From Solo to Social: The Unbrave Girl’s Guide to Making Friends on the Road

August 21, 2010

Traveling alone can be great. Really.

It gives you the freedom to do whatever you’d like, eat whatever you want, go wherever you desire, and stay for however long you feel. Traveling alone means you can subsist entirely on potato chips and chocolate for three days and no one will be the wiser. (Aside from that nosy clerk at the convenient store across the street from your hotel. Sheez, can’t he just mind his own business and not give you that judgmental look when you buy your second can of Pringles for the day?!).

Traveling alone means you have plenty of time to contemplate your journey: where you’ve been, how far you’ve come, where you’re going next and whether or not they’ll have chocolate when you get there.

Traveling alone allows you to meet local people who might, otherwise, be intimidated to approach you if you were with another person or in a group of people traveling together.

Traveling alone means no one has to know that you spent last night sitting on your hotel bed, eating chocolate, drinking Diet Coke and watching The Time Traveler’s Wife on DVD, and thinking “Geez, if a freaking time traveler can find someone to marry him, why can’t I find anyone to freaking talk to me?!”

You see, even though traveling alone can be great… sometimes, it can really suck.

That sometimes was last week for me. I had just spent a few days in the Cameron Highlands at a guesthouse that I booked solely because the website said it served bacon. After three months in a predominantly Muslim country, I was in desperate need of a bacon fix.

And after a weekend in Kuala Lumpur spent hanging out in my luxury hotel room soaking up bubble baths and cable TV and some serious alone time, I was ready to make a few friends. Reviews online described the guesthouse as “welcoming” and “friendly” and “atmospheric.”

I imagined myself munching on piles of bacon and making new friends from all over the world. I would regale them with stories about my life on a Malaysian sailboat and on the rice farm, while they would regale me with stories about their travels… or maybe they’d just keep quiet and let me tell some more stories because I have a lot of stories and it’s kind of hard to fit in all the good ones if other people are talking.

When I showed up at the guesthouse, I found myself surrounded by couples and groups of friends traveling together. No one seemed particularly interested in making a new friend… or a new girlfriend… or finding out what I’ve been up to for the past couple months.

Nobody seemed interested in talking to me or even making eye contact with me. Maybe they all thought that loneliness was catching, and they weren’t about to take their chances by looking at me.

I lingered over my bacon breakfasts in the morning and hung out in the common areas in the afternoon.

I positioned myself underneath the notice board with all the information about the hiking paths, in hopes that someone might spot a trail they thought sounded nice, and spot me and think I looked nice, and invite me along for a hike.

I plastered an “I’m a nice person, please talk to me” smile across my face (which, come to think of it, may have also been translated as a “I’m a crazy person, and I like the taste of human flesh” smile for some of those people coming from one of those places where it’s not customary to smile at strangers… like Japan or France or, umm, Detroit).

Of course, I could have just walked up to the other guests and started talking to them, but that would seem a little desperate, don’t you think? (Meanwhile, for some reason, I didn’t think that walking around the guesthouse with a huge someone-PLEASE-talk-to-me grin on my face seemed all that desperate).

After two days of smiling at everyone who walked past me and not getting so much as a head nod in return, I gave up. That’s when I pretended to be busy — you know, doing important solo traveler things, like staring intently at my computer, fiddling around with my cell phone, studying the piles of bacon on my plate, and holing up in my room watching sappy movies and eating Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut bars.

By the time I left the guesthouse last Saturday, I was relieved and sincerely hoping that the next place I stayed at wouldn’t be nearly so, umm, “atmospheric.” Climbing on to the bus heading to Penang, I noticed I was the only single traveler onboard. I wondered if I wasn’t the only single traveler in town… and maybe in the whole of Malaysia… and possibly the entire universe.

After an hour of winding through the mountain roads, the bus made a twenty-minute pit stop in Ipoh, where a number of people got off and new passengers got on. As we were gearing back up to hit the road, the driver, a burly, barrel-chested, Malay man with a crew cut and the demeanor of a pit bull, spotted the empty seat next to me.

He marched down the aisle, jabbed at the seat and barked at me, “Where’s your friend?” He obviously hadn’t noticed I had gotten on the bus alone, thought I had been traveling with someone, and assumed that this someone hadn’t gotten back on the bus.

Hearing the commotion, everyone in the bus turned around to look at me. Not wanting to attract any more attention, I explained in the quietest voice possible that I was traveling alone.

He looked perplexed and yelled louder, “Where’s your FRIEND?!”

I whispered meekly, “It’s just me.”

At which point he became extremely red in the face and yelled “WHERE’S YOUR FRIEND?!”.

And now, I, also being quite red in the face, screamed back, “I DON’T HAVE ANY FRIENDS!”

Instantly, everyone in the bus turned back around and pretended they hadn’t ever seen me and certainly hadn’t heard my pathetic scream.

Obviously, they thought that loneliness was catching, too.

It was this moment as I was screaming across the bus that I didn’t have any friends that I thought maybe, just maybe, I should try a little harder to make a few friends… you know, so the next time a bus driver yells at me I’ll at least have a posse to back me up.

I hadn’t had any trouble making friends while volunteering; there was always someone around to talk to (or, more likely, to tell me what to do). But making friends while you’re traveling on your own takes a bit more effort. As I learned last week, walking around your guesthouse with a forlorn smile plastered on your face isn’t enough to make you the next Homecoming Queen Of The Open Road. So over the past week I’ve made more of an attempt to meet people, and I’m happy to say it’s worked!

So should you also be be experiencing a bout of solo traveler loneliness, here are my tips on how you, too, can make friends:

Go Online

There are plenty of online resources out there to help travelers meet other people on the go or locals in the country they’re visiting. Websites like CouchSurfing can hook you up with, not only a free place to stay, but also some friends to hang out with when you get there.

Doesn’t this sound fun and terribly convenient?!

You know what also sounded really fun and convenient?

Internet dating.

And then I ended up going out for coffee with a guy who explained his hobby was building papier-mâché models of his coworkers and blowing them up. I also received more than one email from various gentlemen asking me if I had any interest in dressing up as a Star Trek character. Hence, I’ve been a bit wary of meeting people over the Internet ever since.

I’m not suggesting you find friends online — just your accommodation.

Sure, it’s not very sexy and adventurous to book your hotel ahead. Many world-weary backpackers will just show up in town and find a place to stay once they get there. This fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style of procuring accommodation can be really fun if you’re one of those people that likes dragging your luggage up and down back alleys… or if you’re one of those people that doesn’t mind the prospect of camping out should you not find a place to stay. It’s also not so bad if you’re with a friend who can help you drag luggage and keep you company when your makeshift campsite on the sidewalk is overtaken by monkeys and hobos.

I, on the other hand, prefer the peace of mind of knowing that I’ll have a place to stay once I arrive at my destination. I also really hate dragging my luggage… and have absolutely no confidence in my ability to ward off attacking hobos. I’ve found that hotels that allow you to book online tend to attract like-minded individuals. My fellow hotel guests are usually not the cool backpacker type, more like the older, wiser, scared-of-monkeys type.

Before leaving the guesthouse in Cameron Highlands (a guesthouse that does not accept online reservations), I made sure to book my hotel in the historic town of Georgetown before I left. The hotel proved to be a tired, dingy affair reminiscent of motels found in the American Midwest in the Sixties. There were no European backpackers smoking cigarettes in the lounge. No one smelled of patchouli. Not a single person was wearing harem pants. There was absolutely nothing “atmospheric” about it. I

n the breakfast room on my first morning, there were three other single travelers sitting at tables for one. Each of them looking slightly more desperate and depleted than the other. One guy was diligently tapping away on his laptop. Another was fiddling with his iPhone. The third guy stared intently at his toast.

These were my people.

I smiled my “I’m a nice person” smile at the Toast Guy, a scrawny fellow with long stringy blond hair and a wardrobe of black. He smiled back. It was like we just shared a secret handshake or something. While I didn’t end up making any new friends at that hotel, I did feel a lot less lonely and like I wasn’t the only person traveling solo in this world.

I had better luck this weekend when I checked into my pre-booked guesthouse on the beach of Batu Ferringhi. Shortly after checking in, I met a friendly, Australian mother of two who was traveling on her own for the first time. We both swapped travel stories. I told her I’d just spent a month working on a Malaysian sailboat; she told me she hadn’t left the hotel in two days. I knew instantly we were going to be friends.

Just Get Out There

If you’re single or have ever spent any portion of your life being single, then you’re probably familiar with the following dating advice: “Just get out there.” Doled out by advice columnists and well-meaning paired-up friends, this advice is logical and straightforward enough.

After all, it is difficult to meet new people when you’re sitting on your couch (Trust me, I have tried… oh, how I’ve tried!).

Yet, as logical as this advice may be, I’ve never had much luck with it. After all, I am “out there” (admittedly, in more ways than one) all the time. Sure, I brag about the hours I can spend couch-bound, but the truth is that I do spend a lot of time out of doors doing stuff. And, yet, after thirty-four years of being “out there”, I have spent the majority of those thirty-four years being single.

Heck, last week, I couldn’t even meet someone willing to talk to me — and I was “out there” all the livelong day (“out there” eating bacon, “out there” smiling desperately at other guests, “out there” eating more bacon, “out there” hiking, and “out there” eating yet another pile of bacon).

But, this week, I’m glad to report, being “out there” worked!

On Monday, I was torn between spending the evening holed up in my dingy hotel room in my pajamas with my usual assortment of potato chips and chocolate or heading to the nearby hawker center for an actual meal. In a rare move, I chose nutrition over my pajama pants.

As I was sitting at a plastic table in the hawker center, scarfing down my fried noodles (okay, maybe not that much nutrition), I heard someone calling my name. I looked up from my chopsticks to discover in front of me two people that I had met at a friend’s wedding a couple years ago. I had no idea they were in Malaysia; they had no idea I had bailed on my boat-building gig. They joined me for dinner and, then, we spent the next two days touring the city together.

After I bade them farewell on Wednesday night, I was walking down the street, heading back to my hotel when a guy on his motorbike pulled over and asked me for directions (because it always makes sense to pull over and ask the white girl who is obviously not-from-around-here for directions). Pretty soon he was asking me to join him for drinks. I thanked him for the offer, declined and walked on.

See?

Apparently you can meet people just by getting off your couch or leaving your hotel room and going “out there.”

Who knew?

(Although this doesn’t mean I haven’t entirely given up on my Couch-Bound Method To Meeting the Man of My Dreams. I think I just need to spend more time finessing my approach… and maybe order in a lot more. After all, I’ve always liked a man in uniform — particularly a Domino’s Pizza uniform!).

Seek Professional Help

On Thursday, my friends had left and I had yet to stop any more motorbike traffic, so I was feeling lonely again. I was also feeling in desperate need of a haircut. I figured by heading to the salon, I might be able to get my much-needed haircut and maybe even make a new friend… or at least find someone who would feel obligated to listen to me prattle on for about half an hour.

At a salon in the nearby mall, the receptionist explained I could either have a haircut by a “Senior Stylist” for thirty ringgit (about ten dollars) or someone called a “Creative Stylist” for ten ringgit less. Figuring it never hurts to budget, I opted for the latter option.

Besides, I like to think of myself as the artsy type. The “Creative Stylist” sounded like someone who could really, you know, get me.

After settling into a chair, the “Creative Stylist” popped up behind me. She was sporting an asymmetrical haircut and blue-green eye shadow. She looked to be all of sixteen years old and surely weighed less than fifty pounds.

I started to seriously doubt whether we would be BFFs.

I pulled my hair out of the clip that has been holding it back for the last three weeks, and she started poking at it with a comb and a bewildered look on her face. “Why you don’t dye it?” she asked. “You have very many grey hairs.”

Yep, we were definitely not going to be buddies.

During the course of the haircut, she continued lamenting on the sorry state of my hair. Not only did I have too many grey hairs, but my hair was also too dry, too fine and “too dark color.” As she continued her commentary, her hands were busy at work snipping and scrunching.

As my hair got shorter and shorter and my self esteem lower and lower, I desperately hoped for an end to this: my private hair appointment in Hell.

After lopping off a few stray bits in back, she pulled out a giant diffuser and started blow drying my hair (the hot air only helping to add to the Hell-like feeling of the entire experience). At this point, my hair started to puff up and expand until it was roughly the size of Texas and the texture of cotton candy.

Noticing that she was only making things worse, she finally gave up and asked me if I had a clip that she could use to pull my hair back with. I gratefully grabbed the large hair clip from my bag. She sneered at it and deemed it was “no good.” “Maybe you can buy a nice one later… or maybe you buy a headband?” she suggested.

Judging from the state of my hair, I was thinking of something with a bit more coverage — like a headscarf or a burka.

After she finally released me from the chair, I ran back to my hotel room and locked myself in. I wrapped a bandana around my head just in case someone might spot my frizzed out, fluffy head in the hotel room window and mistake me for the Bride of Frankenstein or a monster-sized pomeranian.

I spent the rest of the night camped out on my hotel room bed, eating potato chips and chocolate, and watching DVDs. After a week of being social, I was grateful to be solo again.

You see, making friends can be great, but sometimes it’s nice to have some alone time.

After all, when you’re alone you don’t have to share your Pringles.

And no one’s around to ask you what the heck happened to your hair.

17

I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On March 5, 2011 at 11:36 am Christian said:

    Nice post. Speaking as someone with a fair few SoloAir Miles you’re right with the “Just get out there” comment – which is not to say it doesn’t take me a few days at the start of every trip to get out of my “home” mode of assuming that any stranger who makes eye contact on a city street is a psycho…

    If I ever see a solo traveller in a hotel breakfast room with hair the size of Texas and a stash of blueberry Pringles, I’ll make sure I say hello…

    PS Loving the long posts – so rare in travelblogistan

  2. On January 17, 2012 at 10:42 am Divya Anand said:

    Can’t agree with you more…I have spent times like these…I think being a solo traveller is adventurous in itself. And yes, the next time I come across a lone traveller…I am going to be nice to him/her…for sure. 🙂

  3. On January 17, 2012 at 11:04 am Rishabh said:

    Brilliant brilliant writeup .. 🙂

    Love the way you’ve written your experiences!

  4. On April 6, 2012 at 10:59 am furio said:

    Hey,

    I love this topic… I often travel alone and sometimes I do feel “alone.” This was especially true last year while I was traveling in west China with close to zero knowledge of Mandarin.

    Couchsurfing is a great resource. Another one, at least in China, are expats bar as you will always find some newcomers that feels more lonely than you.

    Maybe I’m weird, but sometimes I just prefer stay alone, read a book or take 1,230 pics in a row as only the best paparazzi can do
    furio recently posted..When a Chinese person makes you lose face…

    • On April 8, 2012 at 9:14 am Sally said:

      I actually haven’t tried Couchsurfing yet. I have lots of friends who swear by it, but I got lots of creepy messages from guys in Malaysia while I was there which kind of turned me off from it.

      • On April 10, 2012 at 8:26 am furio said:

        hehe I’m not a big fun of “surf a couch” neither, especially because when I travel I have my rhythm, let’s say.

        However I host people sometimes and in my experience Couchsurfing gatherings are a good place to meet cool people, either on your town or while you are traveling.

  5. On August 3, 2013 at 6:25 pm SouvenirFinder said:

    Finally, a great piece on solo travel that does not wax poetic about how wonderful it is to travel alone! I love traveling with friends and having someone to laugh with, not sure how I am going to feel about doing everything alone. Glad I came across this as I am launching my own blog and it is travel based– planning my first solo trip abroad soon!
    SouvenirFinder recently posted..Shop Tuscany, Italy. Bringing wine home– great idea or disaster waiting to happen?

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