Wander woman: 5 things my first solo trip taught me

Back in 2016, I travelled solo for the very first time, by way of a return ticket as a birthday gift to myself for turning 27. After toying with the idea for the longest time, I finally mustered up the courage to take the plunge, booked the trip on the eve of my birthday, and kept mum about it (to my parents’ aghast when they found out – which was a few days before I left).

As it was my inaugural solo – personal, instead of professional – trip, I doubled my research, made sure the place I picked was a relatively safe location, and knowingly chose a place which was close to my heart. It took me awhile, but I finally settled on soulful Yogyakarta (affectionately known as Jogja), a city on the Indonesian island of Java renowned for its traditional arts and cultural heritage.

Borobudur, the largest stupa in the world. Absolutely magnificent.

Now, at this point, you might wonder, why Yogyakarta? Surely there are better (and safer) places on the planet for a woman to visit. As a teenager, I travelled annually and extensively to Medan for mission trips and outreach programs. For the first time in my young life, I was confronted with poverty.

The beautiful children scurrying around had matted hair and smudged faces. The lovely people whom I met smelled funny, to put it mildly. A few of them had visibly worn sandals strapped on – their feet, noticeably dusty from all the walking. Whenever I met someone on the church compound, they would eagerly extend both hands in my direction to greet me. My hands were sticky afterwards and I would rush to the nearest sink to scrub my hands clean, wishing (for the hundredth time that day) I had brought wet wipes.

Yet, when they smiled, their eyes sparkled; the twinkle in their eyes, unmistakable. Four years of serving the Medanese people taught me an invaluable life lesson and left an indelible impact on my heart – who you are defines you, not what you have.

Later on, my job brought me to bustling Jakarta and the pleasure was all mine in building friendships with some of the most generous people I’ve ever met. So, it made perfect sense to choose another region in this well-loved (for me, at least) country for my maiden adventure.

Central Java, Indonesia.

Solo travel is an off the beaten path that is frowned upon and advised against, particularly because of my gender, which I felt should not be a deterring factor. At first. As the days drew nearer, I experienced a frisson of fear. All right, if I’m being completely honest, it was a little more than a frisson. I may have set aside some time to write my will and left it on my desktop as ‘Melissa’s Last Living Will + Testament’. My younger sister would have been ecstatic to know if anything should happen to me, she would be the sole beneficiary of my vast collection of make-up products.

In the end, all of my menial worries wasn’t enough to hinder me from pulling the plug and boy am I glad that I went on with it. Because, I loved every moment. I loved how liberated I felt. I loved how carefree I was. I loved how empowered I became. And, I’d do it all over and again in a heartbeat. Here’s why (in no particular order of importance):

You’ll say yes to things you never thought you would

2016 turned out to be a year of many first-s for me. I had just moved away from my cosy island to take up a new job here in KL in a completely different industry. Somehow, in the midst of juggling the demanding hours, insane workload, and recurring bout of homesickness, my first article was published.

With so much going on before the first half of the year, it is by sheer miracle that I managed to squeeze in some time for a mid-year vacation in Hanoi with a friend and while I was there, threw caution to the wind, and went kayaking for the first time ever at Ha Long Bay.

Maybe I was emboldened by the fact that I not only lived to tell the tale, but managed to not capsize and drown (did I mention I can’t swim?). Perhaps I was emblazoned with a ‘Now or Never’ attitude, a by-product from adding another year to my age. Whatever it was, I decided to take up Aristotle’s wisdom – Adventure is worthwhile – and quite literally, put my life on the line when I zip lined from one tree to another at Kalibiru National Park (situated 450 metres above sea level) whilst nursing a bruised rib; something I would have never imagined doing. It turned out to be the most fun I’ve had in a while.

Captured while I was zip lining at Kalibiru National Park.

You’ll feel completely, totally, and utterly free

I have travelled alone and I have travelled with friends, fully aware of the upsides to both. When traveling with friends, there’s always going to be that person who prevents you from making terrible, often haughty decisions.

But then, there are those times when traveling alone is absolute perfection. In fact, it’s quickly becoming a trend. Nearly two-thirds of travellers today are women, as reported by the George Washington University School of Business. A simple Google Trends search of ‘female solo travel’ shows the dramatic increase in the interest of women going it alone over the past 5 years, peaking with over 100,000,000 searches at the beginning of 2017. Pinterest also noted the 350% increase in women pinning solo travel ideas since 2014.

Before this trip, the figures were simply a convincing factor. They became a life-altering revelation when I was soaking up the sunrise at Pantai Parangtritis. Feet buried in flour-soft sand, I felt the warmth of a new day tenderly kiss every inch of my skin.

Cocooned in the lingering embrace, with not a single soul in sight, all I heard were ferocious waves crashing and a few birds calling to one another in the distance. Everything seemed so close –the shimmering ocean and azure sky – it’s as though I could reach out to touch them. It was the first sunrise I’ve ever enjoyed alone. And, by God, it was perfect.

Pantai Parangtritis was unlike any beach I’ve been to. The coal black sand, the ferocious waves, and the endless horizon, where sun and sea meet.

You’ll learn to love your own company

Which is the greatest gift you can give yourself. We’re a lot harder on ourselves than we should be, most of the time. While you will meet other people and bond with them during the course of your trip, for the most part, you would have no one else with you but yourself. That is when you’ll learn to love your own company and realise – to love others, you’d have to first love yourself. Because, you can only give what you have.

It was one of those defining ‘Aha!’ moments, which dawned on me whilst I was sitting contentedly in the middle of a spectacular pine forest in Mangunan, with the last light of day peeking through.

Coniferous beauty at the serene pine forest in Mangunan.

You’re never the same person when you return.

There is nothing more alluring, challenging, and thrilling than going to an unfamiliar place and immersing yourself into all it has to offer; diving headfirst into its culture, food, and surroundings. Doing it on your own expense and at your own pace will leave you wanting more and change you, for the better. Rather impossible to be the same person once you realise how strong you are, how brave you can be, and how (in spite of all we see happening around us) amazing this world is.

Taken from highest plateau of the temple. The downpour ended, the clouds parted, and the most glorious of rays streamed through. This snapshot captured hardly does justice to it.

You’ll learn experiences trump things on any given day.

It’s something researchers call the Paradox of Possessions, where people assume the happiness (I’d rather it be called gratification) we get from buying something will last as long as the thing itself. Truth is, it never does.

With this trip, I’m more acutely aware than ever that we are not our possessions, but we are the sum of everything we’ve seen, done, and experienced. The Kate Spade purse I could have bought – in place of this glorious solo adventure – will not change who I am, but taking in the stunning sunrise from the sand dunes in Parangkusumo certainly reminded me there are some things money can’t buy. And that, has changed me forever.

Sunrise at the sand dunes in Parangkusumo.

This article originally appeared in ExpatGo.com.