As I was wading the fetid swamp of high school adolescence, I didn’t have many friends. I was teased and, not being a large boy, pushed around occasionally. I was also fairly bright, though not necessarily the brightest, and I found fart jokes or pinging bras by the high school boys to be crass and mundane. The jokes I found funny either soared over the low brows of my peers, or possibly were completely devoid of humour. I prefer to believe the former. Because of this, I felt socially a bit awkward, never quick to warm to people, and made friends slowly.
My father was in the military and we moved around a great deal. Every year or two we would pack our house and move. These moves, while sometimes refreshing, were quite hard and at each new school I was usually forced upon some lowly classmate who would act as my enslaved guide through the early days of my schoolyard introduction.
I spent a lot of time by myself; reading, thinking and watching other people, often in the social shadow of my younger sister, whose very presence seemed to draw a crowd of beautiful people who would fly down from their clouds and whisk her off to sit at the cool table. I learned to enjoy spending time alone, lost in worlds of imagination, or fascination at a world explained by authors and scientists.
A lot of social situations were draining for me. I would often long to be at home, building a blanket fort and watching movies through a hole in the wall. Now I can do that whenever I want. And I do. Being an adult is awesome! Even now, I love getting home and finding I’m the only one there, even if only for a few moments.
Looking back I am thankful for the nomadic lifestyle of my childhood, though I envy some people when they talk of friends they’ve had since primary school. While I have grown a great deal and am no longer the shy, young man I once was, some things haven’t changed much. I am still slow to let people in and find introducing myself to a stranger extremely challenging. Hell, if I find someone attractive, I could see them for months before I actually manage to talk to them.
Once the ice has been broken and I find something in common with a person, I am a lot more open, of course. By that I mean, I turn into a ridiculous, cheeky, often cocky, idiot. I have to watch how much I swear, try to act relatively non-weird, and avoid blurting out stupid shit that will echo through every corner of my mind for the next several weeks, making me cringe at inopportune times. I am often worried that I’m the Sheldon Cooper of all of my friends, or maybe the Jar Jar Binks. Shit, that’s a depressing thought.
Good things take time and the slow forming friendships I have made are with people I genuinely like and appreciate, though still based around constant mockery and terrible puns. I know some amazing, intelligent, and cool people all over the world.
Travelling as an introvert and being shy or a bit awkward can be challenging. I thoroughly enjoy spending time with people and I get quite lonely without company. I grow attached to those I connect with, and feel hollow when we separate, like they have taken a part of me with them. However, I always need time to myself as well. Time to reflect and recharge my batteries. I love the illustrations here that describe how an introvert thinks.
Happy travelling is a matter of finding the right balance. Every person is different and we change as we grow. I went through a stage where I felt I was becoming too introverted and I did something about it. At least I started doing something about it. It’s a work in progress.
I have learned a few things when travelling that have helped me find that balance.
Find a cool travel companion
Easier said than done, but having someone who knows you and gets that you need some quiet time can make for a great companion, assuming you can compromise. Even though sometimes the extra space you had in your pack has been filled with her dirty laundry or the Snickers you had been saving has not-so-mysteriously disappeared.
Avoid shared rooms
B&Bs, backpackers and hostels are great to stay in, so long as I can get a private room. I like being able to sit in a shared lounge and say quiet hellos to people as they wander past, or chat about where I’m from and where I’m going…on the condition someone hasn’t started talking to me while I’m curled up in a chair, headphones on, and writing notes in my journal.
Take along what you love doing
I take things along that I enjoy doing by myself. I like taking photos and writing this blog so I will usually carry a camera and notebook with me. It gives me something productive to do and people will generally leave me alone. I spend time thinking of things to say, or interesting things to discuss. I will sometimes write out what I’m going to say in a postcard to a friend or just doodle on a page.
Books, books, books.
“He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”— Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
I have books on a kindle, my phone, and sometimes I carry hard copies. There are three books I usually have on me in some form; my favourite books. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Harry Potter. I can open any of these at any time and happily read a few pages, whether in an airport, on the train or enjoying dinner for one at a small restaurant in a large city surrounded by strangers.
Find somewhere comfortable
I like coffee. OK, bit of an understatement. I luurrrrve coffee. I like coffee shops. Cool places with books and shelves of interesting things, and comfy chairs with tables I can write on. I like people who work in coffee shops. They’re so often travellers who will share stories. And they bring me coffee. They have earned my love for that alone. Free WI-FI is a bonus of course. I will find a place close to where I’m staying and turn that into a little haven where I can go and relax if I need some time out, but do not want to be locked in my room.
Learn to say no
If you need time out, then don’t be afraid to ask for it. Make time for yourself. Sometimes this needs some tact. Some people are offended when you say “No, I really don’t want to go out with anyone tonight. I’m going to stay in my room, order room service, and see how far down an internet rabbit hole I can fall by 2AM”. You might be OK with that though.
Look, Listen and Learn
Classic introverts tend to be perceptive. They are excellent at observing and will notice things that are often missed by others. While I can’t claim any observational superpowers, I take some delight in finding details, or noticing things others may miss. I like people watching and even when out with friends, will happily sit back to listen to group dynamics. I like taking mental snapshots of places I like, taking note of things beyond the people. I do not want to just visit a place. I want to know about it. When people ask me what Beijing is like, I want to be able to say more than it was good. I want to describe the roads, the smog, the trees covered with canvas, young men in uniform manning X-ray machines, and how there were more security cameras than I’ve ever seen before.
Keep your armour handy
The introvert’s armour usually includes some combination of headphones, ear plugs, sunglasses, an eye mask, a book or a notepad, although it still never ceases to amaze me how many people want to know what I’m writing about. Sometimes playing dead will make people leave you alone. Other times, all it will get you is a poke to see if you’re still breathing.
I factor my need for time alone into our plans. Some introverts will prefer to travel alone, however we will often do group tours, especially if time is limited. They’re a great way to see the highlights and you can meet some really cool people. There are almost always a few that will become friends. However, I will usually find time for myself during the tour and will always plan a few days of chill out time at the end.
Accept being left out sometimes
I have to accept that people may exclude me sometimes even when I want to join in. It happens. Much of western culture is focused on people being outgoing and extroverted, so introverts can seem aloof, unwelcoming or arrogant. However, they can also appear quietly confident and generally happy at being alone, doing their own thing. Being left out isn’t always about people excluding me, but often about them believing I am happy doing whatever it is I am doing.
Kick yourself in the ass now and then
As mentioned, I need alone time, however I also need to give myself a kick in the ass now and then. I need to push past this sometimes crippling desire to avoid people and accept an invitation to join in, or say more than hello to a stranger. Try to engage people more. I need to shove myself into following along, or asking if I can join in. Being an introverted traveller doesn’t mean missing out on anything, but there are definitely some things that are better experienced with others!
Have a great time, wherever you are going next!!