Trav­el­ling solo is sheer joy – do it while you still can

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - • Bidisha is a jour­nal­ist and au­thor

There’s an early art­work by Tracey Emin that I’ve al­ways loved. It’s a bat­tered, lov­ingly em­bel­lished suit­case with the words “Mys­tery Woman” em­broi­dered on one side. It’s the valise of a fe­male char­ac­ter who dreams of a glam­mer, more fancy-free life filled with dy­namism and in­de­pen­dence, art and cul­ture.

Well, I am that woman, a glo­ri­ously child-free 40-year-old celi­bate spin­ster with a pass­port, no ex­penses (I still live with my mother in my child­hood home) and a slight un­der­em­ploy­ment is­sue, and the times have fi­nally caught up with me. The As­so­ci­a­tion of Bri­tish Travel Agents (Abta) has re­leased re­search show­ing a spike in book­ings for solo trav­ellers, par­tic­u­larly among peo­ple aged 35 to 44. It says some­thing about the con­straints of tra­di­tional fam­ily life, of the work cul­ture that so ex­hausts peo­ple, and of the re­al­ity of Bri­tish ur­ban liv­ing that prompt this de­sire for es­cape alone ... and then the push-pull of need­ing free wifi and data wher­ever you go, so that you can still stay con­nected to so­cial me­dia and work.

The joys of solo travel are man­i­fold. Oh, the sheer lib­er­a­tion of not hav­ing to be nice all the time; not hav­ing to be rea­son­able and con­sid­er­ate; not hav­ing to weigh up the sight­see­ing op­tions and con­sult with the group and deal, day in, day out, with peo­ple and their per­son­al­i­ties. That gallery break in Florence seemed like a fab idea but it’s mis­er­able when you’re into day two of be­ing given the si­lent treat­ment by the ap­par­ently fun pal who turned out to be im­pos­si­bly moody.

How­ever, this is prefer­able to the hor­ror of wed­lock and child-rear­ing in tran­sit. There is no such thing as tak­ing a fam­ily hol­i­day to “get away from things” – be­cause wher­ever you go, there they are, the spouse and the prog­eny. You take your Freudian pat­terns, marital night­mares and un­der­ly­ing pas­sive-ag­gres­sive dom­i­na­tion dy­nam­ics with you. Watch­ing fam­i­lies strug­gle with small kids and all their hol­i­day ac­cou­trements be­fore they’ve even got on the aero­plane, I feel waves of claus­tro­pho­bia and aver­sion leav­ened by the bliss­ful wash of relief know­ing that’s not me.

You could say it’s self­ish – but any woman who has done any­thing that doesn’t in­volve be­ing a mummy/wife help­meet has been called self­ish since the be­gin­ning of time. We can’t let those cries of jeal­ousy drown out the Stansted air­port gate an­nounce­ment. There seems to be some kind of ex­pec­ta­tion placed on women that, even on hol­i­day, they will do all the emo­tional and prac­ti­cal labour to make sure ev­ery­thing goes smoothly and ev­ery­one (else) has a nice time. It’s the le­gend of fe­male sub­mis­sion, masochism and sac­ri­fice.

Solo travel is the op­po­site: it’s about he­do­nism. Like a woman as­sas­sin played by An­gelina Jolie, but brown and not look­ing like An­gelina Jolie, I check in then go out to walk the streets in un­trou­bled soli­tude in all hours. I am not alone: I am spend­ing time with my­self, in con­tem­pla­tion of the out­side world, wak­ing up in si­lence, with un­bounded time, in­dulging my hob­bies with­out hav­ing to be nice, or tidy, or hy­gienic. Be­ing alone, oc­cu­py­ing pub­lic space and ex­plor­ing the world as a free agent, not an ob­ject or an an­cil­lary fa­cil­i­tat­ing fig­ure, is my right. I spent last week yomp­ing about on Ilk­ley Moor in West York­shire, and the only per­son I en­coun­tered was a fe­male hiker with a dog called Mr Pep­per.

Still, this trend for solo travel comes with a huge caveat: trips like the ones Abta is re­fer­ring to are for those lucky in­di­vid­u­als who have the money, free time, fam­ily sup­port to hold the fort, and the nar­cis­sis­tic-yet-some­what­ba­sic “life­style” #solo­travel In­sta­gram ten­den­cies to cu­rate, edit and tailor their hol­i­days. Sorry, I mean their “ex­pe­ri­ences”. And so they roam the Earth, iPhones in hand, like avari­cious Vic­to­rian colo­nials, sam­pling the ex­otic cu­rios of an An­dalucían yoga week­end here and a Tus­can cook­ery course there.

A fi­nal word of cau­tion: the solo travel boom may be hu­man­ity’s last hur­rah be­fore the Brexit apoca­lypse, the cold war heat­ing up, a new Gulf war/ war on ter­ror Mid­dle East­ern combo, and a gen­er­alised full-Earth flood­s­fires-and-hail sce­nario. The free­dom that peo­ple like me have had, the places we’ve set­tled in with­out think­ing, may soon be­come an ad­min­is­tra­tive has­sle at best or a long-dis­ap­peared par­adise at worst. We might soon for­get that the world is a big and beau­ti­ful place. Alone or in com­pany, travel while you can.

Be­ing alone, oc­cu­py­ing pub­lic space and ex­plor­ing the world as a free agent is my right

Pho­to­graph: San­torines/Getty Im­ages

‘Oh, the lib­er­a­tion of not hav­ing to be nice all the time; not hav­ing to be rea­son­able and con­sid­er­ate.’

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