After living in Japan for two and a half years, I decided to take my first solo trip in the country to Sapporo, on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. While I had traveled alone quite a bit in other countries, I had never done so in Japan, mostly because I’d always had friends around who were willing to travel with me — including friends who could speak a lot better Japanese than me. This was pretty much a win-win situation for both me and my friends: they got an amusing travel companion (me!) and I didn’t have to worry about going hungry or sleeping on the streets (yeah for me!).
I spent my week alone in Sapporo eating lots of soft serve ice cream, drinking lots of Sapporo beer, seeing the sights and taking lots of pictures of myself with one arm holding up my camera. On my last night in town, I was sitting alone at the counter of a Korean restaurant listening to the two wild-haired twenty-year-old guys next to me giggle over the talk show on TV and the three-some of thirty-somethings on the other side of me talk about whether or not they should talk to me.
After twenty minutes of waiting for my jijimgae and perfecting a look of pathetic that would assure the thirty-somethings that I would neither bite them nor stalk them in their sleep, they finally started talking to me. While they were interested in finding out where I was from, what I was doing in Sapporo and whether or not I liked it there, their biggest concern was whether or not I was lonely. “Aren’t you lonely? I would be lonely if I was sitting in a restaurant by myself. I would never even come into a restaurant by myself! Just looking at you makes me feel lonely,” one of the women said with a look of concern that one usually reserves for shoe-less orphans or lepers or maimed kittens.
I’m not sure how I responded to her question. I probably lied. I probably said, “Oh no, I’m not lonely! I love sitting alone in restaurants. It’s great! You can really concentrate on things like your food and chewing and, you know, the ceiling tiles! When you’re with friends or on some hot date, you’re all wrapped up in pesky conversation and you totally forget to check out the restaurant’s wallpaper! Don’t you just hate that?!”
But, I was lonely. There hasn’t been a single time that I’ve traveled by myself that I haven’t at some point felt lonely. Don’t get me wrong. I love traveling by myself. I love the freedom it gives me to go wherever I want, see whatever I want and eat whatever I want as many times as I want without someone saying, “I’d rather go to the other museum: the one that has art and not just a collection of shrunken heads” or “Isn’t that your second breakfast? How much bacon are you going to eat today?”
I also love the freedom traveling alone gives me to do absolutely nothing. Should the mood strike me, I could just lie by the pool all day, drinking gin and tonics and reading trashy teen fiction and no one will be the wiser… except for maybe the waiter and the other adult women on the Twilighters Anonymous fansite (but I have a feeling my secret is safe with them).
Despite my love of solo travel, there’s always some point when I’m on the road alone, usually while I’m sitting by myself counting the ceiling tiles over dinner or wondering where the restaurant got their wallpaper, when I feel lonely.
In the past, I’ve had some luck meeting other solo travelers (our eyes locking as we count the ceiling tiles). Usually they are just as happy as me to have someone to hang out with for a few hours… or even a few days. The last time I was in Thailand, I spent a weekend bumming through Ayuthaya with a British girl who was also on her own. I then spent almost two weeks off and on in Northern Thailand with a French girl I had met in a cooking class.
Sometimes I look so pathetic that I attract the alarm of the locals (as I did in Sapporo) or vacationing couples. One morning in Bali, an older, wealthy Australian couple invited me to join them for breakfast and by the end of the meal they were ready to adopt me! (Umm, Australian Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, I could use a little cash to pay off my grad school loans… just saying).
Sometimes I’ll be in a place that doesn’t seem to have any other single travelers. Seeing as a single hotel room in Japan costs anywhere from seventy dollars to the price of a new kidney, it’s not exactly the country to meet up with other solo backpackers. I very rarely met people traveling alone in Japan, aside from the occasional businessman.
Or I’ll end up in a setting that’s so romantic, so couples-only, that any other single traveller would have known better to steer clear. One night while in Bali, I arrived at a beachside restaurant positively crawling with couples in love and candlelight. As if that wasn’t bad enough, as soon as I sat down the five-piece Caribbean band unwisely set up camp in front of my table and decided to serenade me. In my mind, every single lovey-dovey couple in the restaurant was looking at me and thinking, “Wow, that poor girl. I wonder why she’s all by herself. Do you suppose she has leprosy or something?”
Yep, I felt pretty lonely.
Given the fact that I usually expect to feel some bit of loneliness while traveling alone, I’m surprised at how unlonely I’ve felt while being here in Thailand. In the past four weeks of cat-sitting in the middle of Northern Thai wilderness, I’ve only had one conversation in English with someone that didn’t consist of a complicated series of hand gestures and facial expressions. Due to my isolated location and lack of Thai language skills, I’m not exactly making friends (unless I can consider the kids that crowd by the side of the road and scream at me passing by on my bike “Hello! Where you going?” my friends). I don’t go out to parties or mingle or meet new people. Heck, there are days I don’t even go out of the front gate of the property I’m house-sitting. But, yet, I don’t feel lonely. And, frankly, I’m a little worried.
I consider myself a people person. I’m not good at many things. I have no aptitude for math or languages. I can’t read sheet music, sing on key or play a musical instrument. I have no hand-eye coordination to speak of and possess the grace of a drowning goat. I don’t understand computers. I can’t speak to spirits. I have been known to set myself on fire while making toast. But, if there’s one thing I do well, it’s socializing! You could invite me to your family reunion where I don’t know a single person and I’ll have the whole room doing the Macarena in twenty minutes; give me fifty minutes, and I’ll be in your Great Aunt Hilda’s will.
It’s not that I’m overly attractive or fashionable or suave. I have hair that defies combs, a cheap plastic footwear fetish that defies fashion and the flirting ability of an awkward fourteen-year-old boy. But I’m chatty, good at refilling drinks and have been told I’m charming on numerous occasions… not a leggy-blonde-movie-starlet-charming, more like a fun-at-parties-and-doesn’t-even-mind-doing-the-dishes-afterward-charming.
So how can a professed people person enjoy living alone in the middle of the Thai wilderness without any friends, family or potential adoptive Australian parents nearby to keep me company? Am I turning into an anti-social recluse? Am I at risk of becoming the next unabomber or, possibly worse yet, some crazy old cat lady? Will I start collecting old newspapers and talking to dolls? Will the neighborhood children stop asking me where I’m going because they’re afraid to find out that I’m on my way to my candy house in the middle of the forest where I like to eat runaways?!
I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately (along with practicing my friendly, non-threatening, I-swear-I-don’t-eat-children smile in the mirror before heading out on my bike where I might encounter the locals). I’ve figured out that there are a few things that have prevented me from feeling the usual bouts of solo travel loneliness that I usually feel. And, here they are:
Social Networking IS My Social Life
It’s true. I’m a Facebook and Twitter addict. I’ve been in love with Facebook since I joined a year and a half ago before leaving for a month in Nepal. It’s been a great way for me to keep in touch while overseas with friends and family and a few random people I thought I knew and Facebook-friended and then realized I’d never actually met.
After much urging by my sister, I finally joined Twitter right before leaving Japan. I felt guilty at first, like I was cheating on Facebook, but now I’m hooked. I’d dare say I’m even more addicted to Twitter now than I am to Facebook. You see, most of my Facebook friends are people from the States who are usually sleeping while I’m hanging out on cyberspace looking for a little attention. Meanwhile, my followers on Twitter are from all over the world, and those that are from North America don’t seem to sleep all that much. That way there is always a conversation going on even if the conversation includes lots of words and phrases I don’t understand like #FF and #TLS and Justin Bieber.
Now, one could argue that my relationships with my Facebook friends and Twitter followers aren’t “real” relationships, but I’d argue that in some ways they are better than real relationships. In real life, I forget birthdays, don’t notice new haircuts and say some really stupid things I probably shouldn’t say. But Facebook is happy to remind me of your birthdate. That new photo on your profile page with the caption “My New ‘Do!” prompts me to compliment you on your new haircut. And, I never have to worry about saying something stupid, because I usually take at least five minutes to write and edit my status updates and tweets (Think those 140 characters of tweet-genius just happen naturally?! Heck, no!).
Sure, Facebook and Twitter can’t replace face-to-face human contact and real life relationships… but they do make me feel a bit more connected to my friends, family and about four hundred people I’ve never met before.
As much as I don’t want to sound like a crazy cat lady, I do have to say pets make for great company. Sure, cats can’t talk but they can listen… well, kind of. (I’m pretty sure the cat was not listening to me when I told him to stop yowling in my ear at 6 AM this morning). It’s always better to talk to a cat than an inanimate object. (Although, I’ve been doing plenty of that lately. Yesterday, I called a piece of tofu a “jerk.” Yes, I’ve gone there.) Plus, cats will never complain if they already heard you tell that story before. (Tofu, on the other hand, will always complain. Jerk!).
Even better, cats purr. No matter how you feel about cats, you have to admit purring is pretty great. It makes you feel all warm and fuzzy and fantastic and all you had to do was spend two minutes out of your day petting the cat… or feeding the cat… or getting out of bed at 6 AM in the morning to figure out why the cat is yowling in your ear.
If only people could purr, I’m pretty sure we’d have world peace. Instead of fighting, people would just want to be nice to each other and make each other purr, don’t you think?! Maybe try to feed each other tuna and tickle each other under the neck. Okay,now, I really am starting to sound like a crazy cat lady, so I’m just going to stop talking about cats and purring for now… (But be warned: with another month by myself in the Thai wilderness with just the cats, you’ll probably be hearing more about them. Heck, I might even have one of the cats write a guest post! Who knows, maybe one of the cats is the next Huffle Mawson, the number one cat blogger on the wonderful Cats with Blogs Website).
No More Table for One
Usually when I travel, I am forced to eat out every meal (forced, I tell you!). And, while I enjoy restaurant food as much as the next traveler (maybe more if that food includes bacon), dining by yourself can really remind you that you’re, well, by yourself. While you’re sitting there examining your beer bottle label and rereading the menu for the twelfth time, it always feels like all the cozy couples and happy vacationing families are staring at you in pity. (They’re not. Don’t worry. Unless, of course, there’s a five-piece band playing “No Woman, No Cry” in front of your beachside table… and, you are, in fact, crying). When you’re in a restaurant crowded with tables for twos, threes and fours, especially if those tables are full of candlelight and laughter, it’s hard not to feel like your table for one is the loneliest place in the world.
These days, I often go out for lunch at a local restaurant, cafe or the day market, but dinner is usually spent at home since it’s too dark to ride my bike anywhere. I don’t have to see candlelit cozy couples or happy vacationing families enjoying their holidays and each other’s company. I don’t have the locals asking me if I feel lonely or a five-piece Caribbean band serenading me. There’s no one thinking I’m a leper, recluse or, worse yet, the local crazy cat lady who lives in a candy house and eats runaways. At home it’s just me, the two cats and a whole lot of purring. (Oh yeah, and about four hundred of my closest Twitter followers.)