The topic of solo travel came up in a travel group I belong to on Facebook. One of my fellow travel bloggers made an interesting observation – most solo travel isn’t really ‘solo’; you meet strangers along the way, who become a part of your journey. Indeed, the picture most have of solo travel is that of staying in backpacker’s hostels and going clubbing with motley groups of tourists. I’m sure that’s a charming experience but last year in Europe, I had the kind of solo travel where I met no one, spoke to no one and befriended no one for several days on end. Sounds scary? It was. But it was also exhilarating. And as an introvert, who often dreads social interactions, I learnt an important lesson:
Solitude is a drug that can only be enjoyed in small doses.
In college, when I was fatigued by the interpersonal politics I had to endure with my friends and classmates, I would crave to be alone and anonymous. I cherished my long walks from Churchgate to CST station; the sensation of enjoying the world with no judgement whatsoever. I know now, that perhaps half the problem was my perception of how people viewed me, but it is true that I still seek solitude as a much-needed respite from the inevitable travails of life. And that’s the reason I wasn’t as scared as I should have been, when I embarked all alone on my trip to London and Paris, last year in July.
In London, I stayed in a tiny room, whose window looked on to the roofs of neighbouring buildings. I’d switch on the television when I returned in the night (after a long day of hectic explorations), watch British news channels and movies, and dine on the bread and cheese I’d picked up at Tesco supermarket. I’d then spread my map of the city on the single bed and plan my day ahead. I’d count my cash, check the photographs on my camera and dwell on the day gone by, as I lay in bed, tucked under my quilt. It was all very homely and peaceful and a kind of meditative calm descended on my mind. This calm was rudely jolted when I nearly missed my hop-on-hop-off bus, lost my entire cell phone balance on a single call and encountered a rude (bordering on racist) old woman at Buckingham Palace. But these experiences only served to balance what would have otherwise been too ‘perfect’ a trip. And what is good travel if not riddled with eventful imperfections?
I was perfectly happy sitting by the window, alone, during the long bus ride to the English countryside. We went to Windsor, Stonehenge and Bath and it was only at the end of the trip that I struck up a conversation with a Brazilian tourist of Asian descent. For a brief moment, I had a glimpse of just how much diversity there is in this wide world of ours and how much of it is unknown to the average human being. The trouble with always doing things in the company of other people is that you’re always rooted in reality. In their laughter, chatter and the feel of their warm skin, you can never forget who and where you are.
Travelling on your own is a surreal, meditative experience because in the silence and the solitude, your spirit can commune with the world at large. You don’t engage with bits and pieces but the universe in its entirety. And yet, we are earthly beings with time-bound desires. And if you lose yourself for too long, it gets harder to find your way back to the life you left behind in your city of residence.
When I travelled alone, I was no one. I could be anyone. I realised, that our identities are carved only by the guidance, responses and constant acknowledgement of other people. When your mother is around, you are her daughter. Alone, you are still her daughter, but the fact no longer governs your present moment. When all such facts fall away, you are free, not to play a role, but to simply be. From London, I boarded a train to Paris, the city of my dreams. It has become a cliché now, but when I was in school, I taught myself French and I dreamt of sitting in an al fresco cafe one day and indulging in the French pastime of watching the world go by. I listened to their music, watched their films and fancied that I was Parisian in a bygone lifetime.
In Paris, I had friends. I toured the city and sampled generously of its nightlife in their company. But there were some things I knew I couldn’t share with them; some experiences that had to be had, alone. The sunset cruise on the Seine, the view of the Eiffel Tower in the night and the breathtaking tour of the Louvre – these were some of the miracles I bequeathed to solitude. Would I have had those epiphanies at the Louvre or wept at the Eiffel Tower if I had been with someone else? I think not.
You do miss your better half when on a solo sojourn.
There were moments in Paris which I believe would have been richer if I could have shared them with a special someone. But to be honest, I think that blogger was right after all. There is no such thing as solo travel. When you travel without immediate companions, in fact, you travel with the whole world beside you. You travel with the sunsets, the birdsong and the roadside musicians. You travel with the churches, the nectarine vendors and the passengers on your train. You travel with the very air around you.