My Traveling Buddy
The Instagram photos and blog posts of many solo travelers seem to revolve around a common thread. Arms spread wide looking toward an ever-expanding panorama, one is at concert and peace with the world; their individual journeys enveloped by a picturesque mountain view, a peaceful lake or sea, or perhaps part of a group selfie with newfound international friends.
All of this is true, of course. The sights and scenes thus far have been beyond what I could have imagined. There are notes waiting to be organized and written that reflect on witnessing an active volcano erupt, floating in turquois pools formed by travertine limestone, wandering and swimming by single candle through a maze of caverns, and meeting people from diverse countries and cultures along the way.
Like most of social media, however, there are few reflections showcasing the steps in the journey that aren't up a mountain or jumping into a river. I'm not necessarily referring to the challenges that we all encounter when exploring unknown territories - figuring out communication and language, navigating Google maps, or how to position the backpack for the hundredth time so your lower back doesn't scream out "no mas!" I am referring to loneliness.
As strange as it may sound, I'm not sure I even recognized it as such at first. There were times during this trip where I knew I felt something. I sensed a feeling of melancholy - a little sadness but with no obvious cause. I attributed it to just being tired and a bit worn down. The past few weeks, as amazing as they were, involved a lot of moving around every two to three days, still going to war with my gastrointestinal system, and spending more hours on shuttles (10–12-hour trips) than I care to recount.
So, I dismissed it. I did what I knew how to do - put one foot in front of the other (literally) and focus on what had to get done immediately; get to the room, find he ATM, look up where I'm going to go and where to stay, figure out how to get there for the next day and find another way to say "can you please repeat that slower" in Spanish. I'd find a corner, remove the blue moleskin notebook and jot down some more notes from the previous days, maybe share some photos and check in with people on WhatsApp.
The specter of loneliness, however, kept sitting next to me on the 10-hour ride from Panjachel to Flores and subsequent 12 hour bus from Languin to Flores in Guatemala. He sat across from me at dinner in San Marcos. He stared back at me while rinsing my toothbrush with bottled water in Antigua. Loneliness kept reminding me that I signed up for the 2 for 1 deal in order to get the full package and he wasn't willing to take a back seat.
Dealing with these feelings was not front and center. Afterall, didn't I ask for this? Who was I to have any sort of negative thought about any of this - me the white privileged guy who irresponsibly left everyone and everything to "not have a plan"? That nosey neighbor in my head was not letting me off the hook and with his judgement developed a healthy dose of shame, if "healthy" and "shame" can coexist.
It wasn't just my own embarrassment I was grappling with; of admitting that I was having pangs of loneliness, even if it was just to myself. I felt like I was letting other people down - people who wished me well and maybe even desired that they could have this type of experience. Did I get what I deserved? It was one thing to not live up to my own expectations but another not to live up to those of others.
So, I meditated. I thought about it. I tried to figure out what was going on. Eventually, I realized that it was shame that was not allowing me to simply acknowledge what I was feeling. I was judging the feeling rather than just accepting it for what it was - loneliness. And we all know judging usually doesn't help anything at all.
There it was. I was feeling lonely sometimes. I could deal with that. But why? I had traveled alone many times before and in fact, on numerous occasions during this adventure, I felt a contentment that was very liberating being by myself. In almost all cases, this occurs while out in nature, hiking, swimming, or even walking around exploring ruins. I enjoyed just sitting in a park with nothing but a bottle of water and reading. Being physically by myself does not seem to be the issue.
This is where the important distinction between being "alone" and feeling "lonely" becomes important. The loneliness feeling that I sometimes experience, particularly when traveling, was a feeling of disconnection, most notably during when people were around my immediate vicinity - on the bus, in a hostel, or at a restaurant. Perhaps this sensitivity may be more intense because this is not a vacation. It is traveling.
Vacation is a time to recharge and maybe experience something different - hopefully in any way, to give a much needed break. Traveling is different in that it requires not just a respite from standard operating procedure but also really looking beyond yourself. You can "come as you are" and have a great vacation. On the other hand, remaining comfortable while traveling misses the point altogether and to be honest, I don't even know if that is truly possible. Really wandering and exploring parts unknown means reframing one’s own assumptions, comprehensions and expanding to go beyond yourself as you are familiar and comfortable with.
Travel, like any formative experience, demands of you, at some point, to express a full range of human emotions -extreme awe, joy, and yes, loneliness. These are not mutually exclusive, either. Travel is a unique proposition and connection, at least for me, is something that can be anchoring during those more challenging circumstances such as doubt, uncertainty, and security. Connecting with others can be a potent countermeasure.
I also was unaware that this feeling - this shame I was carrying around - was all for naught. Apparently, it is common among travelers, particularly those who go it alone, (not that the “misery loves company” mantra dismisses the need for shame. Shame is always for naught.)
As with so many things in our society, few discuss it. My interactions with others I have met have been great - favorite spots they have visited and plan to next, great conversations about how they decided to rip the proverbial bandage off and become a nomad and sharing in the awe of a sunrise over Lake Atitlan, holding our breaths in an underwater cave or yes, seeing a volcano erupt (that one was just too amazing to not mention twice). No one spoke of loneliness in this transient lifestyle. Nor am I saying we should have. That takes a certain level of knowing a person first, I imagine. I just didn't realize until I went online that it was more common than appeared (at least from my perspective).
There is no shortage of articles and blog posts about the best recommendations and apps (of course, there are apps for everything) for how to meet people when traveling alone. Remember, these suggestions were all written in the context of dealing with loneliness. That may help with being alone but isn't necessarily going to address the feeling of loneliness.
This is where Buddhism really has something to teach regarding its approach to suffering, and more importantly, ending suffering. It instructs us to acknowledge it in the first place and find compassion for ourselves and others - as we can with every single aspect of the human experience. Acknowledging the pain with the joy, the sorrow with the glee, and the loneliness with the connection, brings us closer to the truth of the human condition. Then, there is no shame. There is a bit less suffering and there is an openness to simply be.
Loneliness taught me that as important is it is to connect with others, I must not forget to connect with myself - even if it may not be Instagram worthy.
Until next time,