As I explored the city of Medellin last week, I’ve come to face the effects of solo-traveling and the social dynamics of meeting other travelers. In Colombia so far, I’ve made friends with people from Holland, England, the United States, France, Australia, Switzerland, Sweden, and Germany. Every person I have met had their own story and brought with them a piece of their culture that I had the pleasure of learning from. There were times when all I wanted to do was interact and learn from other travelers, and particularly at night it was obviously more enjoyable to join a group of party-goers. But, there were many other times that I craved sight-seeing and exploring completely on my own. I am constantly questioning the true reasons why I choose to travel alone, and how interactions with others plays a part in my whole experience.
There are far more men than women traveling alone; I’ve found that female backpackers mostly travel in groups or as a couple. I often wonder when I meet other female solo travelers what their intentions are. Some are young and in between their studies, others are between jobs. Others still have burned out from work, were fed up with their jobs, and decided to quit and travel indefinitely. Not at all coincidentally, most of these solo travelers are not in a relationship. Do these women travel to meet new people romantically? Is it because they’re sick of the dating lifestyle in their home country and want to meet men from all over the world? Is it for temporary pleasure, or with the intention of seeking someone for the long term?
Part of me thinks that there’s always some odd little thing “wrong” with the women who travel alone. There’s something they’re running away from, some aspect of their lives they enjoy hiding, and they in some way are reinventing themselves to the strangers they meet. It is quite liberating to wander about without any pre-judgement, without anyone knowing who you are and where you come from; you can be whomever you want, however you want.
Is there a reason why I seek to travel alone? Why I sometimes feel that after getting to know some people along my journey all I want to do is get away from them and just leave? When you meet people while backpacking, you become fast friends. You share that common love of travel, and the icebreaker is always related to your current travel plans. Where are you coming from, where are you going, how long are you traveling for, where are you from originally? Sometimes it can be exhausting to engage in these conversations while accelerating your friendships – other times it’s thrilling and enriching. Learning about others consumes a lot of energy. Add building relationships to visiting city sites during the day and to partying at night, and you quickly become drained and tired.
True, it’s easy to travel with someone else in order to share the planning burden and to have the peace of mind of always having someone to go out with and to share in your experiences. However, I sometimes don’t have any desire to share in my experience with someone. Some days I don’t want to be friendly or nice to everyone I meet. I just want to do my own thing. I often feel this way back home as well. I just want my time to myself, and after spending too much time with people all I want to do is get away from them. I fear that there’s something wrong with me, that I won’t be able to maintain any relationship because I truly enjoy my alone time.
Am I traveling alone because I can’t be around anyone else? Because I am running away from reality? Am I bored with people? I do get bored with some of the people I meet. Even though they are interesting and have so much to share, after spending the entire day and night with them, all I want to do is get away.
Constant interaction means not ever taking time to reflect and to quietly observe the world around you. I had little time to myself in Medellin, and although I am grateful for the people I’ve met, I haven’t been able to just be. I felt trapped, as if I am being forced to do something that I don’t want to do. After all, it’s my journey, so why am I compromising with others.
Is that selfish of me? Maybe it is. And, why do I even bother to engage with people if I mostly likely won’t see them again (with a few exceptions). At the same time, that’s what’s so cool about the social dynamics between backpackers. The friendships are temporary, and if it’s not working out, soon enough you’ll go your separate ways. You’ll be left with only some photos to preserve any memories of your adventures together.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to resolve these feelings of why I crave traveling alone. I could list out all the benefits and negatives of both solo travel and group travel, but I suppose the only real answer is that for everyone it’s different. When you travel alone you gain so much, but you also give up so much. It’s a give and take experience. Oddly enough, solo travel is far more time consuming and requires a higher level of social skills, but it is incredibly rewarding.
Medellin: what an amazing city. I can honestly say it’s the first city I’ve encountered in South America where I would consider moving to and working in.
I was pleasantly surprised by how modern and functional Medellin is, and how easy it is for visitors to explore. The Paisas are warm and friendly, they want to teach you about their culture and their home. They are proud of where they came from, no matter how grim history has been to them. Yes, Medellin was at one time one of the most dangerous cities of the world, plagued by Pablo Escobar and the drug trade. It was a violent place, its people were dirt poor, and there was no infrastructure. But now it boasts the only metro system in Colombia. I went on an incredible walking tour of the city (Real City Tours, the best free walking tour I have ever been to) and our guide was so passionate and proud of his city. He told us that the reason why the metro is so clean, functional, and safe is that it’s symbol of the good that came out of the conditions the people of this city were exposed to. What came out of a city of crime was this incredible metro system, built by people who had never built a metro before. The metro was the one thing they could cling to, one part they could be truly proud of.
Decades have passed, and the city has transformed. It’s become a safe place for visitors and locals alike, with growing businesses, an emergence of haute cuisine, a surge of new construction, increased trade and commerce, and tourism. The money does not come from drugs in this city – it comes from the businesses and the hard working people who run them. And our guide was right about the metro – it has not a scratch, not a mark of graffiti. It runs on time and often, and people have a huge amount of respect for their public transportation system.
Another important element of this city is that it has successfully experimented and implemented with urban planning. For 2000 pesos (60 cents), you can ride across the entire city and also take it’s two cable car lines. The cable cars connect to the poorer slums., allowing for a social mobility and accessibility I haven’t seen in any other metropolitan city in South America. Someone who lives in the poorer neighborhoods can work anywhere and pay little to do so without compromising quality and safety. The city has built 9 huge, beautiful public libraries. Medellin now boasts a healthy economy, safety, and a much higher standard of living. It’s an incredible feat, one that other developing countries should look to as a model – what comes to mind are the favelas of the large cities in Brasil, a country that does little to promote mobility and to improve the daily life of its poorest citizens.
On my last day in Medellin I visited Comuna 13, the once incredibly violent and poor slum. The neighborhood’s colorful houses host dozens of street art on the building façades. The government built an escalator that allows its residents to travel to and from Comuna 13 to the commercial neighborhood below, an equivalent of a 28 story climb, in 6 minutes. I could hear the pride in the security guard’s voice when I spoke with him as he recalled the history of this once considered the most violent neighborhood in the world’s most violent city. Opened in 2011, it serves Comuna 13’s 12,000 residents and is free to use. It was incredibly safe, and it’s residents are proud of having visitors. They want to show how much they love their neighborhood, and how they take great care of the escalator and of the street art. This profound respect for their home parallels their relationship to the metro system – it’s a deep source of pride to them that their city is rebuilding itself, and they will do whatever it takes to keep the city in it’s state of prosperity and transformation.