Monday, March 10, 2014

Solo Travel

Photo by Nicole Babin

I read something recently that stated that women who have a propensity for social issues, may find solo travel to be absolutely liberating. At once I agreed, and continued to think about why. I've only traveled on my own a few times, technically speaking only once, but I've ended up on my own before too, when I didn't start out that way.

I've written extensively about my trip through Costa Rica, so I won't say much more about that particular trip in this post beyond the liberating thing. When traveling alone, I can be anyone. Not a lie of myself, but a fragment of myself. Or perhaps many fragments of myself, put together in a different way. I can do anything I want without the pressure of my partner's happiness, I can say whatever I want to the strangers I meet without the fear of judgement. For if they judge, what does it matter? I'm not there to prove anything, I can so easily shed the binds that shackle me. I can be anyone I want to be, my best self. I can trust myself, listen to my heart without obstruction because there is no one else to trust, and no one else to sway my feeling. If I want to recline on a wooden lounger, hungover for hours, staring at a volcano with paper and pens spread out around me, I can (and I did) I can morph solely into someone else I don't yet know, and be completely in love with that fantasy.

When I was twenty-three, I took my first backpacking trip to Europe with my friend Julie, and the experience I had will be tattooed on my memory forever. She and I did not know each other well, we worked together and shared a desire to get away. The first half of the journey was wonderful in it's own right; Rome, Florence and Venice. Sleeping in a rented tent swimming in a foot of water after a storm, my first experience with hole-in-the-floor toilets, long train rides and hostels. A slight tension was beginning to build though, as my confidence grew. I was becoming braver, and more aware that I was locking up my introverted, panicky self in a vault somewhere, only wanting to be free.

One night, in a campground in Mestre, we met an incredible group of fellow travellers, a night I hope I'll never forget. One of those nights where the passing hours saw the dropping of various revellers until I was one of the very last standing, gaining only more momentum, craving more experience, and wishing the night would never end. Running wild through the site, heads spinning from piss-tank beer and too many cigarettes, I, and two Daves from Halifax, stumbled down to a quiet dock overhanging a dark canal. We dropped down onto the hard wood, planks digging into our spines, surrounded by the song of crickets in the many ratty shrubs across the water. Life was so free and the humour was flowing. We told stories of our lives back at home as if they were not our lives at all, but only faded memories of movies we'd seen long ago. The stars sparkled above us, and I had a nagging realization that I meant nothing to Aleks, the guy I had briefly been dating back home. But it was ok, because the night proved to me that there was so much more. One of the Daves eventually dropped off, leaving only two of us to explore more before the sun began to rise. Dave and I walked hand in hand through the sleeping campground, whispering drunken jokes and found a huge, vacant tent. Neither of us had seen a tent like this one: four or five separate rooms divided by billowing white gossamer.  We pretended it was our white-picket home and lay on the damp, dirty mattresses of overused cots until the sound of crickets turned into the sound of birds. We said our final goodbyes and I snuck back into my cabin, careful not to wake Julie. I no longer cared about the bedbugs. I was both too drunk and too concerned with real life now.

That night changed me, and made me see that the trip I had been experiencing up until that point was not what my young soul needed. Julie and I lasted a few more days together, through Switzerland, until we decided to part ways. We clearly had different agendas and that was ok. After another incredible night surrounded by new worldly travellers in basement bars (due to the noise controls in Interlaken) I woke up in my bunk, surrounded by the sick coughing of twelve other girls, and told Julie I would not be going to Paris with her today. I was going to go back to Venice again, this time with new friend Nick, because I wasn't ready to say goodbye to him yet, and because I wanted to see Venice through newer eyes. She understood, and left to catch her train. We did not see each other again on that trip. I felt badly for that but I knew that this was what I needed to do. I was learning to follow my heart, to let my feet land where they wanted without my mind getting in the way. That was the moment that journey truly began. The moment I daringly broke free from the itinerary and left in search of what I was missing, the void inside me that was aching to knock out fear.

Nick and I spent a whirlwind week with no plans, no foresight, no anything beyond the present moment. We rented golf carts and accidentally ended up on the shoulder of the highway, laughing so hard about being pulled over and thrown into Swiss prison. We'd stop at the side of any road where there was access to any body of water and dive in as long as it was accessible enough. My hair had never been messier, my face perpetually smeared with melting mascara, body covered with mosquito bites from sleeping at night in tiny rooms with screenless windows, but I just did not give a fuck. Nothing mattered out there. It was so free, but I became remarkably addicted to that freedom so saying goodbye was genuinely one of the hardest things I've had to do. You know the scene, spending every last moment in the dying sun, in the growing shadows, pretending that the goodbye would never come. Stepping onto the train, then turning back to see him snap a picture of me waving goodbye, on a disposable camera, as the train pulled out, heading for Paris.

I had ended up so very far away from London, where I was meant to catch my flight home in a couple days, and that overnight, couchette train ride from Venice to Paris was awful. I was truly alone. All the lights it seemed had gone out on me. I was without my passport, (they held them for the overnight border-crossing) and I tried to sleep, so sad, listening to the glug-glug-glug of my water bottle swishing beside my head with the motion of the train, and the illicit affair between student and teacher in the next bed. We broke down in the middle of the night, and I got my period. I cried again. Warm tears of worth because they were tears filled with meaning. Real tears drawn from fear, loneliness, farewells and the scary adventure of relying only on myself; so much more than the tears I was used to back home. I arrived in Paris and had to beg the ticket sellers in my best French to please cut me a deal on the chunnel. I dredged up more tears and he took pity on me. I had had enough and I was out of money. When I thought I was reaching my breaking point, I could see that I was actually building strength and character, but it was painful, my skeleton too big for my skin...

I made it home. I made it through, and when I look back I can see that I suffered from no threat beyond a fearful heart. I didn't know how to trust myself yet. I was still a stupid little girl, whom I now love and cherish so much, so grateful that that silly girl was me. I wish I could reach back in time and hold her tight, tell her it will all be ok, because I was ok. It would only have ever been ok, but I just wasn't ready to trust yet.

When I'm walking down the street these days, cool bars of an iron fence bumping against my fingertips rhythmically, I think about myself twelve years ago and I am so thankful that it was my life. I fall prey to nostalgia every day, a condition I now know I have no control over really, but I'm learning now, as I was learning then. When I'm older, I'll look back at the me I am now with a sweet smile and a wish to embrace.

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