“Where your friends?” he asks me as I study the menu. I know this question so well by now. I look up at him, standing behind the counter and watching me curiously. I have different answers, but this is a young man, almost still a boy, so I pull a tragicomic face, place my hand over my heart in a dramatic gesture and declare that I have no friends. He laughs. I grin back at him and go on studying the menu.
I had a long conversation with a fellow traveller the other night, an Indonesian woman of about my age, traveling alone. In the course of our meandering talk – privilege and power imbalance, education and Indonesian society, world politics and climate change, traveling in general and our travels in particular – I asked her if she liked traveling alone. She said that often she traveled with a friend, but lately more often by herself and that she liked it. Being with her friend was more fun. But being by herself was more interesting.
There are some people I can travel with. Our rhythms match. Our priorities align. But most friends, no matter how dearly I love them, are not good travel companions for me. The reasons for this are varied and none of them have to do with my deep affection for and trust in my friends. As part of a group, even a group of two, one is always turned to each other. In conversation, in awareness, in the fulfilling of needs. Whereas travelling alone makes me turn to myself with an intensity I don’t usually experience in my daily life, as well as making me open and approachable to others and available for human connections that have the chance of being truly enriching:
The guy who shared his plans for sustainable tourism projects in his village and his hopes for the future with me. The guy who gifted me a small silver cross after an intense discussion on environmental education and the role that foreign efforts play in the development of Indonesia. The conversation over tea with the Indonesian lady that I referenced above. The grandmother in her festive best clothes who wanted to invite me to her home to show me photos of her family as we talked to each other using more sign language than words. The lady who was on a weekend trip with her daughter and niece and was so delighted with my pitiful grasp of Bahasa Indonesia and ended up showing me how to best eat the fish on my plate and warned me of the chilies and hugged me when I left. I’m sure that none of these precious encounters and memories would have taken place had I been part of a group.
Don’t let me mislead you though. It can be fuuuuuuuuuucking lonely sometimes. When I see something funny and there is noone there to share the joke. When I’m tired and hungry and everything feels like too much and there is just nobody there to tell me: “Come on, almost there.” or “It’s not that bad.” or even just “You can do it.”. Most of all I miss someone to turn to when I experience a moment of bliss, a unique, new, wonderful experience, an amazing sight. In those moments it would be so good to turn my head to a companion and say, with wonder-sparkling eyes and a catch in my voice: “Did you see that? Is this really happening?”
But since I travel alone, I have that exchange with myself. And that seems like a fair trade to me. Especially when I reflect that that is where most of the writing is coming from.
So yeah, I travel alone. And sometimes that’s hard and sometimes it’s lonely. But much more often than that it is the most deep, satisfying, eye-opening experience that brings me better knowledge of the people I meet, the country I travel, and of myself.