3 Travel Lessons I Learned in 2018:
1. I enjoy traveling solo - maybe more than with a companion
I took my first solo trip in 2010, to Belize during an undergrad Spring break. My marine bio lab partner and I had been talking about taking a trip together and he ultimately decided against it. I forged ahead with my plans and settled on Belize after researching destinations where I could enjoy activities of interest (scuba diving and bird watching) within a reasonable budget. That first trip was amazing and to this day I marvel at the memories and beauty of that place. It was empowering in retrospect but while there I was always acutely aware of my solitude and would reply with slight embarrassment when people asked (shocked) if I was traveling alone.
Fast forward to 2018 on a solo trip to Barbados. I drove all over that island (shout out to my airbnb which came with a rental car!!!) exploring beaches, a botanical garden, museum, rum tour, fish fry, strolling aimlessly in Bridgetown, stopping randomly to enjoy views and just generally having a time. This is not to say that I couldn’t have done all these things with a travel buddy; however the fact that I did all that and more with the utmost enjoyment, never once wishing that I had anyone with me, showed me a side of myself I didn’t know. I met some cool people - Bajans and other tourists, and never once did I feel awkward telling them I was there by myself. In 2019 there are a couple of destinations on my list and though I have tentative plans with companions I’m looking forward to doing more solo travel.
2. Layovers can be an opportunity for discovery
This year I had the longest journey of my life - 3 days from Houston to Douala, the result of a 17 hour layover in Doha and a 22 hour layover in Nairobi. I booked this route because it was the cheapest option and although I wasn't thrilled about the prospect of being on the road for 3 days it opened my eyes to more possibilities when flying. In both cities I booked a hotel in the center of the city (again, most cost effective option) and looking back I'm glad I did. I was on the way to my father's funeral in Cameroon so wasn't in any kind of tourist mindset; however I couldn't help but be intrigued by what I saw, particularly in Nairobi. My taxi driver was talkative and gave me a mini tour of the city as we went through. I had dinner at the rooftop restaurant of the hotel where I stayed and enjoyed views of the surrounding city. I also took in some of the city on a walk when I went out to buy soap (yeah the hotel was cheap like that), and despite my state of mind I decided that I would have to come back. An unexpected sight which cheered me up in Nairobi was the presence of marabou storks - common there, I later discovered, but still a treat for a bird lover like me. In Doha I was more cautious about being out alone and stayed on the hotel premises as I didn't observe many people out and about, and no solo women...also it was incredibly hot so that was another incentive to stay indoors. Despite not doing much it's a place I wouldn't mind exploring further on another stop through - it was impressive and beautiful in a way that was new to me since I had never been in the Middle East before.
3. “Wingin’ It” Ain’t For Me
My last trip of the year was a bit of a letdown and I blame myself for poor planning. People like to say “just go with the flow” but when it comes to traveling, going with the flow isn’t for me and I realized that after this trip. Jamaica has been on my list of destinations to visit and I decided to go to Negril for a few days to celebrate my birthday and use up my last vacation days.
Before I travel somewhere new (by myself or with a companion) I like doing some research on the location, culture, places and activities of interest, etc. I really enjoy this aspect of travelling even before I arrive at the destination. My companion on this trip is, let’s just say, the opposite of a planner.
So this time I decided to “go with the flow” and didn’t plan anything beyond our hotel stay and airport transfers. Work was particularly stressful and all I wanted to do was just be away from there. Between that and school projects/exams I didn’t feel I had the mental bandwidth to do planning or any research.
Well we arrived in beautiful Negril and proceeded to spend the next 3 and a half days going to the beach and drinking rum and cokes. Did I have fun? Yes. Would I do it differently next time? Absolutely. For one thing when it came to dining, we relied on recommendations from the hotel staff and drivers, which isn’t necessarily a bad idea but in this case a lot of times they sent us to places which turned out to be tourist traps with pricey, so-so food.
When it came to activities, I thought I would be content just being at the beach but Jamaica has so much more to offer in terms of natural beauty and outdoor activities. Trying to schedule tours and such at the last minute in the few days we had just didn’t work out, and even a nearby cliff jump we tried to do got cancelled due to weather (something I could have planned for had I researched ahead).
All in all I had a nice time but I left feeling like I had missed an opportunity for a better more immersive experience.
Winging it and going with the flow is great for some trips (e.g. my aforementioned layovers) but in the future I’m going to do what I do well and plan, plan, plan.