“Are you going away for the weekend?” a colleague asked me.

“Yes, I’m flying to Norway tonight,” I replied.

“Alone?”

“Yes. Alone.”

I said it in a matter-of-fact way, but in the short silence that followed, I felt the weight of that five-letter word.

I was going alone.

When the tears come at night

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with travelling alone for leisure. Many do it all the time. But by definition, it implies the absence of something – or rather, of someone. A romantic partner. A friend. Or some other companion.

You and I may experience this absence in different ways.

There are many who take great joy in exploring the world on their own. To them, it’s the ultimate form of freedom. And then there are others who cannot fathom the idea of travelling without company.

At least, that’s how we tend to categorize people, based on sugar-coated travel blogs and the simplified stories we tell each other at birthday parties. Either you are the cute couple that likes to explore the world together, or you are the happy solo traveller. A carefree adventurer.

Let’s be honest: the truth is not as simple as that. There are many shades to travelling alone. Not all of them are pretty. (Which also holds true for travelling together, but that’s a different story altogether.)

Ålesund at night, Norway, May 2017

Exploring the world on your own can be fun, liberating and rewarding.

Yet, inevitably, there will be moments that you crave companionship more than anything else. In the middle of the night, when you are unable to sleep because of jet lag, and your hotel room is so hot that you feel like a piece of chicken on a barbecue grill. Or in the soft evening glow of an atmospherically lit boulevard that was meant for lovers to walk on together. That’s when the loneliness hits in. That’s when the tears start flowing and nobody can hear them.

Travelling alone is a joy, it’s a pain, and it’s often both at the same time.

Does this sound familiar? I have been there, too. Many times. Let me share a personal story. Maybe you will find something in there that helps you on your own journey. I’d be happy to hear about your experiences as well.

A story that began 10 years ago

I had never been that much of a traveller until I met my then-girlfriend in 2007. Incidentally, I had just arranged an internship on the East Coast of Australia, where I would spend ten weeks working as a journalist at a newspaper company in Brisbane.

Moving from the confines of a small Dutch town to the vastness of Australia would forever change my perception of the world. It was an experience that taught me new personal and professional skills. It introduced me to TimTam chocolate biscuits. And it also broke my heart.

After the initial excitement about my new surroundings wore off, I suffered severe bouts of homesickness. It’s a terrible feeling when your head has decided on a faraway destination, but your whole body screams that it longs to be in a familiar place. I remember counting the days with chalk marks on the insides of my mind, feeling separated from the one I loved by oceans of time and space.

One morning I was on my way to a work assignment in the city center, when I had to ask the cab driver to return to the place where I was staying. I just couldn’t stop crying. Back at my homestay, I called the airline to inquire if I could change the date of my return flight. I could. But I didn’t. I sticked to my plans and stayed for another two months. Life sometimes feels like a test you need to pass. Even if you’re not quite sure why.

"Life sometimes feels like a test you need to pass. Even if you’re not quite sure why."

I set foot on Dutch soil again on October 2, 2007, and I cannot recall a moment of greater relief, being reunited with the person I cared about the most. In the years that followed, we went on to visit a lot of places together, from the boulevards of Paris to the streets of Manhattan and the mountains of Peru. I never felt homesick again. Not because I had changed as a person. But because I felt at home, with her, wherever we would go.

Then our ways parted, in the spring of 2012, and I couldn’t think of any reason to explore the world on my own. So I didn’t. For two years, I didn’t see much outside of Amsterdam, where I had just moved to (and still live), and Rotterdam, where I used to work. My world became very small again.

Fast forward to 2017, and I can’t wait till I’m up in the air again. As I walked along the snow-topped mountains of Norway two weeks ago, with no living soul around, the feeling finally began to sink in: I had learned to appreciate the experience of travelling alone. What had happened?

Norway mountains
Mountains near Strandafjellet, Norway, May 2017

A new sense of purpose

You may have lost someone yourself. Someone you cared about deeply. We all deal with loss and separation in different ways. Some pick up their lives with renewed spirit fairly quickly, some get drunk (usually more than once), and others turn their emotions inward. I fit the latter category.

When my then-girlfriend and I broke up, the whole notion of going on holiday suddenly seemed aimless. Why fly to New York, if it was just going to be me and a city full of memories? Why order a pizza in Rome, if there was no one to share it with?

I mean: what the hell was I going to do in these places?

"Why fly to New York, if it was just going to be me and a city full of memories?"

It was in the fall of 2014 that I booked my first trip in a long time. I flew to Cleveland to attend a marketing conference. I had just bought my first proper digital camera, because I had grown fond of smartphone photography and I wanted to improve the quality of my photos. Noticing that Cleveland was very close to the Niagara Falls and the Canadian border, I decided to add a few days in Niagara and Toronto to my itinerary.

I can still vividly remember one night in Niagara, when I saw the falls lit up for the first time and I was looking for the best vantage points to take photos. That night, I felt a raw kind of excitement that I hadn’t felt for a long time. I was alone, but I didn’t mind. I wasn’t homesick, because I had no home to miss. This was going to be my new home: just me and my camera, in search of beauty. There, in the deep blues and reds of the illuminated Niagara Falls, I saw the dawn of a new sense of purpose.

Niagara Falls
Niagara Falls at night, USA, September 2014

A suitcase full of memories

If this sounds like a cathartic turn of events that wraps up the story a bit too neatly, I can assure you that the journey that followed was a lot messier. This is life, after all.

In the spring of 2015, I went for my first dedicated photo trip, and I chose the worst possible destination. If you’ve been to Florence, Italy, you’ll know that it oozes with romanticism. A female friend from Instagram told me that she had been to Florence with a male friend, and that they ended up saying to each other: “This place is way too romantic for people who are ‘just’ friends”. Now imagine going there alone with a suitcase full of memories. Not even ten scoops of gelato will save you from feeling miserable (although I do recommend ordering at least one scoop of true Italian amarena cherry ice-cream – it’s that good).

"I missed a home that I could not go back to anymore."

Sure, there were moments of joy and exhiliration – like seeing the sun rise and set over the hills of Tuscany, painting fleeting images of breathtaking grandeur. I could see the beauty in those scenes. But what dominated was a profound sense of sadness. When I returned to my hotel after my daily sunset shoot, I would watch couples go out for dinner on dim-lit streets of cobblestone. Every smile, every gaze, every gender touch reminded me of the inescapable fact that I was now alone. I missed a home that I could not go back to anymore.

Florence sunset
Florence at sunset, Italy, May 2015

Untainted worlds

After that troubled Euro trip, maybe it was a desire to escape the past that led me to Asia – to cities with unfamiliar sights, to streets full of strangers so different in appearance and behaviour that I would find distraction and inspiration in the novelty of it all. New worlds, untainted with memories.

Whether it was in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, China or South Korea, I found solace in the novelty of the places I visited. I went looking for new horizons. I tried to capture them with my camera as well as I could. And with every trip, maybe unknowingly, I grew a bit more at ease with the solitude that accompanied me.

"With every trip, maybe unknowingly, I grew a bit more at ease with the solitude that accompanied me."

I’m not quite there yet. I’m not sure I ever will be. There are still days on my travels that I feel sad and forlorn, like the Ghost of Travels Past. But there are also days when the clouds suddenly break open and I cannot help but feel lucky to be standing on the top of a mountain at the other side of the world.

Obviously, the biggest benefit of travelling alone with your camera is that you can go wherever you want to go, whenever you want to go there. If that means getting up at 4 a.m. to catch a sunrise in your pyjamas, or skipping dinner because you want to see night fall over the city, you can freely do so without having to resort to partner counselling afterwards. That’s definitely a plus.

Busan skyline
Busan at night, South Korea, May 2017

Light your inner candle

People sometimes say that you’re not really living the moment when you’re just observing your surroundings instead of becoming part of them. It always hurts a bit when people say that.

Maybe sometimes, just being there – and capturing the world in its ephemeral beauty – is enough. At this point, it’s enough for me.

Last month, when I was in Norway, I did something I normally don’t do: I had dinner at the hotel restaurant. (I usually grab something simple while I’m on the move.) It was a dark and dreary night, I was recovering from a cold, and I didn’t feel like going out. The restaurant was mostly empty, with rain ticking on the windows, drowning out the soft piano music that was playing in the background.

I watched a couple enjoy their dinner by candlelight. They seemed to enjoy their seafood and I’m sure the wine matched it perfectly. My fish and chips were not bad either. I took out my camera to go through my shots of the day. Even though I am a bloody godawful perfectionist, I was actually quite happy with the results.

I sat there for a while, staring out of the windows, with the mountains barely discernable in the distance. There I was, alone. Just me and my camera. And for a minute, I didn’t really mind.

Now, where should I go next?

Ålesund
Ålesund at night, Norway, May 2017

Thanks for reading this far. Do you have similar experiences, or do you have different ways of coping with feelings of loneliness abroad? It would mean a lot to hear from you! Feel free to leave a comment below.