The elderly nomadic yak farmer strode forcefully up the slope ahead of me with 20 gallons of water strapped to her back, while I struggled along behind, barely able to tote my own personal water bottle. I could have climbed that slope at sea level, but at 14,000 feet, in the thin air of the high prairies of central China’s Gansu province, I could barely tie my shoelaces without getting winded.
My yak farmer homestay — three breathless days in a yak hair tent in the middle of winter, without running water or a toilet — was the highlight of a lifetime spent traveling on my own, in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. One advantage of solo travel is you don’t have to persuade anyone else that it sounds like fun to answer the call of nature by squatting behind a bush and hoping grazing yaks don’t bowl you over while your guard is down.
There are other practical advantages too. For busy professionals, it can be challenging to find a big chunk of time that several friends, or even family members, can take off together. Solo travel means consulting only one calendar.
But for me, the best bit about traveling alone is that it forces you to immerse yourself in local culture and get to know new people, whether they’re natives of Toledo, Spain, or Toledo, Ohio. You can’t just isolate in your comfort zone as you might with travel partners from home.
Take the yak lady. She and I had no alternative but to become friends, even though we shared no common language. I couldn’t hide away in my travel bubble, speaking English. I had to communicate with a combination of mime, sign language, and lots of laughter.
After nearly a year of pandemic isolation in my small apartment near Chicago, I’m incredulous at the freedom I once enjoyed to do a nomad homestay (at age 54) or trek across the Mongolian desert on a camel for my 60th birthday. I’m not sure when, or whether, I’ll be able to travel like that again. But if I do, I’ll remember these lessons:
- Make sure your host or guide knows about any health issues. Since you won’t have a partner who can explain that, if you’re acting strange, that person will know it might be time to feed you sugar (I’m a diabetic) or reach for the inhaler (I’m asthmatic).
- Verify that your health insurance covers emergency costs overseas, and keep the insurance card accessible in case you are too ill to produce it.
- Pack very light as you have to tote it all yourself.
- Pack feet and hand warmers and a hot water bottle; most countries don’t crank up the heat the way Americans do.
- Don’t forget the toilet paper! You never know when you’ll be caught short, at 14,000 feet, with curious yaks for company.
Patti Waldmeir, ’78, is a contributing columnist for The Financial Times and a 1978 Marshall Scholar.