The summer before medical school, I did your typical I-just-graduated-college-hurrah-trip, literally around the world. The trip itself: amazing, I learned so much about myself, met a diverse array of people, and checked off a lot of bucket list items – the highs were high. One thing, though, was that I was grossly unprepared for some of the lows and challenges that naturally come with any extended solo-trip.
I travelled with my best friend for a month through Japan. One of our favorite memories was working in a homestay in rural Japan, living with a kind family, and being able to work on a farm – experiences we’ve never had before. Although we’re a great match in personality and love for food, there were times when we both were “pouty.” Travelling in close quarters with just one other person can be difficult.
One solution was to take a break from each other. This meant that some days we did our “own thing” for a couple hours or hung out in groups with other people we had met along the way. Sometimes there wasn’t the opportunity for a physical separation, so we just agreed to be in our bubbles for a bit. Taking a step away from each other and resolved any tension or conflicts that came up during our trip.
2. Language Barrier
The second leg of my extended summer trip was through Russia and Scandinavia. In my last semester of undergrad, I decided that I wanted to learn Russian, a task easier to dream about than to actually do. I made very little progress, but knew basic phrases and how to read the Cyrillic alphabet, which turned out to be handy navigating the streets of Moscow. When I left Russia, I took a commuter train to Tallinn, Estonia. Unfortunately, an older lady had taken the bed that I had booked and spoke no English.
I was frustrated managing with little sleep (the train was due to leave at 5:30 AM) and also frustrated about not being able to communicate, but I knew it make no sense to show my anger the woman, so I did the only logical thing I could think of, I walked down the car and asked if anyone could help me find my seat. Thankfully, one woman offered to help and the situation sorted itself out – I just took over an empty top bunk and really got to experience the Russian rail system. Since then, one other work around is using an offline language package for Google Translate. In times of need, it has worked like a charm.
When I back home after my trip, I regaled my family and friends with all the adventures I’d experienced; it truly was a life-changing trip. However, there were times I was just utterly bored and lonely. Solo-travelling comes with the obvious problem of being on your own. I traveled by myself from Tallinn to Helsinki, Finland and had created a list of things I wanted to do. Helsinki proved to be a lot smaller than I anticipated and I checked off my “to-do list” in just one day of sightseeing. After that I was left without much to do or people to share my boredom with.
Boredom is inevitable during lengthy trips and not every moment can be packed with exciting things to do. But boredom isn't all negative, I figured out a few things: boredom fostered creativity, I finally had the much-needed time to journal my thoughts, go through my camera, edit pictures, and photoshop - things I normally didn't do. Boredom gave me the space to really relax. I don’t know about you, but when I travel, sometimes I do too much at once. It was nice to spend a good amount of my time in Helsinki in my hostel catching up on sleep. Finally, I managed to find the time to talk to my family back home, which helped combat my loneliness. I hadn’t really heard my mom’s voice in a few weeks, and it was great to reconnect. One thing I've come to realize is to not dwell on the negative feelings of boredom and loneliness because travel is just like life - there are great days and some not-so-great ones. I try to find at least one positive pearl of each day and if it wasn’t a great day, what I could do to fix it for next time.
4. Missed travel connections
A blast from my travel past to the first best friends’ trip my BFF and I took: Peru, Argentina, and Uruguay. We were both 21 and totally naïve. We booked a tour to Machu Picchu which left an hour after our planned arrival in Cusco, Peru. Our flight from Lima was cancelled at the last minute, meaning we couldn't make our upcoming tour. Of course, we didn’t have international minutes or data, no cash, and no way to contact anyone to resolve the problem.
At that point, everything was out of our control. We ended up going to our hotel and once we had a stable base with internet, we could sort out the tangles of our trip. Lesson learned: it's worth paying a little more to remain safe and avoid unsafe detours and potentially missing scheduled tours. This experience taught us to keep a handwritten list of addresses of our accommodations and emergency phone numbers and to email it to at least one other person, just in case you need help later.
5. Getting sick abroad
My homestay in Japan was one of the most interesting experiences of my life. The mountainous countryside of southern Japan was a place that allowed me to completely escape the giant, bustling metropolises. Working on the farm was fun, but at the beginning of my second week, I noticed that my throat was itchy and it was difficult to swallow food. Initially, I thought it was a cold, and took a day off work to recover. The next morning, however, I awoke and realized that my throat was more painful it increasingly was difficult to catch my breath if I walked quickly. I knew something was very wrong and asked my host for painkillers. Another day went by and my throat was worse, more swollen, and by this time I could no longer speak. I was having an acute Strep throat infection; my tonsils were so swollen that they were partially blocking off the back of my throat. By the day four, things were progressively worse and I panicked and started to wonder if I was going to have a medical emergency. Luckily, I had my best friend advocated for me to be taken to the ER immediately.
At the ER, the doctor spoke little English, but figured out what was going on. I was given a dose of IV fluids and antibiotics. After one day’s stay in the ER, I was much better. My biggest regret is that I did not have travel health insurance. For extended trips, it is a good idea to compare policies and buy insurance, but be careful to read the fine print. From then on, I have learned to take basic medical supplies with me: pain killers, antibiotics, Band-Aids, and allergy tabs, etc. Being careful about hand hygiene and avoiding eating at roadside stalls will stave off infections.
6. Unwanted Attention
In Kyoto, my best friend and I met a man in the train station who approached us and appeared to be friendly. He had heard us speaking English and said he really wanted to practice the little English he knew. But, he quickly came on a little too strong and made us very uncomfortable. We tried to be polite, but realized he would not stop. We waited in the ladies’ room for about ten minutes hoping he would leave. Unfortunately, when we came out we saw him standing right outside the bathroom door. Luckily we took a train going the opposite direction and lost him.
Sadly, we still live in a day and age where women have to be careful traveling. I hope that one day that changes, but for now, here are some precautions I take: When I feel uncomfortable, I quickly look for a way to leave the situation. That day we missed our train, but we were able to exit the area. Secondly, if I feel the need, I don't hesitate to ask for help. Finally, I always try to be in a public area that has and let a friend know where I am so I have someone keeping an eye on me and make sure I reach my destination safely.
There are two wishes I have for you, reader:
1. I hope you take the plunge and plan your own solo trip!
2. Read this article and be prepared for any challenges that might come up, but I hope your trip goes amazingly well.
By: Aanika Balaji
I enjoy life as a medical student, an amateur artist, a dog walker, and casual global traveller. Either going solo, with friends, at homestays, or volunteering abroad, travelling has taught me a new way to view and perceive the world. My goal is to be an oncologist who is lucky enough to spend part of her career working abroad.