Many people will tell you to travel alone, will tell you that it is mind-blowing, life-changing, world-shattering. What not a lot of people will tell you is that it can be lonely, even for the most antisocial introvert. The good news is that the loneliness rarely lasts.
First, there is fear.
My first solo trip lasted the whole of one day. I had met up with some friends in Singapore for a concert that was canceled at the last minute. After a fun few days in the Merlion city, they returned to Manila while I continued on to Penang in Malaysia.
“Why Penang?” They asked.
“Food,” was my reply.
Since my funds were limited, I could only afford to go for one day.
I took the bus from Singapore to Butterworth, then took the ferry to Penang, even though the bus was going there anyway. I took a cab from the port to the budget hotel I was staying in for the night. I was frightened the whole time.
Penang is a safe town. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and is also known for its food culture. It’s where Malaysians go to eat. I couldn’t have picked a better place for my first solo trip.
I walked around my neighborhood. I had really good milk tea at a random shop. I tried the pancakes. I pointed at whatever I wanted to eat, and it got served to me, freshly made. I found out that a lot of the Chinese in Penang spoke Hokkien, so that’s what I tried to speak when they couldn’t understand English; I ran out of Chinese really fast.
I visited a museum, got there just in time for the last tour of the day. I realized that my hotel was next to a giant pet store that sold everything from dogs and cats to sugar glider and tarantulas to monster fish.
The monster fish fascinated me. There, at the back of the store, next to the fish spa and dog salon, stood a tank filled with fish bigger than an average person. This, I think, was the highlight of my trip.
I had one of the best meals of my life at the airport, in a restaurant that let you assemble your own meal. I picked rice, some sort of curry sauce, and an egg, the whole thing paired with milk tea, always milk tea. And just like that, it was time to fly to Singapore, then Manila.
I was scared the whole time. So scared, I didn’t have time to process anything beyond the extremes of fear and elation. It was uncomfortable, but not too uncomfortable that I didn’t want to try it again.
Next, there is loneliness.
It was a long time before I had the opportunity to travel alone again. I decided to spend a few days in La Union.
I booked a hostel, determined not to leave the resort.
It was heck getting there. I got on the wrong bus, the one that would take eight hours instead of three. The bus broke down in the middle of nowhere, and after an hour of waiting, it was finally decided that we would soldier on, slowly, because the brakes weren’t working, but we wanted to get to where we were going.
I reached the resort in the middle of the night. The bus overshot, so I ended up in the middle of town and had to wake a sleeping tricycle driver up so he could take me to the resort at two in the morning. I am thankful that there was a tricycle driver nearby.
That permission to stay in one place, to not have to explore, see the sights, take in history, be a tourist, was the best thing I had permitted myself to do on that trip: it took away the pressure to ‘achieve’ something and it allowed me to just ‘be.’ But it didn’t stop me from getting lonely.
There were very few people at the resort, which is exactly how I wanted it. The loneliness came as a surprise. I was lying in my bunk when it hit me–a sensation both mental and physical. A hollowness in my chest and an ache in my gut, accompanied by what I can only describe as the mental sensation of falling into an abyss in my brain. It was scary, but it passed, and in a shorter time span than I thought it would, too. That feeling of crushing, despairing loneliness lasted about a couple of minutes, no more than five at most. When it hit, I let it, treating it as more a curiosity than an emotion–I had, after all, never felt it before. I think it was this mindset that helped it pass so quickly. I remember the emotion well, though I have never felt it since.
Finally, there is delight.
I’ve found that the best way for me to enjoy a vacation is to have both nothing and everything planned. This means I have an itinerary that I may or may not follow, depending on my mood.
I booked a trip to Hong Kong to recharge, again expecting not to leave the hostel, but with a list of places to go to just in case I did.
I enjoyed every minute of it.
Though I readied myself for it, the crippling sense of loneliness did not return. I spent the whole trip alone, blissfully alone, bathed in a sense of utter calmness, a simple kind of joy.
Divested of schedule and responsibility, I could, for a short time–and bear with me when I describe this–hear myself feel. The trouble with this kind of self-restoration is that it can be quite addictive. That, once back in ‘real life,’ you cannot help but long for solitude once again.
My Hong Kong trip made me realize why so many people travel alone. It is, I realized, to experience the opposite of loneliness. It is to experience the company of yourself.