Solo travel and making friends through food

This month marks a year since I took off from Sydney to Mexico to embark on a solo trip that was to originally last six months, then eventually be extended to at least a year and a half. I would never have thought to have kept going for this long, especially traveling solo, but a few months into the adventure last year, I knew that travelling solo would no longer be an issue.

I’ve naturally been a solo traveller, having checked into the airport by myself on nearly half of my previous twenty adventures. It’s not that I never asked anybody to come; on all of the vacations, I’ve hoped and wished people would come along, but more often than not it wouldn’t work out. Last year travelling through Central and South America, I had friends ask me where I’d be because they wanted to come visit. It would be the few occasions where I’d do some planning on where I’d be and then again, things would not eventuate.

I would normally say solo travel can be done and should be experienced by everybody. To the point that I probably sounded like a travel elitist, but what I’ve learnt over the past year is that some people just aren’t into solo travel and have other ideas of what travel means to them, and that’s OK. As long as we’re all travelling in one way or another just to see the world, right?

Whatever your comfort zone, or whether you’ve thought about short or long term solo travel, below are my thoughts on the matter, the pros and cons and six tips on overcoming the hurdles of meeting new people.

Solo travel enables you to get to know yourself better.

There’s nothing like being stuck or stranded in the middle of nowhere in a foreign land to understand how you’d handle being under such pressure. Of course these things may occur at home as well, but sometimes there’s nobody to call for help and there’s only so many times that you can walk in a circles. Somehow things usually work out and when you look back, you can have a good old laugh at it.

Having plenty of ME time is also good for achieving some level of internal equilibrium and focus of mind. There’s always the honeymoon period where in the first week or month of travel where the excitement levels are still peaking. However, after a while, things settle down and then you start to feel the stress of the working world that you left behind begin to dwindle away.

Being free of the day to day stress and office worries allows your subconscious to have its finally take charge in the decision making process and decide on which areas in your life that requires recalibration. Ever notice how people come back from a break and quit their jobs? I’ve seen that happen many times and I’ve seen people make life altering changes after an extended trip.

For me personally, I knew that I no longer wanted to make the working life all about career achievements that I could brag about, or worry about who was getting promoted before I was. In this present moment, I just want to tell the best stories that I can in photos. It’s come a long way over the past year and has a long way to go, but as long as I’m here and on the road I’ll stay focused and keep plugging away.

peru

Typical Aussie in 0 deg weather

You’re never alone, really.

Yes you will feel intimidated when arriving in a new country or city ,but chances are, most people are in the same boat. Turn up to any hostel or hotel and you will see plenty of solo travellers who are in also traveling solo and looking for a buddy. More often than not, there will be couples who don’t want to be glued to the partner 24/7 and are there to make new friends. I would say that half of the people I met whilst travelling and ended up hanging out or travelling with at some point were couples.

You eat what you want to eat and go wherever/whenever you want.

I am constantly listening to my stomach and will eat whatever and whenever I like. Travelling solo allows you the freedom to be more adventurous and explore the various local options, whether it be from a taste or a budgeting point of view. Being in a group requires some sort of compromise and the end decision on where to eat tends to be more conservative and a compromise in a way. This is why they have pizza joints in most places around the world. I’ve witnessed group situations where nobody couldn’t make up their mind and I’ve simply walked away and done my own thing.

noodle soup

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

You’re free to develop or pursue your passions

Ok, not everybody may not agree with me on this one but from experience, I actually love writing this blog and taking photos. I’ve been up at silly times in the morning, hung back at the tourist locations until evenings or just sat by myself at a location so that I could get the right subject in frame for a photo. If I was travelling with a group then I would most likely be at the bar shooting tequilas during happy hour.

As Isaac Newton said, for every positive thing about solo travel, there’s always a negative. Here are four common issues that I encountered with solo travel.

Things cost more

Most of the basic necessities that you would spend money on, costs more as a solo traveller. Items such as transport, food and accommodation are the basic essentials and the burden can be shared as a couple or a group. 

Taxis and Tuk tuks are a great way of getting around most places, and I’ve shared a four person tuk tuk with five other people to cut down the cost to next to nothing. Although I wouldn’t recommend that many people, you sort of get the jist of sharing costs there.

In some countries, the portion sizes are monstrous. In Guatemala, their portion sizes including fries are enough to easily feed two people. There were times when I’d order something and quite a bit would go to waste because I didn’t need another couple of inches on the waistline.  Do your research on Tripadvisor before you go and order as you can easily be fed on an entree size.

I like to book a private room wherever I go, because of the security and comfort level. However most places charge per room, so if you have a partner then the added premium you’re paying for a private room is negligible. Here in SE Asia I’ve been paying $10 for a private room, some of which comes with a firm king sized bed along with a bunk bed next to it so if you’re a couple or a group then there are huge savings to be made.

solo eating bbq in lae atitlan

Could barely finish this plate of BBQ in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

How long is a long time to spend by yourself?

It’s not uncommon to spend over 24 hours on a bus in South America. Flights are incredibly expensive to fly from country to country, even though it could be a fifty minute flight so at times, so catching buses are your only option. If you’re travelling solo and the bus ride is over twenty four in duration, it can be painfully brutal as there’s only so much desert views or plunging ravines you can look at.

If you have a stopover or a connecting bus, chances are that the bus station is located in a sketchy area on the outskirts of town as the bus company would own the property to keep costs down. Once, on the outskirts of a regional town in Peru, I was stopped by undercover cops as I left the compound to find some food. They demanded that I went back inside because it was too dangerous to be outside. Definitely an eye opening moment.

Sometimes there are moments that are best shared with others.

I admit, I love my food and I can slum it at the best of times to find something delicious. My philosophy on the food here in SE Asia is that if the stools and tables are low to the point where you’re knees are in your face then it’s going to taste pretty amazing. However at times, I just want to dish out $10-20 on a special meal. Or that time when you’re in New York going up the same building that everybody always go up. As cheesy as it sounds, sometimes you just want to be with a friend and say “Wow it’s just as cheesy as in the movies”.

solo travel vatican roof st peters basillica

On the roof of St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.

Illness is a bitch

I’ve been sick with a cold twice now in the past six weeks. Don’t worry it’s not life threatening but sometimes you just want a bit of T.L.C or somebody to talk to. I don’t mean a proper pampering, just somebody who grab a handful of over the counter medicine and take away noodle soup or congee from the local soup lady. I would have to say that it’s at these times that you would most likely be prone to homesick and craving modern day backpacker luxuries such as a hot bath or a comfy bed to lay in.

congee

This is all I crave when I’m sick

I have found that the main issue that most solo travellers including myself encounter is being able drumming enough courage to meet new people. Regardless of how confident you are, sometimes it can be nerve wrecking. So what are the things that you can do to to overcome when travelling solo? Here are six methods that I employed, some including using food that seemed to work well as well.

Check out a tour

Just because you’re travelling solo, it doesn’t mean that you have to do everything by yourself. There are plenty of tours offered in most cities. They range from paid tours to free (with a tip) walking tours of the city. You get to learn more about the history, become orientated as well as well as meet like minded people as well. People usually go on free walking tours when they’ve only just arrived to a city so everybody is in the same situation.

Half of the time, people will naturally strike up a conversation so it’s only fair that you reciprocate the other half of the time. An easy way of doing so is just ask the tour guide a few questions during the tour. This makes you more approachable. Most of the time I’ve caught up again with the people who were on the tour for drinks or dinner because at the end of the tour, the conversation always leads into “what are you up to tonight?”.Taking a tour is  also my tip on improving the travel safety measures as well as getting first hand local experience is super valuable.

graffiti tour

I learnt so much about Valparaiso on a walking tour of the city and exploring its graffiti culture. More importantly I also learnt where the dangerous areas were to avoid.

Find a creative outlet

It is inevitable that you will probably have some spare time on your hands while travelling solo. Try to fill it with a creative pursuit. I’ve met people who have been producing videos or writing books; others have just kept a daily journal. For me, it’s this blog as well as photography pursuits and those things are sometimes best suited working on solo.

My only recommendation is to allocated a certain amount of time per day only because sometimes being stuck to the computer leads to procrastination and proper time wasting on youtube. Also, try to avoid spending too much time on chat or skype. Travelling solo should be about numero uno, which is YOU.

san pedro hiking

It was a 4am wake up call for a hike up the Indian Nose in Lake Atitlan in order to capture the sunrise

Say hi to people even if they’re just passing by.

Is it me or do people, everywhere else in the world generally greet each other more frequently? Whether in the street or hiking up mountain, most people I would pass would say “hola”. It’s not that difficult, but a simple hello goes a long way. Any contact is a good contact, even if they are just passing in the hallway or sitting down reading a book and don’t have time for a chat, I guarantee that the next time they see you they will acknowledge you and the universe will take care of the rest.

Learn to cook and invite others to dinner.

Ok this one applies mainly to staying in hostels with kitchens, but this should be done more frequently in general, travelling or not because dinner time is the time where people should be interacting with each other. The thing about travelling solo and cooking is that it’s bloody difficult to cook for one. The supermarket portion sizes of meat and vegetables mean that the optimum number to cook for is between 2-3 people. This is the perfect time to whip something up and offer the excess to your fellow travellers. I guarantee you, they are not going to be too fussed and will happily accept anything that you offer. The worst case scenario is that  you’ll get to know who they are and where they are from over a plate of food that you cooked.

Try to cook it earlier on in the week when they are either recovering from the weekend or less likely to go out. You don’t need an extensive repertoire but everybody loves a good bolognese, so that would be good starting point and ingredients can be easily sources and cheaply.

roast chicken

Thanksgiving feast

Eat out alone to meet people.

There’s nothing wrong with eating out by yourself. I’ve had to do it plenty of times and met people in the process. I have two methods to approach this, depending on the restaurant. The first method is to find a semi busy place that has a bar. Sit yourself at the bar, and ask the bartender what his recommendation is or somebody next to you what they ordered or just ate and more often than not a conversation starts from there.

If you’re in a semi touristy area then it’s most likely that people are from out of town. So just find a table next to preferably a single or a couple and take the same approach as sitting at the bar and ask them what they had. It’s worked about nine out of ten times for me in striking up a conversation with strangers.  You don’t have to become friends, just an exchange over dinner is fine and kills the time. If all else fails, then it is actually a good time to fill in your journal/diary or read a book which is completely fine.

solo dining

Dining alone should never be a chore or uncomfortable

Have a break and visit somewhere familiar.

Travelling can wear you down especially when there’s the pressure to cram as many new things into your schedule as possible. The logistics of researching, making bookings and then getting there can become a bit too much, especially when you have to do it over and over again. The best thing is just to have a holiday. Yes, a holiday from travelling.

Rather than escaping the familiar and routine, find somewhere that you’re already familiar with. These can be general local attractions, restaurants, bars and even places where you have friends. For me, I went home to Sydney for a month, reconnected with friends, even worked a 9-5 job for three weeks and ate as much asian food as I could because I missed it so much.

What are your thoughts on solo travel and what methods do you use to meet new people? Leave a comment below.


Comments

Solo travel and making friends through food — 16 Comments

  1. Great post about the joys and pitfalls of solo travel mate. As a long term non-solo traveler (not sure what the opposite term would be), I can only vouch for the opposite end of the spectrum, but as you have pointed out there are pros and cons to both, like I can tell Sarah how cheesy the cheese is and she can concur as to the cheesiness of said cheese…
    Tyrhone recently posted…The ruins of Tikal in Guatemala (video), and another catchy titleMy Profile

  2. Jimmy, the pictures (especially food) and the points about one navigating it all alone are really wonderful to see! Great job! Having traveled MOSTLY alone, although a few times with a mate; I did enjoy your sentiments. I think for women, (alone), the tables spin differently, and yet your post is really lovely and I believe that EVERYONE can learn and benefit from it! Cheers!!!
    Leah Elisheva recently posted…Being KIND, Is The Name Of The Game! (Or: “Which Wine Goes With Lion”)?My Profile

  3. I could not agree more with what you are saying here. Based on my experienced (I have traveled solo for 8 months and then with my travel companion for over 2 years) I can say that food plays a major role when interacting with locals. When you are on your own, people are more likely to invite you for a dinner and treat you with some yummy dishes. Through the food they want to show you how much they care and it’s so kind and nice of them.
    Agness recently posted…First 5 Impressions of IndonesiaMy Profile

  4. Being sick while traveling solo is the worst! I had strep throat in Germany last year and all I wanted was some orange juice my bed. I totally agree about meeting people at restaurants. Even in New York, I’ll sometimes eat alone at a bar in a restaurant just to meet new people.

    • That Sounds terrible Kendra. When you’re knocked out in bed its the worst. Luckily I haven’t had anything too bad yet *touch wood* that would prevent me from going outside even for short periods of time. thanks for stopping by!

  5. Good post Jimmy. There are definitely ups and downs in both options. I did some solo travelling in Oz and decided to hire a camper van. Big mistake, all the campsites are full of family and keep to themselves. I went a bit nutty after ten days. But hostelling was much easier and I met some cool people.
    Rob recently posted…We are leaving Mexico… Kind of…My Profile

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