Alone in a crowd

There’s a beau­ti­ful ran­dom­ness to be­ing thrown to­gether with com­plete strangers, writes

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

The first stage of be­ing a solo trav­eller is fear

I flew into Bangkok in the mid­dle of a thun­der­storm. Sheet light­ning and flick­er­ing neon signs threw the grimy streets into sharp re­lief as I took a cab through the pound­ing rain. The driver dropped me in the vicin­ity of my hos­tel, over­charged me for the fare, then pre­tended he didn’t have change for my fresh ban­knote. When I fi­nally found my ac­com­mo­da­tion, soaked to the skin, I re­alised I was the only one stay­ing there. There I was in a megac­ity of eight mil­lion peo­ple, and I’d never felt more alone.

I was so para­noid about be­ing mugged that I walked the streets with a 1000 baht note tucked into my sock. That is, when I both­ered to leave my room. Ev­ery­thing felt hos­tile and alien. I’d been look­ing for­ward to set­ting off on my solo travel odyssey for years, sav­ing all my pen­nies, fan­ta­sis­ing over hav­ing the free­dom to be cap­tain of my own des­tiny. I’d quit my job, bro­ken up with my girl­friend, said good­byes to my loved ones. Now I was 10,000 kilo­me­tres away from home, and sud­denly it hit me that I might have made an enor­mous mis­take.

The second stage of be­ing a solo trav­eller is ela­tion

Af­ter five days of ex­is­ten­tial dread, I de­cided it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. I took an overnight train up to the north­ern Thai city of Chi­ang Mai, which would even­tu­ally be­come my home-away-from-home. As con­crete and cor­ru­gated iron gave way to jun­gle and rice pad­dies, the rock­ing car­riage lulled me into the sound­est sleep I’d had since leav­ing Auck­land.

I’d caught the eye of a fel­low loner a few rows be­hind me on the train. As we dis­em­barked into the morn­ing sun­shine, he asked if I knew a good place to stay. His name was Alex from Colorado, he’d been trav­el­ling for 18 months, and he was so laid­back that he was prac­ti­cally hor­i­zon­tal. I was amazed by his bold­ness in turn­ing up in a city with­out plan­ning ahead as we shared a ride to the hos­tel – which I’d metic­u­lously re­searched and booked ahead of time.

Im­me­di­ately we fell in with a crowd of trav­ellers, and my fears evap­o­rated on the spot. We packed out a truck that took us so high into the moun­tains that the en­gine started smok­ing. We drank tall bot­tles of beer un­der the awnings dur­ing the trop­i­cal down­pours. We clam­bered up wa­ter­falls and picked off leeches and jumped off cliffs. Even as each mem­ber of the group went their sep­a­rate ways, there was al­ways an ever-present stream of com­pan­ions. I ran into an old friend in a hip­pie town up in the moun­tains, and we made a spur-of-the-mo­ment de­ci­sion to fly to Myan­mar.

More ad­ven­tures awaited, more fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple, out­landish ac­cents, tall tales. On­wards, to a month in Cam­bo­dia, with its seedy hos­tels and re­mote is­lands and red wine and bush­weed. I fell into the rhythm of mak­ing new friends in an in­stant, swap­ping books with strangers on buses, speak­ing halt­ing sen­tences to lo­cals, find­ing com­mon ground in the small­est of things.

In the lull be­fore the tourist sea­son, ac­com­mo­da­tion is ridicu­lously cheap, but it’s of­ten de­serted. I learned not to make book­ings based on price, but to look out for a com­mon area, a so­cial vibe, places in hot de­mand. Word-of­mouth was al­ways more re­li­able than out­dated re­views, and I dis­cov­ered that wing­ing it at the last mo­ment al­most al­ways worked out just fine.

My favourite strat­egy was to stay in places with a free break­fast. As ev­ery­one con­gre­gated around the toast and ba­nanas and aw­ful in­stant cof­fee, new friend­ships were born, and plots and schemes for the day were hatched.

I also learned to let my guard down. A smile and a friendly in­tro­duc­tion tran­scends ev­ery cul­tural bar­rier. It’s not like high school. There are no cliques, no cool kids, no jocks. Solo travel se­lects for peo­ple who are open to new ex­pe­ri­ences, who are a bit ad­ven­tur­ous, who are look­ing for com­pany. Pre­vi­ous iden­ti­ties and tribal mem­ber­ships are left at home and for­got­ten, like a snake’s sloughed-off skin. Un­derneath, ev­ery­one is new and raw, gleam­ing with ex­cite­ment. Young and old, lawyers and drifters, the lost and the found – all bound to­gether with the same com­mon thread.

The third stage of be­ing a solo trav­eller is yearn­ing

‘‘Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you go­ing?’’

This rit­ual mat­ing dance has been per­formed be­tween back­pack­ers since time im­memo­rial. Each hops around in cir­cles, squawk­ing ex­cit­edly about shared places and ex­pe­ri­ences. Af­ter hav­ing the ex­act same con­ver­sa­tion 1000 times, it starts to wear thin.

There’s only so long you can ride the wave of ex­cite­ment, a rolling swell of

Camp­ing in the foothills of the Hi­malayas in Ut­tarak­hand, In­dia.

Watch­ing the waves roll in at Koh Rong Sam­loem, an is­land off the coast of Cam­bo­dia.

En route to the peak of Doi In­thanon, the tallest moun­tain in Thai­land.

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