Heather over a canal in Amsterdam

Solo Traveling, Never Alone

A few months ago I received an invitation to my friends’ wedding in Vienna. I’d never been to Vienna before so I decided to go.

While I’m at it, I thought, I should really go to Berlin. I’d never been there either and I had an open invitation from an old friend.

And while I’m at it, I thought, I should visit Fiver and Stuart on their boat. They live on a boat every summer and float around somewhere in Europe. This summer they would be floating through the Netherlands. I’d never been to the Netherlands before (can you see the pattern here?) so I decided I couldn’t pass up that opportunity.

And once I’m in the Netherlands, I thought, I have to go to Amsterdam. Because (you guessed it) I’d never been to Amsterdam and that’s just unacceptable.

Thus I embarked on the #2SummersEuropeanTrip, a solo traveling journey in which I was never alone.

Heather at a vineyard in ViennaAt a vineyard just outside Vienna, dressed up for Ruth and Michael’s wedding. (Photo: Jeremy Yung)

Heather on a bike in BerlinCycling through Berlin. (Photo: Jeroen Van Marle)

Heather driving the boat in the NetherlandsDriving a century-old boat named Hendrika down a canal in the northern Netherlands. (Photo: Fiver Löcker)

Heather over a canal in AmsterdamA typical scene in Amsterdam. (Photo: Fiver Löcker)

Since I got back to Joburg two days ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about this trip and what it meant to me. Basically, it meant a lot. Here are the things I learned.

What I Learned During Two Weeks of Solo Traveling

1) Solo traveling doesn’t have to be solo.

Solo travel, especially female solo travel, is a hot topic these days. When I hear the term “solo travel”, I envision a solitary woman sitting in a cafe, sipping coffee and scribbling in a journal as the world rushes past in a blur. I imagine that person being completely alone, experiencing her travels quietly and introspectively.

I have been that kind of solo traveler before and really enjoy it. But solo travel doesn’t have to be solitary.

On this trip, I reached out to locals I knew (or in some cases, locals I barely knew) and accepted invitations to stay with them and hang out together in their cities. In every place I visited, I stayed with or spent time with locals.

In many ways, this was harder for me than just doing my thing alone. I’ve always struggled to ask for help and accept kindness from others.

But stepping out of my comfort zone was so worth it. I made incredibly meaningful connections on this trip and I feel so much gratitude for those connections.

Jeroen at Neue Wache in BerlinMy friend Jeroen at the Neue Wache, a memorial to the victims of war and dictatorship in Berlin. Jeroen, a travel writer and tour guide, took three days out of his life to show me around Berlin. He and his wife Soulafa also invited me to stay in their flat and were such wonderful hosts. I can’t thank them enough and I already miss them.

Stephan and Joerg in BerlinStephan (left) and Joerg (right), aka @ryanm and @jn, are two friends I know through Instagram. Even though I only met them once for a few hours in Joburg more than five years ago, they met up with me on two different nights in Berlin and showed me around their city. Getting to know a city is so much more fun with locals.

Fiver and Stuart in the NetherlandsMy dear friends Fiver and Stuart on a chilly day somewhere in the Netherlands. These two are more like family than friends to me, and the time I spent on their boat was one of the most special travel experiences I’ve ever had.

2) Solo traveling is scary.

Even though I’ve been traveling alone for more than two decades, it still makes me nervous. In the days leading up to this trip I worried I’d bitten off more than I could chew. I had many long flights to endure, train ticketing systems to figure out, and just the general stress of packing for multiple locations and weather systems and navigating through foreign countries where I don’t speak the language, etc. I was freaking scared, to be honest.

You know what though? It was all fine. In fact it was more than fine. I loved every minute of this trip and I would do it all again tomorrow.

Garden in BerlinA beautiful garden in Berlin.

Sunset in LemmerSunset in Lemmer, one of many adorable towns I visited in the Netherlands.

3) Google Maps is my friend.

If I could offer one piece of advice to all the potential solo travelers out there, it’s this: Wherever you go, get a local SIM card and buy mobile data so you can use Google Maps while you’re out and about. Getting the SIM card to begin with can be a bit of a pain, depending on the country, but trust me — it’s worth it.

Google Maps doesn’t only offer driving and walking directions anymore; it also offers public transport directions. This means no more feeling perpetually lost and struggling to figure out complicated bus, metro, and train systems in foreign languages — Google does it all for you. It’s a game-changer, I tell you. A GAME-CHANGER.

4) One of the best things about traveling is going home.

When I boarded the plane for my last leg back to Joburg, I heard the flight attendants’ South African accents and felt overcome with joy. I couldn’t wait to get home to my boyfriend and my cat, to my house and my African coffee and my boxing workouts and the beautiful Joburg spring.

I love traveling but I also love home.

Heather in the Netherlands
In the Netherlands but dreaming of home. (Photo: Fiver Locker)

There will be more #2SummersEuropeanTrip posts to come.

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  • Reply Rosemary September 2, 2018 at 11:34 pm

    I love Vienna…and it has recently been nominated the world’s most liveable city (occupied by Melbourne for a few years running). Great that you feel so settled in South Africa

  • Reply catji September 3, 2018 at 10:27 am

    Friend did a package tour of western Europe a while ago, she said that of all the cities they visited, the one place she’d be happy to live is Vienna.

    • Reply 2summers September 3, 2018 at 11:08 am

      Interesting! My choice would be Berlin 🙂

  • Reply Wendy Isabelle September 3, 2018 at 10:35 am

    Love your posts. I just visited Mallorca, Ibiza Florence and Paris with
    my 18 year old daughter. Great memories made…..and wonderful to come home to Jo’burg and Delta Park xx

    • Reply 2summers September 3, 2018 at 11:08 am

      That’s the best 🙂

  • Reply autumnashbough September 3, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    You trip looked amazing on Instagram! And life on a boat — will we get one post about the boat? Even if it’s short, I’d love to know what it was like.

    • Reply 2summers September 3, 2018 at 3:47 pm

      Oh yes, you’ll definitely get one of those.

  • Reply Lani September 4, 2018 at 8:54 am

    It’s been awhile since I travelled solo, but if I was to do it, I’d do it the way you did, by connecting with friends to meet up with. One of the great gems of being an expat is having friends from RTW.

    Although when you travel alone, you really have no choice but to reach out and ask. I mean, you can go introvert, hard-core, and I’ve done that too, but you inevitably meet more people in a way that you don’t necessarily do when you’re traveling with a friend or two.

    Happy to see you happy!

    P.S. I love your scarf (the one you’re wearing on the boat).

    • Reply 2summers September 4, 2018 at 10:47 am

      I wish that scarf were mine! I borrowed it from Fiver because it was so freaking cold that day 😂 She is a bad-ass knitter.

      For some reason when I really travel alone-alone, I tend toward being a hard-core introvert. I don’t know why but I get shy and hardly ever talk to anyone.

      • Reply Lani September 4, 2018 at 10:54 am

        I think it’s like once you get comfortable you settle in and then you tell yourself it’s too much trouble, therefore it becomes a bother and you stay cocooned. At least that’s what happens to me 😛

  • Reply primo September 4, 2018 at 11:05 am

    Great post! So glad that you loved Berlin. It’s one of my favourite cities. In fact, when I think about city ‘type’, I tend to put Berlin and Joburg together insofar as they share similar characteristics: inland, not conventionally beautiful, traumatic histories, atmospherically edgy, filled with oblique & interstitial spaces that you have to work to discover, and – most importantly – cities that people gravitate to because they have a fluidity that enables people to be who they want to be if they so choose.

    • Reply 2summers September 4, 2018 at 12:39 pm

      Hahahaha. You read my mind. I also found the two cities similar in many ways and am planning a blog post about exactly that 🙂

  • Reply Eva Melusine Thieme September 5, 2018 at 12:35 am

    I love this post! I also love traveling through Europe. I have yet to do it without 4 kids in tow:-)
    Also, I want to hear more about the almost last sentence about the boyfriend. Did I miss a story there?

    • Reply 2summers September 5, 2018 at 8:39 am

      Hahaha, no you didn’t miss a story. I haven’t told it yet – just waiting for the right moment 🙂

  • Reply Ros September 5, 2018 at 4:07 pm

    Couldn’t agree more about Google Maps being a game-changer. The first things I do in a new place is get a sim card with data (I usually research the options beforehand, so as not to get ripped off with some sort of “tourist” package that gives you all sorts of international call minutes that you don’t need). The integration with public transport (still not available everywhere, though) is amazing, because it allows one to use buses in a city where you don’t speak the language. Just got back from Russia and often used buses in Moscow and St Petersburg, thanks to Google, rather than the metro. Traveling a city by bus is so much better than doing it underground!

    • Reply 2summers September 5, 2018 at 6:56 pm

      Agreed! I’ve always been intimidated by bus systems but no more 🙂

  • Reply violetonlineisonline September 5, 2018 at 7:47 pm

    Love this.
    Although most of my solo travels are delightful BECAUSE I never have to speak to anyone!

    • Reply 2summers September 6, 2018 at 9:07 am

      Yes, I also sometimes feel that way.

  • Reply meredithlu September 13, 2018 at 8:37 pm

    I can’t agree more! Totally like this blog, there’re so many things I can resonate with this article. Yes, indeed solo traveling is filled with amazing surprises and unexpected scary things, but each time after a difficult moment, I tend to find happiness from the help of locals. That’s how after solo traveling I always envision the world a better place to explore more and more.

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