Confidence goes a very long way when solo traveling. It helps you make new friends, talk to strangers and have new experiences and adventures. But the most important way confidence is essential to solo traveling is for the situations you can’t predict… like when you almost get stranded in a very small, almost deserted, non-English speaking town in another country.
Last summer, I decided to spontaneously use one afternoon in Faro, Portugal to take a quick day trip to a neighboring town. I asked the hostel front desk where to go, how to get there, bus times, etc and went on my way with little knowledge of Estoi, the place I was going to.
The bus stop in Faro was next to a small marina, in an open walled building. There was only one counter to buy a ticket and then a single row of wobbly, gum-covered, old seats to wait in. Locals were smoking, talking on the phone and pacing back in forth in irritation. None of the buses seemed to be “on time,” and apparently everything is first-come, first-served. Think non-English Hunger Games meets New York City Megabus lines. What was I doing?
The bus was nearly empty with only a few non-English speaking locals. My nerves started dancing in my stomach. We drove past deserted off-road cabins on a dirt road, further and further away from what I knew. After 40 minutes, the driver made eye contact with me through the rearview mirror, and I assumed it meant I was at my stop and got off. I exited the bus to a crumbling curb on the side of a road. No one else got off. At first glance, there were no other people around, and I didn’t have a map of the town (or cell service/wifi).
The only thing I knew was that there was a 19th century former civil parish, now hotel, somewhere, so I started walking. I wandered in circles trying to keep track of where the bus stop was. I passed a group of men sitting at an undersized table outside a front door and eventually found a small corner store where a man behind a makeshift counter was reading a newspaper. He didn’t speak English, but when I said palácio he pointed in a general direction, smiled and resumed reading. I said obrigado and started wandering some more.
After 30 minutes of wandering away from the bus stop and this bodega, I started to get very nervous and scared, and when I get nervous and scared I talk to myself out loud (it comforts me and makes me feel like someone is with me, and it turns out, I’m not totally ridiculous).
I knew that the last bus was in an hour, and I only assumed it was going to pick me up in the same place I got dropped off. So I decided to try to find a way to wander up so I could maybe get a better view of the town and find the palace that way (smart thinking on my part, if I don’t say so myself),
Fifteen minutes later, and still no people in sight, I was able to see what looked like a big gated driveway, and I walked towards it. Not only did I stumble on to the palace, but I immediately cried in relief that it is now a high-end hotel with English speaking staff.
After exploring the grounds, the host in the lobby printed me a bus ticket and a map and told me exactly where to go for the bus that would take me back to Faro. I had 10 minutes to get there, and it was not where I was dropped off.
I stumbled upon a teenage Portugese couple making out, and cleared my throat three times before they glanced over and I was able to hand the girl my ticket. She nodded, gave it back to me and I, yet again, had no idea if I was where I was supposed to be. Five, 10, 15 minutes later (and what actually seemed like forever), the bus finally pulled up.
‘Fake it till you make it’ doesn’t work in every situation. But had I not gotten myself together on those empty, narrow streets in Estoi, I know for a fact I would have been worse off. Here are some important things I learned that day:
Tune into your gut and trust yourself. It’s the single, most important thing when solo traveling.
Take screenshots of everything you need on your phone — maps, addresses, numbers, foreign words. They’re extremely helpful when you want to be spontaneous on your trip.
Don’t be scared to go to unknown and off-the-beaten-path places. The palace was absolutely breathtaking, and even though the experience getting there was frustrating, scary and unsettling, I’m glad I tried something new. Some people solo travel and still hold on to their comfort zones. Don’t.
It doesn’t matter how many time you’ve solo traveled. Each experience is different, and each trip consists of its own personal, anxiety-inducing moments… which takes me back to the beginning: Get to a place where you can be self-reliant. In your travels and every day.