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Adventure Magazine

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One-Man Show
Drop the buddy or the tour group. For a real-deal travel experience, going solo is the way. By Robert Young Pelton


Illustration: RYP sitting alone on the top of a crowded bus.
SINGULAR SENSATION: RYP flies solo, but never stays that way for long.

I was heading for the town of Chitral in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province when a young man on the bus, seeing I was traveling solo, suggested—no, insisted—I join his family for dinner. He did not mention that he lived two hours straight up the side of a mountain, that he'd invited the entire village, and that our conversation was to focus on his fiery opinions of an independent Pashtunistan.

I arrived to a feast, platters piled high with rice and freshly killed lamb. Judging by their humble surroundings, the family had dug deep to make me feel welcome, so in gratitude I took photos of each graybeard that wandered in and sent back glossy prints when I returned home. A few months later, a carefully printed letter arrived. It called me a "prince among men" (I've been called worse!) and said the entire valley awaited my return.

If travelers have styles, mine is solo. No luxuries, no must-sees, no hard routes, and no invitations rejected by committee. Just an open mind and an open schedule. Sounds whimsical—and it is—but dropping the companions and traveling by yourself may well lead to the most rewarding experiences you'll ever have.

The Lure of Lone Travel
I have a saying, "One stranger is a traveler; two are a tour group." And no one wants to approach a tour group. For me, the most gratifying part of travel is making personal connections, and when I'm with a buddy or a group, the locals that we meet are usually trying to get us to see their brother's shop and not a lot more. On the other hand, when I travel alone, I inspire the curiosity of all sorts (not just con men) and meet, on average, 12 people a day; that's one new face, and possibly a friend for life, every waking hour.

The other advantage of going solo is the flexibility it allows. When I'm a party of one, I can hop a troop-carrier or bullock cart on a whim (and without a mind-bending debate) and that ability has led me into some remarkable situations, from visiting a reeducation camp for elephants in Indonesia to partying with caravan robbers in Afghanistan.

The alternative is a trip akin to my first TV shoot, in the Philippines. My producer planned to document my "solo adventure" with three cameramen, two fixers, two drivers, and two minivans. Adventure? Ha! Even taking a leak was a logistical nightmare.

Start off Easy
For your first-time traveling solo, you could do what I do and plunge headlong into a danger zone, or you could take a more tempered approach. Start in places where communication is easy—a pub tour of Ireland or a hitch-and-hike trip through the Australian outback is a great first go—then move on to more linguistically challenging locations. Just do yourself a favor and show up with a good phrase book.

Women on Their Own
People always ask me, who's safer, the hulking male adventurer or the petite blond bombshell? Do you really need to ask? Yes, it's more difficult for women to travel alone, but it's often more fulfilling. In places like the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and parts of Africa where women are segregated from men, solo female travelers have access to a world that males never see.

My advice to anyone traveling without companions, but especially to women, is to buy a local cell phone and program it with the numbers of the U.S. Embassy and any friends in the country. Also, spend some time in the regional capital gathering business cards of officials. Don't be shy about making introductions at the local police station, military base, or aid organizations. They'll come in handy when you meet a stubborn bureaucrat who speaks only baksheesh.

Meet and Greet
The other question I often get about solo travel is, "Aren't you bored?" Hell, no. And that's because I come prepared. To combat long bus rides I bring books, maps, and photos to engage my seatmates and foster exchange. Also, I have a 60GB iPod packed with audio books, language guides, and local music I download from the library before leaving. Afghans love bluegrass, hate rap. Iraqis love that hyperkinetic Egyptian bubblegum music. And everyone likes the Backstreet Boys. Go figure.

Chances are you'll be so busy with your new buds that loneliness will be the least of your worries.

Robert Young Pelton is the author of The World's Most Dangerous Places.

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Illustration by Asaf Hanuka


Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, August 2005

• Instant Alaska: Four explorer-worthy fly-in trips.
Hell-Bent for the Arctic: Emerging Explorer Kira Salak takes the ultimate Alaska bike trip
The Map of Us All: Geneticist Spencer Wells's plan to use DNA clues to retrace the origin of humankind
Stalking One Very Cool Cat: Writer Paul Kvinta searches for snow leopards in India
There & Back: Mountaineer Ed Viesturs summits Annapurna
Pelton's World: Our man on the scene explains why he travels alone


Top

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August 2005



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