn’t smell vaguely of toilets).

These days, however, there’s nearly always a back-up plan when things go wrong. But this increased sense of security, ironically, has brought with it an even greater need for control. The more safety cushions we have in life, the more we seem to crave influence over all aspects of it. A night out, for instance, is now less about what bar we’ll fall into come 2am and more to do with fastidiously mapping out the best restaurants based on their online reviews. We can track and control almost everything in life these days, from what we eat to how we exercise and even the way that we sleep.

Solo travel is an anomaly, however; the one area where we can still let ourselves loose to a certain degree. A new place, different rules, the language barrier: all conspire to create that scary yet deliciously gleeful feeling of stepping into an abyss. Yes, we have apps to help, but a large part of travel – if you’re doing it right – is about going with the flow and embracing uncertainty. Solo travel done best, really, is a beautiful mess. And, contrary to common belief, here’s why that lack of control is a good thing:

The biggest fears are in your own head

Fears get their fuel from a cycle of “what ifs”? We love to catastrophize outcomes in our own heads, where they gain a momentum all of their own. Solo travel, however, forces the “what ifs?” into the open. Often the things that you’re worried about DO actually happen. You do miss your connection from Thailand to Hanoi, forcing you to stay overnight in Bangkok airport. You do spend your first night loitering on the outskirts of a backpacker restaurant in Lima, too shy to speak to anyone. Your passport does go missing or your tent floods, or you run out of money 10 days into a three-week trip. S*** happens.

Read more: 5 common fears of joining your first group adventure

But here’s the crux: it’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be. Solo travel has a way of bringing the good, the bad and the ugly out into the sunshine. It’s like exposure therapy. You come face-to-face with the things that you fear, all of which stem from a lack of control – and the worry that you won’t be able to handle it. But when you confront whatever life throws at you head-on, your fears start to lose their control. You begin to realise that, no matter what, you have it in you to solve problems and keep yourself safe.

The unexpected can be better than your best-laid plans

“Recognizing the importance of uncertainty for spicing up life” is key if you want to let loose a little, writes psychology professor Raj Raghunathan in this article from the University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre. Yet, while we know that lack of control can be a positive thing, “we also feel threatened by it and believe that it dampens happiness”. We’re hard-wired to crave certainty, in other words, even when it makes us miserable. For example, research shows that if we attempt to schedule our free time too much with leisure activities, these things become obligations: our brains lump them together with other to-dos, like a dentist appointment or a work lunch. It’s much better to allow some breathing room for spontaneity.

Read more: Travel big with the world’s greatest bucket list

Solo travel really drills this message home. Often, when things don’t go to plan, you open the door to a new, better option you never even considered. You miss your bus to Chennai and end up chancing across an incredible tucked-away beach B&B instead. The power goes out at your hostel in Nepal, and you play cards by candlelight with strangers all night long, making lifelong friends as a result. Solo travel shows you that, in a tug-of-war between planning and chance, fate often wins the day. So why not roll the dice a little more?

You can trust in the kindness of people

In solo travel, it’s easy to see the great unknown as a scary thing that you alone must tackle. You may well begin with a kind of me-versus-the-world mentality. But here’s the thing: you’re very rarely actually alone. The world is filled with strangers, most of whom will go out of their way to help you. And the minute that you hit the road, you start to realise this. You’ll meet families on the plane who will insist on driving you across a new city to the bus station. You’ll bump into travellers who will happily lend you their chargers, swap books or even shout you a meal or two without raising an eyebrow. You’ll find people who will invite you into their homes, lavish you with food and do everything they can to make you happy – while asking for nothing in return.

Read more: The reality of going on a group tour with strangers

A lack of control in travelling means you must learn to trust in the goodness of people. If you don’t, not only do you pull down the shutters to half the joys of travelling, you’ll also be more stranded if you do need help. It’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more you stop trying to control things you can’t – and reach out to other people – the more that faith is rewarded. This isn’t just some karmic idea, it’s got real substance. Time and again, Denmark is shown to be the happiest country on earth; and trust plays a major role in this happiness. Danes feel happy because instead of being self-reliant, they trust one another – and that trust fuels a strong sense of wellbeing.

Improvisation is a wonderful tool

In a similar way that Satnav users risk losing their natural navigational skills, too much control means our ability to be spontaneous is eroded. If we’re used to planning everything down to a tee, with an app to match almost every dilemma, we forget what it’s like to think on our feet and react in the moment. Take Brazil, one of the increasingly rare places in the world where the skill of improvisation is cherished. In fact, being flexible and creative in finding a solution to life’s problems is such an ingrained part of the Brazilian mindset, they have a word dedicated to it: “jeitinho brasileiro“, meaning “the Brazilian way of doing things”.

Read more: 8 far-flung customs that can boost mental health

As Cynthia Fujikawa Nes, co-founder of The Brazil Business, explains on this blog: jeitinho “means you can always find a way, you make things work”. Sometimes it involves finding a loophole in a situation or bending the rules; say, by driving on the hard-shoulder or managing to get a seat somewhere that is completely booked out. But it’s not just about taking advantage, it’s also a valuable life skill: “heavy users of the jeitinho are flexible and do not easily give up while trying to find solutions”, says Nes. The same qualities – the ability to adapt and creatively conjure up solutions – are central to solo travel. When you throw yourself open to the elements of adventure (and lose a little control in the process), you learn how to be flexible and improvise your way around barriers. And that, in turn, is a real asset at a time where we’re spoon-fed the solutions to life’s problems.

You are braver than you believe

We’re not sure how much solo travel Winnie the Pooh and his pals actually did beyond the realms of the Hundred Acre Wood. But if there’s one adage that sums up the attitude of an adventurer, it’s the lovely A.A. Milne quote: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think”. The brilliance of travelling alone is that it puts you out there. Yes, this involves an element of free-fall. You may sometimes feel stranded, lost or a bag of jittery nerves. But crucially, you have the capacity to deal with it.

Read more: 10 ways to develop your life skills with adventure travel

We spend so much of our lives warning each other to beware: “take care”, “look after yourself” or “fail to plan, plan to fail”. But we are so much more resilient than we know. Even as toddlers, we can pick ourselves up after a fall and fearlessly tackle the next step. As adults, that ability persists; but sometimes it falls by the wayside. Solo travel is a wonderful thing because you let loose of those tight reigns you have over your daily life. You let the unknown in and by doing so, exercise that dormant knack for tenacity and strength. You won’t possible know how much you’re really able to handle until you do that. But when that realisation comes and you embrace the chaos, your whole life perspective will change just like that.

Photos: Shutterstock, Jaya Kasturi on Unsplash

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