Sola: A Fetal Manifesto and Healing Tattoo

My swollen arm, looking more like my calf

Swollen and bruised and freshly tattooed, I’ve decided that there’s more to this “lonely girl” thing than a catchy title and purchasable domain name. It’s got to do with an approach towards travel, and maybe even an approach towards life, that’s developing inside me, embryonically. And at the center, the tiny heart between the budding limbs, is solitude, going at it sola.

There’s plenty of articles and blogs out there lauding the benefits of solo travel. Solo Friendly and Solo Traveler are devoted entirely to solo travel, with service-oriented tips and how-tos, while Women on the Road focuses exclusively on encouraging women to backpack. Independent-traveler sites BootsnAll and Matador have featured articles discussing pros and cons, and urging readers to take the solo plunge. The benefits promoted are fairly obvious—the freedom to do what you want when you want—as are the chief drawbacks discussed: safety and loneliness. Nearly every article and site on solo travel I’ve encountered has urged all travelers to go at it alone at least once.

I could write something similar, talk about how traveling solo forces me to be more social, to interact more with my surroundings; how it teaches me self-reliance and thus self-confidence; how I relish in the freedom of it; how none of my friends that can afford to travel are able to take the time off to accompany me anyway. But underneath and inside all those benefits is something harder to explain but ultimately more appealing, a kind of central gravity that all the other pluses of solo traveling orbit around: solitude.

It’s both positive and negative, both the exalted glory of Rilke and the insanity-inducing agony of solitary confinement. It’s a gnarled old wizard dude with a staff and a lantern, setting out into the craggy blue of the Hermit tarot card, now etched into the tender flesh on the inside of my arm, swollen amid the lymph nodes and brachial veins that hold me together.

On my last trip, I met many incredulous, widened eyes that asked, “You’re alone?” Then, declaratively, both impressed and horrified, “I could never do that”—in the way I’d respond to someone who’d climbed Mount Everest: good-for-you, thanks-but-no-thanks. People told me I was brave, fool-hardy, a feminist.

The truth is, I never really considered the fact that I was traveling alone; it rarely factors into my trip-planning, doesn’t strike me as odd or especially intrepid. It is what it is. Of course I’ll be alone. Who else am I gonna drag off around the planet?

But things like that, core characteristics and fundamental truths, rarely strike us as odd. Or even occur to us at all. They’re so central to who we are and how we live in the world that we aren’t aware of them. They strike us suddenly, in strange moments of lucidity—the porcelain-clutching “moment of clarity” in which one finally realizes she’s an alcoholic, or my mom’s recent epiphany that “we were the crazy white family in the neighborhood.” Or when someone else points it out to us, in the dingy back of dingy taxi, when you tell them you’re traveling alone.

For me, it goes back to my travel roots, which aren’t travel roots at all. It’s where I first learned to be alone in the world—the raggedy-ass East Bay buses. During my hour-and-a-half commute home from a far-away high school, I learned all the things international solo travel would later confirm and deepen—self-reliance, self-confidence, how to handle dicey situations and dodgy characters. It was especially important as a female. Honing my street smarts and learning how to carry myself and not take shit have been invaluable. And not something not every girl learns. The lessons taught on the hard plastic of AC Transit buses equipped me to travel sola everywhere from Colombia to Morocco.

But there’s something more inside that, something deeper and more fundamental than knowing how to watch your back and tell someone off with your eyes. More than even the confidence of knowing I’ll be able to figure out and make it through whatever crazy-ass situation I end up in. What is comes down to is a kind of comfort and security in who I am, and the way in which I never feel more like myself, the who-I-am underneath whatever’s happening in my life at the time, than when I’m alone, out in the world. It’s not the same sitting here in my bedroom typing; it’s gotta be out there, walking the streets and riding the buses of this world.

I think everyone should travel solo once in the same way I think everyone should be forced to wait tables once: it’d be nice, but not gonna happen. I don’t think solo travel is for everyone, but it’s become a defining part of how I experience the world, how I exist in it. I simultaneously delve deeper into myself (“the teacher within,” as they say in yoga) and my surroundings. I experience the world from a more intuitive, back-of-the-brain place, where I’m okay with it not making sense, where I find a way to somehow swim through the chaos and insanity and all-too-often heartbreaking cruelty of it, and tap, however lightly, on the beautiful something at the center of it all. I’m more able to trust that I’ve got a place somewhere amid it all.

During my four-hour detainment by the Venezuelan police a few years back, the female officer kept looking at my passport, me and back again, and asking, “Y estas sola?” She couldn’t believe I’d venture off in some other country by myself. However much of an evil, child-abusing American I might have been (it’s a long story), my being sola amazed her. And may have had something to do with me weaseling out of the situation.

I suppose it would have been more accurate to get a feminized Hermit card tattooed, but the beard was too Zeppelin-y to forfeit. And I feel cheesy having an uber-symbolic tattoo, to finally have some kind of answer for the middle-aged customers that look up over their reading glasses at me and ask what my tattoos mean. Most likely, I shrug and continue to say, “I just thought they looked cool.” At least until this approach, this fetal manifesto, is a little more gestated.

13 Responses to “Sola: A Fetal Manifesto and Healing Tattoo”

  1. 1 Gray December 14, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Nice article, Lauren. You are brave–not necessarily for traveling solo, but for getting that tattoo on the *inside* of your arm! Ow ow ow. That looks painful. 🙂 You have a wonderful writing style, btw. Thanks for the kind mention of my site. I look forward to reading more of your articles in the future.

  2. 2 Amiee December 14, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    Wow – that is so beautifully written. I used to travel a ton my myself but now slightly out of practice and apprehensive about planning a solo trip. You words reminded me why I need to do it.

  3. 3 literarypirate December 15, 2009 at 10:35 am

    I really like this. I get a lot of strange looks from the people at home when I tell them I’m going solo. A lot of “concern for my safety” from people who don’t know the first thing about it. When it comes down to it though, I want to travel, my way, and nobody else is crazy enough to come with me so this is how it has to be! And I’m totally okay with that.

  4. 4 Candice December 15, 2009 at 11:42 am

    I really admire people who travel solo, I’ve only done it once and it was nervewracking but awesome. So, kudos to you!

    P.S. Love the tattoo.

  5. 5 peregrina feminina December 15, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    I LOVE this post. Totally resonates with me. I’ve gotten so many of those incredulous looks when I tell people I’m going somewhere alone. I know what that looks like. Usually I respond with furrowed eyebrows and wonder if I am as crazy as people think. But if I am, it’s good to know I have company 😉

    • 6 laurenquinn December 16, 2009 at 12:01 am

      And you’ll have even better company when we finally get to hang out. Winter hike? I’m all about it…

  6. 7 Sarah December 16, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Great post, Lauren! I crossed South America alone and got the same refrain – “sola? SOLA?!” But I found it affirming, somehow. It was actually a huge change for me to travel with my husband afterwards, and I still miss that feeling of being out there totally alone, and independent, and free. Good stuff!

  7. 8 Joshua Samuel Brown December 19, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    Yo LG, love the tat. I am sporting a newish one right here this rainy night in southern Belize, and it’s still pumping magic despite the hard rain, which will soon knock out the satellite providing me with net. Thanks for the link. Will reciprocate when I’m not moving for 72 hours.



    Snarky Tofu

    • 9 laurenquinn December 20, 2009 at 1:49 am

      Thanks, dude. Hope the healing is going smoothly. Still going with “Snarky Tofu” as best blog name ever….

  8. 10 Nancy December 22, 2009 at 7:18 am

    This post really resonated with me. Ever since I started traveling with my now-husband, I’ve tried to wrap my head around the reconciliation of traveling solo and with another person. There is a sweet solitude to traveling solo. I left home at 17 to travel. In the 15-16 countries I visited by myself I usually received the same “sola?” quizzical look. Of course, it’s rewarding on many different levels to travel with my s.o., the best part being able to share a collective experience. Yet, I’m still nostalgic for solo travel. Thanks for this post. (Also makes me wish I learned to be tougher by riding on those East Bay buses…despite my solo adventures, I still feel sensitive and somewhat fragile in this crazy world.)

  9. 11 Steven Roll December 25, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Lauren, awesome post. It has landed you squarely in the middle of my blogosphere radar screen. I admire your willingness to travel alone and take risks–especially when it comes to visiting places in Latin America like Venezuela.

  10. 12 Emily @ Maiden Voyage December 29, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    I love this post, Lauren! Thank you for commenting on my post about solo travel and leading me back to this. I love the way you describe that feeling that you can’t quite put your finger on, but feel to your core. I am reading a Buddhist book right now about how we all need to learn how to be our own best friend. I think those who love solo travel have learned how to do this.

  11. 13 Dave Korn January 19, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    word. this is awesome… much respect.

Comments are currently closed.

Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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