Almost five months into my latest trip, my family came out to visit. My brother, my mum, and I met in Thailand — a good gathering point since my brother was in New Zealand and I was traveling around Southeast Asia. We spent nine lovely days over Christmas sunbathing on white-sand beaches and snorkeling with bioluminescent plankton. And then, they left. We had a brief moment to say goodbye as we were separated at Phi Phi pier, where we waited on the top decks of our respective boats, and waved to each other until we were swallowed into the distance. The loneliness hit almost immediately — I wouldn’t see them, or any other friends and family members, for nine months.
Everywhere you look, solo travel is advertised as the ultimate freedom, but sometimes, it isn’t. Sometimes, being alone sucks. Although I relish being on my own and doing whatever I feel like whenever the mood takes me, traveling solo is also the source of a slew of negative sentiments: sadness, jealousy, boredom, fear, emptiness.
I’ve been traveling on and off for almost four years and the one challenge that I consistently struggle to overcome is loneliness. I stay in dorms, consider myself sociable and outgoing, and joined Tinder to successfully meet other travelers (and score the odd date or two), But solitude’s unwelcome shadow is never too far away and reminders that I’m out here alone lurk around every corner.
“Are these seats taken?” a couple inquires as I settle into a window seat on my ferry back to Ao Nang.
“No,” I say, my smile masking the fact that the first reminder has surfaced before we’ve even left the port.
Triggers abound everywhere I go and in everything I do. Waiters reiterating with thinly veiled surprise that I’d like a table for one. Activities requiring a minimum of two people. Being the only solo traveler on a day trip. Taxis and tuk-tuks wreaking havoc on your budget. Lugging all of your belongings to the bathroom at the bus station/airport because there’s no one to watch your bags. Enduring and dealing with sexual harassment on your own. Choosing a different dish because the antipasto plate you want only comes as a “sharing platter for two.” Constantly being sunburnt in that one spot on your back you can’t reach. Spending New Year’s Eve alone because you haven’t had the chance to meet anyone at your new hostel. Sitting behind the one couple on a bus/boat/train who are surgically attached to each others’ faces. Watching on social media as all your friends get married.
Being single is a big part of it. This lifestyle isn’t particularly conducive to a love life, other than a handful of Tinder dates and fleeting romances with exotic strangers. How can it be, when traveling is filled with goodbyes?
Some alone time is healthy, but too much can be toxic. It becomes normal to be alone, and so you find yourself burrowing deeper into a rabbit hole of spiraling loneliness and increasingly abstract thoughts until it engulfs and threatens to consume you entirely. Sometimes, rescue comes in the form of a like-minded roommate who invites you to join them for dinner, a group of friends who adopt you for a few days, or a sweet local who takes you as a plus one to a film festival. And sometimes, I have to seek out company, whether that’s relocating to the common room, striking up a conversation with a stranger, or, goddammit, walking into a bar alone (a terrifying thing to do, for the record) and buying myself a glass of wine.
I chose this lifestyle and I have no regrets. I’d choose working holidays and shoestring traveling over an office job in my home country any day. But just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s easy. Just because I spend my money on flight tickets instead of mortgage payments doesn’t mean it’s easy. But I keep going because I have faith in my vision and how I want to live my life. I hope the strength of my long-held ambition to live an alternative lifestyle will continue to prop me up when it feels like I’m sinking.