The truth about travelling alone

Travelling alone might be one of the best things you can do for yourself. Yes, it gets lonely, especially when you’re at an age seriously underrepresented in the travel world, and yes, it is sometimes scary. But loneliness and fear are a bit like mosquito bites, they affect everybody at some point but they only bother you if you give them attention.

Last weekend I went to Pai, a small town in the mountains of Northern Thailand. I rented a motorbike in Chiang Mai–my new home!–and drove three hours through 762 voluptuous curves that were like hundreds of plus-sized models placed end to end to form a giant S-pattern. Motorbiking the mountains is an activity that doesn’t require a travel partner, a friend, or a hot, bearded 29-year-old guy at my side. It’s best in total solitude. I plugged in my earbuds, chose rockin’ mountain music (Neil Young!) and sang myself through the 130 km journey. I stopped when I wanted to stop and admire a tree or drink a coffee. I sped up when I wanted to speed up. I slowed down to an over-careful crawl without fear of losing anyone. Then I took myself out for a riverside beer upon arrival.

Before I made that journey I was a teensy bit apprehensive about going alone. Bad things have happened to me in the past because I’ve motorbiked solo. I was also worried about driving a steep, winding mountain road in the rain that was forecasted for the weekend. Thoughts of skidding down slick asphalt to end up a skin graft patient $30,000 in the hole crossed my mind. But I went anyways, decorated with my whistle and knife, because those are helpful tools in a rainstorm! And what happened? I ended up with a sunburn. Like a good friend of mine says, “some of the worst things in my life have never even happened.” But I think Mark Twain said it first.

Travelling with another person can be a wonderful experience if you’re compatible. Even if you’re not, the experience can teach you patience and tolerance. Some days I crave the kind of intellectual stimulation only possible with social interaction and when I find a willing listener, I nearly vomit every thought that has passed through my brain in the previous days into a stranger’s lap because finally talking to someone else feels so good. Other times I’m in a place that begs for emotional support because it is too overwhelming to handle solo, like in Calcutta where I fought everyday, unsuccessfully, to reconcile the suffering I saw with the privileged world I come from. But after having spent some months alone, navigating my way through cities, villages, jungles, and insecurity, I now enjoy my own company more than any other kind. Those delicious evenings curled up with my book, playing my chosen music or enjoying complete comfortable silence. For the aimless wandering through markets in a foreign town on no one’s schedule but my own. For the opportunity to sit and appreciate the time it takes for an old man to amble crookedly down a street, or a trail of ants to carry the crumbs of a leftover muffin through a crack in the pavement. To spend an afternoon watching clouds change shape. Sometimes I just sit and observe travelling couples and how they interact, the way they look at each other, how their eyes light up and what makes them look away from each other, how much time they spend staring at their phones in each other’s company. Travelling alone was a necessity at first because I didn’t have someone to travel with, but now it is a choice to enjoy the freedom I have to do what I want, when I want, without having to consider someone else. It’s about nourishing the most important relationship in my life.

A few years ago, when I was hiking in Nepal, I met a lovely woman named Meike, who is single, a world traveller, and in the neighbourhood of 40 years old. We were fast friends. This woman surfs, climbs mountains, treks in wild places, camps on glaciers, and sleeps in her rented car in the middle of nowhere. And she’s a solo act. She confessed to me that one of the worst things about travelling alone is trying to get a picture of herself in context. I encouraged her to keep a file in her photos titled “Failed Selfies” to pull out for comic relief every once in a while. You have to laugh at yourself when you’re on your own, at the ridiculousness that is involved in documenting your own good time. Like masturbation is for the lone person, selfies are occasionally–or frequently–necessary. You can use a selfie stick or simply, your own hand. Sometimes there’s just no one around to do the job for you and you’ve got to take care of matters solo. Isn’t life the same?

And on the topic of such necessities… That Friday night I was in Pai, the local guesthouse owner let me into a tiny dark room in the corner of the establishment. It held a single twin sized bed and a bolster–that long cylindrical pillow thing that us singles hold onto for dear life in the wee hours of the morning. The “singles room”, she called it. A common, though depressing, ESL error. That night, the cardboard walls let penetrate the sounds of a couple having sex in the room next to me. That, and then a tomcat sprayed its nasty scent all over me after it woke from its nap with a full-on boner (oh the joys of being around horny cats whilst ovulating–pheromones are inter-species I guess). My irritated inner voice said, “Enough is enough. Some people–felines, even–are so inconsiderate!” So that night, instead of counting sheep or throwing rocks at our shared wall or the cat, I delivered a When-Harry-Met-Sally moment of retribution and then tossed a pack of cigarettes on my neighbours’ doorstep. Two–or perhaps one in my case–can play THAT game.

But faking orgasms to get OTHER people to stop having sex is just one of the irritating things that travelling alone sometimes involves. I also have to ask someone to watch my stuff if I have to go to the bathroom. And who do I ask? Complete strangers who look like they wouldn’t steal my stuff. What else do I have to go on? Travelling alone also means having to drink the entire bottle of wine by myself when the restaurant I’m in doesn’t serve it by the glass. It means checking my own gas and testing my own breaks and figuring out shit all by myself when the bike breaks down. It means being a big girl and walking in the dark to get back to my guesthouse when the electricity is off for the night and I’ve forgotten my head torch, hoping there aren’t any snakes or rapists in the neighbourhood. It means approaching complete strangers–sometimes whole groups of them, when I’m in the mood for social interaction, or when I need a giant spider to leave my shower. It means holding my own hair back when a parasite is making its violent exit at 3 a.m. in a place without running water, flush toilets, or electricity. Unfortunately, it also means leaving myself wide open for strange men to approach me because there happens to be an empty chair at my table.

But solo travel also forces me to ask for help and accept help when I need it too–a necessary life skill but not an easy one to develop. Last weekend, for example, I decided to take a little 7 km trek alongside a river to a waterfall. I started out happily ignorant to what lay ahead of me. I had my responsible-adult walking boots on and a bottle of water. I followed the trail for a couple of kilometres until it just stopped at the edge of a river. I stopped and looked around. Did the trail just disappear? All around me were neglected rice fields, trees, and the river, but no trail. My scared inner voice said, “I wouldn’t do it if I were you! You’re going to get lost and the next thing you know night will have fallen and you’ll be trapped in the jungle!” As though that could be the worst thing to ever happen to a person. I told the voice to fuck off, took off my boots, and crossed the river. When I approached the third river crossing and couldn’t make out a trail on the other side, I finally relented to the GPS in my phone. There’s irrational fear and then there’s stupidity. If I had help in my pocket, why not use it? Just as I was locating myself (that blue dot is looking almost as familiar as the face in the mirror these days) two young boys came walking up. They were also going to the waterfall and invited me to join them. I’m glad I did because that simple walk turned into a aggressive trek that had us pushing our way through jungle brush and massive spiders’ webs and crossing the river 45 times, without even making it to the damn waterfall. I could have done this on my own but I likely would have turned back. With each river crossing I had to remove my boots and then put them back on. It was such an annoying task that one of the boys took it upon himself to carry me across the river every time just so I didn’t have to remove my boots or risk upsetting my bad hip balancing barefoot on slippery rocks. His mom would have been proud.

These times travelling alone are some of the best I’ve had in my life. Some days are deliciously simple, others deliver the kind of adventure I used to only be able to find with another person. Of course loneliness has bitten me more times than I can count but I’ve learned a few things from it. Namely that it doesn’t last, but also that I can feel far more lonesome in the company of someone else. I am the only one I should ever wait around for, whether I’m making plans for the weekend, my next destination, or the rest of my life. Travelling alone has brought me to a point in my life where I can finally say to myself, “Hello darling, I’ve been waiting my whole life for you, let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on.”

Originally published in www.esl101.com

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