Travel Podcast Ep. #21: Solo Travel
Courtney Scott: They say it takes two to tango, two is better than one, and tea for two, but does it always take at least two to travel? Or are you sometimes better off alone? Come along on the journey with me as some seasoned travelers spill the tea on solo travel.
Courtney Scott: I’m travel filmmaker and TV host Courtney Scott filling in for Nisreene Atassi on this episode of Out Travel the System. Today I’ve brought along some of my favorite globe trotters for this in depth look at solo travel. With me is Gareth Leonard. He’s known for encouraging people to travel deeper on his YouTube travel channel. You can also read his blog posts that tourist2townie. Welcome Gareth.
Gareth Leonard: Hey, girls.
Courtney Scott: Also, here is Mickela Mallozzi. She’s the Emmy award winning host and executive producer of the PBS and Amazon Prime travel and dance TV series Bare Feet with Mickela Mallozzi. Hi, Mickela.
Mickela Mallozzi: Hi, everyone.
Courtney Scott: So Mickela, you’ve gotten married since you first began traveling extensively. How have you been finding those separations from your partner when you travel solo?
Mickela Mallozzi: It’s tough in a way that I realize how much I enjoy traveling. Of course, I miss my husband, but there are so many moments, right? Some moments can be shared with someone else, but some moments can be for yourself. I’ve learned more about myself by traveling on my own because I realized what I like and what I don’t like. Right? I’ve realized when you’re solo traveling, you can make those decisions on, ” I want to make a right here versus a left.” And if you were with a group or even one other person, you have to ask them permission; Where do you want to go? What do you want to do? It’s about a collective, but this is about yourself. What are you going to do next that’s going to make you happy? And it’s really empowering to make that decision and be able to say, “You know what? I’m going to go this way and I’m going to just walk through this little piazza and then find a little gallery.” And that’s up to you. It’s your decision.
Courtney Scott: Tell me about using dance as a way to communicate and connect.
Mickela Mallozzi: Yeah, so I saw dance as a universal language, which I quickly discovered not only was I connecting with people and places when I was traveling by myself, and I would go to festivals and holidays in the streets of these places we were going to, or I was going to, and I would connect with people. Because I couldn’t speak the local language and I started dancing. I’ve danced my whole life. And what I would do was start imitating people and all of a sudden, I saw this connection that I had that I would’ve never been able to do any other way because I couldn’t verbally speak with them. And then all of a sudden, I’m being invited into someone’s home for a lunch with their mother or invited to a Bollywood wedding the next day.
Courtney Scott: I love it. Gareth, you are from a town of 6,000 people in upstate New York. What is one of the funniest stories you’ve ever brought home that really made your friends and family think, I can’t believe our Gareth has done this?
Gareth Leonard: I mean, coming from such a small town, every time you step foot in another country, in another place it’s something other worldly to people back home. For a large majority of people that I know and grew up with don’t have the opportunity to travel that much abroad. I always go back to the first trip because that was the spark that made all of this happen for the past 10 years and that was a one- way tickets of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The goal was to just live there for one year and to learn some Spanish and to get a local job and really immerse myself in the culture and try to learn the language and learn about a foreign place. And I was actually a bartender at a small little bar in this little neighborhood called the Recoleta and I didn’t speak any Spanish at that point. I was using my high school level Spanish, so I was asking people, ” Do you like library? That door is blue,” things like that. And in the restaurant world, that’s not a very helpful question to ask people. And when I was there within the first two months, the other two head bartenders had left. One was pregnant and one got another job. And so within that timeframe I became the head bartender and I would have to order supplies and things like that and work with my boss who didn’t speak any English. And so I think throughout that process I had been fired probably three or four times, but I just didn’t understand what he was saying so I’d come back the next day. So it made for an interesting experience. And when you’re forced into that situation, you learn very, very quickly.
Courtney Scott: Let’s talk about how you deal with being lonely when you’re traveling solo. Because I think that’s one of the biggest things people worry about when they’re thinking or considering taking a solo trip is-
Gareth Leonard: Yeah, loneliness is a major aspect to traveling solo. That’s without a doubt. And I’ve combated that feeling and frustration and uncertainty a lot with the fact of, one, you meet and connect with local people as much as you can. That could be staying in hostels, that could be joining Facebook groups. Or for example, I played basketball a lot when I travel, so trying to find a basketball game or even going out dating local people, meeting local friends. But the other way is internal, right? It’s inevitable that you’re going to feel lonely and feel down sometimes or miss home. And my antidote for that is, one, I’ll call home. I call my mother; I call family and friends. Nowadays with FaceTime and Skype, you can be FaceTiming people walking down the street in a foreign place. It’s incredible. And the second thing is allowing yourself the time to just be lazy. I think when people travel, they don’t give themselves an opportunity to digest the things that they’re going through. I mean, there’s so much stimulation happening around you at every second. The smallest little tasks like going to the post office becomes a major event when you are in a foreign place. So, allowing yourself that downtime, that Netflix time, binge watching a terrible series or something like that to process what you’re going through and to reconnect.
Courtney Scott: All amazing tips. And Mickela, I know you have a lot to say about this, too. How do you open yourself up to experiences when you’re traveling solo and also combat that loneliness that is inevitable when you’re on the road alone for so long?
Mickela Mallozzi: I have to agree with Gareth. It’s letting yourself be lonely. You have to think when you’re traveling, you’re sort of an extension of yourself and when you’re home, except the fact that there are times in your everyday life where you don’t feel 100% or you don’t feel that you want to do that activity that you had planned. That’s okay because if you were home, you would give yourself that time off. You would allow yourself to do this.
Courtney Scott: Yeah, I agree. Gareth, I want to play some audio you recorded in the Philippines. I understand you did some leg work trying to find a specific location in Sibu.
Gareth Leonard: Yeah, Sibu? Yep.
Courtney Scott: Where your grandfather had his photograph taken on the way to serving in World War II. So, here’s some of that moment when you found that place.
Gareth Leonard: To be standing in the footsteps of someone who you respect and love very much, and during a time that was very, very difficult in World War II. There’s a lot of emotion and it’s exciting and it’s awesome and I feel, I feel….. amazing that I get a chance… I wouldn’t say humble, that’s not the right word. I feel…… honored. I feel, I don’t know. I don’t know what to feel right now. There’s a lot of different emotions. I just feel good.
Courtney Scott: So, it sounds like you’re trying to process many emotions and you mentioned feeling excited, but did you wish that you had somebody with you at that moment? Or as a solo traveler, was it more profound perhaps because you were there by yourself?
Gareth Leonard: That just takes me back. That was a really good moment. A really good moment in my travels that I wasn’t expecting. It’s tough because I don’t know who… I guess if it was someone specific, you know, my mother or uncles or someone that knew and could feel that same, my sister. Yeah, that would be a special moment. But also going out by myself and finding it and I was asking around, I was going to different places and showing… This was a long process, but the battle by myself, it made it that much more emotional for me. And I think maybe if I was with somebody else, it wouldn’t be that deep of a connection. And then to be able to share that video with my grandfather who’s still around and having that personal experience with him, showing him the video and being able to connect with him on that level was very, very special. So yeah, I think it would be two very different experiences. Maybe not one better or worse, but yeah, two different experiences.
Courtney Scott: I have had similar experiences where I felt like because I was alone, it was so much more powerful. And all the sights, the sounds, the emotions were amplified. And one of those experiences was when I was in Italy; I went to Sicily on a solo mission to find my relatives in this tiny little town up in the mountains outside of Messina and it was pouring rain and I was using my map trying to find the town. I knew nobody, but I just knew the last name, of course, and some of the key dates of my ancestors there. And it turned out being this amazing, wild goose chase around the whole town where I got invited into the home of a distant cousin for dinner. And then they ushered me off to the pasticceria, to the pastry shop, to stock up for cookies and cannolis for Easter. And then I was at the cemetery and the shoemaker where they told me that that had actually been the same shoemaker that my great grandfather worked in. So, I was completely alone, but at the same time I felt completely accepted and taken in by this community. I think it’s such a vivid, vivid memory in my mind and I think if I hadn’t been doing it all by myself, it maybe would’ve been different. But I argue that you and I both have had similar experiences where it’s actually even more exciting.
Gareth Leonard: I completely agree. And to add to that, traveling solo gives you a real understanding of not only the world or different places, but of yourself. And when you’re always with the other people, there’s a mask there. There’s an inevitable mask. Not saying that you’re not being yourself, but when you’re traveling by yourself and going and making these things happen on your own, you are forced to be real with yourself. You are forced to look deep into yourself and you see what you’re capable of. You see what inner happiness is. You see what inner struggle is. You get to learn about yourself more than you ever could with anybody else around. And so, to me, the biggest takeaway from traveling by yourself is the fact that you get a real understanding of who you are. And there’s very few other things in this world that allow you to do that.
Courtney Scott: You’re listening to Out Travel the System. I’m Courtney Scott, guest hosting for Nisreene Atassi. We’d love you to message us about your solo travel experience on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. And don’t forget to subscribe to Out Travel the System wherever you get your podcasts.
Courtney Scott: You mentioned getting out of your comfort zone, and something a lot of people worry about when traveling alone is safety. So how do you make sure you’re being a savvy solo traveler?
Gareth Leonard: This is always a tough question for me to answer just because I’m a bigger guy. I’m 6’2″, 200 pounds. So, the quick response is the fact that I may not be as easy of a target as other people, but I’d feel just as out of place than anybody else in a lot of different places around the world. And I think the number one thing, the number one piece of advice that I’d give for safety, is to interact on a local level enough to know where to go and where to not go. Ask your taxi driver, ” Is it cool if I go to this restaurant at night?” Ask the person at your hostel or hotel, ” Is it right if I walk there?” The second thing is don’t flash anything that says that you are rich or that you are wealthy. Walk around with a nice watch and a gold chain, somebody might rip it off of you, or see you as a target.
Courtney Scott: What about traveling via night trains when you will probably be sleeping and you’re alone?
Gareth Leonard: Number one with your gear, and now that we travel with a lot of camera gear, having your gear in a very safe spot attached to you. So that means in a backpack right next to you, in a locked bag, maybe right underneath you, but within arm’s length away from you, if you have a lot of valuable things. And the second thing is, try to get to know anyone on the train that’ll be with you on that journey so you have someone else watching your back so you can sleep a little bit at least. But usually I’ll try to buddy with somebody when I get on any sort of public transportation to watch my back.
Courtney Scott: Great advice. Mickela, from the female perspective, what are some of your tips? You and I have talked at length about this, about traveling safe but not letting it be a crutch.
Mickela Mallozzi: You know, wherever you’re staying, letting people know where you’re going. I know a lot of other travelers write a note of an itinerary of where they’re going for the day. I talk to people and I tell them information about myself, but just enough so that we can have conversation. I don’t ever wear a lot of jewelry when I’m traveling. And just being very, very aware. It’s empowering to travel solo as a woman or a man. You’re discovering yourself. You’re realizing skills and building skills that you may not have had before, like speaking to people, making new friends, going, exploring, figuring out how to orient yourself. I think there are things about traveling solo that you can’t replace with traveling with someone that you know because you really have to step out of your comfort zone in a level that is completely different. You’re not dependent on someone else. There’s no safety net.
Courtney Scott: Talk about semi solo travel because I love that idea.
Mickela Mallozzi: Yeah. So, when my husband and I do travel together, we have a lot of things in common, so we’d love to do things together, but we also love to do things apart. So, what we’ll do is, for example, when we were in Ireland together, there was this beautiful photography show that was at a gallery and I wanted to go take an Irish step dancing class. Now Paul’s not going to sit there and watch me take an Irish step dancing class. And he went to the gallery and I went to a dance class. And what we do is we have these moments where we’re allowing ourselves… Right, you’re giving yourself permission and giving that partner permission. You do what you want to do, like a solo trip, right? I want to take a left, you want to take a right. I think it’s really healthy and it really helps with you getting to do what you want to do and not having your partner feel like they’re obligated to do it with you or vice versa.
Courtney Scott: And it’s a great idea for people who might be apprehensive about going on a fully solo trip.
Mickela Mallozzi: Yeah.
Courtney Scott: And so you can travel with somebody, but really build in semi solo days and moments of that trip and see if you like it and see how it feels for you and then go for the full solo trip. I love that tip. I would love to know the place that you felt the most comfortable as a solo traveler and maybe the place that was the most challenging for you as a solo traveler.
Mickela Mallozzi: Of the place I most feel comfortable traveling solo, I was at this festival called Europeade, which is the largest European folk dance and music festival. And every year it’s hosted in a different city in Europe. And there’s over 300 dance groups from all the countries- in every single country in Europe. And I’ve been to the ones in Estonia, Tartu in Estonia, a little town in Gotha, Germany. And I think I went to one more, but I can’t tell you, it doesn’t matter where I was. It was the people around me that made me feel so welcoming because I was surrounded by my people. I was surrounded by dancers and people who love making music and who loved sharing their culture through singing and moving and touching you respectfully most of the time. I was like a kid in a candy store because I would go to one little corner in little plaza and there’s flamenco dancing and then I’d go to another little corner and there’s schuhplattler from Munich and Austria. And I didn’t know a soul, and I made friends with so many people to the point where when I eventually… I was making YouTube videos, but then decided to shoot the TV series, I reached out to these groups that I met through this festival and went to their home countries and filmed with them.
Courtney Scott: Yeah, I think that speaks a lot to the idea that is not necessarily the country that makes you feel at home, it’s the community that you discover. So, whether it’s the dance community, or a yoga wellness community, it’s a really good tip as well to seek out those communities that you feel inspired by when you’re traveling solo. Gareth?
Gareth Leonard: I think too is just being open. You go into a country with an open mind and say, I’m here to learn. I’m here to understand from a firsthand perspective, it’s incredible how open people are wherever you are in the world. Just finished a month-long trip to Russia and it’s known… the stereotypes are it’s cold and it’s dark and the people aren’t friendly and there’s a lot of wrong. But we saw nothing but an incredible people, an incredible place traveling throughout the country. And even when English is very low throughout the more off-the-grid places outside of St. Petersburg, outside of Moscow, if you show this openness and telling people, ” I’m an American who wants to learn more about Russia,” their faces light up. So, you get this warm welcome that’s truly incredible. But on a warmth level, to me it’s the Columbias and the Philippines and the Bhutans of the world where the people just lead the way with a smile and they’re so curious and welcoming and friendly and they’ll have something for you at their dinner table waiting and they’ll invite you for dancing, they invite you for drinks, they invite you for all these things. But I think the biggest thing when you’re traveling solo, if you go in with an open mind, you go in with the understanding that you don’t know everything and that you’re willing to learn, people anywhere will be open to that.
Mickela Mallozzi: And you can start with baby steps. Do a solo trip in your own city, in your own state. Do something alone where you don’t have to learn another language yet. There are small ways to travel solo. You don’t have to go to the other side of the world. Travel doesn’t mean you have to go long distances; it just means having a different experience from your everyday life.
Courtney Scott: Such incredible advice. I hope that this podcast today has inspired some of our listeners to book that first solo trip because it has changed all of our lives and our careers. I’m so glad that we could all be together to talk about traveling solo. Thanks for listening to Out Travel the System brought to you by Expedia. And thanks to our guests Mickela Mallozzi and Gareth Leonard. You can find out more about Mickela at travelbarefeet on Instagram and YouTube and Gareth is at tourist2townie, the number two. I’m Courtney Scott, guest hosting for Nisreene Atassi. Please venture forth and have some happy solo travels.
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