Life on the Lonely Road
I like to pretend that I’m inhumanly self-assured and independent. But the truth is, I’ve never really been either of those things.
If you know me personally, you know I’m not the solitary, pensive type. I’m a loud and abrasive extrovert, constantly surrounding myself with equally deafening friends, seeking their guidance, and often (sadly) holding their opinions with even higher esteem than my own. Until quite recently, my idea of ‘Alone Time’ was driving home from the bar, and the closest I ever got to self-introspection was occasionally picking my nose.
When I first announced to friends and family my plans to travel across Asia for two years, by myself, I received their wide-eyed, incredulous reactions with an sort of smug satisfaction.
“By yourself?” They would balk. “Won’t you be lonely?” “Aren’t you scared?”
To which I would stoically shake my head. Of course I wasn’t scared. I didn’t need anyone else, because, of course, I was inhumanly self-assured and independent.
Yet strangely, whenever someone expressed even the slightest interest in joining me—“Oh, I hear Thailand is nice,”—my claws of desperation would splay out and—
“HOW MUCH DO YOU HAVE SAVED UP I’LL BE THERE IN NOVEMBER DOES THAT WORK FOR YOU OCTOBER IS ALSO OKAY–”
And suddenly, the cracks would appear in my mask of self-reliance, and I’d be reminded of how intimidated and scared I really was to be traveling the world on my own.
So for this week’s (long overdue) installment of Backpackology, I’m not going to tell you how I transcended the tribulations of solo travel. Nor am I going to prattle about how you shouldn’t be scared, and that traveling solo can often be safer and more enjoyable than in a group. I’ll even spare you my diatribe of how being alone makes you more approachable, so you’ll constantly find yourself surrounded by new friends and curious locals.
So forget all that. Right now I’m going to tell you something that’s much more important.
Convincing someone that they should travel solo is a hard sell at best. Yet I find it perplexing, and slightly sad, when people use a lack of a travel companion as an excuse for never leaving home. To me, this is like saying you can’t take a bath without the emotional security of a life jacket. Because that’s all a travel buddy really provides—emotional security.
If your inner-soccer mom is shrieking for the Buddy Safety Card, tell her to calm down. Take a deep breath. Drink a glass of water. In the extremely unlikely event that some crazy-eyed Jamaican guy tries to mug you with a broken vodka bottle, a few self-defense classes will do you a lot better than your listless drinking buddy from college (unless you intend on using him as a shield).
The real protection a travel buddy provides is in those moments when nothing’s happening at all; when you’re waiting for a bus, or sitting in bed at 6PM, staring blankly at the wall because there simply isn’t anything else to do. I’d be lying if I told you that hitting the road on your own isn’t hard at first. In those first days of silence, you can’t help but miss having a friend there to entertain you over breakfast, to laugh at all your jokes, to cheer you up if you’re feeling down or missing home.
But around day ten, something strange starts to happen. You stop seeking out stability and support from other people, and start looking inwards for it.
No, you don’t ‘Find Yourself.’
That’s something different, a concept which I find foolishly insipid.
If you’re strung out on too many rereadings of ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ and the sole purpose of your travels is to ‘Find Yourself,’ don’t even bother with the airfare. I can teach you how to do that right now in your own living room!
Step 1: Try your best to put down the book.
Step 2: Good. Now remove your head from the vapid depths of your rectum.
Step 3: Look in the mirror.
There you are! Yup, that’s you staring back. So handsome!
The emotions you start to notice around that tenth day, when you start relying on yourself for nurturing and support, has nothing to do with ‘Finding Yourself,’. It has to do with changing. It has to do with becoming someone different, someone better, someone more self-assured, and confident, and well-balanced. The more you travel on your own, the greater you cultivate that strong relationship with yourself. Until after a couple weeks, you realize that you’re okay with being alone. In fact, you become more than okay with it—you start to really love your own company. And when that happens, and you’re completely acceptant of being solo, your possibilities become infinite. You can go anywhere and do almost anything without ever needing to wait for someone else to hold your hand.
Want to learn to cook Moroccan couscous in Tangier? Let’s go. Want to move to an apartment in Paris? You’re there. Want to ride horseback across the Mongolian steppes, eat boiled sheep organs twice a day, and drink fermented yak’s milk in a nomad family’s yurt?
“I’ll come, that sounds cool,” yours friends say, “But it won’t work until maybe next year…”
You, however, have the time and money to go right now.
Too bad for them. You’re already mounting a horse. And that’s not loneliness you’re feeling, or guilt. It’s independence. It’s the wild adrenaline high of living a life untethered, and it’s liberating beyond words.
I’m not trying to suggest that traveling solo is necessarily better than doing otherwise. I’m not advising you to call up your friends and tell them to kick rocks because you need to build inner strength and character on your trip to Cancun this spring break. I’m just pointing out that not having a friend to go with is a foolish reason to not go at all. If you’re always waiting for someone else to see the world, there’s a chance you’ll never see it. You might never learn to cook that perfect Moroccan couscous from a lazy-eyed Berber woman in a hijab. You might never fulfill your dream of waking up in some dumpy, bohemian French apartment on the Seine. And if you keep agreeing to push it off till ‘next year,’ you might never ride on thundering hooves across the Central Asian plains.
At the end of the day, when you’re lying in bed, in your Mongol yurt, drunk on fermented yak’s milk, listening to the crackling of the campfire and the distant baying of wild Bactrian camels, you might decide that you really are lonely, and that hitting the road by yourself was a regrettably bad idea. In this extremely unlikely circumstance, you’ll still come home with a new sense of empowerment, a lastingly stronger relationship with yourself, and a deeper understanding of the spectacular world that’s out there waiting. And having that knowledge is more gratifying than any postcard.
For more philosophy on independent budget travel, check out “The Backpacker’s Manifesto”
If I ever had to write a commencement speech, it would probably look like this: “To Go the Other Way”