First Person: A Lone (But Not a Lonely) Traveler

lady

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND—When I told the waitress at the breakfast buffet this morning that I needed a table for one, she looked at me quizzically. “A table for one?” she asked. “Just for one?” “Yes,” I told her, smiling and trying not to be irritated. At dinner, the evening before, the wait-staff in the restaurant had hovered over me, asking me where I was from and why I was here travelling on my own. Forced to make small talk (but really wanting to catch up on a book I am reading about the mysterious disappearance of Thailand’s “Silk King” Jim Thompson), I explained I had been in Bangkok for a week working on story. I then told them I was now taking two weeks to explore both the north and south of Thailand. They seemed satisfied enough with my answer because having come to Thailand—initially for work—somehow implied that I was 1) a not weirdo or 2) a saddo vacationing on my own in some sort of “Eat Pray Love” trip to find myself.

I am a lone traveler but not a lonely one. In fact, I adore travelling on my own. As a journalist, I get paid to talk to people and ask questions—which I absolutely love. But I also like to have time to myself, not having to make chat with people, to absorb and think about the things I have seen and witnessed. I crave space and time to myself. So these two incidents got me thinking that the world seems to view single travelers in the best case, as a bit mysterious, and in the worst case, as suspicious. I used to think that as well as a teenager—I distinctly remember once on a dude ranch vacation (with my family), finding it odd and curious that there was a single woman who had come alone for her holiday. Last year, when I was back at the dude ranch (alone) researching my book, I totally empathized with that woman from that long ago vacation. I got really tired of some of the sad and curious looks I got from some fellow “City Slickers” also vacationing at the ranch. “I am here by myself, by my own choosing,” I wanted to scream across the desert. “ I have family. I have friends. I just wanted to hang out with myself.” Are we put off by solo travelers because maybe they reflect our own insecurities of being alone or that it smacks of some kind of fragility or failure? Or have we read too many novels where the single female traveler is either a predator/femme fatale of sorts trying to have a fling with someone’s boyfriend/husband (or wife) or is escaping from some kind of crime or drama or failed romance? I am not really sure why a solo traveler elicits such curiosity and sympathy.

mekongAs a journalist, travelling on your own is part and parcel of the job; you have to be independent, adaptable and social. I distinctly remember the first solo work trip I took; I was sent by NEWSWEEK to cover the 2000 Swiss spring skiing trip of Prince Charles, William and Harry. I remember I was so nervous travelling there on my own and not knowing anyone and feeling quite insecure about the whole thing. But it was a great learning experience, and a pretty stress free and interesting trip where I had drinks (and got lots of gossip) with members of the royal press corps and shared a ski lift with a paparazzo who had followed Princess Diana by motorcycle during that ill-fated trip through that Paris tunnel. Soon, solo work trips became second-nature to me; I have covered conflict in places like Lebanon, post-conflict in Sri Lanka, Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda and have had the prime minister of Fiji chase me down after a press conference in Suva to ask me why I was seen talking to one of his opponents at a hotel restaurant. And, seeing that these were all work-related solo jaunts, no one seemed to pay any attention to me hanging out by myself at restaurants, coffee shops or in hotel lobbies (except, as it seems, the prime minister of Fiji). I had a notepad and paper, so therefore, I must have a purpose, a good reason to be travelling to said country. But the moment it becomes something recreational and relaxed, the impression seems to change. Looks are exchanged between locals (“Don’t you have friends,” my tour guide here asked me). It leaves me a bit disheartened, not that I allow them to make me feel lame, but because maybe they don’t get the idea that travelling on your own does not make you lonely or mysterious.

I have travelled to Colombia, Indonesia and across Europe with friends and beaus and have been to places like China, India and Kenya with my family. And I love travelling with pals and family. It’s wonderful to compare notes as I wander through local markets with friends and surreptitiously roll my eyes with my family when tour guides make lame jokes. But I also like not having to wait around for people (a trip to Spain with two friends was fraught with angst as one friend spent practically every morning puttering around doing her toilette, meaning another friend and I were left twiddling our thumbs) or having to visit sites that I wasn’t interested in (many concessions have been made to family members over the years who wanted to troupe around ancient ruins while all I wanted was to visit art galleries or stroll through a village). I have also been burned by friends on holiday. When I spent a month volunteering at an orphanage in rural Russia, I became friends with several other volunteers. When the four weeks was up, one woman and I decided to travel to Moscow together for a few days, before we flew off to our respective homes. After being ogled and hassled by police in Red Square and getting ripped off by a taxi driver, she decided to change her flight and leave the next day. So I unexpectedly was by myself for three days, but I think that made me even more confident about travelling on my own. “If I can handle Moscow by myself,” I thought, “I can handle just about anything.” Ten years later, I returned to Moscow—solo for a story—and silently gave thanks to the city for making me a more  independent traveler.

Travelling solo is exciting—not only because you discover a new place and experience a new culture—but also because it’s a challenge to try and communicate, read maps and figure the best places to eat locally. I have one week left to explore the temples and beaches —and to inevitably deal with stares and looks from some people who may view me as some sad and lonely person vacationing on my own. But, in reality, I am really someone happy to have some time to contemplate different cultures and ask questions of locals that my friends and family tire of when travelling with me. So if you have not had the pleasure yet of vacationing solo, I urge you to do it. It nourishes and enriches the soul, boosts your confidence and gives you quality hang time with yourself. Just be on the alert for hovering waiters.

 

Both photos my own; top is of Palong woman near Chiang Mai. Second is me, on a boat in the Mekong River in international waters of Laos, Thailand and Burma