Baggage is a concern when travelling. Have you got trousers for every occasion and eventuality without tipping over the weight limit? Are all potential leaks pre-emptively double-bagged? And, of course, the question only the gods can answer: will it all turn up at the same airport as you?
But there is a different kind of baggage we carry at all times. Yes, you guessed it: emotional baggage. (See what I really obviously did there?)
These cases are stuffed with old relationships, embarrassing moments, past mistakes, childhood anxieties, social faux pas, self-doubt, bad habits, badly-taken jokes, badly-judged tweets, and that inappropriate celebration you performed when you won the laser quest on the company away day.
It’s the kind of thing that can weigh us down, hold us back. Forgiveness is not very on-trend these days, and for the more emotionally aware or sensitive among us, the mere thought of being judged on our pasts – whether we actually are or not – can stifle us.
It can prevent us from being who we want to be, because it constantly reminds us who we once were or are now: like having a parent following you everywhere with a humiliating collection of photos and anecdotes.
However, there is one time when we get to ditch that baggage and, ironically, it’s when we travel alone.
THE NEW YOU
Solo travel gives us the chance to reinvent ourselves; be someone we aren’t (or rarely are) at home.
If you’re thinking, “He’s talking about kinky sex stuff or identity theft,” that says more about you than it does about me. This isn’t a case for outright lying (although I did once spend an entire evening, when I was 15, pretending to be French to an American who, like me at the time, spoke no French); you can reinvent yourself without telling porkies.
I’ve travelled alone, or with strangers, a lot. Sometimes for work, sometimes for leisure. I’m a huge fan.
From the time alone at an airport, or the even greater time alone on a flight with only a good book and vast selection of brain-resting blockbusters for company, to a long, lonesome drive and a night or six in your own hotel room, solo travel is a rare chance to have a good old think about things without any external noise. Assuming you have the will to ignore your phone, for a few hours or days, you can leave much of your life behind.
You also find yourself in a situation where everyone you interact with knows little or nothing about you.
If it’s a work trip, they might know your name and what you do for a living – in my case, they might have read my work – but that’s pretty much as far as it ever goes. To everyone you meet when you travel alone, you are making a first impression. This is your big chance, because, as we all know from adages, first impressions count – and last.
So, it’s time to ask: who do you want to be? Because that’s the only person these people will know.
Do you want to be the funny one? Do you want to be the sensitive one? Do you want to be the paaaartaaaay animal? The mysterious one? The strong, silent one? The philosophical one? The sophisticated one? The politically-passionate one? The gutsy one? The one with a penchant for neon clothing? Maybe a combination of the above.
I won’t pretend there aren’t risks involved in what you choose. To be the funny one, it helps if you’re not offensively unfunny. People don’t really want their chilled-out escape to the Prosecco hills of Northern Italy sprayed with information on how Brexit is going to make their favourite fizz practically illegal in the UK.
It’s also not useful to be silent and mysterious if you fall off your raft into the rapids of Chile’s Petrohue river. But if there is one very important box ticked, then these are risks worth taking. That box: that they are not an act.
THE TRUE YOU
It did me no good to make that American kid believe I was French. Okay, not strictly true: I found it extremely funny at the time.
BUT I GREW UP.
And now, when I travel alone, I don’t masquerade as a Frenchman, or a travelling dog-hypnotist, or pretend that I’ve been exiled from my own country because of my extreme views on pizza toppings. What I do is allow myself the freedom to ditch the baggage.
I look at my life, my personality; I then pick the good bits (wife, job, etc), ditch the less good (classified information), and that is who I am on this trip. It’s called learning or evolving or something.
Because I’m with strangers, I don’t need to worry about people’s preconceptions or someone going, “But didn’t you used to…” I present the very best of me.
And this is crucial: like I say, it’s not an act. C’est moi, as I probably said to the American.
You can’t fake it, because the cracks will show. You can’t pretend to be charming when you’re an arse, you can’t pretend to be brave when you’re a coward, you can’t pretend to be shy when, at the first chimes of a disco track, you’re going to be writhing semi-naked on a Sydney dance floor.
The joy is, you can do this anywhere.
In a shop, you do it fleetingly. In a restaurant, a little longer. But bars are the best place. Just strike up a conversation, be it with locals or fellow travellers, and be your best self. Because you’re being honest, natural, it’s easy. There’s no mask to slip, even if you’re leathered.
TAKING YOU HOME
You’re probably thinking: okay, Mr. Know-it-all, that’s all fine and dandy while you’re away from home. Bravo on leaving a good impression on an Andean street food-vendor, but what about the 48 weeks of the year when I’m not swanning around the world having the greatest time ever with my new pals? Hmm? Do I just slip that baggage back on my shoulders?
Well, maybe, but it’ll be lighter.
A couple of weeks of being the ‘best you’ will feel so good, so bloody comfortable, that you’ll want to be that person more often.
You’ll feel more confident in your own skin when you come home. Then, the next time you go away by yourself, you’ll come back to even lighter baggage. And lighter still the next time.
Eventually it’ll fit in the overhead locker, then under your seat. Soon you’ll just have one of those awful document satchels, or maybe a stylish bumbag. Then everything will fit in your pockets. Then, finally, you’ll be devoid of all baggage, completely naked.
Then you’ll get arrested and removed from the flight.
But you’ll be happy.
SOME PLACES WHERE YOU CAN FIND THE NEW YOU…
Embark on a leopard safari, climb 1200 steps to the summit of Sigiriya Rock Fortress at sunset and release baby turtles as part of a conservation project. Then soak up the good vibes in luxury, boutique beach resorts and take on some total chill – plenty of time for some self-reflection, too.
Paddleboard and snorkel through warm, tropical waters, learn to samba in the Bohemian district of Lapa and go island-hopping across the beaches and lagoons near Paraty on a private day-long boat trip. And let’s not forget Copacabana beach. This is Brazil at its best.
If you’re a foodie, this one’s for you. Take an off-radar culinary safari through Mexico City followed by a tequila tasting masterclass. Hike between volcanoes in Izta-Popo Zoquiapan National Park and then conjure up a feast at a private cooking class in Oaxaca, the culinary capital of Mexico. Hope you’re hungry.
Pictures: Flash Pack/Shutterstock