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Flying Solo

Flying SoloHow come when a couple splits up, the woman decides it’s time to explore the world while the man dissolves into a couch potato, festering in front of the TV?

That may sound like an over-generalisation, but only if you’re a man. Maybe it’s because men want to stay at home and finally enjoy the silence, but after three years of sporadic research I’m convinced that single women have far more get up and go.

Yet travelling alone can seem a little daunting after years of having a built-in partner. And not only because you’ll have to carry your own bags.

It’s fine during the daytime, armed with a Rough Guide, a phrase book, and something deliciously fattening from the local bakery. But the prospect of endless evenings of eating alone in a foreign country is an absolute killer.

Years of business travel had already taught me what Hilton Hotels are for. They’re so you can sit alone in the bar with a glass of wine and a slice of cake and not feel like the local hooker. You’ll get ripped off for enjoying that comfort zone, of course, but sometimes that’s better than plucking up the courage to walk into a restaurant and cringing as the waiter raises a supercilious eyebrow and offers a table for one.

So now I’m travelling with small tour groups specifically created so single people don’t have to be solo. The starting point is inevitably the internet as you search for variations on the themes of solo, single, group tours, holiday and exotic. Filter out the ones that offer sex tours of Thailand or Bonk-a-Lot cruises in Barbados. Or sign up instantly, if that’s your thing.

My first group adventure saw me fly to Hanoi to join an Australian company’s tour through Vietnam.At the appointed hour I’m loitering in the hotel reception, eyeing up the other guests. An American couple start to bicker and I pray they’re not on this trip. If that guy picking his nose by the pot plant is one of us, I’m out of here. A gorgeous man walks past, all denim shorts and suntan. Please be one of us, I think.

As a rag-taggle mob assembles, you scan the faces wondering which of the motley crew are about to become your bosom buddies, and who will gradually isolate themselves by the little oddball quirks they have. All the time there’s a niggling fear that none of the assembled bunch will like you, and you’ll spend the next two weeks sitting at the back of the bus in purgatory.

Thankfully it’s never worked out that way, because a fortnight must be a tortuously long time when you’re travelling with people you just can’t stand. In Vietnam my main companions were two Scottish widows in their 70s. We made an unlikely trio, but I had far more in common with them than with the Australian couples who constantly bitched about their partners. At least that reminded me that being single has its benefits.

The Scottish gals and I caught rickshaws to Saigon opera house for a ballet evening of Tchaikosky. It was quite surreal, paying a handful of rand to watch a ballet in Vietnam. I led an escape from yet another noodle house when I craved food I could actually chew on. I proposed chips and cheesecake at a Boulangerie down the road, and my Scottish widows were in.

On our day in the Vietcong battlefields I spent time with an elderly Australian war vet, who had joined the tour to see what had become of the country he once fought in. He shared poignant memories with me that I could never extract from a guidebook.

There’s always a time on these trips where I’m overcome by a little tinge of single-status melancholy. Usually when the couple next to me are holding hands or falling asleep on each other’s shoulders. Perhaps I’m not as brave and independent as I like to think I am.

So the following year I joined a singles-only tour, where no interloping couples would be among us. I should have grown suspicious when I realised that the number of men and women was almost even, because there’s always a heavy female skew on these trips. But not when the destination is Thailand, the sex tourism capital of the world.

The men on my trip were all there for sex. No, that’s another over-generalisation; one of them was there to see the bridge on the River Kwai. The rest were there to get laid. Not by their female travelling companions, of course, because as we bitchily giggled, these guys would have to pay for sex because they were far too ugly to get it for free.

Maybe we were just jealous, because the men were always smiling. The only sex on the beach we were getting was the sort that came in a cocktail glass with a little pink umbrella. Still, while the men were paying for added extras with their massages, we were dancing, shopping, sightseeing and tasting exotic new foods. And still laughing at the men, who had all grown absolutely convinced that every Thai beauty was in love with them. Besides, our holiday was much, much cheaper.

After two tours of the Far East I was ready for something a little livelier, where the music has more oomph and the people aren’t so delicate that I feel like a gangly giant. I trawled the internet, printed out a selection of tours and ummed and aahed about the best. The winner was a glorious journey from Rio to Buenos Aires, via the Iguassu Falls.

So how come I ended up in Havana?When I tried to book, the British operator warned me the trip was unlikely to run on my chosen dates as only two other people had confirmed. Right, I said. Put me on a trip that’s guaranteed to run, within a month, to somewhere hot and exotic. Cuba, he said. Smashing place. Just in time to get in and out before sanctions are lifted and the Americans stage another invasion.

Next time I’ll read the itinerary first. We changed hotels every night for the first 10 days, and sat on a coach for up to eight hours at a time. Cuba is bigger than it looks, and this expedition covered the entire island. Well it wasn’t an expedition as such, because there are certain standard to uphold. Small group tours are often designed for budget travellers, where you share a room in a cheap hotel and your roommates are not only a total stranger but also half a dozen cockroaches and a scorpion.

So I’ve developed certain ground rules. I’m too lazy to hike, too unstable to attempt a cycle tour, and way too old to slum it. If a tour mentions the words tent or hostel I hit the delete button. I like trips where the words luxury, comfort, swimming pool and private transport feature heavily, preferable with the words value for money thrown in there as well.

There’s also a world of difference between being sociable enough to team up with a bunch of strangers and agreeing to sleep with one of them. You may be lucky and share a room with your next best friend, but I’m more likely to get a smoker who always wants the toilet at exactly the same time as I do, and brings back the salsa instructor for a night of horizontal dancing practice.

Human dynamics made the Cuban trip a little different from the rest, which provided extra entertainment on those long hours bumping down back roads on the trail of Che Guevara. By day three, two of the previously single travellers had become a couple. Think of the money they could have saved on single room supplements if they’d had the premonition to figure that out beforehand.

Cuba was surprisingly chilly, and annoyingly bedevilled with an attitude that tourists are walking wallets. Even our loquacious local guide admitted that the constant attempt by everyone to get paid for anything they did was beginning to get annoying. The toilet?  - 50c please. You want toilet roll with that? Another 50c.

Hey, the woman who gave you directions to the toilet – where’s her slice of the action?

Worse for me was the music. The first time you hear that half-familiar tune of Guantanamera you break into a big infectious grin. The second time you’re still beaming, and on the third occasion you’re actually singing along with the chorus. Wiggling your hips too, since this is the land of Salsa. After a week you’re tempted to shove your serviette in the mouth of the singer when he and his guitarist interrupt your dinner to sing bloody Guantanamera again.

Then you remember that no matter how annoying the over-loud music is in every restaurant your tour group visits, it’s far, far better than ordering room service and going to bed early with your guide book.