“Don’t you get lonely?” people often ask me when they find out I travel around the world by myself. I have to say no.
Two things happen when you are by yourself. For one thing, when your mind is not filled with people, the world itself can become a companion. I have had so many ecstatic experiences of nature off by myself. I have also had them with others around, but I didn’t know until I had my solo highs to compare, that the other person takes up some of the psychic space in my head. The sharing is wonderful. It deepens my relationships, no question. But the price of connecting with my sister or friend pulls me into our mutual orbit. When there’s nobody else, my feeling of connectedness flies out and away, expanding to nearly infinity. And it lasts a lot longer, too, because I don’t turn my attention away to another.
It doesn’t have to be a stunning vista either. I’ve had the feeling take hold on a shaded neighborhood footpath. I can still feel the autumn-edged air in Northern California, see the light filtered through yellow leaves, smell them crushed underfoot. Another time was in New Zealand – not in the spectacular, unearthly landscapes of the South Island. I was driving the hills of the North Island, just ordinary farmland, on my way to the shore. But there was the road that seemed to climb into the sky and disappear, a cow on the far hill, and me at the wheel and it felt as if we were all interconnected. I was the cow and the light and the road that was vanishing ahead.
These times, and countless others, only happened after I had spent days alone, not quite like a hermit because I did come across people. I spoke with them. Exchanged pleasantries. But they did not occupy my inner space, and when we parted, there was only the lingering sweet essence of human contact.
The other reason I don’t get lonely is that I do make casual contact everywhere I go. Studies have found that regular casual social interaction is as protective of depression and lonliness as having an intimate partner can be. Travel doesn’t make sense if you spend your whole day in bed on the computer. Travel asks you to go out and “see the elephant.” To explore the town. Catch the sights. And while you’re out, there are people you brush up against. If you take the time, each one of them is an opportunity for human contact. A few extra words, a query for recommendations or a comment about something going on nearby, and you’re suddenly not alone in the world. I read about one fellow who traveled in Hungary and asked older women he met where he could sample real goulash. He ended up being invited to homes, or being sent to villages to eat at tavern. His trip was full of connection.
You can also be open to others who might chat with you, but that’s trickier. Scammers are very good at chatting people up, and offering to show you around or help you out. Beware the person who approaches you and offers help, unlike the young man who sought out a specific dish and through that, connected with others. Let your intuition tell you if someone is too pushy or just “sticky.” And it goes without saying not to be that yourself. Look for brief moments with others, not a lifelong friend in a faraway place.
Still, insead of looking for a quick exit from a conversation with a ticket agent or shop assitant, linger a moment. In a small, out of the way cafe, the proprietor might ask a question or appreciate a comment. Is there something else to say? To ask? So many people know a good cafe in the neighborhood, for example. Ask. And then go. And tell them the lady at that store or the guy at the newstand recommended them. And there you are, a part of a circle of humans in a faraway place. It really is that easy.
Susan diRende travels the world on her own and has been living with no fixed abode since the end of 2014. This twice-monthly column aims to encourage others to try going solo and explores what can be gained from the experience. All photos ©Susan diRende