The Painful Loneliness and Glorious Solitude of Traveling Alone

Cairo, Egypt

“Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.”

                                                                                                         — Paul Tillich, German Philosopher

For most of the past three years, I have traveled the world on my own and, yes, some days I wake up dreading another day alone. I am a social person. I miss my family and friends at home, and I love traveling as a team. So why do I keep traveling the world alone?

Nicosia, Cyprus

Island of Lesvos, Greece

To begin with, there is simple math. I don’t have enough peripatetic people in my life to have a travel partner more than occasionally.

And while I don’t think I would ever turn down an offer to have a travel buddy, I also love traveling alone. When I can’t rely on easy companionship (or an annoying travel partner), I have a different experience. In addition to enjoying the art and museums and food, I am more likely to see the messier world, the one that most people live everyday. It’s easier to connect with local people, visit places most travelers don’t see, and slow down.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Sukhothai, Thailand

Most of the people in the world are good and they lead hard lives.  Meeting a few of them has given me the sense that I am part of a family of 7 billion people and, when I think of myself that way, I love what happens. I am more comfortable with people I don’t understand. People seem to be looking out for me. I don’t worry about vendors “ripping me off” — I know they are just trying to feed their kids.  And for every tip I have left in a country that “isn’t a tipping culture,” I have received discounts I didn’t ask for, a lot of smiles I didn’t deserve, and a long list of kind gestures.

New Iberia, Louisiana

And there’s another important reason to travel alone.

Yerevan, Armenia

When we are alone, we have to confront the truth about who we are. Like most privileged Americans, I have had a self-image that has been artificially propped up with titles (administrative law judge), roles (competent single mother) and illusions (I worked hard so I deserve it).  Traveling alone challenges our reliance on social status and nice clothes to compensate for our insecurities. I am reminded every day that I didn’t earn it so much as I was born to it — and the test of who I am is not related to the privileges I inherited, but how I deploy my privileges. Simply stated, being alone in the big world strips away a lot of the stuff that fluffs up our American egos.

Battambang, Cambodia

Nafplio, Greece

Petra, Jordan

Fantan, Armenia

For these reasons and contrary to my expectation, traveling alone has actually made me more insecure. Sometimes I am downright disoriented. Why would I do that to myself? Why would anyone?  I dunno. Maybe it’s like tearing out a nicely-painted wall to cut out the dry rot. And, for now at least,  existential insecurity is the price of freedom and feeling a connection to something bigger.

One of these days, I will trade in my freedom for the comforts of my California home.  In the meantime, I will thank my lucky stars for the gifts of my travels, whether I am alone or with people who share my passion for learning about the world.

Athens, Greece

“Your dad doesn’t want to travel. He says he is worried he might get sick in a strange country.  I don’t know about that —  getting sick in Italy sounds better than sitting around here waiting to get sick.”
                                                                                            — Maxine Malcolm (my mom)

27 comments

  1. “This loneliness won’t leave me alone.” I love the way you write, and how you always write with such deep love and respect for the people and places you describe. You are a citizen of the wide, wide world, open to to a realities that are pregnant with possibility. It is a good way of being human.

    1. Thank you for your poetic response, Charles! When I picked out those photos, I realized how much each one of them touched me in some way (especially that group at the bottom of the page — still my “Greekish” refugee family).

  2. Once again a lovely piece by you, dear Kim, who is so much more grown up than I will ever be!
    Miss you but love reading of your adventures ❤️

  3. Thank you Kim as I set out with living and traveling alone in Mexico…..I really appreciate your experience and insights….and if you are ever in Mexico, let’s have coffee ! Blessings on your journeys.

  4. Excellent article. You are fortunate to have time and $ to travel and we are fortunate to share your insights and experiences. Keep on trekking, Christine

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  5. This piece is the most intimate you’ve written. It”s quite lovely.

    i believe one can be lonely at home or abroad. You can be lonely in a crowd, with one or a handful “new” people you’ve just run into by chance here or there, with friends and even with family, I believe being lonely is a state of mind more than anything else. Maybe traveling just brings every individual’s existential loneliness closer to the foreground of consciousness. That’s been my experience.

    I love your Maxine quote- it’s so “her”.

    i also laughed good and hard when you talked about slowing down. That I’ll believe that when I see it.

  6. Hi Kim! I always read your posts from home and imagine you far away, envious of your paths. This time I’m reading your insights from the Mekong Delta, where Larry and I are traveling on a bike tour, just the two of us and our guide (it would be impossible without a local guide), and soon a couple of friends will join us. Bicycling is such an intimate way to see the world, and it reminds me of some of your travels, being open to everyone, to nature, to the weather, and eager to observe the differences among us. I’ve traveled alone quite a lot, too, and have always loved it. But yes, it can have its painful moments. With your blog, it’s clear you have lots of support in those lonely moments from those of us following you, as we all love to learn what you’ve discovered, what you’ve noticed, and what you’ve chosen to photograph to illustrate your awakenings. Bon voyage!

    1. What a wonderful adventure in Viet Nam. I hope you are going to post photos and thoughts. And I wish I were as fit as you are! Each way of moving around in the world has its particular advantages and biking gets you so close to everything. Enjoy! Love

  7. I’m not that much of a traveller… reading your blog reminds me of times I’ve been abroad, and what was important about those trips. And it invariably informs me about the PEOPLE wherever you go. That’s what’s special about how you see the world as you traverse it.

    1. Going through my photos to find good ones of people I had met was very emotional for me. You get to know someone for an hour, a day, a couple of weeks and you get more attached than you expect.

  8. I really enjoyed the small parts of your journeys you shared, such an admiring and inspiring path! I’ve just bought myself a few plane tickets without a traveling buddy. Wish me luck! Happy trails !

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s