“You’re going to Mexico on your own?!”
“Wow. That’s brave.”
“But Is it? You’re going there as well aren’t you?”
“Yes, but not on my own! I’m meeting my friend there. I wouldn’t go on my own!”
Despair and self-loathing at 35,000 feet
A look of horror spread across the face of the woman sitting next to me. A look that did nothing to calm my already jangling nerves. Somehow, in my 35 years on earth, and despite backpacking across much of Asia and Central America, I was only now embarking on my first proper solo trip.
Flying in the face of travel warnings and advice from friends – most of whom had never actually been there – I’d chosen to travel around Mexico. And now, the person I was sitting next to on the flight was also making me think I’d made the wrong decision.
Somewhere around 35,000 feet I spiralled into a cycle of despair and self loathing. Why the hell did I choose Mexico? Why didn’t I pick somewhere easier? Why did I think I would be capable of doing this on my own? Everything, including my flying companion, was pointing to this being a very bad idea. My pre-trip reading hadn’t helped much either. Articles and blog posts on the negative aspects of travelling in Mexico were playing on repeat in my mind. Narcos, thefts at gunpoint, human trafficking – I felt like my head was about to explode.
I stuffed my headphones in my ears and decided not to talk to my neighbour any more. The last thing I needed was more weight heaped on my already anxiety-laden shoulders. What I needed was to calm the fuck down and pull myself together. For better or worse I was in this situation and dwelling on the terrible things that may lay ahead was doing me no good.
Being the new girl
A few restless hours later and I’d arrived in Cancun (don’t judge, this is where the cheapest flight went to). My hostel felt like a student dorm, where everyone else had already been there for a full term and seemed to be getting on like a house on fire. I was the new girl on so many levels. I was a bundle of nerves and wishing I was back home in the comfort and safety of familiar surroundings.
The next morning I wandered the streets looking for a bureau de change and getting a feel for this new land that I’d washed up in. I felt hyper-aware of being alone. I’d gotten used to the invisible bubble of protection that having a 6ft tall man standing next to me brought. The feeling of comfort and security that I didn’t even know I had when I travelled with my boyfriend. I tried to shrug off the feeling of unease. I’ll get used to this, I’ll start to enjoy this, I tried to convince myself.
Over the next week I travelled through another couple of towns, hoping to start relaxing and enjoying myself. In fact, I ended up feeling even more like a fish out of water. They were overrun with tourists and it didn’t match the kind of travel I so love and enjoy – visiting areas overrun with locals. The nagging feeling that pulled away at the base of my stomach, the nerves, it was still there too. Maybe solo travel wasn’t for me?
Taking for granted the simple things
I was more aware of simple things that I’d taken for granted when travelling with others. If I need the loo in the bus station I have to take all my possessions into the cubicle with me. I’m more conscious about what I wear. A trip to the beach alone means there’s no one to watch my stuff if I want to swim. And, as for taking photos with me actually in them, well I’m not quite brave enough to whip my tripod out yet.
Getting back on track
I decided to take a trip to visit some remote ruins I’d read about. A. To see something interesting and B. To try and get back to the kind of travel I love.
I made my way along a highway that carves through the dense jungle and stopped at a small town for the night. My budget cabaña was on the edge of the jungle, but what had seemed cute and rustic in the daylight became downright eerie as night fell. Its remoteness made me feel vulnerable. While every creepy-crawly in a 10 foot radius was gravitating towards the dim lightbulb above my head. My mind went into overdrive, running through all the worst case scenarios. At night the slightest sound made me imagine someone was trying to break in via the flimsy wooden door.
In the morning, I almost chickened out of going to the ruins. I told myself it would be far too difficult to do without taking private transport. But before I could talk myself out of it I moved. I left the room and didn’t allow myself the space to think about not doing it.
Marching towards the bus station, I embraced an increased sense of boldness. However I tumbled straight back to earth with a bump when I realised I’d forgotten to put my contact lenses in. Luckily I found my glasses in my bag so didn’t have to trudge back to the creepy cabin in the dark.
A day of small wins
The bus dropped me off at the entrance to the ruins but I still had to get another 50km from there to the actual site. I didn’t fancy paying the exorbitant taxi cost so it was time to be a little braver. Seeing a car pull up to the entrance with space in the backseat, I asked the driver in my rusty Spanish if I could get a ride. A wave of relief washed over me as he agreed. And so, I ended up exploring the ruins with a retired couple called Raul and Ana Rosa. The fact that Raul was also an amateur archaeologist was the icing on the cake.
This was a day of small wins. I’d pushed myself out of my comfort zone and reaped the rewards of getting to where I wanted to go without taking a tour. The fact that I’d figured it all out myself, with no one else to bounce ideas off felt good. I liked this feeling and I wanted more of it.
When things start to click
The next morning I left for Campeche and that’s when things started to click.
Almost as soon as I arrived in this little chocolate box of a city I felt a sense of ease and contentment. It’s not overrun with tourists yet, is pretty as a picture and small enough not to be too overwhelming. After only one night, I knew it was somewhere I’d like to stay for a little longer.
I don’t know whether it was the pastel-hued city itself or getting through the first week and pushing my limits more. But whichever it was, Campeche marked a turning point for me.
Admitting to and taming my fears
One of the things that makes solo travel more of a challenge for me is that by nature I’m a bit of an introvert. If there’s a way to avoid having to engage with a stranger, I’ll usually find it. But when I’m on my own I have no choice. When I need to find out if a bus goes to a certain town – I have to ask someone myself. If someone’s overcharged me – I have to call them out on that myself. If a situation feels sketchy – I have to figure out how to remove myself from it fast. The safety blanket of having another person with me is gone. But that’s ok, in fact, that’s great, because I’m finally realising that I’m so much more capable than I thought I was.
I’m still only a few weeks into this backpacking journey, but am already starting to enjoy the sense of achievement solo travel brings. Like the millions of solo travellers before me, I can do this and I will do this. Even with the odd failure and hiccup along the way.
And for those of you wondering: so far Mexico hasn’t been at all scary. It’s another place where regular people live and work, like all the other places around the world. Sometimes you shouldn’t believe the hype.