By travelling alone, we can be totally immersed, or lost, in different cultures. And ultimately find the way to ourselves again.
As a teenager I avoided meeting myself. Since I didn’t like me very much then, burying myself in reading offered a much-welcomed respite. It was also the escape route from friends and family.
I’d dive into book after book, remaining in each one as long as I could, savouring the words that led me intoxicated into worlds outside my own. Naturally, those realms were all far more enticing, filled with wondrous adventures, problems that were not mine and resolutions that came with unexpected twists.
It was in these books, too, that I first discovered faraway places that added soaring wings to my imagination. Cities and countries I wanted to live in, food and fashion I craved, and flowers and trees that I wanted to lie among. I wanted to be anywhere but here.
I was 16 when that first lust for travel hit me. I wanted to experience the places that I had only read or heard about. So, with a brother and his friend in tow – clutching a brand-new passport, a few hundred ringgit and loads of enthusiasm – I set off on an overnight train to Singapore. And never looked back.
In the course of the following years, I have been lucky enough to travel far and wide, and often enough. Previously, work travel – although short and frequently exhausting – offered some marvellous opportunities to meet the most intriguing people, with interviews conducted on a beach in Jamaica and at NASA’s International Space Centre.
Meeting passionate people completely immersed in what they believed in not only gave insights into their personalities and lifestyles, but also honed my ability to craft words to best capture their convictions.
Travelling with groups of friends or family at other times yielded another way of seeing the world.
While new customs and cultures were uncovered and favourite sites revisited, these experiences came shared, dissected and sometimes dismissed.
The communal exchange of stories was entertaining but also sometimes fraught with limelight-hogging types intent on regaling others with their versions of narratives in overdrive. These trips, too, were reminders of people you should not travel with.
Setting off with a loved one who shares your life and space affords yet another perspective. Sunsets luxuriated in, special meals together and ubiquitous “wefies” now add to the collection of journeys taken together. Travelling as a couple comes with its own loving advantages, but one does miss a few things on such journeys for the focus is usually on each other, rather than the outer world. So people go unmet, places go unseen and experiences go unfelt.
However, when I travel alone, I lose myself – in another culture, in another place, in another world.
“This is what travel meant, another way of living your life and being free,” Paul Theroux wrote in The Elephanta Suite. To me, nothing beats the sheer exhilaration of arriving alone at an unknown destination, anticipating the unlimited prospects of discovery unfolding with each coming day.
The break from normal routine is the first thrill of a trip, no chores to carry out and no certainties to conform to. Everything is new, each day’s dawn a blank canvas. To paint as I wish with the colours I deem fit.
“Must-see” sites become optional, while a morning at the nearest market chatting to stallholders becomes more compelling. Choosing to stay in a self-contained apartment opens up the chance to live within a community, becoming a part of the local collective, if only for a number of days.
Is anything more inspiring than the possibility of choosing a different life, perhaps unknown to us, in a new place even if you can’t speak the language or perceive its inherent prejudices? On the fringes of a new society, the lure of anonymity is beguiling.
It is in the process of losing myself that I’ve discovered myself. On solo trips, there isn’t much choice. Though you meet plenty of people when you travel alone, most times you are on your own. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though.
Travelling solo brings no scrutiny: there are no expectations to meet, promises to deliver or conventions to comply with.
The space around me allows me the freedom to think, feel and be. I still remember those days when I stayed up all night reading.
The hours I spent with a group of newly-found friends eating and drinking and whom I’ve never seen or heard from since. Museums that I have never stepped into. And days when I said nothing.
It’s on trips like these that I thoroughly enjoy meeting myself.