My last two posts on the blog have been all about slowing down and staying put. Just last week, I wrote about how we decided to settle down in Playa del Carmen and had recently signed a six-month lease.
For some of you, this all may have seemed like the death knell to our traveling lifestyle. We may not actually know our address here in Mexico, but in theory, we have one; now that we once more have somewhere to call our own, surely we’d take some time to embrace our more stationary existence.
Of course, that is not how my life works, where irony seems to be one of the supreme guiding principles. Within two days of posting my last article (and a mere two weeks after moving into our new “home”) I was sitting on a plane, a nervous ball of energy, staring down the barrel of a 16-hour travel day making my way north to California for a conference held by Google celebrating their top AdWords partners.
After three years, long travel days are nothing new to me, so although I wasn’t exactly looking forward to being in transit for the better part of a day and hurling across three time zones in the process, that part of the equation felt like business as usual. What did feel wholly bizarre and more than a little bit frightening, was that for the first time in I can’t remember how long, I was tackling this trip without Tony by my side.
For the next week, I would be a solo traveler.
I’ve always considered myself a fairly independent person. Moreover, as an unabashed introvert, the prospect of spending a lot of time on my own is kind of thrilling rather than unnerving. And yet, as I think back, I realize that apart from a few conferences I attended back in grad school and one day in New York City when Tony himself was attending a conference, I’ve never done the solo travel thing. True, the impetus for this trip was conference-related putting it in my solo-travel wheelhouse, but it really would be the first time in the last three years of near constant 24/7 togetherness that I would be somewhere new without Tony.
Consider me daunted.
The night before my flight to California, I ran through all the things that I alone would have to be solely responsible for, going over all the ways in the partnership we have formed that I rely on Tony in daily life and all the ways I was going to have to be self-reliant and manage on my own. Part of me worried I had forgotten how to function as a self-sufficient person without someone there to care for and keep an eye out for me; would I really be able to navigate the world alone?
The obvious answer is yes! Clearly I was able to survive out in the world by myself. What’s even better, however, is that I didn’t just scrape by, I thrived (if I do say so myself)! Things didn’t always go according to plan, but when they did, I felt enormously proud of what I had accomplished, whether it was successfully making my connecting train, or navigating to a nearby restaurant I had researched where I then asked for a table for one without a hint of shame. Tony and I do this kind of thing together all the time, but perhaps by being a shared accomplishment, we downplay and often overlook how monumental they can be. Not so as a solo traveler! Suddenly accomplishing the most trivial of tasks felt awesome and I, in turn, felt all the more awesome and confident for them.
Of course, sometimes I hit a few snafus—like when my train was delayed and I missed the connecting bus, or when the restaurant I had planned to eat at wasn’t where it was supposed to be—but, as tends to be the case, I learned a lot from these moments too. In the case of the bus, there was nothing to do but check the schedule and realize I’d have to wait 30 minutes for the next one. In the case of the restaurant, things get a bit more interesting: I was tired and hungry, and so my default in this situation would be to melt down and throw a frustration-fueled tantrum. After 16-hours in transit, I was really looking forward to sitting down to a comforting bowl of Vietnamese food, and I was supremely pissed to be standing in front of an abandoned office building instead. On the verge of tears, I heard my own voice summon up from deep within me, telling me to get a grip and let it go. I realized that I had to be accountable to MYSELF for my emotions and actions and that if I let myself get all worked up, there wasn’t going to be anyone else there to calm me down and make things better; I had to make things better for myself and melting down would achieve the exact opposite of that. So I sucked it up, took charge, and focused on the positives instead: I had looked up a backup restaurant (just in case!) that was only about another 10 minutes on foot and the weather was blessedly mild and dry—a nice change from the heat and humidity of Playa—so the walk itself was actually really nice and something to be savored. In the end, I wound up sitting down to a pretty fab bowl of ramen which, as far as consolation prizes go, isn’t half bad.
I tend to be a fairly reactive individual, but I hope that going forward, I remember this moment. Without having someone there to immediately unleash all my stress, anxiety, and frustration upon, I instead gave myself a moment to gain some perspective and deal with my situation in the best possible way. I felt in control and a mastery of my emotions and myself that I don’t think I always set myself up for when I’m not by myself. I realized that when I’m on my own, I tend to just make the best of whatever hand I’m dealt, rather than complaining or agonizing over how crummy my cards are. I need to be better about staying positive, being proactive, and staying strong even when I do have someone there to lend a hand and offer support. Being on my own reminded me that it’s good to prove to ourselves every so often that we are capable of more than we think, that we have all the tools we need to handle what life sends our way, and whenever we don’t, it’s an opportunity to develop them.
The other opportunity solo travel gave me that I haven’t had in a while is that it gave me the chance to really step outside of myself, take a step back, and become an observer. With no one to chat to in the airport, I watched the behaviors and interactions of my fellow travelers. With no one to chat with at dinner, I really paid attention to the food in front of me and every bite that I consumed. With no one to chat with on the train, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride, greedily drinking in the northern California scenery. I could have lost myself in a book, or work, or a movie on my iPad, but instead I focused on what was happening around me; rather than escaping my surroundings, I found my solitude anchored and grounded me to where I was and the present moment.
Perhaps the most important revelation I had as a solo traveler was realizing just how unusual my behavior was. It turns out most people are TERRIFIED of being alone. Wherever I looked, people’s eyes were glued to phones and tablets, as though they were too scared of accidentally making eye contact with another human being; the possibility of simply sitting and enjoying one’s own company didn’t seem to be something any one else really contemplated. I am nothing if not a contrarian and so it began to feel like an act of rebellion to walk into a restaurant and just eat, by myself, without any kind of technological shield to hide myself from prying eyes. I would keep my cell phone and iPad defiantly stowed in my bag, and just give myself over to my meal. It was actually really nice, and it made me wonder why more people don’t take time to just check in with and “refriend” the stranger who is themselves.
The irony that I was in California primarily for a technology-related conference, that Tony & I both make our living online, and that I write a blog hasn’t escaped me. Obviously I think technology and social media have the potential to make our lives easier and more efficient, but I do they can also have the opposite effect and cause people to feel stressed out and overwhelmed. At their core, these mediums are meant to help keep us connected, but I couldn’t help wondering as I watched people check their email while eating with someone, or tweet a meme during the conference, or just studiously watch videos on their phone on the BART if they weren’t all using technology as a crutch and an excuse to disconnect from the world in which they were actually living. Rather than reaching out and forming connections with the people around them, they were closing themselves off.
That’s the opposite of what we try to do here at 20YH, but I think that’s also the reason why our blog is always behind, why we sometimes go a week without logging onto Twitter, why we never update Facebook more than once a day, and only post pictures on Instagram when we have something worth sharing rather than the optimal 2 to 3 times per day: I don’t want to be so busy documenting my life online that I forget to actually be present and live it! I will always prioritize the immediacy of the here and now and the face-to-face, and I often find that in order to really recharge, we have to disconnect. There’s that irony again.
My week in California was a whirlwind, with the days flicking by quicker than people swiping left and right on Tinder profiles. The thing is, my days weren’t just full with activities and tons of “me time”; they were also full of people. In what might be the greatest irony of my entire stint traveling by myself, I was almost never alone. Within the span of a week, I finally met in person the woman who introduced me to AdWords and with whom I’ve been working for the past year, met up with a fellow travel blogger for lunch (the lovely Cassie at Ever In Transit, with whom I explored the Google campus and then enjoyed a wonderful Vietnamese lunch in San Jose’s Little Saigon district), and got take a quick trip up to Sacramento to catch up with one of my best friends from graduate school who I hadn’t seen in over three years! Even though I was on my own, my tribe has never felt stronger.
Sitting on the 6:20am train from Sacramento back to San Francisco where I would start another marathon travel day, I watched as businessmen chugged Red Bulls and bragged about how their all-nighter had bumped them up one slot in their company’s internal rankings, and gratitude washed over me. In a piercing insight, I realized how incredibly lucky I am. Not just because I was living my life and not theirs, but because I realized that my life is awash with amazing people and I am rich with friends; what currency is more valuable than that? It took traveling solo for me to realize that I have plenty of connections to keep me from ever floating too far from shore or feeling too adrift. I understand now that being alone is not the same as being lonely, and that both are just a matter of perspective. I may have only been a solo traveler for a week, but what better lesson could the experience teach me than that?