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GOING SOLO

In a rut with her life, Meera Dattani decided to go it alone

GOING SOLO
Branching out: Meera Dattani hiking in Argentina

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It was summer 2000 and Bob Marley was playing on a stereo on a hostel rooftop terrace in Jerusalem. I was on a two-week backpacking trip around Israel with three girlfriends and we were chatting to a girl on her solo, round-the-world trip. If I had to pin it down to one moment, this is when the idea was planted in my own head.

It seems hard for me to believe now that I was apprehensive about three days on my own in Jaffa, Tel Aviv’s old town, at the end of that trip. But the company of strangers, with no need for itinerary nor compromise, proved to be a short-but-sweet taster of travelling alone. I’d have done anything for an ash cloud or snow-clogged runway to have delayed my return.

Strangely, it was some years later, 2003 to be precise, before I acted on any ideas. I’d been freelancing as a writer for a year and planned a two-month trip to India, visiting family in Mumbai before travelling around Goa and Karnataka, some of it with a friend. However, I found it difficult to work and travel with company, feeling I was missing out when I had to write, and it wasn’t until November 2004 that I decided to try it alone.

It had been a depressing couple of months, as while freelancing was going well, I was in a rut with my social and personal life. The thought of winter in the UK seemed unbearable and I’d bored myself and my friends for long enough about ‘going travelling’.

I was keen to return to Thailand after an excellent holiday in 2001, I’d heard Vietnam was ‘up-and-coming’ and with two work friends now in Australia — one getting married in March 2005 — I planned a month down under, visiting Clare in Melbourne before a road trip to a friend’s wedding near Queensland.

Walking out of STA Travel with my flights booked was as close to an out-of-body experience as I’ve ever known. I hadn’t exactly planned this trip and it being November, it made sense to leave soon. In less than four weeks, I’d land in Bangkok with no schedule, no obligations — one man’s nightmare I imagine was another woman’s dream. Up until then, I’d been carving out a career in online journalism and I’d decided to finance my trip as I went along, writing features from internet cafes. Converted into Thai baht and Vietnamese dong, it would keep me afloat, any surplus covering the more expensive month in Australia.

Friends and family were supportive, excited and worried in various measures. The short run-up to my departure was a blessing, the month hurtling past in a blur of vaccinations, leaving do’s, shopping for seemingly essential travel gadgets, most of which I ignored, and even my first work press trip. Ironically, as life often is, it was in this period that I met someone, but at such early stages under these circumstances, there was a mutual understanding that what would be, would be.

Leaving was always going to be riddled with mixed emotions, excitement and happiness given a reality check by their evil cousins, nausea and fear. Although generally a self-contained person, I was anxious about saying goodbye, especially to my parents, whose concerns about me travelling solo were obvious. I’m someone who rarely cries in front of others and both were taken aback when I broke the habit of a lifetime.

Even so, arriving at Bangkok Airport with only one night’s accommodation booked felt exhilarating — my only commitment was a Bangkok-Melbourne flight three months later. I’d decided to head north to Chiang Mai, back to Bangkok, then Ko Tao island for Christmas. I felt a huge sense of achievement and pleasure in the simplest of things — sitting in a Bangkok travel agency, boarding the sleeper train, hearing the carriages rattle through the night, sharing food with a Thai family, the so-called ‘bed’ which gave me backache and the scenery that made me forget it. My time in Chiang Mai also set a precedent. A vague plan to spend five days in this laid-back city quickly evaporated — it was over two weeks before I left, a pattern often repeated. This level of control over my own happiness was instantly addictive.

I’d decided to take a proactive approach to meeting people, honing my instinct on who did and didn’t want to be approached and also learning to enjoy time on my own when company was scarce. Beginner’s luck played its part, too, when I struck up a conversation with a fellow female traveller (Nicole) on my first attempt. She was heading home to Melbourne the next day, but it was on her last night and my first that I met many of the people I’d spend much of my time with in Thailand (even seeing Nicole again in Melbourne three months later).

In fact, Chiang Mai was a series of firsts — first motorbike ride and elephant trek, Buddhism explained by a gentle-mannered monk, a date with a fireman from Utah to a Thai boxing match — and often, like the go-go girls’ bar, both a first and last. I’d also found a home-from-home in my garden bungalow at Tawan Guest House, which aside from its penchant for playing Puff the Magic Dragon on a loop, became my haven, its Thai owners often inviting me to family meals. It was hard to believe that a week ago, I was living in a London suburb.

But it wasn’t always fun and my diary reminds me of the lowest moments. One particularly miserable evening, after eight hours working in an internet cafe and company in short supply by night, was the day my university friends were meeting for our Christmas get-together and I tortured myself playing the ‘time difference game’ until it was over. Those times were rare, but painful enough to make me question what I was doing alone on the other side of the world. Email and instant chat were my saviours — I knew almost any time I could contact someone.

So I was glad to be spending Christmas on Ko Tao, where an old acquaintance, Alberto, worked as a dive instructor. It was a pleasure to renew a friendship after three years and to be with someone who already knew me, although I initially missed the city buzz and found island life too quiet. People said Christmas would be the toughest period, but as it turned out, I spoke to more friends and family during this time than I have at any other point in my life. As news of the devastating Boxing Day tsunami hit home, I was fielding calls, texts and emails from almost everyone I knew. That I was on the opposite coastline came as welcome news, but their emotional messages also served as a heartening reminder of what I had back home.

I discovered the enormous part people played in any experience. I often spent lengthy spells in the most unlikely spots because of the company and often, a mini relationship. Kanchanaburi by the River Kwai, typically visited as a day trip, was a 10-day stint for me as I embraced the slow pace of life, the history of the area and sunset beers with new friends at the Jolly Frog Backpackers.

Time passes slowly, in a positive sense, in this bubble. Two weeks, each day so different from the previous, felt like a month, whereas a fortnight in London would whizz past without my realising. I couldn’t believe when my two months in Thailand were over, but the month in Vietnam was equally memorable and happily interrupted by a most unexpected visitor.

A friend had decided to spend her surprise bonus on a two-week holiday to Vietnam around my birthday, if I was game. I explored alone the capital Hanoi with its honking scooters, took a boat cruise to Halong Bay and took the sleeper train south to the historical towns of Hue and Hoi An, in preparation for a heady fortnight with Jo on the beaches of Nha Trang and Phu Quoc Island, enjoying city life in Ho Chi Minh City and learning war history at the Cu Chi Tunnels.

Leaving South-east Asia and saying goodbye to Jo marked the end of an extraordinary three months. I couldn’t wait to see my friends in Australia and was excited about the wedding, the Byron Bay road trip and my final solo stint in Sydney. But I knew Australia was an altogether more recognisable world and it was the colour, chaos and culture of Thailand and Vietnam which had brought out the freer spirit in me.

The last night of a long trip is a headspinner, but ending on a high helped. I’d made good friends in Sydney — staying in the same hostel for a fortnight had resulted in another home-from-home, yet one flight away was a life I felt so far removed from.

Seeing friends and family again was wonderful and initially the only good thing about returning. But I realised how hard it was to capture such a long, packed experience. I now appreciate life doesn’t change much in four months for the average person, myself included, but at the time, mine had and I was almost too overwhelmed to tell the tale. In many instances, it was easier to talk about the life we both knew, friends, work, family, rather than the hilarious poker night on the Halong Bay cruise or the kookaburras waking me up while camping in Australia.

The initial comedown was more brutal than I’d expected and the day-to-day isolation of working from home challenging. The relationship started before the trip was briefly rekindled, but eventually became friendship. In fact, it was imminent bridesmaid duties which were my saving grace, providing a welcome, non-work diversion.

It was easy to describe the overall experience as ‘amazing’, but I’d learnt not every moment is Bob Marley on a sun-drenched rooftop. The times I felt lonely were 10 times worse than anything I’d felt back home. No comfy sofa, no TV and no fridge full of comfort food to raid. But as the good times were so very good, knowing I’d got through the bad was something I was proud of. I’d proved to myself I could travel alone, that I could ‘rough it’, and I’d met remarkable people across different cultures. I’d also found a stronger, bolder part of my personality which had, inexplicably, required a change of scenery to release.

Meeting new people — some quirky, some annoying  — many so engaging I changed my plans, had also refreshed my own personality, teaching me what I did and didn’t like about myself, and improved my self-awareness. I look back with affection at them all, from those I shared uncomfortable bus journeys and noisy hostels with to the small handful who became real friends. I treasure those the most — they’re the few I can truly reminisce with.

Would I do it again?
Not a week passed when I didn’t consider taking off again and a year later, I spent three months in Spain after an irresistible offer to flat-sit a beautiful Madrid apartment. I continued to freelance, simultaneously reacquainting myself with Spanish culture, which had been somewhat neglected since gaining my Italian and Spanish degree. Although based in one place, the break from routine still offered a sense of freedom and openness to new people, just without the transient nature of traditional travelling.

But my feet required more scratching and my spark reigniting and in winter 2008, I left for Argentina, Chile and Uruguay for two and a half months. Yet even then, I remember arriving in Buenos Aires on a hot, dusty afternoon, collapsing on a dorm bed and wondering what I was doing again. But this time, my trepidation was short-lived as I knew what lay ahead. I was writing a travel blog, I learnt how to horse ride, I cycled every day for 10 miles in Uruguay’s UNESCO city of Colonia del Sacramento and I explored by foot the sand dunes on the country’s Atlantic coastline.

I had also booked a group trip with Intrepid Travel to Argentinean and Chilean Patagonia, where I’d hike my first 15-mile-plus trails. Completing the Torres del Paine trek in Chile after scrambling over never-ending boulders, the majestic peaks towering above me, was an adrenalin rush like no other. My time in Argentina was also enhanced by a surprise visitor, my friend Maria, her first trip outside Europe, lured westwards by the promise of fine steak and Malbec wine.

It’s natural to have regrets in life, but I know I’ll never regret any of my trips. They might not live up to expectation every moment of every day, but travelling does wonders for the soul — I know if I hadn’t gone it alone, I’ll always wish I had. And if I had to sum it up, it really was, dare I say it, quite amazing.

ESSENTIALS
Intrepid Travel has the 10-day Patagonia Wilderness trip (code GPTU) from £1,995 plus international flights. T: 0203 147 7777. www.intrepidtravel.com
Explore offers the 14-day Torres del Paine Circuit (code TO) from £2,170 without flights, from £2,998 including flights. T: 0845 013 1537. www.explore.co.uk
STA Travel. Flight costs vary according to the time of year and stopovers. A round trip from London to Melbourne with a Bangkok stopover costs around £1,000. T: 0871 230 0040. www.statravel.co.uk
Also check Trailfinders. T: 020 7292 1888. www.trailfinders.com

How to do it
Find travelling companions and tips on Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum: www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/index.jspa
If you’re not sure about doing it completely alone, check i-to-i  Volunteer and Adventure Travel. T: 0113 205 4620. www.i-to-i.com
www.couchsurfing.org brings together an international collection of travellers providing free accommodation.

More info
Books
The Rough Guide to Southeast Asia on a Budget. RRP £16.99.
Southeast Asia on a Shoestring: Lonely Planet Shoestring Guide. RRP £16.99.
Websites
www.bootsnall.com
www.solotravel.org
www.seat61.com
www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad

Check list – before you go
Red tape: Passport validity and visa requirements for each destination
Health: Check with your GP and allow time for vaccinations/boosters
Stay covered: Ensure you have appropriate travel insurance
Pack well: Invest in a good-quality rucksack and a cotton sleeping bag liner
Electric charge: Universal travel adapter
Shine a light: Small head torch or like — wind up or solar powered.
Take notes: Diary — a great reminder.
Get active: Pack hiking boots, thermals, etc.
Travel guides: Usually cheaper in UK
Published in Mar Apr 2011 issue © National Geographic Traveller UK