Traveling Solo: Alert, Aware, and Less Alone and Than You Think

Due to scheduling conflicts, Brian and I parted ways in Malaysia, and I ended up climbing Mt. Kinabalu without my travel partner.
When Brian asked me which country of those I'd been was my favorite so far, I started rattling them of with considerable ease: Cuba... China... France... Malaysia... we both immediately noticed a pattern. "Those are all places you've gone without me" he accused me.

At first, I cold-heartedly brushed off his observation and innocent wist, insisting that it was a coincidence. After all, I couldn't explain why China was more interesting to me than Thailand, why Paris was more romantic to me than Cambodia, or why I was able to meet (and dance the night away with) so many friendly locals in Cuba. I reasoned that I wasn't trying to make him jealous--the fact that those countries were in many ways my favorites was just the way the cards fell.

But then again...

When I went to South Korea with a group of friends, we chattered non-stop on the subways and as we absent-mindedly window shopped down crowded boutique neighborhoods. I hardly noticed the bustling scenes as shop window after shop window after small cafe flew by. In Vietnam, I caught some kind of stomach parasite, so Brian was charged with building our itinerary, dragging me from one landmark to the next, and seeking out plain rice and bread for my meals while I stayed locked up in the hotel or sat with my head down at a picnic table. With someone to care for me, I let myself be led around around blindly. That trip still is a bit hazy to me. In Taiwan, Brian and I met up with one of Brian's Taiwanese friends and for 10 days, we all practically held hands as we stayed at parents' homes, were taken on truck rides by uncles and cousins, and were even told exactly what to eat in order to get the truest sense of the legendary Taiwanese cuisine. Going to Taiwan was like coming home, except without being able to understand anything.

These trips were great. They were memorable. It almost didn't even matter where I was because I was so engrossed and distracted by the warm company of my friends. I had fun, I relaxed, and I was safe.

On the other hand... when I think of Cuba (a country I'd gone to before Brian and I were a couple), I remember vividly the time that I walked through small neighborhoods, past cigar and trinket shops, through a small park with two skinny trees and a stray dog, and by the beach. I bought a cheap popsicle from a middle-aged man wearing a hat. I saw old men sitting at a park bench, smoking and talking. I saw little kids begging their parents for candy I had never seen or heard of before. I saw a stooped, wrinkly, old lady sitting on the front step of a doorway, staring off into the distance and puffing on a fat cigar. Oh, and this magical walk I had gone on? It last about 20 minutes. 30 minutes, tops. I remember meeting up with a group of Cuban friends with my own lose, new group of tourist friends, and making plans to meet up to on a trip to the beach the next day. I remember being proposed to three different times by three different guys--all of whom over 40 years old--when I went dancing at a rumba night club. I remember chatting politics for hours on end as the hours reached into the morning at calmer, quieter night clubs with groups of 20-something-year old Cuban friends.

And in Malaysia, despite the fact that two days of my two days and three nights trip was spend climbing a mountain, my most memorable moments were two very simple moments of that trip. The first was on my way to the mountain. After arranging and paying for transportation the night before, at 5 a.m., I was driven for 2+ hours from the airport and up a mountain by the hostel owner and his two friends in their company van. I thought I was going to make up for some lost shut-eye on that ride, but I was completely wrong. As we left the hostel that morning, already 30 minutes later than our scheduled departure time, we hadn't gone three blocks before Eddy (the driver) exclaimed "wait! we forgot something!" and flipped the 12-passenger van around to head back for the hostel. "The guitar!" So we got the guitar, and again, were on our way. What ensued next was like a dream--three 20-something-year-old Malaysian guys (included Eddy) sang and played guitar to me and with me for 2 hours, belting out songs in Malay, English, and even Tagalog and Japanese. It was pitch black out when we started our drive, but as the hours flew by, the sun rose, and before I knew it, I was looking down at a sprawling, lush, jungle-like forest, small houses, plantations, and stunning mosques. We even drove so high that Eddy had to pull over because one of the other guys had to jump out the car to vomit, nauseous from altitude sickness.

The second memorable moment of that was on my way back from the mountain. Eddy had picked me up sans the traveling band this time. Because he had just driven the huge van all this way up the mountain, he wanted to give the overworked beast a rest before continuing with its return trip down the mountain and to the airport. So he and I waited around and chatted. I learned about his business as a hostel manager and of all the many and strange circumstances that he's witnessed working at a hostel (like the story of a guest named Michael from Poland who thought he had lost his passport, spent the subsequent weekend blowing away his money that he was suppose to use on his multi-country trip on tours and activities in Malaysia, depressed that he had to turn out and go home on a temporary passport without ever stepping foot in his second, third, or fourth country after Malaysia. After the weekend, after officially filing his passport as missing with his embassy, as he was getting read to leave for the embassy nearly penniless save for enough for his trip back to Poland, a friend of his shook his comforter from his bed, and out tumbled his passport. Eddy still laughs when he thinks about how unlucky (and lucky) Michael turned out to be.).

Eddy's van eventually cooled down enough and we were on our way back down. I wish I could say that I spent the next two hours admiring the scenery and enjoying interesting conversation with Eddy, but I stretched out my legs in the backseat and, using Eddy's jacket as a pillow, knocked out harder than an unfortunately mismatched boxer in her first bout.

When we reached the foot of the mountain (I believed that's where we were, anyway, as my ears were painfully adjusting to the change in atmospheric pressure), Eddy pulled up at a local "chicken rice" shop. I didn't understand at first what exactly Eddy meant when he told me about Malaysia's supposedly popular "chicken rice"--is it a dish? A choice on a restaurant menu? A kind of rice? Feed for chicken? I was to find out soon enough.

The restaurant reminded me of a Filipino restaurant. Basic plastic tables, a simple menu (all in Malay), and the pre-cooked food options displayed in a window at the front counter. "Roasted or boiled?" Eddy asked me. Roasted. "Something to drink?" I looked at the menu. Of the 20 or so different kinds of drinks listed, there were only three that I could somewhat recognize. I didn't want kopi (coffee).

"What's Teh C? ...Iced tea?" I guessed.
"Yes. Teh C means tea, 'Cold'" he confirmed.
"Oh, I get it! So then Teh O is... uh... wait a minute. What's Teh O?" Teh O was definitely breaking the rules.
"Hot tea," he answered, clearly not understanding my confusion.
"Then... what's O?" I tried asking again.
"Ah! O! O is like... nothing! Like, Open, I guess? O means there's nothing in your tea," he didn't seem satisfied enough with his own answer, but he settled with that.

Our roasted chicken, his hot Nestlquik (from what I could surmise) and my cold "tea" (some kind of milk with a LOT of sugar and a teensy bit of tea) all arrived. Before I could chow down, Eddy taught me about the chili sauce culture of Malaysia, which is--no meal is complete without chili sauce. McDonald's fries included. And so it was, I found out that night, that "chicken rice" is roasted or boiled chicken with white rice and a side of very spicy chili sauce. The chili sauce, of course, is unique to every restaurant establishment.

Over dinner, Eddy continued to teach me about Malaysian culture and we exchanged opinions about how our cultures differed and philosophized over why our respective cultures do things a certain way. Eddy is convinced that Malaysians like things done a certain way--the "Malaysian" way"--and that that's why Malaysians are not as numerous in the U.S. and abroad as, say, Filipinos. He boasted about the rich cultural diversity of Malaysia and taught me about the history of race relations between the Malay, Chinese, and Indians in Malaysia. He shared with me the similarities and differences he feels with Indonesians, Singaporeans, and Western Malaysians ("all their food is spicy!" he says, "because their food is influenced by Thai"). I learned so much, laughed all night, and--if that weren't enough--he treated me to dinner. He introduced me to the owner of the restaurant who, it turned out, is a Muslim immigrant to Malaysia from the Philippines. She spoke to me in Tagalog.

All the way back to the hostel, as Eddy continued to tell me stories of other guests and reasons that I just had to come back to Malaysia one day, I thought about how lucky I was to have scored a ride with such a friendly hostel owner and the generosity that so many people had shown me in the past couple of days. Brian's question came back to me. Why are all my most memorable countries ones that I had gone to without him? The kindest this that I could say is that it's all a huge, unfortunate coincidence. That memorable moments happen when I'm with him too, I just don't mention them to him because, obviously, he already knows what happened on those trips.

But I think there's something else going on. I think there are a few reasons as to why it's on these solo journeys that I find stories worth writing about. Here they are:

1.) When you travel alone, you notice everything. You have to--for your own safety. The moment my lone pair of feet the ground as they swing out from my bunk in my hostel in the morning, all senses are on high alert. I can just see the little red dot indicating that my mental video camera is recording flashing in the corner of my vision.

2.) When you travel alone, you start shaping everything happening around you into a story. You start preparing how to share this experience with someone you love back home in such a way to truly do the place, the food, the people, justice.

3.) More people feel at ease to approach you and learn your story when you travel alone. Of course, this fact can have terrible (and deadly) outcomes, but you learn to make good smart choices and keep safe. And you only put yourself in situations where if you are approached, you can continue to keep yourself safe. In this case, by the time I had come down Mt. Kinabalu, despite my coming there alone and despite there being well over 100 other hikers on that trip, by the end of our last day, at least half of the guests and mountain guides were greeting me by name, knew where I was from, knew what I did for a living, and were cheering me as I took my last, slow, painful steps down. I had made no special attempt to be friendly with anyone--to tell the truth, I wanted to be left alone in my suffering and misery in those last hours of climbing. But instead, elderly retired couples from Taiwan told me stories about their sons and daughters my age, a Chinese-Australian stock broker on vacation with his family invited me to join their climbing group, and older guides were introducing me to the younger guides my age in hopes of fixing up their younger coworkers with a (pitiful) girlfriend (afraid of heights and inching down the mountain solo).

Of course, I cherish every trip in its own way--for the food, new friends, quality time with old friends, strange adventures, and old past times in new places. But I also think solo journeys--be they 2 days, 2 weeks, or 20 minutes long--lend themselves to a unique set of experiences because it's at these times that we're hyper actively aware, perhaps a bit more flexible, and more willing to make friends with strangers.

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