” I am a passenger
And I ride and I ride
I ride through the city’s backside
I see the stars come out of the sky
Yeah, they’re bright in a hollow sky
You know it looks so good tonight “
One day I was telling a colleague about my upcoming trip to a far far away country and as I told him I was going on my own his face shifted from curiosity to sheer horror: “I could never do that, traveling on my own!”. He then proceeded to look at me with what could only be interpreted as pity. I could read on his face all the thoughts passing in his head: “Poor her, she probably doesn’t have a choice. She has no one to travel with. How odd. How lonely. How…”. Hmm. That look on people’s face when you tell them about this or that life choice. How is it that we rarely accept as normal something we wouldn’t necessarily want for ourselves? Who one day decided about a “given thing” to do? How is it that there are standards with which we are supposed to comply so as to be seen as part of, and not out of, this society? Is that precisely what defines society, a mould rather than individuality? And, why do we put so much pressure, precisely on people who strive to express their individuality rather than their commonness, for them to fit in? Why some find it so very disturbing to see behaviors other than theirs?
There are many question marks there, while all I thought of doing was talking about the joys of traveling alone. I’ll go back to the initial purpose, hoping it’ll answer some along the way. That look I was talking about: of course then you ask yourself: “Is there something intrinsically wrong with me going on my own? Is there something wrong with me, altogether? Should I consider changing my way of life?”. More questions. To which when everything is good you just answer to yourself “well, naturally I’m right to do as I please, if it feels good it can’t be all that wrong”. Only when the shell is a bit broken, the thin protecting veil of your self-esteem a bit worn-out, then those questions lead to a sometimes crippling doubt which will go on to negatively affect the energy you had intended to put into your venture in the first place.
Until you find enough balance within yourself to shrug off all the interrogations, because well, it’s already hard enough to answer our own questions, so why even bother trying to justify how we live to other individuals?
But back to that moment: I was pondering whether or not to explain to my colleague how, and why I had decided to undertake a travel on my own. He didn’t give me the time to do so as he exclaimed: “well I could never do that!”. There, there, I was off the hook: no need to justify anything, after all, he was juxtaposing my take on life to his own experiences. That is what got him preoccupied, because of course, because we are all coming from different paths, it didn’t match. He was most distressed now: “But, but…how could you…you have then no one to share your experience with, what if you get lost, and then you have to eat alone at all times, and surely it must be dangerous there?”. Oh dear. All those questions are so valid, but they weren’t my worries upon preparing my trip, they were entirely his, in the life of his own life experience. Which he was trying to transfer to me for the sake of his own reassurance about his own choices. Surely I had to see his point and end up thinking like him.
“I could never do that”, he said. But precisely! Mark Twain beautifully formulated it: “They didn’t know it was impossible, so they did it”. The beautiful finality of that statement. How could you ever know you can’t, if you have never tried? Surely shortcomings are only so short as we allow them to be. I knew, upon seeing his determination to believe he couldn’t do it, that he wouldn’t understand my choice. So I just answered: “Well, until you’ve tried, you can’t really know what you can and can’t do, can you?”. He seemed to consider it for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and muttered something like “Good luck” upon leaving the room, looking highly dubious about it all.
I considered what he said, making a mental list of his arguments versus mine, and remembering why it was that I so loved discovering places on my own. I think it’s mostly because, having traveled with and without people, I find there is an intensity to the experience that isn’t always matched when it is shared. There are some obvious advantages to being alone while traveling: to have no one to wait upon before setting off, to be the sole decision maker of what to do and what to see. In fact, to decide the when and where and how, without ever having to compromise with somebody else’s wishes. Perhaps less obviously, at least for those who haven’t tried it yet: the experience itself takes a whole other dimension.
Upon discovering a place, there is a process that occurs: the imprinting of the images, the smells, the weather and the sounds, deep within us. It is what will immediately form our memory of that moment. Think about it: has it ever occurred to you, while you enjoyed a scenery, to notice that someone talked too soon or too loud or said something superfluous that somehow hindered your experience? I vividly remember staring at a beautiful sunrise on the Grand Canyon with, among others, a wannabe-hippy commenting on the wonder that was lying before us, and my spiritual experience was then ruined by his shallow words. They polluted my mind as I was trying to look for what he claimed to see, rather than listening to what my own voice was whispering within about this mesmerizing place. All well that ends well though, we came back at sunset and he shut up while doing yoga positions on the edge of the canyon, so I did have my untainted meditative experience of the place after all.
Of course, there are downsides as well when traveling unaccompanied. Sometimes, it is precisely through someone else’s eyes that we want to see the world. Because we love them so much that we want to understand what they experience as much as, and sometimes more than we do . And when it isn’t possible, be it because we lost them, or because they don’t exist in our lives, the traveling alone can become quite painful. I vividly remember the first time I backpacked on my own, ten years ago, sharing a coach with about thirty other people through the Scottish Highlands. They were all couples. Couples of friends or lovers. But every. Single. One of them. Was two. Except for me, alone with probably a broken heart to mend at the time. And they were all happy, from the outside. You know how annoying that can be, right, when you yourself aren’t in a happy place? Well, try the Scottish Highlands tour with a dozen laughing, happy couples, who would sometimes turn around and be like “are you sure you don’t want a picture of you in Culloden?”, with a caring and concerned look upon contemplating your solitude. No thank you my own mind is enough of a battlefield I don’t need that mise en abyme right now just let stew in my own misery for now please. Somehow (for all interested in a solo trip in Scotland) I think that’s one of the reasons the tour organizers do combine it with whiskey tastings, so that the odd solo traveler can draw his sorrow into spirit. It works: I was in high ones when we reached Inverness and was all wet eyes when I proceeded to consign all I saw in my travel diary on the way home that day, so there was a silver-golden lining after all. But enough digression.
More seriously, what is being deeply imprinted in you in such moments can be a feeling of solitude that isn’t even remotely pleasant. That is the longing, for something that has been, or something we deeply want to happen. And this longing, too, does affect our own perception of things. It puts a veil of sadness and anticipation on our emotions and prevents us to see the beauty that is, regardless of how many we are to witness it at a given time.
The quickest, easiest way not to have this longing, is to share the experience. It prevents the mind from having too much time on its own as it gets busy with the sharing of emotions. But for those who feel adventurous, it is possible to shake that feeling alone, too, and it is a very powerful place to reach, because when we are finally ready to accept that there is no material or immaterial filter between us and what lies before us, only self-imposed barriers, or shelters, depending on where you place yourself on the spectrum,
Once, and only once we learn to let go off that feeling of longing, is the mind clear enough and ready for the real, deep experience about to occur between ourselves, and what lies ahead.