Vomiting in Strange Toilets: The Adventures and Perils of Traveling Abroad
I close my eyes and lean my head against the wooden wall, my legs wrapped around a toilet seat. Sitting on the tiled floor of a ferry, I take a few sips of water, desperately telling my body to keep the water in my system. I just spent an hour vomiting but, luckily, only have a few hours left on the ferry ride, taking me from Tangier, Morocco to Tarifa, Spain. With my eyes still closed, tears form and I think about how all I want is to vomit in a toilet that I know.
I had been traveling alone for almost a month, hopping from Eastern Europe to Morocco. Up next was Spain, Portugal and then Greece. The clichés are all true: in every country I went, I met amazing people, gorged myself on endless amounts of food, climbed up lots of stairs of different old, historic towers, watched sunsets and thought about how lucky and privileged I was to be seeing the world, experiencing different cultures. I also thought about how heartbreaking it is not to be able to turn to someone and tell them what you’re thinking about. Or just say anything in a language that the person next to you will understand.
And in this moment, all I wanted was someone to tell me that I was going to stop having the violent urge to throw up in strange bathrooms (it would take another few days). I did, however, feel thankful that I had almost made it through three countries all in one piece.
Fast forward to two months later, in a hobbit-sized room in Puerto Varas, Chile. I wake up to the sound of someone getting out of the other twin bed. I squint and groggily ask: “Are you okay?” In return I hear: “Yeah, I’m fine, go back to bed.” She was not fine. My friend Amanda, a blessed familiar face, got a terrible case of food poisoning on our road trip from Santiago to Patagonia. She stumbled downstairs to the shared bathroom and I closed my eyes, thinking about all the things I could buy her to help in the morning (Gatorade, salted crackers, lots and lots of water then of course way better snacks for when she got well) and thought back to when I was alone, crying on a ferry. Though I hated that she was now sick, at least we were together.
According to The New York Times, about 40 percent of travelers are solo, and about 80 percent of those solo travelers are women. Research shows that cognitive health can benefit from travel, because specific nerve cells are developed during new experiences. Sites like Refinary29 and USA Today constantly discuss the benefits of women traveling alone: it improves your confidence, you meet new people, you have the freedom of making your own schedule.
Like many journalists I know, I am attracted to travel, exploring and storytelling. My Instagram features scuba diving in Africa, birds-eye views of Eastern European cities and smiling Indonesian children. Most recently, I traveled alone and then was joined by Amanda, a freelance writer similarly attracted to travel and adventure. She and I have both been posting our joint South American adventures on social media: volcanoes in Chile, city streets in Bolivia, the historic ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru.
The fact that this sounds privileged and even a little obnoxious is not lost on us, and it’s something we discuss frequently. First off, it’s extremely rare that you and your best friend both quit your jobs purely so that you’re unemployed writers who can use their savings to travel. We also acknowledge that we are privileged enough to have the money and the time to travel, to be young, white women experiencing multitudes of lifestyles and cultures.
In Medical Daily, Professor Connie Bianchi said solo travelers were “choosing freedom, uncompromised fun, and meeting new people over the need to have a companion to share their experiences.” She said most people are traveling alone by choice, because they enjoy it, not because they had no one to go with.
After both traveling alone, Amanda and I were able to meet up and visit four countries in Central and South America together. While our social media presences may show the life-changing, gorgeous backdrops we have found beds in for the past few months, the stories that we tell each other and our friends hold a lot more weight: traveling alone is fucking hard.
And oftentimes it is not hard in the romantic “Eat, Pray, Love” kind of way, but in the desperately lonely, “can I actually do this?” kind of way.
Don’t get me wrong: I do believe people should travel alone. I felt empowered, I felt brave, and honestly, I felt pretty cool. Telling people that you’re backpacking alone gives you a chill that is hard to describe. Every decision was mine and mine alone and I really did learn a lot about myself. One study even shows that women who only vacation every six years or less frequently “had a significantly higher risk of heart attack or coronary death compared” to women who vacation at least twice a year.
But there are aspects of traveling alone that few people talk about. As a staunch feminist, I always hated the idea that “solo women are more at risk” but safety was on my mind every single day. So over the course of the past few months, I have (with the help of friends and family who also traveled alone) put together a list that describes some of the difficulties of being a female solo traveler.
You are sweaty and gross. All. The. Time. You will sweat when you sit down, you will sweat through your clothes, you will sweat because every city seems to have some tower or hill you’re supposed to climb. You will be sticky and smelly for most of your trip.
On top of this, you wear the same outfit every day because you are carrying everything on your back, so you only have three outfits, plus you like one more than the others. It’s comfortable, it hides the sweat stains well.
But why shower? Hostel showers have clumps of hair and who knows what fungus, plus you have to wait in line and there’s probably no more hot water.
You also won’t cover up your grossness in makeup — which brings unwanted attention and also will just be sweat off.
You will be very, incredibly aware of every human near you at all times. Are they reaching for your purse? Or your butt? Safety concerns will rattle through your brain throughout many activities you would not question when home.
You do not walk down the street with a smile on your face and your hair blowing gracefully in the wind, like they show in movies. You will walk down the street mean-mugging, you will not smile, you will not make eye contact. Looks can kill. Especially at night. In the States, I have headphones in almost always when I am walking or taking public transit. But not abroad.
You have to make the constant decision about whether or not to admit you’re traveling alone. Do you feel safe telling this person? Or is your friend just “sleeping off a headache in the hostel”? When you do feel safe enough to admit it, I have to say, you feel pretty awesome.
You love your pack. Your pack is your home.
You will get on the wrong bus or train. You may even miss a flight (who knew Warsaw had two airports?!).
Hostel beds are incredibly uncomfortable, and oftentimes either made out of or covered with really crinkly plastic that will make noise and stick to you all night. However, you will bond with other hostel friends over the fact that no one is sleeping well on said mattress.
You see presents and gifts, and things you want for your someday-house, everywhere. But where would you put them? You have weeks left before your trip is over and you would squish or break the gift shoving it into your pack. Sorry friends. But I took great pictures!
Your hunger level varies per day. Bodily functions are no longer guaranteed to be the same over the course of the trip. And when you do get sick, you’re not sure if you’ll ever eat again.
You will pep-talk yourself up at least twice a day to ward off feeling lonely, and sometimes, they will fail, leading you to:
Cry, alone, on trains, in cabs, at historic monuments.
Dr. Grant Blank, a survey research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, told The Guardian that social media and the internet can be a problem for young people combating loneliness. While social media allows people to communicate distantly, it does not replace face-to-face contact, and put out an idealized version of people online that others feel like they need to live up to.
There will be days where you do not speak to anyone except to point at a menu and attempt to say “thank you” in whatever language. My first 36 hours of traveling alone I was in Lviv, Ukraine. I had never spoken or probably even heard Ukrainian, and I think the only words I said for that time period was “My name is Rebecca” when checking in to the hostel and “thank you” to the women at the grocery store.
You will ignore men who speak to you (until you realize that some of them are telling you you’re about to walk through a restricted zone).
Everyone, and I mean everyone, has opinions about Americans. And will tell you. Loudly.
I am not saying that every one of these problems goes away when you travel with a friend. When traveling together, we were still very aware of strangers and our space, but if someone got too close, the other person was there to step in and help. When we each separately got food poisoning or altitude sickness (La Paz, Bolivia is HIGH), we were able to buy Gatorade and medicine for each other (much better than vomiting alone on a ferry). When one of us had thoughts or feelings about something — good, bad, weird, important or not — we could turn to each other and say those thoughts and feelings. And hear their response in real time, instead of waiting for the friend to wake up in a different time zone and read the text. When a car rental company quite literally stole money from me, my friend was there to help me make the call and figure it out. Logistical issues were faced together, like when our baggage wasn’t put on the plane.
Making decisions for two people instead of just yourself is a sudden switch — decisions as simple as where to go to dinner must be run by someone else. You will both have good days and bad days and see each other at your absolute worst, but you must stick with each other through it all. I made less friends and met fewer people while traveling with someone because we had each other and you definitely spend more money when you’re with a friend (of course we need a bottle of wine with every dinner and of course you need to buy that ring, it looks great).
Now that I am back in the United States, those months of traveling, both alone and with my friend, feel a bit like a dream. And when people ask me to tell them about it, I hesitate, because I honestly don’t know where to begin (usually I just tell them about the time a guy in my hostel in Poland vomited onto his own pillow). Traveling is such a gift, and I will never forget the experiences that I have had over the past few years. While traveling alone I learned that I am stronger than I think, that I can make friends wherever I am, that it is okay to feel lonely and vulnerable, that I can be encouraged and inspired by strangers. A lot of those lessons are reiterated when people you love are by your side, validating your every move, but with more bad puns and stick-on mustaches.
There will always be pros and cons of traveling — food poisoning has proven to not care where you are or who you’re with — and I highly encourage everyone to try it, alone or with a friend.