Better Than Solo

I learned that even though I thought I had to be alone to figure out my thoughts, sometimes another person can help you sort them out.

The highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem stretched onward before me, as I sat once again on the late-night bus. Returning from a weekend of beaches and couch-surfing to my long-term hotel in West Jerusalem, I sat far in the back to avoid the other nocturnal travelers. I couldn’t see the pavement, and the dull streetlights hardly illuminated the cars, but I had done the drive enough times to know exactly where along the road I was. The solitude of the moment—listening to music that didn’t make me think, without anyone in the seat beside me to stop me from stretching my legs—was so meditative it was intoxicating. I should travel alone more often was the only substantial thought that crossed my mind during the hour-long ride.

A few weeks later, I arrived at the Haifa International Airport—a small, one-room terminal with a duty-free shop selling Snickers bars and microwaved pizza. Only one flight was scheduled to leave for the rest of the day: a small plane to Cyprus, an island a short distance across the Mediterranean from the Israeli coast. All summer I had been working on schemes to convince my parents that this was a trip I could do alone. I had, after all, done all the research possible by reading every website that popped up when I searched “female solo traveler Cyprus.” I was sure that, if it was just me, I could have the fulfilling cliché summer budget-travel experience I had read about in novels. Alas, my parents informed me that without at least one travel companion, the trip was out of the question.

I had acquired two travel buddies whom I barely knew—also American college students living and interning in Israel for the summer. Our early small talk went far deeper than any other introductory conversations I’d had. I was grateful that these two were willing to let me tag along for a trip they’d been planning long before I had invited myself to come. But I was still skeptical that this trip could really live up to my expectations.

I was convinced that traveling solo was the only way to see everything I wanted to see without making concessions to others. I wanted to spend as much time as possible in my beloved meditative bus-ride state, so I too could “find myself” like everyone else who’s travelled alone told me they had. I’ve always enjoyed the freedom to live by my own schedule, and so I wanted to prove, to nobody in particular, that I was grown up enough to do this on my own.

When we stepped off the bus from the airport to the coastal town of Limassol late at night, one of my fellow travelers found us a cab driver who spurted information about what to see during our few days on the island. Had I been alone, the ride would have been silent; I would have learned nothing. Deeper into the night, after strolling along the dark streets of the town to find prime Cypriot snack food, we stumbled upon some other young travelers who took us out drinking and dancing. When we returned to the hostel, one of my travel companions and I stayed up until 3 a.m. talking about life in a way that made me feel like I was back on the bus—tranquil and whole. Had I been alone, I would’ve gone to sleep the moment I arrived—an unfamiliar city late at night is no place I would have felt comfortable roaming on my own.

As heavy and mature as the idea of traveling alone made me feel, the days on the beaches, in the historic cities of the island, and in the company of others made me feel lighter, like a young whimsical traveler in the way I had wanted to feel. From my travel companions, both older than me, I learned about everything from making the most of college, to coping with struggles no one knows you have, to asking strangers for directions and car rides, to letting go of the idea that knowing exactly what you’re doing and where you’re going every second of every day is the only way to ensure you’ll be okay. I learned that I could be with others and still find the moments of solitude I was craving—nothing is better than stargazing silently while still having someone beside you to point out the shooting star you might’ve missed. I learned that even though I thought I had to be alone to figure out my thoughts, sometimes another person can help you sort them out.

There is nothing wrong with traveling solo—from everything I have heard and read about it, it seems like a truly fulfilling experience. As someone who has always prioritized my own sense of independence, I was certain there was no other way for me to see the world. But three days on a tiny island in a small sea on the other side of the world made me realize that the companionship I thought I didn’t want became something I could not possibly have gone without. I’ll still always love my silent bus rides with plenty of legroom, but from now on I’ll make sure I have a friend in the row behind me to join me when we step off together at our destination.