The Loneliness Question
“Time spent undistracted and alone in self-examination, journaling, meditation, resolves the unresolved and takes us from mentally fat to fit.” – Naval Ravikant, founder of AngelList
“Aren’t you lonely?” This is a question that I’ve gotten many times since becoming a digital nomad and even before this major transition as a female who is “single”. My simple answer to this complicated question is – being alone and loneliness are two different things. And, spending time alone is good for you. An article published in the New York Times earlier this year and Psychology Today list multiple benefits of having quality alone time, including time for thinking deeply, increased productivity, getting to know yourself, and enhanced quality of relationships with others.
One of my favorite things to do alone IS TRAVEL, which is a major reason I decided to become a digital nomad. In my experience, it opens me up to have more connections and interactions with fellow travelers, the people in the community that I am visiting and most importantly myself. Traveling alone, I find myself to be more present, more open to everything and everyone. My senses become more alive. A good analogy is like when Dorthy from the Wizard of Oz goes from her black and white country life to the colorful, stimulating land of Oz. However, I haven’t always thought this way.
My first solo trip was to Peru in 2017. I had never been there before, and I didn’t speak a lick of Spanish. (Ha!) I love diving headfirst to things. When I landed in Cuzco, the anxiety started to hit me (yes excitement and anxiety are the same, it is our mind that decides which one we are experiencing). As I checked into my hostel, I had an intuitive thought that I should drop my stuff off in my room and head out right away, so I didn’t hole up in my room. I dumped my suitcase and headed immediately back out the door. Walking across the city, feeling the energy, seeing the people, smelling the air, immersing myself. I can still feel the chill on my cheeks, the shortness of breath (with an elevation of 11,000 ft above sea level), the smell of the giant empanadas and the energy of all the people in the square bring a grin to my face as I write this.
The trip ended up being an extremely spiritual journey for me, even though I got really sick. I stayed at this hostel that incorporated giving back in their mission, Niños Hotel. Some fellow travelers were very kind and offered guidance on the activities I planned on doing while there – including hiking Rainbow Mountain and of course Machu Picchu. Being the go-getter that I am, I decided to do both, even though I was only in the country for 5 days, thank goodness the woman I purchased the tickets from talked me into taking one day between the two activities!
Hiking from base camp at approx 14,500 ft above sea level to the top of 16,500 ft, Rainbow Mountain on my second day in the country was one of the hardest things I’ve done. (You’re technically supposed to wait a few days to adjust the altitude.) On the hike, I felt myself enter into an extreme meditative state. I was less and less aware of everything around me and felt myself traveling deeper and deeper inward. It was one of the most, if not the most physically challenging acts I have ever completed. Physically, the hike tested me and I had to really dig to be able to finish it – telling myself, just one more step, just one more. The whole hike I was pushing myself, loving myself, encouraging myself through it. And that was not just for the physical side, it was mentally and spiritually as well.
At the end of the hike, our tour bus was stalled by the road conditions. Due to recent snow and rain, the unpaved road had washed out, making it nearly impassable for buses. I watched as the other hikers who had been on my bus stood about complaining and criticizing this setback, over which the poor bus driver was totally powerless. No one offered to help. This reminded me of so many situations I’ve seen in business. It’s easy to gripe about the problem, but few people want to take action for a solution. People are quick to gain a negative mentality when something unexpected happens, forgetting instantly the gratitude they have for all the good things (like the beautiful mountain) that came before.
The day after the hike, I explored Cuzco and took photos of the many vibrant street art murals. I noticed that mentally and emotionally, something had shifted. I felt different. I had less mental chatter and a sense of suspension or floating. I felt a surge of confidence in what I had accomplished the day before and a deeper trust in myself that I could and would travel solo. BTW in a lot of cities, there are FREE walking tours, they make their money by tips and sometimes from the vendor kickbacks that they take you too. I had a great tour guide this day with a small group of people from all over!
Two days after the hike to Rainbow Mountain, I took a train to Machu Picchu. I had initially booked this as part of a group tour but when I arrived in the town I was separated from the group when we went to the bathroom. After speaking with a man at the train stop, I decided to go and explore on my own, since I had my entry ticket in hand (note to others, if you can get your entry tickets to the sites prior, this helps saves you if you are lost or separated from your group, so you do not have to purchase another ticket there). I had talked to a couple about it the night before at the hostel and felt comfortable walking around by myself. They gave me the in’s and outs, telling me to hike to Sungate first and stay if it is socked in as the clouds come and go quickly. This site was majestic.
This ended up being exactly what I needed. I was able to explore the ruins at my own pace, with solitude, rather than getting caught up in the group chatter. I enjoyed taking my time in the areas that spoke to me, seeing more than just Machu Picchu ruins, soaking in the wonder and awe from those around me, without being rushed from point a to point b by a tour guide. I was able to feel the energy differently, beat to my own drum, sink in and be in my head and in the moment.
After Machu Picchu, my health caught up to me. I got really sick from the exposure to chilly weather and the altitude. What would I do? Here it was, a point of anxiety – of not being able to communicate because I didn’t speak the language – surfacing. I went to the drug store and of course, all the labels were in Spanish. I ended up pantomiming my symptoms to the pharmacist. I pointed to my throat, my nose, and made lots of expressive gestures (and probably also looked like hell – haha!) She was great. She picked some medicine off the shelf and made it clear that this was what I needed. Poof! Another mountain in my mind turned into a tiny anthill.
Even though I did get seriously ill, I look back on this trip to Peru with fondness. It was a test of myself, my inner strength, and I felt like I had opened a door to a new way of being. Solo travel allows you to follow your inner compass and see where it takes you, to be spontaneous and live in the moment – and that’s why I love it.
As for the question, about loneliness, I would be lying if I said that I never get lonely. However, I’ve realized that I can feel lonely by myself, or in a crowded room full of friends. It’s really more of a signal that something is off with my internal state. If I am feeling insecure, or sad. It signals to me that some self-care is in order. Sometimes, this means calling a friend or finding some community to plug into, but other times it can be as simple as checking in on how much rest I’ve gotten, if I’ve eaten lately, or if there is some other need or worry going unmet that I can attend to.
Learning to truly relish time alone with myself makes me appreciate even more the time that I get to spend with others. While I was in Thailand this past fall, one of my dearest girlfriends was able to come to meet me and travel with me for a few weeks. It ended up being this magical experience and we had so much fun. We toured around to Chiang Rai taking in many sites: Wat Run Khun (White Temple), Wat Huay Pla Kung (Big Buddha), local cooking classes, street markets, and to Friends of Thai Daughters, a local non-profit that provides a home and education to at-risk girls which I first connected within 2018. We spent a lot of time with these girls, as that was the main reason we went to Chiang Rai. We traveled back to Bangkok together and when she left I had two days alone to reconnect to myself.
Do you love traveling alone, or aspire to? What is your experience with loneliness? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
People and possibilities. These are the two words that motivate Lynn Howard, owner of Asentiv Hawaii. She lives by the motto “No excuses, only solutions.” As a business coach, her passion is to inspire others to achieve their own success by believing in themselves and
taking action to overcome adversity. She is blessed with a delightfully snarky sense of humor, which provides comic relief when doing difficult ECC work with clients. An adventurous spirit, she loves to travel and has visited Indonesia, Bahrain, Thailand, Peru, and Columbia. She is based in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.