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Five Reasons to Travel Alone

img_5687 During 2010, as I traveled alone through France, Brazil, Colombia, and Argentina, I regularly encountered people who find it courageous to travel alone. I remember a hairstylist in Bogota. As she blow-dryed my hair, she told me she couldn’t picture it. I asked her why. She couldn’t really say. So it goes. For most people, traveling alone is unimaginable.

Traveling alone still gives me a thrill, but it’s not scary anymore, I’ve done it so much. Traveling alone can be occasionally lonely, yes. I have felt pangs of loneliness at times. Scary, in South America or Europe, rarely. It’s easy to meet people when you travel alone if you stay at hostels and hook up with couchsurfing, a global network of travelers who support each other through hosting and advice. People think that couchsurfing is only for finding a place to stay, but it’s also for making friends. Go to the “groups” section and find the city you’re visiting, find out what people in the couchsurfing community are planning. Post a message saying that you are coming to town, does anyone have advice or want to have coffee? Couchsurfing members are astonishingly friendly and helpful.

Here are five reasons to travel alone, some classic, some idiosyncratic. There are also reasons to travel with a romantic partner or with friends. Each experience is unique, but traveling alone is undoubtedly rich. Add yours in the comments.

1. Learn how to make decisions.
For me, traveling alone was one crash course in making decisions–just keep on rolling the dice and see what comes up. Stop the research. Stop the analysis paralysis. Just keep choosing and living. In travel, everything is as it is, and there’s always another day to change course and choose again. A lot more happens in life when you stop worrying about what to do and just go. That problem dogged me in the year before I made the decision to travel. I was so freaked out by the idea of putting my life in storage and jumping off the known career path that I pondered the decision to death. I planned to travel only four months and wound up going for over a year. Once I got started I didn’t want to stop.

dsc03710 2. Openness to the world. The sense of risk and heightened reward is what draws me to traveling alone. Traveling with a friend can be an adventure too, but the adventure quotient is usually higher when you are alone. You’re more vulnerable in the sense that you have to seek out company and help. There is a lucky charm in traveling alone. My friend Mark lived in Rio for three years right by the beach in Ipanema. On a solo trip to Rio I stayed with him and he jokingly told me he could always spot the solo travelers by the red streaks on their backs: the spot they couldn’t reach themselves with sunscreen. Apt observation and probably true for some solo travelers but not all. But hey, just because I’m traveling alone doesn’t mean I can’t ask a hunky Carioca volleyball player to put sunscreen on the hard-to-reach places. That’s the advantage of traveling alone, isn’t it? Openness to adventure. :)

3. The grace of trusting in strangers. Traveling alone also teaches you to trust your fellow men and women. They are the ones who help you out when you are in need. I will never forget the man who stopped a long-distance bus for me in Colombia so he could go buy me Coke and toilet paper (I confessed to him that I had “digestive” issues right before we got on the bus). Then he invited me to his family’s home for lunch, and I still get emails from the family saying they will never forget me. I have had similar experiences all over Brazil and Colombia. The kindness and welcoming spirit is unbelievable.

4. Star in your own movie. When you travel alone, the trip is completely yours. You are the star of your own movie. All the mistakes are yours to make, the serendipitous discoveries to enjoy, and the insights to savor. The recollection of the trip is entirely personal and private. Even though I have blogged extensively about my travels, there is no one who was along the whole journey with me who can say what it was all about. Some people prefer to share memories and make meaning from the trip together. That is beautiful as well, but there is also a soul-searching power in doing an odyssey on your own.

When we set out on an extended travel by ourselves, we may not know why we are going when we begin, and it may only be clear when we come back. When you finally understand the narrative of your solo trip, it’s your secret.

Me and my Belgian BFF

Me and my Belgian BFF

5. A new best friend (or love) 4-eva. In a whole year of travel, I made a new best friend who I know will be a friend for life. We will be at each other’s weddings if we get married, we coach each other through our post-(or newly)-travel lives, and we hope to meet up for other adventures in Africa, Asia, and to dance tango in Buenos Aires. We spent close to two months together in Cali, and we met up again in Buenos Aires for two more months. Our friendship is pure gold and we have both helped each other grow in innumerable ways. That openness to a new friend might not have been there if I had already been traveling with someone else. And who knows? You might meet the love of your life. Thataforementioned friend did actually . . . .

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Posted in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Travel, Traveling Alone

Deciding to Enjoy Life

The dreamy streets of Barichara

On my final afternoon in Barichara, a tiny, beautiful, impossibly tranquil Colombian mountain town I have now decided is heaven, I dropped in to a sweet bakery and coffee shop for a rainy-day cappuccino. A Colombian woman, around 50, asked if she could park her bags and herself at my table. Of course. For me, meeting locals is really the whole point of traveling.

My new friend Shoya is a painter and also rents rooms to tourists. She would like to organize artistic tours of Barichara to show visitors the artistic side of the city: sculptors’ studios and the beautiful interiors of Barichara homes. My Brazilian friends Roma and Iracema and I stayed in a couple’s home, sort of an informal bed and breakfast worthy of being written up in Conde Nast Traveler, that only cost $17 a night. The interiors are indeed stunning. The ceilings are about twenty feet high and have exposed driftwood beams, the floors are large cobblestones, and every windowsill and bookshelf was adorned with a piece of unexpected art. My shower consisted of water that shoots over a piece of rock, creating the sensation of taking a shower out in nature.

A hammock in my home away from home in Barichara


Shoya and I talked about writing, sculpture and painting, and how to avoid suffering during the creative process, when the answer to a problem is not yet clear. It sounded like she had spent enough time in solitude painting. While she loves painting, the solitude is not always fun or easy. So she wants to spice up her life doing other things she enjoys.

Somehow conversation turned to San Francisco’s cable cars and the enjoyment of life. She asked me about the cable cars, and I said, yes, they are great but they are for tourists. Why, she said. I explained they don’t help me get where I need to go. And that in twelve years of living in San Francisco I never even took a cable car.

In my thirteenth year, I decided that I wanted to take a cable car. I wanted to enjoy life and somehow taking a cable car–doing a touristy thing in my own town–became symbolic of enjoying life. I told her I wanted to “disfrutar la vida,.” I finally took a cable car ride with my best friends Jenny, Liz, Sonya, and Adam, and Jenny and Adam’s son Kai as part of a scavenger hunt we organized for Jenny’s birthday. None of us had ever gone on a cable car before. The ride was magic.

My new Colombian sculptor friend immediately latched on to this phrase, “disfrutar la vida,” and become quite animated.
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Posted in Colombia, Personal Growth, Travel, Traveling Alone

Why I Always Celebrate My Birthday—And You Should Too (Yours, I¬¨‚ĆMean)

One of my stylish dance partners at the tango club, La Matraca, on my birthday eve

I just celebrated my birthday in Cali, Colombia with more than 24 hours of celebration.

Many people around my age prefer to de-emphasize or ignore their birthdays rather than call attention to getting older. It is easy to be filled with anxiety about a new chronological age. I won’t even get into the reasons why: We all know them.

As Bette Davis famously said, getting older is not for sissies. As I get older, I feel like it’s even more important to make a big deal out of the day that I was born to counteract all the negativity around age. I’m a believer in the extended birthday celebration. Why only one day? My friends Sonya and Liz, twins, and I share the same birthday. One year, when they turned 30, we celebrated for a whole week with four separate celebrations, including a piano concert at 7:30 am at a Turkish cafe on our actual birthday before work.

As I get older, I am more and more committed to being happy on my birthday and creating a great experience. I remember turning 29 in Hawaii. I was on a weeklong vacation with my dear friend Ali, who is six years younger than me. I moped about turning 29, how I hadn’t published a book yet, found the love of my life, whatever. Ali was very annoyed with me. I can’t believe that I wasted that birthday in Hawaii whining about nothingness when I could have been appreciating the moment, or created an experience that I would have loved. In this respect, I am starting to believe that people really do get happier as they get older. You learn how to live.

I’m really committed to never lying about my age, and instead being proud of all my experience. I think of my friend Ira in Rio for inspiration here. We celebrated her 40th birthday together with her toting around childlike candles for 4-0 the whole weekend, and she kept saying how happy she was to have made it to age 40. She was so joyful in her gratitude. She didn’t always believe she would survive (and we’re not talking about someone with a fatal disease) til age 40. I never heard an American woman talk about being grateful for making it to 40.

A Colombian friend Yeimmi gave me a great idea for how to answer the frequent question, How old are you? Her aunt Olga (her role model in life, who runs a cleaning business in Florida and sounds like a very feisty, smart woman) taught her how to joke and answer with a smile, “20 with x years of experience.” That way you get to be forever young with layers of sexy wisdom and maturity.

For the last five years I have been celebrating with Liz and Sonya. Part of me would have loved to have been in San Francisco to celebrate with them. But I also wanted this birthday to reflect the spirit of this year’s adventure. Even if it absolutely sucked and I was totally alone in some random shitty hotel, I wanted the chance to see what would happen. I wanted that sense of risk. The feeling of being suspended in air for my birthday in keeping with the rest of 2010. Life is more memorable when you change things up.

So I decided to stay in Cali, though, which has become home over the last three weeks anyway. This hostel is the coziest places where I have stayed and I have become close with several people here. I am having one of the times of my life losing (and finding) myself in Cali’s dance culture, learning Caleno-style salsa and tango. (More to come on these in future blog posts.)

My birthday eve was Sunday night at La Matraca, a magically nostalgic tango (and salsa) club in a dodgy neighborhood that my Belgian friend Griet and I discovered three weeks ago. We have become regulars, fancying ourself “Las Reinas de La Matraca” (The Queens of La Matraca). There are many other Reinas — graceful tango dancers in their 40s, 50s, and 60s who are an absorbing joy to watch.

My birthday eve at La Matraca included four fantastic things:

An out-of-this-world performance by a 74-year-old woman who might be a lunatic but is also a singing and dancing genius. Watch this:

Dancing in a circle with a group of women and men in their 60s and 70s. In my opinion, exuberant dancing in a circle holding hands is one version of heaven.

My first tango in public. Doing tango in public had the barrier-breaking quality of hanggliding or bungee jumping. Survival! I just stared at my tango dancer’s upper left chest the whole time, which is where the woman is supposed to look.

Thanks to my Colombian friend William, I got to live my dream of a birthday dance. In my travels in Brazil, I noticed this tradition at a capoeira class and at a weekly afternoon “baile” dance at the Carioca Cultura Center. A circle forms and the focus is totally on the birthday girl or boy for her or his spin on the dance floor with one partner after another. It’s a euphoric thing to watch, the happiness of the person moving from one partner to the next. I always thought that was a great fusion of birthdays and the dance culture in South America, and I was thrilled to live that moment myself. I really have no idea what this dance is. It’s not paso doble or fox or . . . ? But I played along. Here’s my birthday dance. Unfortunately YouTube doesn’t have a rotate feature so it’s sideways: rotate your head.

Oscar and Griet leaping into an icy cold natural pool below a waterfall on the birthday hike

On my actual birthday, a new friend and ecology student Oscar led me and my Belgian friends Wouter and Griet on a slippery hike along a river to a spectacular and icy cold waterfall with a natural pool below it. Back at the hostel, Griet and two others at he hostel cooked a tall stack of crepes for a communal birthday dinner. I felt so touched that people whom I met just three weeks ago took the time to create a birthday dinner. And finally in the 24-hour birthday marathon, we went salsa dancing at Las Brisas, where we danced with our salsa teacher and saw salsa world champions from the school Swing Latino perform their superhumanly fast footwork.

Not bad for 28 hours in a country where I knew no one before arriving six weeks ago. This was really a magical birthday and I’m grateful that I took the risk of celebrating while traveling. Now I am resting. Whew! I really have no idea what the next year will bring. But after all, I’m only 20 (with 17 years of experience). I’m not supposed to know yet.

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Coaching with Sasha

coachwithsasha I will teach you the art of being quirkyalone (+ quirkytogether/wet/writing your story/tango/authentic/quirky/free) Learn more about individual coaching.

Let’s Get Wet

wet_brazilCheck out my new book-in-progress Wet. Tell me your definition of "wet". I'm waiting!

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Praise from Readers and Coaching Clients

"It is liberating to bust out of the confines of prescribed roles and be 100% myself. Quirkyalone coaching is empowering.”—Barbara Berry, 43, Gainesville Florida

"You write what we know (in some deep hidden place) but that needs to be said. in other words, you're developing something fundamental. Quirk might just be a tad left of center, slightly outside our peripheral vision. but a much more comfortable, truer place to stand."--Alexandra Joy Forman, Rio de Janeiro, author of a book of inner quirk, Tall, Slim and Erect: Portraits of the Presidents

“Sasha's coaching helped me get unstuck to pursue my passions. If you want dedicated support in creating a more fulfilling life, I highly recommend working with Sasha.”—Jennifer Ludders

“In her writing, Sasha Cagen is up to something that could be as important for women (and men) as The Feminine Mystique was years ago: We aren’t just halves of couples; we are distinct individuals—as complete and potentially happy alone as we are with our families and lovers.”— Barbara Ehrenreich, veteran muckraker and author best known for Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

"Sasha Cagen is something of a hero for the growing ranks of singletons who are learning to feel secure with their status, and she is often their public face. She appears frequently on popular national television and radio programs to explain that going solo is a viable, legitimate, and not necessarily lonely way to dwell in a city—a point that is surprisingly controversial given how many people are already living alone.”-- Eric Klinenberg, professor of sociology at NYU and author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone

"In her classes and coaching, Sasha has a way of making you feel like you are sitting in a coffee house, just chatting and discovering the best parts about you."--Beth, 35, Richmond, Virginia

"Sasha helped me get to a place where I could begin to love myself, flaws, fears, and all."--Valerie Bosselait, 50′s, small business owner, Amherst, Massachusetts

"I had a wonderful time in the Quirky Tango Adventure: the tango lessons with Alejandro, massages from Nele, and the group circles and other meaningful conversations with individuals who were part of the experience. In particular I appreciated the sincerity and openness of our conversations. I met a lot of fantastic, beautiful, amazing women who were quirkyalones (or quirkytogethers)."--Amanda, early thirties, Portland, Oregon

"Orgasmic pioneer Sasha Cagen is on a vulnerable and potent personal research mission into the world of sensuality, and she's got some fantastic reports from the front."--Michele Lisenbury Christensen

"The book proposal for Wet made me blush, and made me want to read more."--Tara Gentile