Swollen and bruised and freshly tattooed, I’ve decided that there’s more to this “lonely girl” thing than a catchy title and purchasable domain name. It’s got to do with an approach towards travel, and maybe even an approach towards life, that’s developing inside me, embryonically. And at the center, the tiny heart between the budding limbs, is solitude, going at it sola.
There’s plenty of articles and blogs out there lauding the benefits of solo travel. Solo Friendly and Solo Traveler are devoted entirely to solo travel, with service-oriented tips and how-tos, while Women on the Road focuses exclusively on encouraging women to backpack. Independent-traveler sites BootsnAll and Matador have featured articles discussing pros and cons, and urging readers to take the solo plunge. The benefits promoted are fairly obvious—the freedom to do what you want when you want—as are the chief drawbacks discussed: safety and loneliness. Nearly every article and site on solo travel I’ve encountered has urged all travelers to go at it alone at least once.
I could write something similar, talk about how traveling solo forces me to be more social, to interact more with my surroundings; how it teaches me self-reliance and thus self-confidence; how I relish in the freedom of it; how none of my friends that can afford to travel are able to take the time off to accompany me anyway. But underneath and inside all those benefits is something harder to explain but ultimately more appealing, a kind of central gravity that all the other pluses of solo traveling orbit around: solitude.
It’s both positive and negative, both the exalted glory of Rilke and the insanity-inducing agony of solitary confinement. It’s a gnarled old wizard dude with a staff and a lantern, setting out into the craggy blue of the Hermit tarot card, now etched into the tender flesh on the inside of my arm, swollen amid the lymph nodes and brachial veins that hold me together.
On my last trip, I met many incredulous, widened eyes that asked, “You’re alone?” Then, declaratively, both impressed and horrified, “I could never do that”—in the way I’d respond to someone who’d climbed Mount Everest: good-for-you, thanks-but-no-thanks. People told me I was brave, fool-hardy, a feminist.
The truth is, I never really considered the fact that I was traveling alone; it rarely factors into my trip-planning, doesn’t strike me as odd or especially intrepid. It is what it is. Of course I’ll be alone. Who else am I gonna drag off around the planet?
But things like that, core characteristics and fundamental truths, rarely strike us as odd. Or even occur to us at all. They’re so central to who we are and how we live in the world that we aren’t aware of them. They strike us suddenly, in strange moments of lucidity—the porcelain-clutching “moment of clarity” in which one finally realizes she’s an alcoholic, or my mom’s recent epiphany that “we were the crazy white family in the neighborhood.” Or when someone else points it out to us, in the dingy back of dingy taxi, when you tell them you’re traveling alone.
For me, it goes back to my travel roots, which aren’t travel roots at all. It’s where I first learned to be alone in the world—the raggedy-ass East Bay buses. During my hour-and-a-half commute home from a far-away high school, I learned all the things international solo travel would later confirm and deepen—self-reliance, self-confidence, how to handle dicey situations and dodgy characters. It was especially important as a female. Honing my street smarts and learning how to carry myself and not take shit have been invaluable. And not something not every girl learns. The lessons taught on the hard plastic of AC Transit buses equipped me to travel sola everywhere from Colombia to Morocco.
But there’s something more inside that, something deeper and more fundamental than knowing how to watch your back and tell someone off with your eyes. More than even the confidence of knowing I’ll be able to figure out and make it through whatever crazy-ass situation I end up in. What is comes down to is a kind of comfort and security in who I am, and the way in which I never feel more like myself, the who-I-am underneath whatever’s happening in my life at the time, than when I’m alone, out in the world. It’s not the same sitting here in my bedroom typing; it’s gotta be out there, walking the streets and riding the buses of this world.
I think everyone should travel solo once in the same way I think everyone should be forced to wait tables once: it’d be nice, but not gonna happen. I don’t think solo travel is for everyone, but it’s become a defining part of how I experience the world, how I exist in it. I simultaneously delve deeper into myself (“the teacher within,” as they say in yoga) and my surroundings. I experience the world from a more intuitive, back-of-the-brain place, where I’m okay with it not making sense, where I find a way to somehow swim through the chaos and insanity and all-too-often heartbreaking cruelty of it, and tap, however lightly, on the beautiful something at the center of it all. I’m more able to trust that I’ve got a place somewhere amid it all.
During my four-hour detainment by the Venezuelan police a few years back, the female officer kept looking at my passport, me and back again, and asking, “Y estas sola?” She couldn’t believe I’d venture off in some other country by myself. However much of an evil, child-abusing American I might have been (it’s a long story), my being sola amazed her. And may have had something to do with me weaseling out of the situation.
I suppose it would have been more accurate to get a feminized Hermit card tattooed, but the beard was too Zeppelin-y to forfeit. And I feel cheesy having an uber-symbolic tattoo, to finally have some kind of answer for the middle-aged customers that look up over their reading glasses at me and ask what my tattoos mean. Most likely, I shrug and continue to say, “I just thought they looked cool.” At least until this approach, this fetal manifesto, is a little more gestated.