Friday, November 30, 2007

Online Articles: "Don't you get lonely?"

"You are traveling alone. Don't you get lonely?"
People have made the mistaken, though logical, assumption that I wrote an article about loneliness, because I'm lonely. Sometimes, I do get lonely, but I wrote this article because I've been asked the above question a hundred times.
I'll start my answer with a true story - A week ago, I was sitting at a bar on the beach, alone. I was thinking about loneliness and scribbling the notes that would later become this article. Then, a hot Finnish blonde and her hot German redhead friend sat down on the barstools next to me. They tell me that their Mexican (hot brunette?) friend is on her way. I put away my notes. It was like the Charlie's Angels had joined me for a drink.
Unfortunately, the Charlie's Angels don't always appear to cheer you up. Traveling the world alone does sometimes get lonely. But it isn't that bad. When you get lonely you just retreat into a novel. The rewards of traveling alone certainly outweigh the occasional loneliness.
Oddly, the times that I feel the most lonely are in the most touristy cities. There are tons of people. Plenty of people speak English, but no one is excited to meet a tourist. The locals ignore you, or want to sell you something. The tourists are involved in their own activities and chat among their friends. Bangkok is like this. There are times that, I'll sit in a restaurant with 40 other tourists, but cannot find a way to join their conversations and will have no one to talk to. That's a lonely experience.
When you do get lonely, you rarely stay lonely for long. If you have a good book you can retreat into that for a while. Otherwise, your loneliness quickly overcomes any shyness and forces you to introduce yourself to strangers.
More often though, the problem isn't meeting people, but remembering all the names. Backpacker guesthouses are very social places. You walk in and almost immediately have a dozen new friends. The friendships tend to be brief and shallow. Only rarely do you make enduring friendships. The conversations get very repetitive: "Where are you from?", "How long have you been traveling?" It's not the same as hanging out with friends that you've had for years, but it is enough to keep you from feeling lonely.
Off the beaten path, you're actually rarely lonely. The few travelers stick together and help each other out. When you meet the other travelers in places like Indonesia and East Africa, there's an instant bond and an implied friendship.
Way off the beaten path there may be no tourists at all. You may not be able to speak a word of the local language. There may be no one for you to talk to. But way out there, I find that I'm completed sucked in by the adventures or struggles (depending on the day) of traveling. I'm busy absorbing the sights, the sounds, the smells around me. Thinking about being lonely rarely ever occurs to me.
Then there are places like Myanmar. All of the kids run out and shout "hello". All of the pretty girls smile and wave. It's very hard to feel lonely in a place like that. Way off the beaten path the locals tend to be most friendly. You don't need to speak their language to feel welcome.
Email also helps. The internet is there if I am ever feeling depressed (not often), or have a need to share a story. It's not the same as being in the same room with friends and family, but at least I can easily enough keep in touch with them.
I'm also often asked: "Why don't you travel with a friend?" The easiest answer to this, is that none of my friends have the motivation and nerve to travel for years through some of the more dangerous places of the world. Some of my friends have said that they're going to fly out and join me for a while, but none have yet. In part, that's my fault. I have a vague plan, but not a schedule. I never know when I'll be anywhere, so it's hard to catch up with me.
But, also I'm very happy traveling alone. I can live my life on a whim. I feel like staying in and reading a book today. I feel like climbing a mountain today. I feel like taking the night train to Budapest in search of a bagel. There's no debate or compromise. There's no effort in making a decision. The total freedom you have when traveling alone is amazing.

My 'office' on Ko ChangYou also meet many more people when you travel alone. First of all, loneliness is the instigator which forces you to introduce yourself to people where you ordinarily wouldn't. But, you're also more approachable when you're alone. Individuals and groups often invite you to join them. Ironically in places where I'm making lots of friends and having a great time, I meet couples who complain they feel lonely: "No one talks to us". People assume that couples want to be left alone, but they often end up feeling excluded.
So, that's it. I get lonely, but the loneliness isn't that bad. There is no question that I'm happier now, occasionally lonely on a beach in Zanzibar, than I was spending all day behind a desk.

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