When you travel, it is so important to go with the right mindset. Without the right mindset, you can really struggle and question why you are even travelling. And yet again, this lesson is one that I am reminded of on my current trip. May 2022 is the mental health awareness month and in this solo insight, I share my current story of being in Africa and my experience of finding the right mindset. Plus 10 tips on what to do if you're struggling when you're travelling alone.
It was back in March that I was planning for my trip. Having wanted to visit an Impact Hub and meet social entrepreneurs doing amazing work in the world, I chose my final destination as Rwanda. I searched Skyscanner to see the cheapest countries and the flight routes that I could do there to get there, visiting countries that I had yet seen. And I chose ones that were easy for me to enter with an evisa or where I could obtain a visa on arrival.
That’s when the flights led me to the Middle East. From Barcelona, where I was visiting friends it was easy for me to fly direct to Kuwait, then from there to Bahrain to explore more of the Middle East before flying to Africa to explore more of this content. This time, the Horn of Africa.
It was in the Middle East that I had an epiphany. I had always felt an affinity with this region and being back here I just had a knowing that this was where I wanted to live.
I was there during Ramadan and the prices of accommodation were affordable. The service was amazing and I honestly felt like a VIP. Nothing was too much trouble and I travelled around happily, seeing amazing landscapes, meeting great people and co-working with fab internet. Not wanting my time here to end.
But the countdown was on for Africa, the main reason why I was on this 3-month trip. Yet I found myself regretting my decision to go. I was feeling wary and my initial enthusiasm for the continent had waned. I wanted to stay in the Middle East. There was something about it that I loved. I felt so comfortable and at home here even if I received a few stares in the strange but interesting Emirate of Sharjah.
Days before I was due to fly, my travel anxiety kicked in big time. I honestly didn’t want to go. But I had my flight booked, a 4-day tour that included gorilla trekking and I was planning on visiting projects in the region. So I flew.
From the moment I landed, I had the wrong mindset. And it wasn’t the first time that it had happened. It was on my tour to West Africa for the first time that I had experienced a crazy amount of anxiety and even at the airport, I had wanted to turn back around. Within 24 hours of being in Ghana, I had experienced food poisoning and as I had laid on my hostel bed about to begin a month-long camping tour through West Africa I knew that I had to change my mindset.
This time it happened again. But it didn’t happen until after my 4-day tour (there really is no better excitement than seeing gorillas in the wild). It was when I left the tour and checked into a hostel that I began to struggle.
Not even knowing if I could stay in the hostel (the traffic noise, the room was tiny and hot and the music in the bar was too much for me, especially at breakfast time). The customer service felt awkward and all I wanted to do was book a flight and get out.
For someone who is usually open-minded and easygoing, I was struggling and I had no idea why. I was an experienced solo traveller. Someone who prided herself on travelling the world alone yet I didn’t want to be here. I had so much resistance to everything and couldn’t hide my frustrations.
I had stayed in a hostel to meet others yet I didn’t want to talk to anyone. There was even one night when a random guy from Kenya had to move onto my table because two guests wanted to sit on his so against my will, I was forced to talk to him.
Taking motorbike taxis (boda bodas) was even a challenge. Everything just felt like such an effort and I began to feel really isolated and lonely too.
I believe that you attract what you feel and when I remembered this, I took action. I found a room in a chocolate factory near Kampala for the same price as the hostel. I checked out and then extended my stay from 2 nights to 4 nights. I now had good Wifi so I was able to work for hours. I got back into my morning routine and was exercising again and listening to visualisations.
But I still had that awkward feeling with the staff. Then I had a thought. ‘Maybe it was me feeling awkward and they were projecting the way that I was feeling back to me?’ There’s that saying “fake it til you make it.” So I tried being less awkward and smiling more (not that I didn’t already).
I missed running but Kampala wasn’t the safest place to run with a phone and I couldn’t deal with the constant stares so I stayed in my room. But after 2 nights, I struggled again with the noise. With the music, the loud talking and the cockerel that always seemed to think it was dawn.
But I still had 5 nights before my flight out to Rwanda. So I booked a 2 night trip to a place called Jinja, the source of the Nile because I felt like I ‘should' see it because I was in the country.
But I was becoming increasingly frustrated. I was crying on a daily basis. Not all the time, but at least once a day. I was unbalanced and I knew that I had to snap out of it otherwise I would keep attracting things that frustrated me.
So I did what any girl should do in this situation… I had a massage. It ended up being a rather weird Hamman experience but the massage that followed it was amazing. When she massaged my head, I felt my body align and relax. I had been unbalanced and now I felt aligned.
Afterwards, even another power cut didn’t perturb me. I went to bed early feeling relaxed.
Then at 2 am in the morning I awoke to a banging sound on my window. I was on the ground floor of the hotel and even though there were bars on the window and a security guard outside, I was petrified. I honestly thought that someone was trying to get in. Bravely I put on the light and opened the curtains to see the umbrella from the table hitting my window from the wind. Even though I wasn’t in danger, my anxiety was back and that relaxed aligned feeling I had felt earlier completely disappeared.
I tried to think of things to be grateful for. To be grateful for the fact that I could even travel and see different countries when others had lost their homes and loved ones in countries such as Ukraine. But the positivity didn’t last long before the next thing happened. (This is Africa after all).
Maybe it was the malaria tablets that I was taking making me feel unbalanced? Maybe I was no longer a backpacker and wanted a more comfortable way of travelling instead of constantly challenging myself with budget travel. Maybe I was ready to stop travelling or maybe I was just in the wrong country for me? Or maybe it was a combination of all the above?
One thing was for sure. I wasn’t my usual self and all the tools that usually worked (self-care, journaling, speaking with friends, exercise, having a sauna) wasn’t working.
I was acting out of character. I always think of myself as a kind, caring person yet I was acting like a diva and I had no idea why. All I knew was that I missed the Middle East. The ease, the weather, the quietness of it all.
At the time I didn’t realise it, but I was going through a transition. Something that solo travel constantly does is provide me with exactly what I need when I need it, and it was giving me that in Uganda. I was trying to be the old me. To be a budget backpacker and prove that I could travel the world solo. But I had nothing left to prove.
I didn’t want to be a backpacker anymore. I didn’t want to wear old clothes and dress down because I was on my own trying not to attract attention to myself (which doesn’t make a difference as a blonde white woman on her own in Africa).
I was no longer a cheap backpacker wanting to challenge herself. At the age of 46, I had finally transitioned to a grown-up traveller yet I was trying to fit into the old version of me and this new one wasn’t having any of it.
I no longer wanted to do tours or travel to places just because I felt I should so that I can write about them. I could no longer share rooms with strangers and carry my things to shared bathrooms with other travellers. I wanted my little oasis in the midst of the chaos that I could shut myself off to. I wanted co-working during the day, to be able to run freely in the streets in the morning without being stared at, but most of all, I wanted to feel comfortable.
This girl about the globe had had enough adventure for the last 8 weeks and was ready to settle somewhere for a while.
There are certain places that you just don’t resonate with, especially if you’re a sensitive person. And you don’t have to force yourself to be in them if you’re really not feeling it. Especially when you’re alone. One thing I know for sure is that you need the right mindset to travel, especially long-term. When somewhere no longer resonates with you, change it.
So, I made a list of what I needed and looked for them in my next destination, being open with my plans so that I could change them if I didn’t resonate with a place that I stayed in.
Then I found a quiet, guesthouse in a different area of the country near the airport with good Wifi to stay for my last 3 nights. It had a garden, birds chirping, an outside restaurant and a gorgeous room with my own bathroom.
And I worked and relaxed and allowed this new version of me to come through. My creativity came back and I spent hours writing about my experiences, getting back in touch with everything that I had just seen and experienced. And I remembered all the good things about this country. About how much it had to offer and that if maybe I had been more open to it, I would have enjoyed it more.
I realised that some countries are just meant to be experienced with others. Maybe I was in one of these places. Solo travel doesn’t work for everywhere.
So I’m cutting my Africa trip short and I’m heading back to Dubai for co-working, a studio apartment where I can make my own meals, go running in the morning and have two days on a weekend exploring the city and having fun with others.
Then when I feel ready again, I’ll travel back to Africa. But for now, all I want to do is spend days getting back to work and enjoy some comfort somewhere nice and peaceful. My backpacker days are over and this girl is all travelled out.
10 Tips For Changing Your Mindset
Solo travel is challenging especially if you’re trying to work on the road too. It’s so important to have some tools when you travel alone. Here are my tips to help change your mindset when you feel yourself starting to struggle.
1. Talk to friends. You can get so caught up in your own head that you need to voice it. Sometimes just one call to a friend can shift your emotions.
2. If the Wifi is bad and there are constant power cuts (hello Uganda), then journal your thoughts instead and get them out on paper. It helps as an outlet, honest.
3. Practice some self-care. Have a massage just to get that human touch and get re-aligned again. Sunbathe or have a sauna or swim. Whatever you enjoy doing that brings back those happy hormones.
4. Try and give yourself things to look forward to. Remind yourself why you are on this trip and it’s okay if your priorities have shifted.
5. Get out of your room. Too much alone time can be bad for you. Solo travel is amazing and I love being alone but you really need to know how long you can be alone for before you need some interaction. It can be so easy to shut yourself off in your room and not want to go out, especially if you’re working online. If you can’t go for a walk then just sit in the lounge area or lobby of wherever it is that you’re staying it to people watch. Even if you’re not talking to someone, you have that social factor.
6. Know that some places that you check into may not resonate with you (like the hostel in Kampala), even if it has amazing reviews. We are all different so be prepared to look for somewhere else that feels better for you. If you’re travelling in low season you can just book a couple of nights which is doable even if you don’t like a place then look for other accommodation or extend it if you feel comfortable there.
7. Some continents (Africa) can be loud so be prepared for music, loud talking and crazy traffic. That way you won’t be surprised. Take some noise-cancelling headphones with you to block out the noise if you’re sensitive to it.
8. Identify what you need. Is it more social interaction? Is it quietness? Somewhere safe where you can run outside? Somewhere where you want to be invisible? Or maybe it’s to experience places with others on a tour for the rest of your trip? Make a list of what would make you happier and look for solutions such as an eco property outside of a city or a coworking space.
9. Remember that everything is temporary. Feelings will pass. So whatever it is that you’re feeling right now, whether it’s sadness from too much alone time or frustration from the country being a challenge, it won’t last forever.
10. If none of the above work, know that it’s okay to change your plans. To cut trips short or to slow down. Plans don’t have to be stuck to especially if you’re not enjoying them anymore. So book that flight out, change your destination or just go home. It’s your life and no one else gets to live it except you. The most important thing is for you to feel comfortable and happy. Life is too short to be unhappy or be constantly challenged when there is no need for it. If things keep going wrong, maybe there’s a reason. Listen to your intuition and do what you feel is right. This is your trip after all. Lisa x