Joys of the Lonely Road
The old US school bus sat at the top of the hill, its iconic yellow hidden under fading turquoise paint. With every seat filled and children, chickens and brightly coloured plastic baskets piled onto laps, we waited to leave. Something, however, was amiss. A mechanic had been called and lay under the chassis, tinkering. The road which rolled out in front of us was the steepest in the country, people kept saying.
The bus was alive with speculation, most of which was passing me by in one of Guatemala's 23 indigenous languages, but the slight boy next to me was translating the salient points into Spanish. Whip thin and vibrating with energy, he rapped his knuckles on the armrest as the drama ensued, keeping me abreast of the action. Finally, after much discussion with the ever more anxious driver, the mechanic emerged, his face slick with oil and grime, and the old bus lurched into action "We're off!" said the kid. Drama over, he turned his speculation to me, the lone pale blonde girl in the bus full of locals. "Where are you going anyway, what are you doing here?" I told him I was travelling, heading towards Huehuetenango. "Oh don’t go there! " he said, rapping his knuckles again. "No no. come back to my village instead!". His grin was irresistible. We got off by a cluster of white houses perched together on the hillside, where his mother made us sweet coffee and we communicated in broken Spanish and gesticulation. Later they directed me to a neighbours house - her son had gone away, and I could sleep, for a pittance, on his mattress, looking out at the incredible inky darkness of the starry night, filled with coffee and stories and gratitude for my new friends.
No one else in the world knew where I was that night. How could they have done? I was five and a half thousand miles from home, with no phone and no one to answer to. If I'd been travelling with a friend, would we have followed the boy to his village? We’d have probably been talking to each other on the bus and not engaged with him in the first place. Maybe one of us would have been tempted and the other would’ve been the voice of reason. Chances are, we would have carried on our planned route, met a few more tourists at a hostel, and never known what we'd missed. I met the boy and saw the starlit village and drank the strange sweet coffee his mother had brewed out on the little gas stove because I was alone and unaccounted for.
We are rarely alone, almost never untraceable, and seldom choose our path for the day on a whim. Even if we’re on vacation, away from our routine lives, we google every journey to find the quickest route, check in with friends, 'check in' on Facebook, Instagram our every move. If we’re lucky enough to live somewhere relatively safe, it’s more and more possible to live in a protected (and ever documented) bubble, never stepping out of our comfort zone, starting each day knowing more or less exactly how it will play out. But sometimes we need something to shake us out of that certainty. Sometimes we need to step away from our own lives to see the overprivileged wood from the mundane trees.
If you are stuck or stagnant and have the time and means, travel alone. In fact, do it if you aren’t stuck at all, just for the pure joy of it! Leave your phone behind, take only what you need and set off. Go as far as you can for as long as you can with only the vaguest of plans.
I am young and in Kuala Lumpur with friends when I lose my passport, complete with visas. I leave my friends to sightsee and set off to queue at embassies all over town. When I arrive at the embassy it is closed. It is also on a freeway on the outskirts of town. I have no idea how to get back into to the city. The monsoon is in full swing, and I am soaking. Suppressing a headful of warnings from childhood, I step onto the hard shoulder and hitch a lift. The driver is courteous, a neat businessman, elegant in his suit beside as I sit drenched and bedraggled beside him. I am back at the hostel in no time. I am as thrilled as a child who has just dropped her training wheels. "I did it!" I think. In an unintentional half hour freeway ride I have discovered solo travel. The seed is sown.
A couple of years later, I’d run aground. A relationship had gone wrong, I hated the place I was working, I needed something to shake me out of my torpor. "I wish I could just run away to Mexico or something," I told my friend over too many teas in our gloomy Camden flat. Like most of the days which had come before it, it was a grey, the very air permeated with a sense of narrow impossibility. "Why don't you then?” She said.”Why don’t you just walk down to the STA right now and book a flight? If you really want to..." The implicit belief that I wouldn't do it was too goading to resist, and by afternoon I had a ticket to Guatemala City and return from New York, three months later. In the three months leading up to my departure, I went to work every day and took on extra shifts, went for drinks at the weekend, saw a couple of exhibitions, spoke to one or two people I hadn't met before. In the three months away I crossed three countries, hitched rides with wild eyed long distance lorry drivers and sharp suited salesmen; crossed the jungle in flatbed trucks where I was the only one not carrying a machete, slept under the stars in hammocks and in motels with hourly rates and swum in turquoise seas. I met an endless succession of people. Farmworkers and doctors in Guatemala, street vendors, musicians and artists in Mexico, crazed American junkies lurking near the border, a rock star and an actual rocket scientist in California. I was hooked.
In my twenties and thirties I worked freelance, hand to mouth, and could never plan trips away, so instead, I waited until a gap in bookings and looked for the cheapest flight somewhere I'd never been. Bucharest, Budapest, Sofia, Bratislava, anywhere I knew no one. Fly in, travel as far around the country as possible, race back to work. I can’t pretend that every trip was the perfect adventure –there were routine train journeys and humdrum towns and lonely nights in cheap motels. But I’ve never had a day when travelling alone when I haven’t met someone interesting, seen something strange and new, and eaten something (wonderful or terrible) I’ve never tried before.
In a recent survey of 13,000 people who had travelled alone1, 13% changed their job or career on their return, and 20% left relationships or moved. Like an impressionist painting, its easier to see your life clearly when you step away from it – the flaws and the blessings. And a moment of distance from the drama is a powerful aid to changing the course of events.
Solo travel is a three pronged attack on who we think we are and have to be.
First, it strips you of the crushing certainty of exactly how everything will work. When you are a far from home and know no one, you will have to negotiate your environment unassisted. Get on the right bus, order the meal which doesn't contain horse tongue, find somewhere to sleep. And when you've done all that, and its still only midday, an hour when you'd have normally negotiated nothing more challenging than Starbucks, you have that "I did it!" sense of achievement. Even if you start out jaded and sure of your ability to achieve anything you want in life, the challenges you encounter should unsettle you just enough to make things interesting.
You can easily iron out a lot of the hazards and thus unadventurise your adventure these days. You can google your route across Tallin before you even leave Tallahassee, and vice versa, book a well reviewed motel, find a recommended restaurant. If you can resist it, I’d urge you not to. Ask a stranger! Get on a bus you think, but aren’t sure, is going the right way. Wander around a street market and eat something unidentifiable for lunch. What do you have to lose?
As Bill Bryson says: "I can't think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again, You can't read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, you can't even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses" 2
Secondly, it allows you to change your mind on a whim as many times a day as you want to without discussing anything with anyone. How liberating this is only becomes clear when you put it into practice.
Thirdly, it puts you somewhere where nobody knows your name. If you are in an alien culture you will be less able to read the subtle indicators of class, education or political belief in your interlocutors, as they will be with you. Thus unable to attempt to please by imitation, you’ll be free to be yourself, perhaps for the first time since childhood.
I have always been insecure, painfully aware of the way anything I say is received by the room. In the years between school (where these habits were learned) and travelling, I made few friends. How could I, when I was only ever trying to be the echo of whoever I was meeting at that moment?
In Mexico, I meet a dog on a deserted beach, a husky way too hirsute for the desert heat. His owner is lurking in the shadows, a sinewy intellectual in his fifties, interesting and interested. He offers to drive me around the peninsula: "You can't really see it without a car" he tells me. We set off across the sandy desert, each corner we turn seeming to reveal a more beautiful azure bay than the last. The yellow grey of the sunbeaten land is broken with flashes of bougainvillea, pink, scarlet, unbelievable. Lizards scuttle in the dust. As we drive, it occurs to me that this highly intelligent man neither thinks I’m stupid nor cares, and holds a similar lack of opinion about my life choices. The slate is blank. He is seeing me for exactly who I appear to be at that moment, without any prior knowledge or social clues. We are still friends 17 years later.
To quote Alain de Botton, “It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others...Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others; then, too, we may become caught up in adjusting ourselves to the companion's questions and remarks, or feel the need to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity.” 3
There is always the fear as a westerner going to far flung places that you will be perceived as some latter day colonial, with a superiority complex and an innately racist sense of wonder. To be safe from this, you should only travel to places on an equal economic footing to your hometown, places where the culture isn’t alien. Which somewhat crushes the point of travel. Against this caution, I would urge Maya Angelou's point - "Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but, by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other we may even become friends"4
Immersing yourself in another culture should be a respectful education. There can be no more humbling experience for the arrogant westerner to than to realize that he, in fact, is the foreigner, the heathen who does not understand the social niceties, who is uncouth and alien and just plain getting it wrong.
Certainly, the journalist who has travelled around Nigeria won’t go asking daft questions about whether there are any bookstores there.5
Finally, at the end of my first trip alone, I call my mother. She has been stoically silent about her fears as I've called in from Guatemala, Mexico, America, telling tales of hitchhiking and rough sleeping. Now that I am finally at the end she tells me how worried she's been, and how relieved she is that I'm safely in New York. I tell her I'll be going sightseeing downtown in the morning, and flying home in the afternoon. It is the night of September 10th, 2001.
We are more likely to die of cancer or car wrecks close to home than in far flung places. We tend to be murdered by people we know. Yet the foreign seems so much more dangerous, simply because we can't picture it. The electric fear of the unknown gives the traveller a frisson of excitement but can be torment for the people they’ve left behind. And therein lies the great wonder of technology. You can wonder the globe now, but keep your family aware of your every move.
Are experiences simply that - a time you've had which is more interesting than the other times, to be filed away in a memory bank and slowly forgotten? I would argue that they aren't, that they shape you. You will see new things and meet new people, and if you’re unlucky and have grown up somewhere monocultural enough that alternatives are alien and therefore threatening, you will learn very quickly how similarly we all laugh, eat and bleed.
Pontificating about cultural enrichment aside, you will have had, finally a chance to be yourself. Maybe a self vastly different from the one you've been before. You will have had adventures. You will have stretched time - in the week or month you have been away your friends will have done "nothing really, just worked" and you will have climbed mountains alone, heard the roaring silence of the desert or the endless singsong of the jungle or the impassioned talk of Palermo at lunchtime. From thereon in, you will know that somewhere out there the moon is hovering over an inky sea and a night scented with jasmine, and the old men are playing chess in the park and you need only buy a ticket to go and join them. You may even be able to see new beauty and wonder in your hometown.
Summer 2012. I have been living in California. It is high summer and has been for months. I have seen the desert in bloom, swum in millionaires pools and worked on skid row. I have no desire to come home to England. When I arrive it is June, as grey, dismal and cold as February. I cycle to the farmers market in the mist and buy English vegetables and ride back along the canal in the half light. The canal boaters are wearing performance outerwear, queuing at a lock, the most English of scenes. Men in high vis jackets sit eating enormous greasy fry-ups and drinking mugs of tea in a towpath cafe. It is beautiful and exotic and as strange and unknowable as anywhere I have ever been.
1 Survey by Booking.com, 2017
2 Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There – Travels in Europe
3 Alain De Botton, The Art Of Travel
4 Maya Angelou, Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now
5 In January 2018, French journalist Caroline Broué sparked outrage when she asked Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whether there were any bookshops in Nigeria.