“How are you finding traveling alone?” a woman asked me as she plopped her backpack onto a bed next to mine.
I looked up from the book I was reading, surprised by the question.
“It’s been great,” I said.
She looked a little crestfallen.
“The first few weeks can be hard,” I continued. “Especially if you’ve never traveled alone before.”
This seemed to make her feel better and she launched into the story of her trip, telling me that this was her first time traveling alone and that she’d never stayed in hostels.
“I had this idea that while traveling I would make lots of life-long friends,” she said. “But so far I’ve found people unwelcoming.”
I assured her that people weren’t actually unwelcoming and that this feeling was pretty normal. Then I told her about how the first time I had gotten on a plane to travel by myself to another country I had cried; how I couldn’t figure out if I was allowed to use all the cooking utensils in the first hostel I ever stayed in; how even now I have moments of awkwardness and uncertainty.
This seemed to put her at ease, and during dinner she exited the dorm room we were sharing and sat with me. She said this wasn’t something she did very often.
“I’ve been eating a lot of canned food by myself on my bed,” she confided.
This interaction made me feel like an extremely experienced traveler. I am comfortable in hostels, equally happy to invite myself to someone else’s table or sit by myself during dinner. The seeming awkwardness of interacting with strange groups of people doesn’t phase me much anymore. I wondered when I got to be this good at socializing.
My first few weeks staying in hostels I was lonely. I would enter my new dorm room already decided that the people smiling at me were aloof and wanted nothing to do with me. The same thing happened in the kitchen. People laughed and cooked and seemed to all be the best of friends. I was the outsider, I would never fit in, so I tucked myself into a corner and vanished into my phone or a book.
One night, tired of sitting by myself for dinner, I took a deep breath and invited myself to a table occupied by a scary-looking group of men drinking beer and laughing with each other. I thought they would glare at me and tell me to go find another table, but the opposite happened.
Turns out they had all met that day and were happy to have me sit with them. We talked for hours about our travels in New Zealand, trading culture shocks, and wondering what hostels in our own countries were like. We all came from very different backgrounds, but our mutual solo travels made us familiars.
After that I stopped isolating myself. It’s still hard sometimes when I walk into a room and everyone looks at me or no one does. I still have moments of unease, and wonder if they’re judging me. But most of the time the only problem in the room is the one I’ve made up. Once I push through the part of my brain that doesn’t want to take the risk I always meet interesting people and have a good time.
I’ve also found that I’m not the only one who feels this way. All travelers do, even the ones traveling in groups. People sometimes seem hard to reach because they’ve withdrawn into themselves for fear of no one wanting to talk to them.
It’s normal to feel strange in a new country and a new situation. My advice is to push through the strangeness and do it anyways. After my initial few weeks of hating traveling and wanting to go home, I started to enjoy my experiences, especially staying in hostels. It took some work and bravery on my part, but in the end it was worth it. All you have to do is say, “Hello.”