Traveling solo at 40 versus traveling solo at 23. What’s changed?

Do you enjoy traveling solo? I have just spent two weeks in and around Singapore this month. Never been to South-east Asia before, plus I hadn’t traveled solo for longer than a few days, for many, many years. I was so excited! No kids, alone, peace and quiet. Adventure! What a gift. Off I went, to the other side of the world. It was amazing, but I also learnt a thing or two about myself. Things just ain’t the same, two kids later at the age of 40.

Little India, Singapore

I backpacked solo around Latin America in 2002 for three months, at the tender age of 23. Just graduated from university I had been working hard to save money for the big trip. I booked my flights, organised my first hostel, found a Spanish school in Quito to brush up on the much needed lingo. And then I went. Ten days later I ended up with a drip in my arm in hospital in Ecuador, after contracting an e.coli infection, probably by drinking a smoothie made with tap water. Not a great start. Good god, was I ill. My mother was worried sick and suggested I’d come home. No way! I was young, free and fearless and after four days in hospital and being discharged with a large pack of antibiotics in my pocket, I continued my journey. Got sick, now I’m better. I felt immortal! But I understand my mother, now I have children of my own.

traveling solo ecuador
Living with an indigenous family in the Andes mountains in Ecuador for a week.

I ended up having three unforgettable months, teaching me common sense, resilience, resourcefulness and flexibility. The experiences, the sights, the people, the smells, the colours, the tastes, everything was incredibly intense. Those three months have had a huge impact on my life and gave me lasting memories. I never felt so free, alive and strong as back then. If you’ve been in my shoes, you know the feeling.

Hair pin roads and views to die for

Looking back, some memories now make me both shiver with fear and smile with delight. Being on a tight budget, I often traveled through the night for 12 hours on very old buses in Peru and Bolivia. Buses full of locals in their colourful attire, preaching evangelists and sometimes a chicken. Picture narrow bumpy hair pin roads through the Andes mountains, a struggling engine and steep drops. Some wrecks of cars down below in the ravine. No toilet on board. Brief stops on the way where you could quickly pee in a dirty makeshift toilet with a bucket to flush. I felt like a true explorer, a cool solo female traveler, a tough cookie who dealt with it all. I would share dormitories with fellow backpackers, heard the craziest stories, smoked pot once at high altitude, saw landscapes that were out of this world. Absolute freedom and no responsibilities.

Bus in Bolivia
Crossing the desert in Bolivia by bus, 2002

The thought of traveling on my own seventeen years later filled me with excitement to say the least. OK, I wasn’t going for three months nor was I going to be backpacking on a tight budget, but hey, I was going VERY. FAR. AWAY. Alone. Without kids. 12 hours on a plane? Whoah! Films, books, glass of wine. Peace. Couldn’t wait.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

A good friend of mine was living in Singapore for a few years and I decided to take the opportunity to visit her, before she would move back to Europe. I knew it wasn’t going to be quite the same as backpacking in Bolivia, but maybe I could just get a tiny bit of that ‘cool female explorer’ freedom sensation back. Or could I?

Being in Singapore is comfortable, modern and safe (oh, and a bit pricey). Staying at my friend’s house of course was also rather nice. Seeing a new city, country and culture is fabulous and Singapore is such a melting pot of skyscrapers and colourful neighbourshoods. But don’t you think everything is more intense when you are in your early twenties and experience it all for the first time? I had a fantastic holiday, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Still, I kept looking for that same thrill I felt at 23, but it was hard to find.

from host to hostel

After a week of Singapore city life and catching up with my friend, I decided to go somewhere else for a few days, truly traveling solo. I took the ferry to nearby Indonesian island Bintan. Indonesia, that surely would be different! And yes, it was indeed, even though it was only a stone throw’s away from Singapore. Whereas nobody even looks at you in Singapore, you get stared at, called and approached as soon as you set foot on the shores of Bintan. I had booked a hostel and luckily got picked up by one of the hostel owners so didn’t have to make my own way. The hostel looked very nice online. It was cheap and basic, but the pictures looked idyllic in a very laid-back, surf shack kind of way and it had very good reviews. I was hoping to meet fellow travelers, hang out with them in the evening, visit some places on the island. Just like the good ol’ days.

The blue waters of Bintan island, Indonesia

It was funny. As soon as I sat in that taxi, no airconditioning and a driver who didn’t really take the traffic rules very seriously (were there any?), I felt nervous. What was I doing here? Wooden huts and jungle lined the road, poverty all around. Scooters and mopeds like flies crossing and passing. The heat was suffocating. I told myself to get a grip and relax. After all, I wanted a bit of adventure and real experiences, right? I was looking forward arriving at the hostel, with its palm trees and lovely terrace, chat to some people and make the most of my time on the island.

Breakfast and ants included

Then the taxi slowed down and turned left into a dirt road. Wait, what? The hostel was right there, I could see it, but it didn’t quite look like the pictures. We got out and the hostel guy guided me into the reception area. Well, let’s call it the front room of a wooden shed. It was like a sauna. There was a water tank, a kettle and a bread bin with a few white slices in it “for breakfast”. There were ants marching across the table. Did I mention it was hot? There was a shared bathroom, with no actual shower nor a bath. There was one toilet that had to be flushed with a cup of water. I got shown the one dormitory in the hostel, with six bunks and noticed only one bed was taken. But she was out for the day. It was 2pm. There was nobody there but me and the hostel guy. “It was low season.”

heat and panic

I panicked. Sitting down on my bunk bed I frantically started to think. I was going to faint. What if I fainted? Was there a hospital? Would I get rescued? What if I got sick. I got sick before in a hot place like this. Could I get dengue fever? I was on my period. How would I wash? I could see a stripe of daylight in the wall of the dormitory. Were there cockroaches here? There must be cockroaches. Only one guest? What would I do? Was this hostel safe? Where would I eat? What would I eat? I am so hot. I can’t breathe. My heart was racing. I needed to calm down. What if I die? I have two kids. I want to go home. What was I thinking? I started crying. I’m 40 years of age, I have responsibilities. I can’t stay here. I need to stay alive. Am I being silly? I probably am, but I hate this place.

traveling solo Singapore

“It’s not you – it’s me”

Unlike in 2002, even this basic hostel had wi-fi. Thank god for wi-fi. I decided I wasn’t going to stay in that hostel. I felt like a cheat and a wimp but I needed to get myself to somewhere more comfortable. “Throw some money at the problem” my husband used to say, whenever you would find yourself in a situation that needed solved immediately. He hadn’t liked the idea of me traveling solo to this island and hostel in the first place. I swallowed my pride, found a resort 3 miles up the road and booked myself a room. The hostel guy was so apologetic and scared I would give him bad reviews, but I just told him it wasn’t him – it was me. “Oh my boy, I am naive, I am 40, I thought I could still do this but I can’t, I have changed. I have lost it.” was how I felt. Instead I said:”I need a shower and there is no shower.”

The resort was bliss. I felt like a spoiled lady of leasure. Slightly ashamed but so happy. A fabulous clean private room with a fan and working airconditioning. A view over the tropical white sandy beach, waving palm trees and blue waters. This was more like it. Just wow. I opened the mini bar, took out a cold Tiger beer and scoffed the two bags of complimentary crisps out of pure relief. Bloomin’ heck. Thank god for that. I might not be that adventurous explorer anymore, but you know what, that is OK. Been there, done that. Got the pictures. Got the stories. I’m still traveling solo, alright – just in a bit more comfort. Tomorrow I go snorkeling.

traveling solo Singapore

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