Confessions of an upturned turtle: how solo travel taught me to let go of perfection

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Cycling along the cliff-top road to Monte Clérigo beach in Portugal’s Algarve, I was feeling the joyful breeze of solo travel. Wind blowing in my hair. Freedom in the air. Then, suddenly, a sharp tug on my waistband, as the material on my loose trousers was sucked into the bike chain and twirled tightly around the wheel hub.

After a five-minute tussle, I decided there was only one way out: to remove the offending garment. So, that’s how I came to be standing in my pants, in plain view of passing cars, on Portugal’s trendy Aljezur coast – home to some of the country’s best surf beaches.

When you watch social media’s parade of posed places, it’s easy to forget that a series of sometimes embarrassing, definitely imperfect moments, await on the road to perceived perfection.

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In the pandemic, we all had to learn to drop balls

This is especially true when you’re traveling solo. Being consistently out of your comfort zone means it’s impossible to always be perfect and look like you know what you’re doing. You’re forced to let go of wondering what people think. You become ok with drawing attention to yourself – say, by inadvertently posing as a flasher in the Algarve.

The year before covid, a study revealed a rise in perfectionism over the previous 25 years, affecting both men and women. However, during the pandemic, we all had to learn to drop balls. 

I personally dropped the entire ball of adulthood, switching from being a Rough Guide writer to moving back home with my parents, aged 31. With endless time and no responsibilities, I let myself play, which produced surprising hobbies, from art to photography, cycling to languages – all with no demand on myself or ultimate aim.

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I made a list: “If I didn’t have to do it perfectly, I would try…”

Realizing I didn’t have to do things perfectly to consider them worthwhile was a revelation. I also learnt to shed preconceived ideas about what life should look like at my age – and with that came a new freedom and a willingness to be a beginner at any stage.

So, I created a list: “If I didn’t have to do it perfectly, I would try…” More than half of what I wrote related to adventure travel. I wanted activities and physical adventure. Those were things the past-life perfectionist in me had said I wasn’t allowed to do for fear of failure.

But a redundancy had already pushed me into freelance writing, so after the lockdowns, I was riding that bike in the Algarve, on my way to the surf lodge where I was staying, before soloing up the coast. I’d only planned on traveling for a couple of months, but it ended up being a year: the summer in Portugal, autumn in Scotland and then six months trekking in Nepal – a country with infrastructure that allows novices to trek through the biggest mountain range on Earth for weeks on end.

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At Everest Base Camp, my contact lens helpfully froze and swelled up my face

My somewhat limited ‘training’ for this was a 12-mile overnight trip in England’s highest bothy, Greg’s Hut in Cumbria. As you’ve probably guessed, it didn’t go perfectly: I was rattled to end up walking in pitch darkness to the ghostly howls of moorland wind – it hadn’t crossed my mind that a 70-litre backpack and a 1,400ft ascent might make me go slower than expected.  

I learned the hard way that a sleeping bag fit for a slumber party wouldn’t cut it on a chilly fall night. The first time I used my Trangia camping stove, I managed to set fire to a pan of oil that threw up 2ft-high flames. 

I’d prepared for the practical matters as much as I could. But when I arrived in Nepal, I discovered there are some details you can only learn from experience. Like, no heavy breakfasts on trekking days (I saw mine again on day one, only an hour into the Annapurna Circuit trail).

Before an early start in the Solukhumbu region at 17,000ft, I had the brainwave to sleep in contact lenses to make rising in the dark morning easier. Only, one lens froze and swelled up half my face. In a picture of my glorious moment on a group ascent to Everest Base Camp, I looked like I’d had a stroke. 

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I’m still friends with a solo traveler I met in Scotland after a day of mishaps

Over time, I’ve learnt that being a solo traveler forces you to let your guard down and accept imperfections. In doing so, you forge fast connections with other travelers. 

I’m still friends with another solo female traveler I met car-camping in Scotland at Grey Mare’s Tail waterfall. We’d had mutual driving misadventures that day – me, winding up getting onto a ridiculous mile-long turf track with a steep drop down one side; her, taking a 50-mile detour thanks to a closed road. With an instant common thread, I was soon serving her stove-cooked dinner and she was pouring me homemade liqueur.

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I slipped multiple times – my backpack pinning me to the ground like an upturned turtle

As well as forming friendships, solo travelers frequently save each other’s bacon during the inevitable learning curve of doing something new.

There was the American who shouted ‘SPIT THAT OUT’ when I took a glug of water a little girl brought to me when I was ill in Nepal. I didn’t realise it was straight from the parasite-infested river. Then there was my Canadian trekking buddy, who coached me on keeping my footing down the treacherous scree in the Himalayas, after I’d slipped multiple times – my backpack pinning me to the ground like an upturned turtle.

In travel literature, it’s the imperfect narratives many of us enjoy the most. Bill Bryson has become a national treasure on both sides of the Atlantic thanks to his brutally honest travel stories. Like, opening his book The Road to Little Dribbling with a tale about how he got bonked on the head by a parking barrier in France.  

Indeed, things not going to plan can bring surprising new opportunities. While sea kayaking on a group tour in Northumberland, a sudden change of wind meant we had to make an emergency landing on Coquet Island, a mile out to sea. Lifeboat-rescue aside, I was so mesmerized by the place, I’ve arranged to revisit as a resident RSPB volunteer – so, that’s another misadventure ticked off my list.

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Dropping ideas of how travel should be is key to making it meaningful

For British travel writer and erstwhile deputy editor of The Idler, Dan Kieran, dropping preconceived ideas of how travel should be is key to making it more meaningful, as he explores in his book The Idle Traveller. “Most of us don’t really travel any more, we only arrive,” he says. “This means we miss out on the best bit of the entire experience – the joy of the journey…

“The journey is where the magic happens – if you are prepared to let go of the need to be completely in control. You can’t stumble upon the memories of a lifetime with a water-tight itinerary, so give yourself the true wonder of travel – the gift of the unknown.”

Solo travel has also taught me that the real treasure of an experience is often not in the original goal. My biggest travel wins have been the qualities gained along the way, whether it’s hard skills or a fresh outlook. This can only happen by embracing those inevitable mishaps.

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We all wipe out – that’s the beauty of surfing

Sitting on the Algarve’s Arrifana beach with a platinum-blonde German surfer called Svenja, I contemplated all the seawater I’d just swallowed while attempting to ride the waves. “I guess you’ve got to be prepared to wipe out as a beginner,” I said.

She shrugged: “We all wipe out, no matter how long you’ve been doing it. That’s the beauty of surfing – it teaches you patience and resilience. Then you really appreciate it when you get that wave.”

The same could be said of travel that takes you out of your comfort zone. The only way to guarantee you won’t wipe out, is to not get in the sea at all. The only way to avoid slipping over, is to never step foot on the trail.

If I hadn’t flashed my pants, fell on my bum, gone off-roading and wiped out completely, I wouldn’t have experienced Portugal’s laid-back beach life, felt the might of Nepal’s mountains, or the off-trail freedom of Scotland’s “right to roam” in autumn. Sure, I may have kept a little more dignity. But where’s the fun in that?

Siobhan Warwicker is a seasoned solo traveler and writer. 

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