Solo Travels & A Happy Marriage: How Alissa Finds the Balance
Alissa Bell technically lives in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, and she’s happily married… but she’s spent 8 of the past 16 months traveling solo in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Patagonia.
Alissa’s relationship with her husband is unusual, but happy. “The rewards of solo travel have been huge for me,” she writes. “I still hope to travel with my husband eventually, but I’ll always value solo adventures as worth seeking out in their own right, not just a last resort when no one else is able to join.”
How has Alissa crafted a life of meaning and adventure, while maintaining a loving partnership at home? Read on (and check out her website, exploringwild.com)
Alissa, what inspired you to try traveling solo?
I wish I could say I boldly dreamed it up myself, but it wasn’t even my idea in the beginning. I wanted to take a career break and travel for longer, to really ease into some different places and experience them in a spontaneous way. I figured my husband and I would do it together; he’s my favorite adventure buddy. But after some tense conversations it became clear we were working with different priorities: I craved something new but he wanted to double down on his career. In my early thirties I was feeling the pressure of my ticking biological clock like never before… and I was getting tired of waiting.
“When he said, ‘You know, you could just go without me,’ it was like someone opened the lid to Pandora’s box.”
When he said “You know, you could just go without me,” it was like someone opened the lid to Pandora’s box. A bunch of stuff came bursting out that just couldn’t be stuffed back in! My first thought was “Huh, well… Why not?” I’d never seriously considered it, maybe because it’s just not what married couples do, and also because long-term solo travel seemed pretty darn intimidating. But when he said it first, removing all the excuses except my own fear, I knew I had to do it. The more I thought about it, the more the challenge inspired me. Eventually I got to the point where I would’ve been disappointed if he’d wanted to join!
What inspired you to try bicycle travel?
It was a slow process. My husband and I had done a few overnight bike camping trips, just strapping a tent to the handlebars and throwing camping gear in a backpack. I liked that we could go so much farther than hiking. We did a four-day bike trip in New Zealand, and I loved the feeling of traveling so far under my own power (despite a wicked case of saddle sores from the rental bike saddle). But the thought of a long-distance tour was still something crazy, something for other people with braver and freer souls, not for cautious and responsible people like me.
“The thought of a long-distance tour was still crazy, something for other people with braver and freer souls, not for cautious and responsible people like me.”
It’s hard to pinpoint the very beginning of the shift, but at some point I started reading more and more books about bicycle travel. One of the memorable early ones was “Desert Snow - One Girl's Take on Africa by Bike” by Helen Lloyd. For years I nurtured the fascination in secret with a mix of awe and envy.
When I quit my job to travel in sub-Saharan Africa for five months, a bicycle tour was in the back of my mind, but I wasn’t ready. Instead I traveled overland by public transport through seven countries. It was overwhelming and confusing and messy, and also heartwarming and empowering. I met so many kind and interesting people, and had some hilariously bizarre experiences. In hindsight it had many qualities of a good bicycle tour, just without all the pedaling.
When I returned from Africa I felt like I could handle anything. I was craving that same type of travel: slow, unpredictable, immersive. In a burst of newfound confidence I decided it was time to try bicycle travel, and if my husband wasn’t ready to join, then I would do it alone.
What were some of your biggest challenges when traveling alone?
I feel like this is the part where I’m supposed to say I get lonely, but I actually have the opposite problem. I’m a really introverted person, so balancing the social and solitary parts of solo travel can be hard for me. If no one is around I can go really deep into my happy solo place and then it’s hard to come back out. On the other hand, solo travel can bring out my social side too, which is fun but tiring. Switching between these modes can be hard.
“I’m a really introverted person, so balancing the social and solitary parts of solo travel can be hard for me.”
I also feel more fear when traveling solo. This probably comes as no surprise to most women who’ve spent time exploring on their own. It’s just programmed into us. Rationally I know that having someone else along doesn’t make THAT much difference in my safety - most people are good, and most risks from cycling aren’t exclusive to solo females - but company certainly stops my mind from spiraling down dark paths that make riding less enjoyable. Sometimes I have to talk to myself with the same rational approach I use with concerned friends and family.
What methods do you use to strengthen your long-distance relationship?
I've spent 8 of the past 16 months traveling solo. And I'm still married! I know, it's a lot. Sometimes it's really difficult, and it's hard to feel like we're building toward a common goal right now, and of course we miss each other! Fortunately I have an amazing husband who understands how important this is to me, and he's also very good at doing his own thing. We know it's only for a couple years, and we also hope to go on some big adventures together when the timing is right for him.
“After 9 years it can feel like we’ve already heard all each others’ best stories, but when we reunite after separate experiences it reignites that spark.”
I know it’s hardest for my husband, since he’s the one at home without the excitement of travel to distract him, so I try to be understanding of that. We work extra hard at communicating carefully, and I try to find new ways of showing how much I appreciate our relationship since some of the more traditional ways - like staying on the same continent as my partner - are not currently on the table. I also fully expect that someday it will be my turn to support a crazy dream of his, which will come with new challenges.
How does solo travel affect your relationship with your husband?
Mostly, I would say all my solo travel has improved our relationship. Sometimes I joke that I’m away half the time but our relationship is twice as good when I’m home, so everything evens out (I’m not sure he thinks this is funny…). For one thing, it’s easier for me to support his ambitions now that they’re not mutually exclusive with mine; the resentment is gone. I’m also a happier, more confident, (slightly) less uptight person now that I’m on this path, which makes me a better partner in many ways.
After nine years it can feel like we’ve already heard all each others’ best stories, but when we reunite after separate experiences it reignites that spark of “Wow, this person I’m with, they’re really interesting! Lucky me!” It’s also helped us break out of unhelpful routines and habits. With space to make decisions independently, we each get better at recognizing our own preferences - everything from how much social interaction we thrive on to our preferred sleep schedules - and at finding ways to accommodate each others’ differences. We’ve become stronger in our individuality, which is making us stronger as a couple.
“It’s easier for me to support his ambitions now that they’re not mutually exclusive with mine; the resentment is gone.”
Finally, we’ve grown more mindful of not taking each other for granted. When we’re together we intentionally put a lot of positive energy into our relationship. We’ve set an important precedent for finding creative solutions that balance our needs as a couple and as individuals. It makes me really optimistic for our future.
What are some of your greatest rewards from solo travel?
Solo travel leads to so much interaction with people and cultures: I’ve stayed with families in Ugandan villages, talked for hours with strangers in Liberia, and sat on the livingroom floor laughing at cheesy television that I couldn’t understand with a family in rural Laos. The range of “normal” ways for people to think, behave, and live is staggering. The more I experience the complexity, the more I realize it’s hard to evaluate which ways of being are actually best. In some ways this perspective leads me to appreciate my own culture more, and it also helps me to reach outside it.
I also feel more comfortable taking up space anywhere in the world, including at home. I felt this really strongly while pedaling solo through remote, beautiful, empty backroads of Patagonia. Unexpectedly, I felt 100% like I belonged there, and it was such a peaceful, happy feeling.