Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Solo with the Scots

Before leaving for England, a common “order” I received was to never travel alone. People told me it wouldn’t be safe—especially as a female—and that I should always travel with friends. I appreciated the several safety tips and the worry on my behalf, but I must say that looking back at my travels, I am glad I didn’t follow their advice.

I traveled solo several times over the course of my life abroad though it was mostly was short trips and transportations. I flew from St. Louis to Dallas to Heathrow on my own, a total of 15 hours. I flew from Dublin to London and then caught a train to Canterbury by myself. I took many solo cabs and even coaches to London, and numerous train rides. Returning to the States, I went from Heathrow to Chicago to St. Louis, a journey that—thanks to the time zones and layovers—lasted almost 24 hours it seemed. While these all helped build my confidence in independent traveling, there is a particular feat of solo traveling that I want to elaborate on, the trip that made me realize I could go anywhere in the world—alone.

When the school term ended, I had a little over a week of time to do whatever I wanted before I had to leave England. There were tons of places I wanted to go and not enough time to cram them all in, so I chose one that I knew I would regret if I didn’t go because I was so close to it for three months: Edinburgh, Scotland—a city I had always yearned to experience. However, none of my friends would be able to join me (some had already been and some had other plans) and after the initial disappointment and moments where I considered changing it to a closer location, I accepted the adventure and began to look forward to it. And so the journey began.

Overlooking Edinburgh from Edinburgh Castle!

Early on a Saturday morning, I caught a cab to Canterbury West train station, took it to St. Pancras, caught the tube to the airport train service, caught a half hour train ride, and arrived at Stansted Airport. I was nervous and thrilled. Mentally, Scotland seemed like a continent away since it was so far from “home home,” but while Scotland is technically another country, it was still not incredibly far from Canterbury. My travels probably took around five or so hours, from taxi to landing. I remember sitting on the floor of Stansted Airport, sipping a grande-soy-caramel-frappuccino-with-whip and watching the time boards. I just kept looking around at people, and while most of them were families and couples, I could spot the solos as well, the ones listening to their iPods with their backpacks tucked under their legs, or FaceTiming people on their phones, leaned back in their chairs as if they had been waiting a while. I tried to imagine where they were going, where they had been, why they were alone. I wondered what people thought when they saw me. I hoped they thought I was independent and courageous, about to embark on a grand adventure.

For the next five days, I wandered the streets of Edinburgh on my own. I survived the not-so-great hostel that was my only option on the first night, though my mother begged me to check into a Holiday Inn when I described it to her. I changed hostels on day two, since it had been my first choice but already full on night one. I had a very nice hostel-mate that I became friends with, and I didn’t see the others much. I went to breakfast, lunch, and dinner on my own. I went to the attractions of the city on my own, such as the Edinburgh Castle, Calton Hill, Queen Elizabeth’s Holyroodhouse Palace, parliament buildings, various parks and cathedrals, and so on. I even went on a day tour through the highlands of Scotland on my own, stuck on a bus for nine hours with no one I knew while going through Glen Coe to Ben Nevis to Loch Ness. I watched ecstatic rugby fans celebrate the Six Nations game between Ireland and Scotland that was happening in Edinburgh. I roamed the sites during the day, and more importantly, at night. I didn’t want to just see Edinburgh in light, but how it was in the dark, when everyone was home and the streets were quiet, the moon high and bright among the peaceful cobblestone walkways. And guess what? I never felt unsafe. I felt happy and alive because I didn’t let myself miss the opportunity to experience amazing things just because I was on my own.

Panorama from Calton Hill
Selfie life is for those who travel solo.
Scottish Highlands.
I think the reason I wanted to post this is because so many people miss out on opportunities because they don’t have a person to do it with them. Whether it is not going to Steak and Shake because friends are busy, or not flying to a different country for the same reasons, too many people hesitate to be alone. And for the latter experience mostly, they use the excuse that it is unsafe. I, personally, came to dislike that excuse. I understand that it is less safe for women to travel alone than men. I understand that there are a lot of bad people in the world, and that I should be careful. But that should not hinder my life. I don’t want to miss things because there is bad in the world. There are mean people in my hometown that I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. There are just as many dangers on domestic land as there are abroad—alone or not alone. I honestly felt more unsettled walking the streets of Chicago in broad daylight than I did Edinburgh, London, Canterbury, Amsterdam, and Paris at night combined. Fear of the unknown should not be an excuse.

Glen Coe
Looking for Nessie!
What I am trying to say is this: be safe, be alert, but don’t be afraid. Research where you’re going, how you’re getting there, what crime rates are and where most crimes occur, places to go/not to go (sites like TripAdvisor and other google searches or reviews of attractions often say whether or not it’s a good idea to go somewhere at night, etc.). If you’re staying in a hostel, look carefully at the reviews to see what others had to say about security. Don’t walk around looking lost and vulnerable. Don’t walk in unlit areas if you’re not familiar with your surroundings. Don’t give information about yourself to strangers or go places alone with them. These are all basic, common sense tips for everyone—not just women travelling alone—and there are so many more. I think of all of these and know that I never put myself in an uncomfortable position. I was confident in what I was doing and who I was as a traveler and I never let it show when I wasn’t. That confidence, my choice to ignore the overused don’t-travel-alone-especially-if-you’re-female warning, and my amazing experience in Scotland, solidified what I want future study abroad goers to know. There are a lot of opportunities out there in the world, and you’re not always going to have someone to experience them with you. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take every leap you want to. It just means you have to have a little more faith in yourself to jump.
A night at the castle.

Best wishes, fellow travelers. 

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