What Maryam Sid­diqi learned from 193 days of solo travel.

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THE GIG This Toron­to­nian and part-time res­i­dent of Tro­gir, Croa­tia, em­barked on a 193day solo world ad­ven­ture—and lived to tell the tale. TRAVEL TIP “Don’t re­gret not hav­ing time to see and do things you orig­i­nally planned for. Be flex­i­ble—some of the best travel mem­o­ries come from de­ci­sions made on a whim.”

If I never have to eat din­ner alone again, it will be too soon” is the thought that ran through my head on a loop as I sat at a ta­ble for one in a des­per­ately-in-need-of-a-ren­o­va­tion re­sort in the Whit­sun­days, a col­lec­tion of is­lands off the coast of Queens­land, Aus­tralia. In the restau­rant that evening were fam­i­lies, cou­ples and me—and a seag­ull. It was the only thing pay­ing me any at­ten­tion, al­though I know all it re­ally wanted was my meal.

I was 84 days into seven months of solo travel and couldn’t have been much far­ther away from my fam­ily and friends in Toronto. I was tired, in­cred­i­bly lonely and stuck with a but­ter knife to both cut my steak and fend off that damned bird. But ev­ery de­press­ing din­ner has a sil­ver lin­ing: That night, the Whit­sun­days were treated to a stun­ner of a moon­rise, and I went to bed know­ing that as low as I felt, it wasn’t so low that I couldn’t ap­pre­ci­ate beauty and that ev­ery ex­pe­ri­ence and en­counter on this trip, good or bad, be­longed only to me. Six months ear­lier, I’d been laid off from my job as a news­pa­per editor. Be­cause I’d been there so long, I re­ceived half a year’s sev­er­ance pay. In my mid-30s at the time, I thought I’d prob­a­bly never have the lux­ury of this found time and money again, so I be­gan to plan a trip around the world—a sab­bat­i­cal of sorts to re­lax and re­fresh. As for the next stage of my ca­reer, the only thing I was cer­tain about was not want­ing to go back to what I had been do­ing.

Given the op­tion, I would al­ways choose to do this sort of trip with com­pany. But I was sin­gle, and if friends weren’t tied down with work, they had spouses and chil­dren. So I sold my car, rented out my condo and bought a one-way ticket to Glas­gow. My itin­er­ary in­cluded some stops to see friends and fam­ily—in Scot­land, Aus­tralia, South Africa and Malta—and ma­jor events, like Wim­ble­don in Lon­don. But the over­ar­ch­ing theme of the trip was see­ing new places. Of the 21 coun­tries I would visit, 15 of them were new to me.

I set off with no ex­pec­ta­tions apart from some hope of find­ing love and a new ca­reer. (Spoiler alert: The first didn’t hap­pen, but I found in­spi­ra­tion for the se­cond.) I was not out to find my­self; this wasn’t my own Eat Pray Love (al­though I learned quickly that there was no use telling peo­ple oth­er­wise—they were go­ing to think it any­way), and there was no uni­ver­sal ques­tion I needed an­swered. I sim­ply wanted an ad­ven­ture; if I had to em­bark on it solo, so be it.

As I said good­bye to my fam­ily and friends, I was told re­peat­edly that I was brave, a sen­ti­ment that was of­ten echoed by peo­ple (usu­ally men) I met while on the road.

I didn’t think I was brave; I didn’t re­ally have time to think about it. I was a woman trav­el­ling alone, but safety was never an is­sue. Sure, some places (like Turkey) came with warn­ings, but I ap­proached them as I did ev­ery other desti­na­tion: with wits, aware­ness and (some­times faux) con­fi­dence. If you look like you be­long some­where and seem to know where you’re go­ing, peo­ple tend to leave you alone. Be­sides, I was too busy walk­ing and see­ing and eat­ing to re­al­ize that I had set my­self quite the task.

Solo travel is work. Search­ing for the best, cheap­est flight and fig­ur­ing out where to stay, how to get around and how to choose good neigh­bour­hoods isn’t easy. I had the scari­est drive of my life on the wind­ing roads in the Bur­ren, on the west coast of Ire­land. The car was wide, the road was nar­row, the sheep were plen­ti­ful and I was driv­ing on the op­po­site side of the road. I passed stun­ning vis­tas but dared not stop be­cause I wasn’t sure I’d be able to start again. But with work comes re­wards, and I re­ceived them in ways I would never have imag­ined.

It turned out there were ben­e­fits to be­ing alone: I got to sit with the pi­lot in a float plane dur­ing a day trip to var­i­ous points of the Great Bar­rier Reef. On an overnight train from Za­greb, Croa­tia, to Mu­nich, Ger­many, the train stew­ard let me have a four-per­son couchette to my­self. I only re­al­ized this in the morn­ing when peo­ple kept pour­ing out of the other cab­ins. When I de­cided that I re­ally didn’t like Bali three days be­fore my flight was sched­uled to leave, I just camped out in my villa (which had its own pool) and in­dulged in the ridicu­lous­ness of trav­el­ling across the world to eat ice cream and watch Eat Pray Love. (Hey, it was on TV, and when in Seminyak....) Had I been with some­one else, none of this would have hap­pened.

I also made friends whom I likely wouldn’t have got to know as well had I not been by my­self. A South African fam­ily I met while sail­ing in Croa­tia hosted me for din­ners and hikes three months later when I made my way to Cape Town. An Aus­tralian cou­ple re­fused to let me eat a meal alone while we were on sa­fari for three days to­gether at Lon­dolozi, in South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Re­serve. And dur­ing an overnight bus ride in Turkey, I was af­fec­tion­ately, if a lit­tle forcibly, fed by the grand­mother sit­ting be­side me. Two nights later, on a dif­fer­ent bus, I folded up my sweater and, us­ing only ges­tures, told my 12-year-old seat­mate to use it as a pil­low so she could sleep. She was headed to Istanbul by her­self. Now that’s brave.

I learned a lot of lessons along the way too: Af­ter liv­ing out of the same not-par­tic­u­larly-large suit­case for half a year, I now know h

how lit­tle I truly need. Af­ter help­ing an older Mus­lim woman se­cure a ta­ble at the food court in Dubai’s Mall of the Emi­rates dur­ing a Ra­madan post-fast rush, I learned that a smile can say more than any amount of words can. And this may seem ob­vi­ous, or even naive, but I dis­cov­ered that, fun­da­men­tally, peo­ple are kind. Trav­el­ling alone placed me in an open po­si­tion—strangers talked to me, shared with me and in­cluded me in ways they might not have if I’d been with some­one else.

On a three-day sail­ing trip off the coast of Aus­tralia, I chat­ted with a fel­low trav­eller, a Cana­dian woman 20 years my se­nior, about my predica­ment—or op­por­tu­nity—as I tried to fig­ure out what to do next with my ca­reer. “Go where you want to live, and fig­ure out how to make money there,” she told me. This ad­vice gave some struc­ture to my thoughts, and I added an­other qual­i­fier to nar­row down my pos­si­bil­i­ties: What­ever was next for me, I had to be pas­sion­ate about it.

While I hopped con­ti­nents, I lit­er­ally spent weeks try­ing to fig­ure out my great pas­sion only to re­al­ize I was al­ready do­ing it—travel. (Talk about not be­ing able to see the for­est for the trees.) By com­par­i­son, de­cid­ing on the “where” was rel­a­tively easy. While I en­joyed New Zealand and adored South Africa, both were way too far from home. I loved Lon­don, but I had lived there pre­vi­ously and it is ridicu­lously ex­pen­sive. But some­thing felt right about Croa­tia, par­tic­u­larly Tro­gir, a me­dieval walled town on an is­land.

This tiny car-free town on the Adri­atic Sea is the op­po­site in al­most ev­ery way of my neigh­bour­hood in the heart of Toronto. Cen­turiesold stone houses line a maze of cob­ble­stoned streets, a lively fish mar­ket en­sures that the seafood is fresh ev­ery day, what re­mains of a 15th-cent­ury cas­tle is used as an out­door event space for con­certs and shows and it takes two hands to count the num­ber of beaches nearby. Tro­gir’s in­hab­i­tants are friendly and help­ful, its charm is ever present and its vibe is re­laxed. To­ward the end of my first visit of 10 days, I felt so at home that I de­clared, “I could spend a month here.”

Fast-for­ward two-and-a-half years to to­day and I’m back in Toronto, but I’m pack­ing my suit­case to fly to Croa­tia, where I’ll fi­nal­ize a pur­chase on an apart­ment in Tro­gir. Dur­ing my trav­els, I learned that start­ing over some­where new is an achiev­able goal. In New Zealand, I met a for­mer com­mer­cial-air­plane pi­lot who’d left his job to fly he­li­copters for a small tour com­pany, and in Bali I met a Cana­dian who’d left cor­po­rate life to open a co-work­ing space.

I’ve vis­ited Tro­gir sev­eral times since re­turn­ing home. Last sum­mer, I rented an apart­ment there for four months to con­firm that it was truly a place that I wanted to in­vest my time and money in. Be­ing on my own again, I felt very lonely at times. I con­fronted the lan­guage bar­rier again and again, as I tried not to bur­den the few peo­ple I knew with be­ing my per­pet­ual trans­la­tors. I bought pizza dough one day h

only to spend the night typ­ing the Croa­t­ian pack­age in­struc­tions into an on­line trans­la­tion tool. At one point, I was so des­per­ate for some­thing to read that I took a 30-minute bus to Split, the neigh­bour­ing city, to buy an Amer­i­can mag­a­zine—for $16.

But, slowly, I started to meet peo­ple and pick up words and phrases. I was able to make (ex­tremely small) small talk while pass­ing peo­ple on the street and could ask for at least half my gro­ceries at the farm­ers’ mar­ket in Croa­t­ian. By the end of the sum­mer, I had a favourite beach, a favourite gelato spot and peo­ple to say good­bye to be­fore I left. And a week be­fore com­ing back to Toronto, I made an of­fer on an apart­ment. It’s an adorable 33-square-me­tre space that sits above the town’s gourmet food and wine shop. When you swing open the shut­ters, you have a view of cob­ble­stoned streets. That was in Septem­ber 2015; it’s mid-Fe­bru­ary as I write this, and I’m still fi­nal­iz­ing the pa­per­work.

My plan—and this is how I fi­nally sorted out the money-mak­ing part—is to split my time be­tween Tro­gir and Toronto and es­tab­lish both apart­ments as rentals when I am not there. This will also let me main­tain a free­lance jour­nal­ism ca­reer. Tro­gir it­self is a UNESCO World Her­itage Site, but there are no ma­jor ho­tels there. The vast ma­jor­ity of hol­i­day ac­com­mo­da­tion is via pri­vate apart­ments for rent. When I re­al­ized this, my plan so­lid­i­fied.

Back in 2013, Croa­tia was merely a stop in a se­ries of stops, a place to catch some sun af­ter a month in the rainy United King­dom. Now, it is my home away from home and, if the apart­ment ren­o­va­tions are done in time, a place I hope to wel­come peo­ple to this sum­mer. I some­times catch my­self think­ing about the 193 days I spent on the road. The jour­ney has been nei­ther straight nor easy, but what the past two-and-a-half years have taught me is that lin­ear paths aren’t the only op­tion—fol­low­ing curves has led me in di­rec­tions I didn’t know were pos­si­ble. n

From top: Cape Town’s Ta­ble Moun­tain; sail­ing near Lamu, Kenya; the writer in Croa­tia; on sa­fari in Botswana; rooftops in

Tro­gir, Croa­tia

The writer’s lug­gage for 193 days (left); the Syd­ney Opera House

Tro­gir, Croa­tia; “bathing boxes” in Brighton, Aus­tralia (right)

From below left: Feed­ing a gi­raffe in Kenya; a view to Ciovo Is­land, Croa­tia; on sa­fari in South Africa

The Su­pertrees in Sin­ga­pore; boats near Marsaxlokk, Malta

From top right: The Cathe­dral of St. Lawrence in Tro­gir; hik­ing in South Africa with an Airbnb host; try­ing fal­conry in Ire­land; on sa­fari at Lon­dolozi in South Africa

From top right: The li­brary of Cel­sus in

Eph­e­sus, Turkey; White­haven Beach on Whit­sun­day Is­land in Aus­tralia; the writer in Ro­torua, New Zealand

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