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Learning to Travel Alone

Learning to Travel Alone | After the Heartbreak
Learning to Travel Alone
Me under the cherry blossoms

Do you want …or need… to travel solo, but you’re not quite ready to go it alone? After my husband Norbert died I was in that situation, and I have a suggestion that worked for me. Take along a personal trainer! πŸ˜ƒ No….not the kind that makes you do exercises in the hotel room, but the kind that shows you what to do, talks about how to manage alone, gives you confidence and encourages you.

Norbert and I had sooo many plans for travel, in fact we had just completed an amazing tour of Russia and were looking forward to a trip to Antarctica. It never happened though because he was killed in a tragic gliding accident.

Read: The Day My Heart Broke

During that emerging horror, one realisation hit me more severely than all other aspects of the nightmare…..I had lost my travel partner.

That was true, but I have a daughter who is a solo-travel enthusiast and she wasn’t having a bar of that kind of negativity. “You can do this Mum” she said, “Just start with a nice, safe country.” Hmmmm….what about Japan? πŸ™‚

It was only 6 months after Norbert died when I found myself standing at the airport with my passport in my hand and a fake smile on my face. Oh dear! What was I doing!? This was the very first time I was travelling overseas without my husband and if it wasn’t for the fact that my daughter was standing next to me with her own passport, I may have chickened out right then. She was my personal trainer though, and she took that job very seriously. πŸ˜ƒ

Arriving in Tokyo..and…oh dear….

After a long flight we arrived in Tokyo. Perhaps you are thinking that we had a transfer waiting for us? Nope! My daughter had said “We can just catch the public train like everyone else. Come on…it’ll be eeeasy!” Really? We had arrived at the same time that millions of Japanese were commuting, so not only was it claustrophobic being on the train, but dragging a suitcase made it so much more challenging.

I made a pact with myself right then and there that if I would be travelling alone in the future, I would pack much lighter! I tried really hard to work out the train system but I was so tired at that stage so I left it to my daughter to figure it all out. At the time I was thinking that I needed to learn how to do this sort of thing by myself…but the reality is that I now cheat and leave the navigation of a new transport system to a time when I’ve had more sleep. Far more sensible.

My daughter wanted to experience an authentic Japanese Ryokan (guest room)…but when I was confronted with an empty room except for futons spread out on tatami mats, well…I wasn’t too sure. The big positive though was that unlike an economy plane seat, they were flat! Zzzzz…

First day and in at the deep end!

We had pre-booked a trip to Fujiyama for the next day and were lucky enough to actually see it before the clouds rolled in. I would have stayed on the bus to get back to Tokyo but noooo…my daughter said we would find our own way back on the Shinkansen which is the high speed bullet train.

Would I have navigated that by myself? I’m not sure, but as I am a little further down the ‘grief journey road’ now, I have learned that while it is necessary to build self-confidence, this can be done one step at a time. You really don’t need to throw yourself into the deep end!

Meeting up with the tour group

We were actually part of a ‘proper’ tour group so that evening we fronted up to the ‘meet the group’ get together, and introduced ourselves to everyone. It was all good and the leader was a lovely lady called Tomoki.

My daughter explained that we would like to remain fairly independent and Tomoki was absolutely fine with this, handing us our transport passes and simply saying “Let me know if I can help with anything.” Eeek! If I was alone I would have glued myself to Tomoki’s side and never budged! But my daughter had other plans. πŸ˜ƒ

The next morning the tour group headed off….and we went the other way. Of course we did. [sigh] I must admit I wanted to see the Tokyo Skytree which is about 630 metres high and is one of those things you ‘have to do’, so this was where we headed. It was a fabulous couple of hours. Amazing views!

Being confronted with ‘aloneness’

The afternoon excursion was one of those serendiptious surprises. I had booked a river cruise on the internet but before leaving home had received a message that the cruise was overbooked but they could put us on a ‘sister’ boat. As it turned out, we were the only ones so we got a private cruise!

It was lovely, but also very sad for me because I couldn’t help thinking how romantic it would have been with Norbert as my companion. Nevertheless we gasped appreciatively at the cherry blossoms lining the river and managed to clean up a bottle of champagne between us. That helped. πŸ˜ƒ

Maybe…just maybe…I can do this!

The next day my daughter and I began by tagging along with the tour group, but after some frustrations with trying to keep the group together on the crowded public trains we told the group leader that we would head out by ourselves again. I was beginning to experience some of the positives of travelling alone….and for the first time I started to believe I could do this.

We started our independent activities with a walk through Yoyogi Park…just gorgeous with massive old trees and beautiful, still lakes. Time to be still and just breathe the air. It was a relief after the frenetic pace of Tokyo and I found myself smiling.

Heading off to Nikko…and future travel starting to gel

The following day we boarded the train to Nikko which is a little village in the mountains. It was wonderful to be getting out of the city and leaving the bustle behind. The only hassle was dealing with the luggage all the time and it made me think again about how I will travel alone in the future.

I no longer have a husband to carry my bags for me when I’m tired. Or when I have to go up or down stairs. Or if I have to hurry. Or…anytime. It was right at the moment of dragging my heavy suitcase onto that train, that I decided that not only did I need to travel lighter (and smaller), but I needed to get fitter and stronger for when I travelled alone.

Note that – I said WHEN and not IF. I was making progress!

My first success at travelling alone!

I loved Nikko, but it was freezing cold! On the first morning we woke to the news that the overnight temps had dropped to -1C and it had been snowing in the mountains. Right…then let’s go see it! More dealing with public transport but I was starting to get a little more confident, especially as this wasn’t a hectic commuter system like in the big cities.

Beautiful scenery up in the mountains but too cold so we travelled back to Nikko. My daughter preferred to stay in the hotel room and thaw out for a while so I took the opportunity to get some practice at solo travel. I took myself for a stroll around Nikko and imagined what it would be like if I was truly there alone. I ended up quite a distance from the hotel so I took a deep breath, and got on the public bus.

This is probably not a big deal for most people but it was a massive step for me…and I did it! When I got off the bus (at the right stop I might add) I was euphoric! I felt like I’d conquered the world! In a small way I probably had as public transport in foreign places is my hugest fear, waaaay ahead of terrorism or having my passport stolen.

I could do this!

Last stop…Kyoto….my favourite

Our final destination was Kyoto, but getting there was never going to be easy. We left Nikko at 8am but had to travel all the way back to Tokyo before being able to catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) out to Kyoto. There didn’t seem to be a short-cut, and the trip (in total, counting subway trains at the end) took 9 hours!

The next day we actually hung out with the group for a while! By now I was wondering if they thought we were being anti-social, but the reality was this:

  • I was only 6 months into this grief journey, and I needed lots of space.
  • My daughter was encouraging me and teaching me about solo travel
  • Neither of us were interested in much of the ‘touristy stuff’ as she had been to Japan before, and I couldn’t cope with the crowds.

While the group were inspecting the Tenrhy-ji Zen Temple, we left them to it and wandered around the beautiful gardens. While I was there I threw a coin into a sacred pond and made a wish for my future. I wished, with all my heart, that I would find the strength for a life alone. I also wished for the courage to travel alone.

Making my own path forward

I won’t go into the intricate detail of everything we did in Kyoto, but it was definitely my favourite place. We wandered through the Bamboo Forest, walked to the Fushimi Inari Shrine to see the red ‘torii gates’, saw the Golden Temple and checked out the Geisha district of Gion.

On the last day we had to go and pre-purchase our tickets for the Shinkansen, to travel the 500km back to Tokyo. I was much more confident now with using the ticket machines as my daughter had pointed out that ticket machines in other countries all have a little button or link (maybe well hidden) that turns the screen into English. This was very useful information.

While I was at the station, I made a snap decision!

I was recalling times in the past when Norbert and I were eking out the last of the foreign currency funds we had with us, so that we didn’t have to take any home. It made sense, but I also remembered not being able to buy what I liked, including even food sometimes. From somewhere came the thought “This is your show now, so do what you want!”

I walked purposefully to the nearest ATM and withdrew a reasonable amount of Japanese yen which would ensure we really enjoyed our last day. Flush with funds, we took ourselves out to a lovely restaurant that night. It was a great way to finish the trip, and I felt good about it. I felt empowered and in control. Funny how it’s the little things that sometimes help.

Final thoughts

Smiling holiday snaps make it easy to give a superficial impression that a holiday has brought rapid emotional healing. Not so. To leave home did not mean that I could leave heartache behind. Travel makes one aware of the vastness of the world, and this was highlighted even more for me now that I was alone in it.

There were times when I missed Norbert so badly that it was a physical pain. Times when I laughed at something I saw, and then remembered that I cannot share it with him. Times when I cried quiet tears into my pillow at night.

BUT….Japan was beautiful, and I am so glad that I made the trip. I came home with the strong understanding that not only would I still travel, but I would go back and re-visit our original bucket-list.

I didn’t plan on doing this alone….but I can, and I will.

Marlene is an Australian widow who has written about all the good, bad and ugly stuff that happened after her husband Norbert died tragically. Marlene responds to all comments.

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