To Be Or Not To Be Alone

I’ve been traveling alone for the past few years and though it has its benefits such as having complete control over your entire trip it does have its minuses.  I’m fiercely independent and like to think I can always handle things on my own.  Plus there’s a little control freak in me.  Get the drift?

For those thinking of going the path less traveled, here’s a brief rundown on what to expect when you take that trip all by your lonesome self.

1.  You’re completely responsible for yourself and yourself alone.  No need to look out after others.  That means you save a whole lot of time being considerate to your companions. Eat when you want to eat and sleep when you want to sleep.

However, since your responsible for yourself only, when something untoward happens to you, you’re also completely responsible for yourself.  No amount of travel insurance can replace the help and concern of a companion.  Once, while walking the streets of Phnom Penh, I accidentally stubbed my toe on a raised pavement.  It split open and bled profusely.  Hobbling back to the guesthouse with a trail of blood, I cleaned it and washed it while surfing the net for the nearest doctor in case I needed stitches.  The relief of seeing my friend back at the hostel immediately seemed to make everything all right.  The wound eventually healed after a couple of days.

No emergencies here. A dash of salt and this leech will be on its way to the other world.

2.  No sharing.  The most affected expense in solo traveling would be accommodations unless you stay in a dorm room.  I’m a backpack traveler but dorms just don’t cut it for me.  I don’t mind staying in small guesthouses but having a room to myself where I can just fling my stuff  is the one luxury I cannot afford to give up. . Staying in a mixed dorm room in  Shanghai, the couple I shared it with were asleep by 10 pm so coming back from a late night out, I had to keep the lights off and tiptoe about.  On the other hand, dorm rooms are a great way to meet other travelers.  Mind you, the spelling is correct— “meet” not “mate.”  I don’t mind shared bathrooms but when it comes to the bedroom and I really do mind my privacy.

My upper berth accommodations on the train from Lao Cai to Hanoi. This is a self-pic by the way with the camera on the ledge for the luggage.

For people like me whose tastes buds also like to travel, eating out can also be limiting as  you can only try few dishes at a time as you have no one to share it with.  A recreation of the imperial feast at Hue would be no fun if you’re alone not to mention the strange looks you’d get with all that gluttony.  But hey!  Didn’t the emperor order all those delicacies to be made for himself and not for the entire court?!

A tray of "bahn beo." Fortunately, I had a Vietnamese friend to share this and other yummies with; though I don't mind having everything for myself.

All this dimsum at Ning Bao Dumplings at the Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai would have been impossible if my sisters weren't there to share them with me. Still, we got strange looks as there was just so much food.

Taking the easy way out and joining a tour?  Have your ever ridden a school bus where everyone knew everyone except you?  That’s how it is when you join tour groups.  You’ll most likely end-up being alone in a crowd.  What’s bad sometimes is when you’re seated already (preferably at a spot of your choice) and then a couple or a group comes in and you’re made to switch to another seat just so the two of them could sit together.  You kinda feel sometimes that you’re the filler accepted in tour groups to reach either the bare minimum for a tour to take-off or the absolute maximum to rake in a huge profit.   Some of the more off-the-beaten-track tours like the ones that head to jungles or mountains  require at least two people and most agencies can’t let you join another group.

3.  “Do you want me to take your picture?”  I’ve been asked that a couple of times.  Once while I was standing at The Bund in Shanghai and smiling at my camera which I held in front of me.  I did buy that long stick  you screw at the base of your camera like a tripod but my pics still bear that “you took that picture by yourself” trademark—your arm in front of you and your face filling-up the entire screen.  Might as well have taken the picture at home as any scenery or landmark showing where you are is blocked-off by your huge face.  Putting the camera somewhere like a rock or a table isn’t too reliable either.  So I finally bought a proper tripod. It has been my best friend every since.

This is what happens when you take a self-pic and put your camera on an available stand such as a rock (West Lake, Hangzhou, China).

4. Flexi-travel.  Waking-up one morning in my hotel room in downtown Davao, I decided to simply head to the wharf and catch a public boat to Samal Island.  Unfortunately, the next boat was not due to leave in a couple of hours.  Spying a bus with a signboard that read “Kaputian,” I boarded it and got off at the end of the road where a nice white beach beckoned.  Stayed for an hour of two just basking in the sun then took the bus back.  Aaaahhh… the pleasure of spontaneous travel.

Sometimes you arrive at place and discover you’d rather keep your luggage packed and head off somewhere else or you wanna spend a few more days.  Arriving in Suzhou, I decided that two days was enough so I spent an extra day at Hangzhou which I infinitely liked better.

Solo travel means being able to decide on anything and everything you want to do during your trip.  Where you want to go entirely depends on your own interest and agenda. Convincing your travel companions  to watch yet another re-telling of the Ramayana this time in a wayang kulit performance  in Jogyakarta can be a little difficult if their interest is more on batik and getting a good night’s sleep.

As an early riser it can be a bit frustrating when you’re traveling with people who wake-up at mid-morning and spend the rest of it having breakfast and getting dressed for lunch.

5.  No talk.  Unless you’re a born social butterfly or dragon fly (I made this one up for the guys who would cringe at the reference of being a butterfly) being by yourself simply means you have no one to talk to on that long bus or train ride.  The further you go from the tourist trail, the less chances of being able to talk to someone especially if you can’t speak even the most basic phrases of the local language.  You’ll soon discover that smiling to replace conversation can be a bit tiring and may be the cause of additional laugh lines.  My advice:  learn the language enough to have a simple conversation with.  Saying “aaaah” and “oooh” during sign language while trying to make a local understand that you need to go to the toilet does not count as conversation.

Sometimes though you’re lucky to meet really nice people in places where travelers, especially backpackers congregate.  At the very least, you get to have international friends at Facebook.

One friend I made in Vegas.

If it weren't for this Vietnamese guy I met, I would not have had the tried one of the best and most authentic Hue food experience.

Traveling is supposed to change you and since taking that first trip traveling solo I’ve never looked back since.  It really can be lonely but it can also be freeing.  The path is there waiting for you.  Take it.

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