Interview: "I Spent My 28th Birthday Traveling Alone."
Updated: Sep 10, 2019
I love sharing stories of diverse female solo travelers. Not only is it a great way to dispel myths and misconceptions about women who travel alone, but it's a chance for us all to renew our inspiration and excitement for seeing the world solo.
Today's story is about Gemma, a social worker from Spain who spent her 28th birthday abroad, alone. GASP.
The idea of spending a birthday alone is completely foreign to most people, since most of us usually spend them surrounded by friends and family. But why is that?
Yes, it's a time of celebration, and it's special to us to celebrate with those we love. But a birthday is a milestone—how we mark the passing of another year. It's a time to celebrate, but also a time to reflect on how we've changed over the past twelve months, and where we're headed.
On my birthday each year, I answer the same ten questions in a doc on my computer, about my life and myself. It helps me get oriented, appreciate how I've grown, and focus on where I'm going next. I haven't spent a birthday alone abroad yet, but I always take time by myself to reflect.
Not only did Gemma have that opportunity on her solo birthday trip, but she had the chance to treat herself and make some great friends who made her day special, too.
So the misconception I want to help dispel today by sharing Gemma's story is:
"ALONE" DOES NOT EQUAL LONELY.
Gemma loved having the opportunity to explore a new place solo on her birthday. She was alone, but she wasn't lonely! Here's her story.
How Gemma's "solo birthday" came about
Gemma was already out in the world traveling with her partner when the desire to test her limits and try solo travel in a new way came to her mind. "My partner and I started our trip in Bali, then spent nine months traveling around New Zealand in a van, and visited Tonga in the South Pacific," Gemma tells me. "Now, I'm spending three and a half months on my own in Southeast Asia: Thailand, Myanmar, Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Cambodia."
She'd taken solo trips before, but not like this. Gemma had only ever traveled alone for shorter periods in the US, Europe, and Canada—and certainly never before on her birthday. This trip would mark her first opportunity to explore Asia alone, and the dates she planned just so happened to include her 28th birthday.
She didn't realize she'd be traveling solo on her special day until after she got her visas sorted out. "I didn't really plan to spend my birthday on my own," explains Gemma, "it was more just how it was." While the instinct for many may have been to avoid spending a birthday alone, Gemma was ready to welcome the experience.
When the nerves set in—and why she took the leap anyway
The idea of being alone on her birthday didn't come without some nerves, however. Gemma's biggest fear about spending her birthday alone "was mainly that, being alone," she tells me. "I knew that none of the people I loved would be there, but I was afraid I wouldn't meet anybody either and would be completely on my own! I was trying to be cool about it, but it did make me feel weird to know that was a totally possible scenario."
One thing that helped Gemma take the leap was a solid support system—something I talk a lot about at SheGoes, because it's always easier to try solo travel when you have at least one person backing you up at home. "People in general didn't really understand why I was going alone when I had my partner who I could travel with," Gemma shares. "Luckily, he himself and my closest friends at home totally supported me." Solo travel is, of course, a solitary journey, but it helps to have family or friends to support your decision and encourage you in the experience.
To Gemma, it seemed that people she told about her plans were most disbelieving of the fact that she wanted to take a trip alone at all. When it came to the fact that her birthday would fall in the middle of her solo trip, "People didn't really say much," says Gemma, "but I think half people would have thought it's sad and the other half that it's exciting" she adds. Wanting to spend three months traveling alone was already difficult for some people to grasp, so the fact that Gemma would be spending a birthday alone as part of it was even more incomprehensible.
Cupcakes and birthday hugs
So, the question on everyone's mind: Did Gemma enjoy spending her birthday alone in Asia?
The answer is yes! Her day involved friends, cake, and presents, even though she woke up alone in a new country that morning. "I met a lovely girl from the Netherlands on my birthday, so I ended up spending the day with her," says Gemma. "Also, the manager of the hostel I was staying in found out it was my birthday, so she bought me a cupcake and candles, and everyone sang happy birthday to me!" To have made all these new friends who joined her in celebrating her 28th year was touching for Gemma. "It was lovely," she explains, "as it was important for me to at least blow out a candle and make a wish on my birthday!"
Of course, she missed her loved ones, but her partner video-called her with a cake and candles to make it special. Plus, "I treated myself with a nice dress, good food, and a massage. That was the best. Presents for me, to me!" says Gemma. Despite the fact that she was away from friends and family, Gemma embraced the new experience of spending this day with new friends. "It's so awesome that strangers can make you feel happy and loved!" she says. It was a day full of great surprises, "and lots of birthday hugs from people I just met!"
Gemma's takeaways from her 28th birthday alone in Asia
Gemma gained so much confidence and independence from this trip, and got to experience beautiful places with wonderful people. "Traveling alone is growth," Gemma explains. "You leave your comfort zone to make decisions for yourself, to make mistakes and solve them on your own. The beauty of just you is amazing."
The beauty of just you is amazing.
Something else she learned: to value time with family and friends even more. Although she loved spending her birthday with new friends, Gemma also plans to focus on being mindful and thankful when she is "surrounded by the people I really care about."
When I asked her if she'd ever spend another birthday traveling alone, Gemma said with a smile: "Hard to say, as who knows? But I wouldn't mind!" Finally, I asked for her advice for other solo-traveling women who have a birthday or other special occasion that they'll be celebrating abroad, alone. Gemma says to just be open to whatever experiences come your way. "I would advise having no expectations," she shares. "Embrace it, and do something nice for yourself to enjoy the day!"
Raise your hand if you're inspired by Gemma's story! 🙋🏻♀️If you're considering solo travel yourself but are nervous to take the leap, I can help.
I've traveled to 36 countries, 17 of them solo. Based on my experience, I created an online course to inspire, equip, and empower women to travel alone too! Learn more about Solo Travel 101, here. Scholarships available—contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.