Thursday, January 1, 2015

Highs and Lows of Solo Travel

So right now, I’m on vacation, and I’m sitting alone at a Starbucks in southern Thailand waiting out a rainstorm, the power has gone out again, and I am hating traveling and wanting a home I don’t even have.

This is what you’re not supposed to say about traveling, or traveling alone. Everyone wants to hear the stories of meeting random people who are amazing, of falling into crazy situations, of getting your claws in experiences that yield stories that taste sweet no many how many times you tell them.  Yes, I’ve had that on this trip in spades, and in the years I’ve spent living and traveling overseas, I’ve had more joy and revelation than I ever thought I could have or deserve. These are the times where I felt like everything was slowed down like movement in amber and I could see the life going out of me and crystallizing into that moment to make that memory live forever as a touchstone of why I do these things. I crave my solitude and freedom and hours spent in thought alone on buses and trains and planes fill me with joy as I sit anticipating what awaits me around the corner in the next country/hostel/city/party. I can't believe it's my life. Most of the time. 

But the truth is that there is a trade- off, and it’s often a big one. The highs are really high, like outrageously silly high to the point where it feels like you are living in a movie starring your invincible, pulsing self shooting through life like a glorious comet. And then there are lows when you find yourself sitting alone at a Starbucks, hating traveling, and your big stupid strappy backpack, and hostels filled with other backpackers, and the constant churning growl of plane engines and train engines and bus engines, the searching for passports and locker keys and checkout times, trading colored paper for more colored paper when an imaginary line renders them useless, heading into each new place with a new burst of MAKE FRIENDS ENERGY! And sometimes, shitty things happen and you have no one with whom to commiserate, or from whom to get reassurance, or even help. 

Like last night.

The day before yesterday I was ending an excellent week spent between Phuket Town and Patong Beach. Circus school, city wandering, beach lounging, dancing, late nights, interesting people, two great hostels, hilarious banter- I had it all in spades. I was riding a wave of travel magic as I have so many times before. This came on the tails of a great start off in Bangkok with random connection and interactions that filled me with happiness that I was once again traveling, and traveling alone. It was incredible.

Yesterday I left the group of people I met in Patong to head off to a new adventure. I left them all at the beach before taking an hour long open local bus through the hills to Phuket Town. Then I waited for two hours before getting on an enormous, 1980s looking bus that barreled through thunderstorms and mountains, narrowly avoiding killing us several times, whether from hydroplaning around sharp curves and fishtailing back into place, or almost colliding with a logging truck while passing a car on a hill. We ended up on the side of a Thai highway- no, not, thankfully, in a wreck, but, unfortunately, at what passed for the bus stop. There was nothing distinguishing this patch of highway from any other, but somehow it was the bus stop, out in the middle of nowhere. I had booked, so I thought, a bus that went all the way to my destination, Krabi. No, no it did not. It actually went to Trang, a town I had never heard of, which made sense when I was dropped there at 9:30 in the evening- it’s not much to speak of, for sure. The bus, due to the thunderstorms, was delayed an hour and a half, and by the time I got to my “bus stop” there were no taxis to be found. The bus attendant dumped my bag on the side of the road, told me to look for a tuk tuk, and then left unceremoniously, without so much as a second glance back. I stood there, alone, under a weak yellow street lamp with my backpack on, sweating in spite of the night. I had left my water bottle in the bus station bathroom when I left, but I had assumed that I could get more at the bus stop. Clearly I could not.  I thought of my friends in Patong, who were either lounging in the hostel or at the cocktail bar dancing in the street, or perhaps already on the beach at night, talking while people set off lanterns over the water and fireworks burst off and on. I felt very, very alone.

With nothing else to be done, I stood and waited about 20 minutes on the side of this deserted highway in a random town in Thailand which looked for all the world like an abandoned meth town in New Mexico. There were no stores, barely any traffic going past, I had no cell phone service, and I had no idea what to do. So I start walking down the road, having a vague idea from the gesticulations of the bus attendant that Krabi was further on. The road splits. Cool, I don’t know, I’m walking a highway in rural Thailand alone, let’s go right. After a while a tuk tuk comes barreling out of nowhere, humid fog glowing eerily in the headlights, rattling and wheezing along the road with difficulty. I am alone on the side of the road with just a backpack and no one knows where I am. I am not feeling so intrepid or invincible anymore. The driver pulls up and his eyes are sliding different ways. Yabba, Chang Beer, who can say what he’s taken, but he’s not all there in any way that would give me confidence in his driving. He tells me 30 minutes, 600 baht, and I am somewhat relieved to see a license number on his windshield. It’s that or waiting for another random tuk tuk, after who knows how long, so I get in.  I pretend to call a friend on my phone that doesn’t work, as some sort of insurance that the driver will get me there since “someone is waiting for me”.

The next 30 minutes I spend clinging to the side of the tuk tuk as we charge down dark roads, the axle of the tuk tuk rattling to the point where we are rocking wildly. Everything is a maze of dark pavement and every moment I’m wondering if we’re going to turn off in the jungle and I’ll slip out of this world, when suddenly we are out of pitch black side highways, and a town blossoms light and street signs out of the darkness right in front of me. I’m here, I’m safe, I will not be found mangled in the ditch. Excellent. I need wi-fi to get my hostel address, so I ask the tuk tuk driver to drop me at a Starbucks, which seems, after the hours of transit I just had, like some kind of symbol of salvation via civilization. When I arrive, the hostel is quiet because it’s late on a random Sunday. I try not to compare it to where I just was. I go downstairs and put on a big friendly Texas smile despite being tired and sweaty and stressed after walking Thai highways. I am rewarded with four friendly new faces and an invite to go to a party on the beach. Yes. Yes is the only living thing. I’m in a tuk tuk again, in totally different spirits and circumstances, and I dance for hours on the beach under the stars with these people who took me in and took me out for no reason other than that I was staying in the same place. Things will change as they always do.

So, given that, here’s what might not make sense when I say it, but it’s true- I do this just as much for these exact kind of lows as for the highs I had a mere 12 hours before. I try to remind myself that no matter how low I get when traveling, no matter how often I hit a wall of dammit, I cannot, I just CANNOT, there is always another high around the corner. Always. I never leave a trip without an experience that I could not imagine having lived without, and that is worth all the random Starbucks corners on rainy afternoons where I allow myself to slide into a self-pity wallow, looking for the first plane ticket home, only even that isn’t home, because Laos is just where I am now, and I don’t know where I’ll be next. It’s not stable, it’s often not kind, it’s usually hard in some frustrating way, but you earn every shred of that investment back and then some when it all comes together and you’re back on the right side of things.

I mean it when I say I’ll take all the empty highways and loneliness in the world for the postcard shop in Estonia, or the hostel in Bosnia, or couchsurfing with friends in Poland, or training aerial silks at the Lao National Circus after meeting a backpacker at a local bar, or taking a spontaneous road trip up into the mountains where the US embassy says you shouldn’t go, or dancing all night in Serbia to wild music, or riding horses across Mongolia, or a crazy NYE in Bangkok at a brand new hostel none of us knew anything about when we booked it. It feels good to stand in those moments and know that you could have given up so many times before but you didn’t, and because you didn’t, your perseverance was more than rewarded. I love the way I am living now, but it can be hard, and stressful, and the reality is that I can’t do it forever, and I don’t want to be doing it when I’m older. I want to do it, and so I have to do it now. I am grateful to be able to and I welcome every abandoned highway that gets me further down the road of these experiences I want to have.

I am reminding myself to be patient. I can wait out the rain. It’s just a rest. The sun will be drying my face and my hair soon enough, and then it’s on to the next.

Post-edit: Two hours after I wrote that, I fell in with an amazing group of people. For the next three days we had more fun than I had initially thought would be possible in that town, and one of my fondest memories of this entire trip is the day we rented motorbikes, used a shitty tourist map, and drove all over the area down gorgeous two lane roads cutting through perfect green everywhere, before ending up at the best beach I’ve ever seen. High again. 

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