Taking a minute to catch my breath, surrounded by nothing but trees about 40 minutes outside of Lisbon, I felt truly alone. To my own surprise, I didn't hate it.
Turning 30 was a big deal, so to mark the milestone with the appropriate pomp and circumstance I thought it deserved, I decided to book my first-ever solo trip and challenge myself to do a bunch of things I was not comfortable with.
I thought I might have some profound, life-changing experience. I also thought I'd likely spend my entire three days in Portugal cowering in a corner of my room at the hostel crying from loneliness.
Neither of those happened.
Instead, I found myself staring out at the trees that surround the candy-colored Pena Palace in Sintra and wrapping myself in the quiet (something I never do). I fell in love with the hilly, cobblestone streets, buttery sand beaches, and fairy tale castles of Portugal, and realized being alone in a place where I didn't know anyone was the best way to spend my birthday.
Here's the thing: Being alone is actually amazing. Here's why you too should book a solo trip for your big day.
You'll realize you're more adventurous than you thought.
Practically every house in Lisbon is covered in tiles — tiles of all colors and patterns that make you feel like you're inside an elaborate dollhouse and never want to leave. Just walking around the city is a great start (there are enough cobblestone streets and red roof tiles and can't-pass-up Instagram opportunities to spend days on).
But to really get the most out of the experience, I booked a solo surfing lesson. A total beginner wary of rip tides and wiping out and the freezing water of the Atlantic, I strapped on the board and gave it my best shot. There were kids half my age whipping around as I tried my hand at the baby waves made mostly of foam. But I stood three times and with each accomplishment cared just a little less about how silly I looked.
Even more than learning to surf, I figured out that I could try something that I was afraid of and there was no one to convince me otherwise. Facing my fears was easier when no one who knew me was looking.
You might not end up feeling lonely at all.
I'm the girl who calls someone to chat on the walk home from the subway. And the transition to having only my thoughts to fill my time wasn't going to be easy. Cheating a bit, I texted my sister as I climbed the hills of Barrio Alto, a vibrant collection of shops, restaurants, and bars set amongst the city's typical winding streets — in other words, a photographer's dream. I sent photo after photo of intricate tile-covered buildings and crisscrossing tram lines, piles of rich pastel de nata that taste like wrapping yourself in warm sugar. And butter.
But I needed to quit the texting crutch. One walking tour, 9.7 miles, and an ice cream later, I made my first attempt at talking to complete strangers in the living room of the hostel. It was like speed dating on steroids. But travelers are nice and open and, again, I had nothing to worry about. After a bar crawl, several birthday drinks, and some soulful Fado music in a dimly-lit, steamy bar in Alfama — a historic district dating back to the eighth century where colorful graffiti tells you stories as you climb the hills — I was more upset about my impending departure than I was about feeling lonely.
You'll learn to be comfortable in the silence.
Sitting on a ledge overlooking the ocean, I took stock of what was going on around me. It was the day of my birthday and I was reflecting on how I had spent most of it trying to get away from the crowds, falling behind when in a group, and wandering off on my own when I had the opportunity. I had rolled my jeans up and dipped my feet in the chilly ocean water in Cascais, climbing back up the soft sand to the boardwalk after. I dangled my legs over the edge of the wall and listened to the waves come in. I was calm. Part of it was due to the ocean — I've never met a beach I didn't love — but part was because I was quiet (for once in my life, as my dad would probably say). I was loving the solace that came with just being. And I was shocked that I did.
Since getting back, I've tried to force that on myself little by little. To give up headphones when walking or taking the train, to allow myself to observe the world around me, reflecting on it with a clear head. It's not easy when you live in New York City, but I learned how nice it can be when you unplug and how important it is to try.
You'll experience a place differently when there's no one else to consult.
Growing up in Brooklyn, the closest I came to nature was Prospect Park on a crowded Saturday afternoon. So when it came time to walk up a (steep) hill to a lookout point in Sintra, I was hesitant. I know my family, who I often travel with, would be too. But they weren't there to convince me that I shouldn't do it.
Huffing and puffing, I started the walk up to the top with travelers from Montreal and Japan. But I found myself purposely falling behind. It wasn't until they had passed around the corner that I looked up, turning around 360 degrees and realizing that I was completely alone on the path. I stuck my hands out, almost as if I could feel the fresh air. I stayed about 10 minutes, repeating to myself over and over that wow, there was no one else there — a novelty for a New Yorker — and wondering if I would be able to live like this all the time (yeah, probably not).
Then a small group came marching up, breaking the silent spell and making me feel a bit self-conscious for my Julie Andrews "Sound of Music" impression, sans the music. I moved on but not before patting myself on the back for truly experiencing the view and actually enjoying the alone time.
As cliché as it sounds, you will learn something.
While I can't pretend I had some profound revelation on my solo birthday trip that will change my whole life, what I did get to do was visit a new destination with only my perspective to rely on. It's so easy to look at your fellow companions, be them friends, family, or even people you just met, and see a destination through their eyes. They may move on quickly or want to spend more time on something than you. When you're alone, you get to do what you want, have the experience that you want, be a little selfish.
In March, I went on vacation with a friend who wanted to separate to each do the things we wanted without dragging the other along. It was a foreign concept to me and, at the time, I felt a little slighted. But I've learned that it's OK to be slightly selfish sometimes and it's OK to just want to be on your own. I learned there is comfort in the silence and lessons in observing the noise around you. I learned it's easy to make new friends if you're open to it. And, best of all, when you're alone there's no one to judge you for eating your weight in pastel de nata and ice cream cones so big you're afraid they might topple over.
Next solo stop: Dubai. Who's ready for some sand-boarding?