“The open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.” –William Least Heat Moon
Before I came to Scotland, I was chatting with a coworker who spent the previous year in Northern Ireland about her extracurricular travels, to Nice, to Bath, to London, to Glasgow, to other places I was yearning to visit.
At some point, I asked, “Were you with other friends when you were there?”
Much to my surprise, she answered, “No. I just went by myself.”
I filed that little note away, thinking I’d never do that. Never travel alone in a country where I barely spoke the language and knew nothing of the geography. Never travel without companions who can keep track of the time, the tickets, the maps. Never travel without a comforting wall of people who can shield me from muggers and rapists and other criminals who would surely target a tiny, neurotic Asian-American tourist.
“Are you traveling by yourself?” asked a girl sitting on the bunk next to mine. I was in a hostel dorm in Barcelona, carefully unpacking my little red suitcase.
I paused. “Yes.”
How I got here from my pre-study-abroad belief that I would never be able to travel solo was not a linear process, not a simple A —> B —> C. There was never a moment when I suddenly realized that yes, I could and would travel alone.
Instead, it was a matter of small remarks, small thoughts. When I first arrived in Scotland, I wanted to go to Edinburgh the next weekend, and realized that I, new in a new country, might not find a traveling companion by that point.
I was somewhat surprised to discover that I didn’t find the thought totally terrifying.
While I did end up finding friends for that particular trip, the realization that I was no longer completely frightened by the prospect of traveling solo stayed.
And after my projected companions for Barcelona had to bow out, I, desperate to see the Sagrada Familia, drink sangria, nibble on churros con chocolate, and watch the sunset at the beach, realized I had to go alone.
Barcelona was not my first trip by myself. Before I went to Spain, I made day-trips in Scotland: I tramped all over Glasgow solo, looked at fluffy highland cows in misty Pollok Country Park, toured the marble-encrusted City Chambers, thumbed through musty books in Voltaire and Rousseau, and sipped a double latte in Artisan Roast. I stared out the window on the train from St. Andrews one slowly dimming evening at the Scottish coast, rocky and rough, studded with golden broom and beaten by roaring waves. In Alloway, the birthplace of Robert Burns, I found a preening emerald-brilliant pheasant on the statue-lined Poet’s Path, the first I’d ever seen in the wild.
Throughout all my journeys, one word kept whispering in my head: Go. And because I couldn’t always find friends who could go with me, I sallied forth alone, armed with decent (and not so decent) walking shoes, a water bottle, my cross-body leather Roots purse, and my 16-to-25 railcard.
At some point, I ended up in Barcelona and then in Dublin, answering other travelers’ queries if I was traveling alone with a yes.
Perhaps that sounds like a lonely enterprise, traveling without companions. At first, it was, like when I saw the pheasant in the Poet’s Path, I realized I couldn’t point it out — Look —to my usual companions.
But slowly, the appeal of traveling by myself grew. Going where I wanted when I wanted, whether it was to eat a three-course Indian lunch in a tucked-away alley in St. Andrews or to catch the metro to see the sunset at Barceloneta or to look at intricately illuminated Qurans in the Chester Beatty Library. If I hadn’t been alone, I would have most likely never been beckoned onto the stage at the Globe Theatre during a performance of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream in Korean, never would have found myself in Temple Bar dancing on a stool to Irish music, never would have talked to my waiter in a tapas restaurant and discovered he was Filipino, too, and liked the same food, sinigang and adobo, that I grew up with.
And one is rarely totally alone while traveling. Because I didn’t have friends to stick to, like fearful glue, I found myself talking to people from all walks of life during my solo journeys: two elderly Scottish ladies pointed out the pheasant to me on the Poet’s Path, a Polish woman shared her bread and cheese with me at breakfast, a Frenchman kindly took my picture on the top of St. Rule’s Tower, two American college students had a dinner of pasta bolognesa and sangria with me in a Barcelona expats’ bar, an American teacher, a South African ICT consultant, and I got into a feisty conversation about gun control and immigration in a Dublin hostel’s common room.
Perhaps traveling alone is a misnomer, but other phrases I can think of are too wordy and therefore useless.
If nothing else, traveling alone has forced me to rely on myself, face myself, in ways I have never had to before. When I travel with companions, I can talk to them about my passionate first impressions of monuments, complain about aching feet, query them about the metro, ask them to take my picture.
Alone, though, I have only myself to entertain, only myself to count on. I have to keep track of my luggage, my tickets, my money, my camera, my hostel reservations, my person.
And since I am now writing this, I have, apparently, not screwed up too badly.
It’s hard for me to say if traveling alone has toughened me or if it had only shown me that I was inherently tough. Most likely, it was a combination of both.
But it’s not just the simple matter of learning to or learning that I could take care of myself that resulted from my travels. It was the truths I discovered about myself that came from hours of walking alone, sitting alone on buses, subways, trains, planes, and ferries, truths that clarified under the cold hard light of my scrutiny.
Truth #1: The things that give me the most joy are reading, writing, and traveling.
Truth #2: In my life at home, in my life standing still, I have not always made the choices that would allow me to do those three things.
Truth #3: Much as I would like to keep going, to always listen to the voice in my head that says go, the very real obligations in my life standing still— family, friends, college, a truly terrible economy, my own crushing desire for recognition and security — do tie me down.
Whenever I leave a place, Barcelona, London, Dublin, I always leave saying, Volveré, I will return, I will come back to you. A part of me thinks I’m telling the truth. Another part of me thinks that last glimpse I see over my shoulder will truly be the last.
It is not as if I consciously think that I will never return. Rather, it’s a function of my burgeoning wanderlust, my desire to go, my yearning to lose myself in the business of moving. There’s a whole world out there. Why limit myself? Why saddle myself with attachment to a place? Why stay when I can see another cathedral, another street, another café with the perfect coffee or tea? Why settle down?
For awhile, I can ignore the siren call of home and listen to go, but eventually, eventually, a little twinge in my heart says This — BarcelonaLondonChicagoAtlanta— is it or I miss myfamilymyfriendsmycollegemyhome.
In the end, someday, I know I have to say Yes, this is where I belong, who I belong to. Yes, I have to stay.
And it’s not that traveling alone works against this yearning for home — it strengthens it. These mismatched desires of mine — on one hand to go and on the other to stay — somehow work best in tension with each other.
When I am home, I am entangled in a web of family and friends and work and school, and yearn to travel. When I travel, I am weightless, as free of obligations and attachments as a dandelion seed on the wind, and yearn for home.
Either way, when I travel alone on the open road, I learn about myself, strengthen myself, find myself. And as I keep up this business of moving, I continue to learn where and to whom in this wide, wide world I belong.