I recently traveled to Miami, by myself, and on assignment for a piece about seeing the Magic City local style. I then proceeded to get lost inside multiple parking garages, spilled curry sauce all over myself in a nice restaurant, and came to terms with the fact I am a grown woman who considers herself a foodie yet doesn’t know how to properly hold and use chopsticks.
As someone who has long been fascinated by female solo travel, I was disappointed it wasn’t coming naturally to me. I called my sister more than once exclaiming that I was an epic failure at solo travel, but regardless of my mishaps I did emerge from the experience with a greater appreciation of travel, and of myself.
Read on for my mishaps and lessons learned along the way.
Turns out, female solo travel will NOT kill you
If you do any kind of research on solo travel, you’ll find two kinds of narratives. The first: YOU WILL DIE…and awful things will happen to you. The second: Don’t wait for someone to go with you! Live your dreams and take the trip, alone or not. And then there are the stories of others projecting their own fears onto you, or the worry that traveling alone will be lonely and depressing because you can’t share moments with anyone but yourself. What about eating alone? Drinking alone? Safety measures when you’re alone as a woman?
I was surprised to find none of this actually bothered me when I arrived. It was a little uncomfortable at first, and I felt the strong urge to just curl up in my comfy hotel bed and read for 3 days (actually I think I may have just discovered my dream vacation – beach, eat, sleep, read, repeat), but once I got out and began exploring I found a rhythm. It also helped to have a mixture of planned activities and free time which removed some of the stress of decision making. But overall, I found traveling alone to be an enlightening experience. It brought me face to face with relying on myself, spending my free time exactly how I wanted to, and it also pushed me to expand my comfort zone. Oh, and, I didn’t die.
Dining solo is great until you spill food on yourself
It was my second day in Miami and I was on a roll, feeling happy, and ready to try some new food at a restaurant downtown. A man at the table next to me recommended the octopus and my initial reaction was to freak out. I have worked hard to go from the very picky eater of my youth to a slightly more adventurous eater, but octopus just felt out of my depth. But the chef recommended it too, so I just took the leap and was pleasantly surprised to find I actually really liked the taste.
I was enjoying my dish when my waitress started bringing over dessert, and somehow I managed to hit the plate and flip it so that an entire pile of octopus (in yellow curry sauce mind you) ended up in my lap. Yellow sauce was pretty much on everything, but I had to laugh and just go with it. After applying a LOT of seltzer water the stains were minimized, but still it was not my finest moment. Nonetheless, I chose to laugh at myself and sometimes in life that’s all you can do. 🙂
Chopsticks (as used by a non-chopstick user)
It was my first night in Miami, and feeling good about my parking spot ($1.00/hour – cause for celebration), I was ready for my first meal of the trip. A portion of my stay was comped, so dinner the first night was pre-arranged. Many of the restaurants on my itinerary involved cuisine completely foreign to me, but I embraced it all as part of the adventure.
I spotted my restaurant and took a seat outside (people watching), but when it came time to order, I stared at the menu completely clueless. And when the waiter brought over chopsticks…and only chopsticks…I tried to discreetly google “HOW DO I USE CHOPSTICKS?!?” without being totally obvious. (It was obvious.) In the end, I came up with some hybrid method in which I did my best to pick up the sushi roll and then quickly stuffed it all into my mouth at once. My apologies to anyone dining near me, I imagine it wasn’t pretty.
…And I still don’t know how to use chopsticks.
Why are parking garages more confusing when you’re alone?
I’d say the biggest challenge I faced while exploring Miami solo was: parking garages.
The first instance occurred downtown, in which I entered a business garage and got stuck in an endless upward spiraling loop (approximately 5 stories) that felt more than an amusement park ride than parking garage entrance. $14 and a dizzy spell later, I then had to figure out how to get out of the parking garage. The elevators all required you to know which floor you were going to, but there was no key, and I finally just asked someone for help. I later got lost in an art museum parking garage and couldn’t figure out why all of the signs to the museum were pointing in different directions, until I finally figured out they were all pointing UP. As in, the garage is underneath the museum so go UP the stairs to enter.
Drinking solo isn’t so bad
I held myself to a 2 drink maximum as a personal choice during my stay. For one, hangovers are NOT what they used to be 5 years ago, and two I just felt safer in general being in a solid state of mind. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying champagne with lunch, cocktails with dinner, or checking out the local breweries.
I was surprised to find that dining and drinking alone rarely felt uncomfortable to me. I didn’t need a book, wasn’t constantly checking my phone, and struck up conversations at several places with strangers. If you look friendly and approachable enough, people will engage you in conversation, and it’s a great way to get local insight and make new travel friends.
Traveling alone gives you a special power: the power to do exactly what you want, when you want
There’s something really empowering in spending time alone. Maybe it’s my inner introvert talking, but it’s nice to occasionally spend time with yourself, choosing exactly how to spend your day without any outside influence or obligations. Vacation is the perfect gateway: you can somewhat unplug from the outside world and tune into the things that fill you up.
For me, that’s a mash up of solitary time at the beach with a good book (in this case Mid-Beach in Miami and The Girl on the Train), plenty of good food, and art. When you travel, people will always have opinions and suggestions about what you should do and what you “must” see, but there’s something powerful in choosing to listen to yourself instead and follow what actually interests you versus doing what you feel like you “should” in order to have a proper travel experience.
Creepy men are everywhere
Creepy stares and catcalling were weekly occurrences walking from my bus stop to school in downtown Pittsburgh in my college years and something I eventually just learned to tune out. And, to this day, my best friend still makes me retell the legendary story of “The Pasta King” – a grown man whose pickup line to me was handing me a business card in the parking lot of a Giant Eagle and letting me know to call him if I ever needed catering. Or pasta, just for myself. (“I’ll cook for you anytime.”) So, naturally, I knew there would be creepy men in Miami.
Luckily, there was only one scenario and it took place in South Beach (of course). This guy purposefully slowed his step to be in line with me, as if we were together. It was even creepier that he didn’t bother to say hi or introduce himself, or even make eye contact. He did eventually talk to me and followed me around for awhile, but eventually left. Still, it didn’t stop me from walking to a more populated area to dodge him.
It sucks to deal with this as a woman. And it sucks that this was something of concern for me traveling alone, but at the same time I was reminded to trust my gut. If it feels wrong, it probably is. So trust yourself above all else and get outta dodge. Or just run to the nearest women’s bathroom (my tactic).
Being comfortable in all that is uncomfortable is a great gift
Mishaps and changed plans are a fact of life. But I’ve always found myself to be resistant to that change, seeking comfort and the familiar instead of pursuing new things and facing my fears. After all, you can’t fail if you never try, you can’t be judged if you never speak your mind, you can’t be criticized if you never share. But a life without risk and discomfort isn’t exactly fulfilling. We need pain, failure, hurt, and discomfort to put healing, success, and comfort in perspective.
Traveling by myself forced me, in a small but significant way, to face up to those facts about myself and take baby steps to change. I learned that the best gift I can give myself in life is to embrace the uncomfortable, and find comfort in it. Even with the best laid plans, life has a way of stepping in to shake up your world every so often. Even if it’s hard, the best way to grow is to step outside of what you know and embrace the lessons and challenges you face with grace and comfort.
I’d love to know: have you traveled alone anywhere, and what have you learned? And….are parking garages also confusing and difficult for you? 🙂