“You are alone? Where is your better half?”
Most people are less direct about my solo state than the two women from San Francisco who were sitting behind me on my flight from Beijing to Ho Chi Minh City. I didn’t really understand them any more than they understood me — one placed a single curler carefully in her bangs to sleep on the plane, and the other put on the kind of gooey facemask I would be reluctant to use except when I was completely naked. “Just me,” I said.
When you travel alone, you have a relationship with a place, not the people you are with. I’ve had many boon traveling companions — some lovers, some friends, some accidental — and it’s lovely to share a place with someone, to have someone to turn to and say “was that woman holding a dead pigeon?” or to tell you that you look like an 80 year old in that hijab when you visit a mosque. To hike up a peak or wade into the reluctant ocean together, discovering the scrape of sand in unison as you get knocked down. Sharing the philosophy that emerges when new place expands you.
It’s good to have people — and for me, alone is simpler, elemental. It’s hemming my raw self to a new place, absorbing the folds of heat, smell, pace, distances, impulses, adapting from the inside out. When I move through a new place with someone else, I track how they are absorbing, their comforts and needs, as much as mine. I fret about their contentment. My receptors open differently. I talk to them about the place, not with the place.
When you travel alone, simple decisions can be either “safe” — eat in the hotel — or tinged with question marks that feel different than if you’re with someone. My impulsivity, letting what happens wash over me, comes to the foreground. I don’t deliberate as much as make micro-decisions and then let things emerge.
On New Year’s Eve, I was in Xian, China. I had literally never heard of this city and it has 10 million people. I felt insulated in my hotel, and randomly picked a restaurant I thought I could walk to. I asked for a map, and directions, and it seemed very close. But Xian is fogged with pollution haze, and the streets are sporadically lit, storefront signs often the only illumination. And as I started to walk, I kept running into locked metal gates. I couldn’t find my way out of the enclave that my hotel was in, and ran right back into my hotel entrance after 10 minutes of walking.
If I’d been with someone, I would have started to get anxious here. Were they okay with this? Whose idea was this anyway? Should we abort and go into the overpriced, mediocre hotel restaurant after all? When I was younger, companions took the brunt of my anxiety — why are we doing this?? Is this dangerous? (SORRY BENNETT!) I can still get torqued out when I travel with other people when my impatience and discomfort take over. Alone, I have to be patient, own my discomfort.
On new year’s, I tripped a bit on a weirdly angled gutter, and found my way to the entrance of the square. I was completely turned around, but kept walking, following the shaky directions. Now it was completely dark, and even cyclists and motorbikes were coming up behind me without lights. Most of the building fronts were lightless and the sidewalks were filled with parked cars. It was damp and quiet, and occasionally, I could see someone going into a tiny grey house behind a walled gate. All of the signs I could see were in chinese characters, nothing that looked like the restaurant I was looking for.
I walked to the next main intersection and looked at my map. Clearly much too far. No one to ask anything — I knew the name of the restaurant but couldn’t say it. I backtracked, scanning more closely. And there it was, almost at the original turn, sign so high up I hadn’t noticed it the first time.
The room was small and bright and filled with people eating, all Chinese, and I was greeted by a young man whose english was better than I expected. He led me upstairs to the overflow area, where I would be alone. “No, please — up here is lonely.” This has happened to me before as a solo traveler. “I will wait.” He set me down at a little couch downstairs, and we figured out that he only sold wine by the bottle, not the glass. It’s new year’s eve, I thought, and picked out a bottle. “I will not drink all of this,” I laughed — “you should have some.”
As I ate, the restaurant emptied out. It was 730.
You eat early here!
They are home, watching tv show about New Year’s.
Seriously, have a glass of my wine. He brought me some homemade ginger chicken while I waited for my food — my friend made it. His two friends, a couple, waved at me from another table, the only other ones there.
He took a glass of wine, and began to talk, about China and human rights. He is in his early 30s, desperately wants to leave. He talked for a long time, while I ate. About parental pressure, and having to pay off the government to open a business, and having to do something he didn’t want to do. About his child, whom he named something uniquely western, a gesture of hope and open knowledge.
I brought the wine over to the table with his friends and we all had a glass. His wife and the beautiful 2 year old joined us. The boy’s English was surprisingly good — “he watches teletubbies and Peter Rabbit on BBC via VPN,” my friend said. We all talked for two hours. Do your parents pressure you to have children in Canada? They have English names because the Hong Kong companies they have worked for require it. They dream of Germany and New Zealand and Australia, a place where they can be open. The only Canadians they know are Norman Bethune, Celine Dion and some guy named Mark Henry Rowswell.
We have a friend, they said. She is a female, but she likes females. Do you understand? Yes, I said. This is no place for her. She cannot be open. I try to explain the concept of the Rainbow Railroad.
We finish the wine and they pour out cider. We talk until 1030, a stream of hopes and questions. The woman who made the ginger chicken is so pretty with a cute little skirt and rolls her eyes about her mother in law’s pressure to have a child. The child’s mom slowly tells me she wishes she had confidence, to speak english freely, to travel alone. We exchange wechat information, because it’s the only way to connect in this regime. When I leave, I double the bill and tell them it’s for their son’s future. He looks up from his Peter Rabbit and says Sank You.
Before I left, a friend told me that she could never travel like this alone — that traveling makes her too anxious. It makes me anxious too. But it also forces me to move through the anxiety, and opens me up to being present to what is there, not interpreting it through a shared prism. I let things like loud music go more easily because there’s no one to create shared — and amplified — irritation with, no one else’s reaction to worry about. I randomly pick destinations and then swallow my fatigue because this long hot walk was my choice, because I see the park alive with people, doing tango and playing a hacky sack badminton hybrid, that I would never see from a cab.
It can be lonely — but the floating moments, the letting a place in, letting people in, happens in a completely different dimension when I’m alone. You can’t “make” connections happen — but walking those damp grey or too hot kilometres with an open heart makes something happen that changes me. I see myself as more intrepid than I feel because of how others see me, see my privilege, see my confidence, see my strength. I am more fluid, more at ease. I notice things.
When my friend told me she could never travel alone, I said “The thing is, if you’re with someone else, you have the freedom to have that meltdown at the airport,” I said. “But if you’re alone, you’re not just going to lie down on the floor of the Addis airport and never get up.” “I’m not so sure,” she said. I am.