I was panicking in Doha airport when I said the stupidest thing I’ve ever said. Already well past security, I skidded up to the information desk, gasping, "I've lost my passport, do I live here now?!" She told me calmly, "No my dear, that was just a movie", and while she was on the phone to the café where I’d last seen it, I realised it was in my bra.
Hi, I’m a solo female traveller, and I moonlight as an idiot.
If I had left my passport in a café, no one flipping through its stamped and well-worn pages would imagine it belongs to an agoraphobe. And it doesn’t – I’m fine now. But after finding my father-in-law dead eight days after he died, my undiagnosed anxiety flared into something totally unmanageable. I stayed indoors – which is easy to do undetected when you work from home – stalking my friends to check they hadn’t also dropped dead. Even approaching the window seemed to thicken the air in my lungs, and my first attempt to leave the house resulted in a panic attack in the supermarket.
Failing to walk 500 feet down my own road several years back has somehow morphed into solo trips all over the world. See, I decided to visit seven death festivals in countries from Mexico to Nepal, Thailand to Madagascar, and write a book all about it.
As much as I’d love to declare that all is now well and I’m magically cured, the truth is that anxiety is a lurking beast, daring you to poke it, and solo travelling – when you're often by yourself in unusual situations – can be a tough time for mental health issues. So while travelling, it's super important that you practise your very best self-care. Ahead is how I tiptoe around the beast and look after my mental health while I'm away. If you're heading off on your own solo trip, now might be a good time to take notes...
The toll that culture shock can take is real – the feeling of isolation, like everyone else is behind a pane of glass; the sense that you’re small, that a protective layer of skin has been removed; that even simple interactions are momentous feats. For me, it hits strongest when I’m surrounded by the Cyrillic alphabet (used across various countries in eastern Europe), which none of my four languages uses – perhaps it’s the sense that I can almost make out the words that makes my brain crash.
There’s no point trying to fight the body’s natural response to everything suddenly being different. Instead, I think of things that can make it worse, and prepare.
Determine your needs
A classic trigger for my anxiety is lack of sleep, so I search accommodation reviews for the words 'comfy bed'. Even if I don’t sleep the first night, at least I won’t wake up with backache.
Find a 'base' that isn't your room
I search online for a café near where I’m staying. As one of those douchebags who sits in cafés on her laptop (tucking important documents into her bra), I can snatch a moment of feeling at home during the most disorienting period of a trip.
Knowing where I’m going when I venture out for the first time also means I won’t have that 'solo female wandering aimlessly' look that’s catnip to the odd scammer, mugger and the kind of man who opens conversations with, "Hey baby, where you going?"
When you’re in your room feeling disoriented, with the temptation to stay inside tugging at your sleeve, it’s a lot easier to resist when venturing out is a simple matter of going somewhere specific.
While remaining safe and alert, I’m very open when people chat to me. In Kathmandu, while sheltering under an awning during a brief autumn drizzle, a voice behind me said, "You should go inside, it’s a great museum". We chatted. He was a tour guide waiting impatiently for trekking season to start, and not only did he end up being my guide to the festival, he is now the star of my chapter on Nepal. His friendship helped me feel at home.
I got lucky with Sandip; not everyone is so open, or sheltering from the rain under the same awning as you. To make sure I meet people, I will usually book some kind of 'experience' involving others – a cooking class, a language workshop, even a free walking tour.
Dealing with loneliness
Even if you schedule a bunch of social interactions, the spaces between them can be lonely. If you speak the language, a homestay is a great way of making sure there’s always someone around. A couple of days into my Sicily trip, the anxiety around stepping outside was, for some reason, mounting. On the third day, my host knocked on my door and said, "I haven’t seen you for days!" and invited me to the kitchen for coffee. It was such a simple gesture, and it helped.
If social media is a nice place for you, use it. Share your photos, ask people if they know a good café where you are, complain about the guy on the train who fell asleep drooling on your shoulder. Reaching into the void and having someone reach back with, "I know, right?!" is a quick and dirty loneliness remedy. Plus, when it comes to recommendations, the hive mind has never steered me wrong, and being able to tell a stranger they improved your afternoon is one of the joys of the digital age.
Remembering to eat
If you’re one of those people who can make reservations for one at a white tablecloth-type place, I salute you (and kind of want to be you). But when I’m by myself, hunger becomes almost like a medical condition I just have to deal with. Remember I told you I moonlight as an idiot? In Sicily, I found myself feeling weak and irritable, and after a week worked out it was because I’d been subsisting on snacks and, essentially, side orders. A tiny pastry with a coffee for breakfast, a little plate of caponata for lunch and an arancina for dinner. Roughly half the calories you’re supposed to have, I calculated. What kind of PERVERT undereats in Italy? Mea maxima culpa. It was a pretty simple fix and, bonus: the woman serving me at my favourite place stopped tutting, shaking her head and saying, "Is that all? Dai!" (Come on!)
One of the side effects of solo travel is that you meet yourself. The best way to take care of your mental health while travelling solo is to work out what helps you. And don't worry if you don't get it quite right the first time – there's still plenty of time ahead of you to go back and have another go and each time you'll learn a little more. Even better: everything you learn about what you need while solo travelling will be insanely useful when you're dealing with stuff in the real world.
There is only one hard-and-fast rule: bras aren’t pockets.