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Solo Travel and the Art of Noticing

by Amber Griggs

Amber Griggs is an avid photographer, writer and world traveler. She loves a good story, crashing New York Fashion Week and the power of makeup. She recently relocated to India. Known for adding “epic” into any situation she is always researching someplace new. Her next adventure is climbing Mera Peak in Nepal. To follow her journey as she visits 40 countries before she turns 40 you can find her on Instagram @candidcamber

I have found the best antidote to our frenetic check-your-phone-every-30-seconds kind of existence is solo travel. There are only a handful of things I would encourage every person to do in their lives at least once. Traveling alone is top on that list. Here is why. 


Solo travel empowers. On the road, solitude makes space for the traveler to encounter people in interesting ways. This space of solitude also sweeps away the mental clutter of daily life. In our hometowns we are often surrounded by fascinating characters, however, because of our busy schedules we tend to be in lock-step with our obligations and routines. When was the last time you struck up a conversations with a total stranger? These moments of meaningful connection with ourselves and others appear effortlessly when we travel solo. It is as if this way of traveling turns up the volume of the heart. For instance, if I was with someone I would not have spilled my excitement about reaching Cuba for the first time with the couple sitting next to me on the plane. That conversation led to not just practical advice but an invitation to breakfast at their house which had wi-fi (something that was extremely rare in 2016), a road-trip with them to the white sand beaches of Varaderro and a ride to the airport when it was time to return home. 


Solo travel magnifies small joys. Being alone in a new place sharpens your perception of tiny details. You simply notice more. Without the rush of quotidian life you can linger with these small pleasures as long as you want. Doors start opening. Maybe it is because we appear less threatening alone that delicious opportunities are whisked our way. I have been invited into homes around the world for everything from coffee, fresh pressed juice to rum shots. Often the strangers are just as fascinated by how a single lady has arrived on their doorsteps as I am of their lives. We all have stories we are eager to tell. Opening up to a stranger is powerful. The act of speaking freely and of listening without preconceived notions is a rare human experience these days. Even in places with a language barrier you can feel the warmth of a smile and savor the feeling of being cared for as someone goes out of their way to make sure you are not lost. 


The last time I was traveling alone to Kerala, I sat next to an Indian mother on the flight. We spoke for two hours about the strengths and weaknesses of our cultures with unabashed openness. It was refreshing. We saw past the stereotypes of the overprotective Indian mom and fiercely independent American and could genuinely sympathized. As we were about to land she discovered I was going to get a cab to my hotel. It was quite late at night. She took me under her wing and insisted on dropping me to my hotel. It did not matter that she had been traveling for nearly a full day with four layovers from the US. As her boys swung the car around to pick up their mother she told them I am her new friend and that we would be driving 30 minutes in the wrong direction (from their final destination) to take me safely to my hotel. Moments of such deep connection and the leaps of faith they can entail —like taking a ride with a stranger— are priceless. 


Within an hour of landing in Vietnam I was being hoisted onto a farmer's pet water buffalo. Twenty minutes before I was in the taxi from the Da Nang Airport on my way to Hoi An when I saw a man taking a nap on this massive animal nonchalantly in the midst of a rice field. I made the driver stop hoping to get a picture. Before I could capture that photo he woke up and dismounted. We spoke in smiles. I would have never guessed that soon I would end up being the one in a photo straddling the water buffalo wearing his straw hat. These vivid moments of overwhelming possibility seem to be everywhere on the road. Can you dream of a better way to welcome a traveler to a new country than this? In the end, the photo I did manage to capture of the farmer ended up being my favorite photograph from my trip to Vietnam. 


Solo travel is my answer to feeling stuck or uninspired. It is an invigorating way to get in touch with your own autonomy. I would say especially as a woman we need time by ourselves to hear the hushed voice of our heart. With age often comes the responsibility to care for others. When I travel with company I am always thinking “are they having a good time”? Will there be something for them to eat at this restaurant? My attention is outward and my actions are eager to accommodate. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, the experience of myself is completely different when I am alone. I am free to be unfiltered. I am free to order only desserts for dinner. Or spontaneously book a midnight motorcycle tour of Ho Chi Min. There are no schedules, temperaments or sensitivities besides my own to consider. I love setting the pace. Now that I have experienced this refreshing way of travel I crave it. While I am a huge advocate for travel in general, solo travel is even more transformative. Not only will you experience new cultures and destinations but you also will return home with a resuscitated sense of self. 


People can call it being selfish but the bottom line is that most of us are drowning in emails, expectations and the weight of silenced dreams. Many of us have forgotten what we really want. We have limited time, resources and paid vacation. T. S Eliot put it succinctly, we are “distracted from distraction by distraction." Solo travel sounds intimidating but it might just be the very jolt that wakes you up from a sleepwalking kind of existence. This type of experience can change your life. Sometimes a little time to yourself in a new place is the key to pioneering a new path or remembering the one you aspired to not long ago.  


If you are looking for some affordable, authentic and memorable places to start solo traveling I recommend: Oaxaca Mexico, Jiufen Taiwan, Hoi An Vietnam, Vieques Puerto Rico and Havana Cuba. I hope you find yourself somewhere fabulous alone and unfettered in the near future. There are many ways to travels and a plethora of resources to guide you online. Many of my trips have been on a shoestring budget. If you have questions or want more travel inspiration please feel free to connect with me on Instagram @candidcamber .

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