Never more alone or more alive
The concept of time baffles me. I cannot explain how seven years can feel like seven minutes and how three weeks feels more like three months have passed. I’m currently travelling around Japan by myself, a concept that baffles some people that I meet. The ask “Just you?”, wonder “Where are your friends?”, and want to know “Is your husband joining us?”. I don’t travel alone to make a point out of it. I simply want to have adventures and experiences that I cannot have at home, and at the moment that means doing it solo.
The inevitable highs and low of travel are amplified when you have no one to share them with. When you are travelling alone you get these intense moments of personal pride. Like navigating a complex subway system with no WiFi, and ordering a meal in a foreign country using hand gestures. It’s a chance to celebrate the things you did all on your own.
A cool guy I met in a calligraphy class in Tokyo said:
You can’t just arrive and be in it.
Words that I will forever appreciate more than he will know. Your first day in a new place can be tough, especially when you’re hungry, tired, bewildered, and can’t quite work out how to use the shower. You can’t run away, you just got here. His words will forever remind me to take it easy when you arrive, take a moment to do something to make yourself feel better, and get some rest. Now the adventure can begin.
When you are in the flow of travel, travel is the best. But when you are out of sync, wherever you are feels like the loneliest place in the world. You have to eat alone a lot. I like to take a book, write in my notebook, and look around. I find a seat at the bar is best so you can watch the kitchen or a seat at the window to watch the street. In Chicago, I sat at the counter next to a chef who was training to print 3D food. We ended up sharing our dinner and dessert so we could try everything.
Somewhere in the first week, the blissful feeling of solitude kicks in. You start to feel like you’re travelling with your best friend and your lover, but it’s just you. I like how Cheryl Strayed explained being alone when she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail by herself as:
A room where I could retreat to be who I really was.
In a subtle way, you start to feel more open and alive as you notice how you are flourishing being completely alone.
Another obvious thing about travelling alone is you have a lot of time to think. Like a lot. Forget the promise of not buying books when you only have a 12kg backpack. I’ve already bought six and the writers have been my travel companions. I like to start a fresh notebook at the beginning of a trip to write down quotes, lyrics, questions, and ideas. But my favourite thing to do, as is true for all of my life, is to make playlists as a way to make sense of my experiences.
One thing I have loved and loathed about travelling alone, depending on the day, is having to make all the choices. As much as I love being Spontaneous Sally, you do need to plan ahead with hostels, Couchsurfing hosts, trains and popular attractions. You also have be extremely attentive and always ‘on’. No one is going to tell you that it’s your train stop while you’re looking at Instagram or have fallen asleep. But no one is also going to stop you from going to a cat island. Accept that decision fatigue is a part of the adventure of travelling by yourself. And when you meet a stranger who offers to take care of the directions say yes, you may end up staying on an organic farm in the Japanese countryside for a weekend that changes everything.
Plans constantly change when you travel, so you have to be more flexible than you think yourself capable of being. Continually assess if you’re doing what you want to be doing and follow your gut instincts. Sometimes you need to cancel your dinner plans, spend the night in a deep soak bathtub and watch Fifty Shades Darker partly dubbed in Russian. Other days will be a whirlwind of peak life experiences and you’ll be so happy you think you will burst. These are the best days, cherish them.
A special part of how I travel is the insane synchronicities and coincidences. It happens a lot with me and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Surprises are everywhere and magic does exist if you stay open and as present as possible. Even if you don’t believe in the Universe with a capital U, something out there is looking out for you and sending serendipitous meetings and people your way that change the course of your travels.
The darker days will also come, usually at night. Yesterday was unexplainably amazing and all of a sudden you have never felt so empty and lost. It may feel like it, but the darkness isn’t permanent. The loneliness and confusion often pass by morning when you step into the light of a new day. During these times, I am comforted by Mary Oliver’s words, “things take the time they take” when the enormity of being alone in the world hits me.
A way to shake off unease and have fun is to seek out experiences that you cannot have at home. I call them ‘experiments in truth’ and they include things like doing a yoga class in a foreign language, getting naked in a communal bath, asking the waiter to order for you, saying yes to a free haircut at a punk show, taking trains instead of planes, eating an extravagant Michelin-star meal, and staying in a boutique bed and breakfast by yourself. It’s good to indulge from time to time to make up for all the times you walked fourteen blocks with your entire luggage in the rain instead of taking a taxi.
Some other truths about travelling alone are that you will wear the same outfit again and again, you will be in a relationship with Google Maps, and you will be alright if you have a place to sleep.
The greatest gift of travel is meeting people who become soul friends in an instant. You share intense experiences with them that cannot be explained in a simple sentence. You will feel utterly humbled by humans. In Japanese kanji, the symbol for ‘essence’ translates to ‘shinzui’ meaning ‘God or human’ and ‘marrow’. I love how you get to know yourself, your core and truths most when you travel alone. The ache in your bones and the fire in your chest is trying to tell you something, so listen. Everything eventually makes sense.
If you’re travelling alone or plan to, you’re having an experience that many people never will. My advice is to approach everything as an adventure, have a curious spirit, always be kind, stay present, seek moments of reverence, embrace your enthusiasm, and trust your unshakeable faith. Everything is happening as it should. It will be hard, but it will be worth it.
As Rainer Maria Rilke said best in his Letters To A Young Poet:
Let life happen to you. Believe me: life is right in any case.
Because whatever happens, at least my heart was open.
Listen to my playlist At Least My Heart Was Open on Spotify – a story of songs about travel, solitude, and feeling never more alone or more alive.