In 2010 I booked my first holiday alone to Thailand, and it would turn out to be a momentous move. I had just split from my husband and I longed for freedom and to start leading my own life. Before I could think about it too much, I booked and paid for a holiday to Thailand.
That was the first of eight holidays on my own and I am now a seasoned solo traveller, used to pacing my days to my own rhythm, not having to think about anyone else's likes, dislikes, lack of energy or enthusiasm. I can see everything I want to see, when I want to, for as long as I want to. It's gloriously liberating.
But it didn't start like that.
Those first few days in Thailand, I was wretched. I seemed to be surrounded by happy couples everywhere. That first night, I sobbed over my dinner and it heralded three days of the same pattern: bawling my eyes out throughout the night, dragging my piglet-eyed self to breakfast the next morning and recovering throughout the day on a sun-lounger.
I had travelled far away from home deliberately, because I knew I wouldn't be able to hop back on a plane if I couldn't stand it any more. It worked. Supportive texts from friends urged me to get out of the hotel and explore and so I did.
I then hit on a course of action that never fails to work abroad - find an Irish or Aussie pub and go sit at the bar with a drink. There was live music playing and I sat there smiling into my Thai beer as I swung my legs on the bar stool. No one spoke to me that night but they did when I came back the next night. A crowd of Aussies took me under their wing. They couldn't believe I was on my own and to be honest, neither could I. I was 43 and all my friends were holidaying with their partners.
As I rode around on the back of one of the group's motorbikes, I felt a sense of freedom that I envy guys for - when you see gangs of them, shirts off, riding around Thai islands without a care in the world. The world is made for them and they rejoice in it. For that holiday, I rejoiced in it with them.
I tend to punctuate my time away by booking a few trips - they're a great way of meeting new people, especially if you're thrust into potentially life-threatening situations, as I was this Christmas in Egypt. I booked a trip to the White Canyon in Sinai where you have to navigate steep descents, boulders and haul yourself up a vertiginous rockface with only a rope to get out.
What thrilled me on that trip was seeing an Egyptian couple bring along their one-year-old and entrust her safety completely to the guide. For most of the time, he held her on his shoulders and she slept with her head on his. The parents were mildly anxious, but not freaking out, as I would have been. That guide held out his strong dark hand every time I exclaimed, "I'm scared!", and pulled me up over a boulder or tricky climb. I kept thinking, 'well if he can do it with a baby on his head...'
In many ways, that canyon trip represented the challenge of holidaying alone for me - I knew it would be beautiful-but-frightening. That I might fear for my life and wish I wasn't there at all, but then smile heartily over a Sakara beer that night and feel my soul enriched by the experience. I would want to do it again. And I do.
This brings me on to an experience I call The Rollercoaster. Each and every holiday alone does not go to plan. I never end up doing what I think I'm going to be doing on any given day and I've learned to ride The Rollercoaster, wherever it may take me. Four years ago, a terribly lonely New Year's Eve in Thailand led to a wonderful New Year's Day, where I rode around Koh Samui on a bike, in between two Thai women who wanted to show me around. We eventually we went clubbing and had the time of our lives.
The trick with The Rollercoaster is not to give up when thinks feel a bit grim. Don't expect anything and everything will happen in its own good time. It always does, and I love it. It's life.
Part of me just wants to get on the Big Wheel and have a nice slow ride through life with no thrills or spills, just a nice panoramic view. But then the lure of unseen horizons are too much for me and I have to send myself on the terrifying Rollercoaster.
It's always, always worth it.
(First published in http://becauseicanblog.com/2014/07/20/consciously-uncoupling/ and http://becauseicanblog.com/2014/12/29/flying-solo/)