On an evening in late June of 2016, crowds gathered at every restaurant and in every square of Budapest to watch the Hungarian football team play Portugal in the European Championships.
The red, white, and green stripes of the flag were painted on cheeks. People wore jerseys, waved banners, and donned full-size flags as flowing capes.
I was there, but utterly disengaged. Football, or soccer, or whatever you call it, was just never my thing. I searched for gelato.
I bought a cone and sat on the steps of St. Stephen’s Basilica as swarms of people cheered in unison. As the Hungarians watched their team, united by an overwhelming love for the sport and their country, I sat alone, quietly lost in thought.
I loved Budapest and all of its quirks. It was so distinct from the other places I’d been — unpolished and rough around the edges, yet somehow classic and modern at the same time. I didn’t think I’d ever be finished exploring the city — I’d already visited twice and still hadn’t seen everything. Travel can be difficult that way. You go somewhere, wanting to see it all, do everything, and experience all you can. You go knowing there won’t be enough time for all of it, but when you leave, it has to be enough.
Just then, something happened in the football game — a goal maybe, or a spectacular save. Regardless, everyone started cheering.
From all sides of me, all around the city, came this muted, tremendous roar.
And I was right in the middle of it — utterly alone. The whole world was out there, but I was in Budapest.
Such is the struggle of the introverted solo traveler.
Nick Carraway laments in Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” — “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”
As someone who would rather avoid human interaction and stick to themselves, I am often drained by solo travel. I spend a lot of time being within and without. For an introvert, solo travel can be exhausting, but it can also be incredibly rewarding in other unexpected ways.
I may not have been part of the rowdy crowds watching the Hungary vs. Portugal football game, but I experienced the buzz and excitement as I walked through the streets of Budapest that night.
In Romania, I may not have joined a large tour of Bram Castle or found a group of friendly 20-somethings to eat dinner with in Sibiu, but I did drive through the enchanting countryside and play wallflower as I observed the evening rush in the city center. In Dubrovnik, I may not have conversed with locals or spent an afternoon on the beach, but I did watch the sun go down each night in a different place, taking in the Croatian sunset from a new vantage point three separate times.
As an introvert, the reward in solo travel lies in the immense opportunity for observation.
Observing the world, the culture, and the other people around me makes my travel experience fuller and richer.
I notice the way people interact with each other and with a place. I listen in on conversations and collect tidbits of information. I pick up on details and sit for long stretches of time, watching life go on around me. I make myself a fly on the wall of a new culture and environment. Being alone allows me to walk, unencumbered by conversational babble, and get to know each place I visit.
By doing this, by letting this kind of inner quiet exploration happen, magic often manifests itself.
Because of solo travel, I’ve met a lovely street painter in Parliament Square who forever impacted my life with a conversation. I’ve stood alone on top of a mountain while a herd of goats appeared seemingly out of thin air, taking over the darkening landscape for their nightly munching. I’ve been welcomed into a group of Canadian travelers after trekking across an Icelandic glacier. I’ve had time to sit and make sense of my muddled emotions at a visit to Kings Cross Station. I’ve snuck into the passenger seat of a tour van to get the best view across southern Iceland. All because I had no travel buddy.
Solo travel, especially for extended periods of time, can be lonely. There’s no getting around that.
But, if you embrace that aloneness, travel can impact you in ways you never could have imagined.
We must simply remember Nick Carraway’s wisdom:
Be within and without. Let yourself be simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life you’ll encounter while traveling. If you do, something magical might just happen.