I was sat in the Cactus Garden in Singapore Airport at the time. It may have been 2010 on my way to Saigon or 2011 coming back from Melbourne. This airport designer’s mid-afternoon sketch made real in steel, an inside/outside desert themed smoking area, ascended to by a half-hidden escalator, came complete with a bar, and featured various bedraggled travellers strung about the place, as if they’d been flown in especially to garnish the benches. Despite the excitement induced by the promise of cacti in tandem with nicotine, neither visit availed anything that seemed to be a cactus, but maybe this was only because I failed to notice much at all above the hum of my own deafening self-consciousness.
With a book concertinaed in front of me, trying to go native amongst the other fauna, I attempted to cross one leg over the other, smoke and perform a page turn at the same time. Hoping someone would notice the subtle contrast of these physical elements with the elegant pattern of my shirt, the book slid out of my grasp, and the cigarette, in my haste to swoop downwards, lodged itself somewhere about the bottom of my trousers. Unable to stifle my auto-leg jerk and high-pitched shriek I almost immediately shot wildly embarrassed eyes around me, seeing if anyone had noticed my mortifying failure to perform with the cool I’d so recently tried to affect.
I’ve done a lot of solo travel over the past few years, never for longer than a few weeks at a time, but long enough to get over the inward terror and start enjoying it. Slapping down on the tarmac or rolling into the station is at first pure freedom. Alone and without the responsibilities imposed on you by friends and family you can do whatever you want, no one being the wiser. All sorts of dangerous and bad thoughts pass through your mind. Soon you’re firing up every dodgy app available, and draining the battery in 45 minutes or less.
In the evening, as the crick in your neck left from the journey fades, you are left standing in your hotel room or sat somewhere outside on a bench. For the first time in ages you remember what loneliness feels like. This is not a totally bad sensation. It’s like being a bit hungry and slightly agitated that there’s no food in the house. This is what makes me go out and buy cigarettes, despite the clear knowledge that I don’t want or need one. Someone stood on his own in a public space is a vagrant and dangerous, an aberration in the scenery; but give him a cigarette, and his role is clear. He is an elegant people-watcher; a romantic. That the actual cigarette makes him nauseous and he wonders how he will get the stench off of his fingers later is beside the point. I’m always aping behaviour like this in order to give my loneliness some kind of story acceptable to strangers.
I always get lost in a new city, even with Google maps tracing my every step. The distance is longer than I think, or I go off in search of a restaurant, one of those fabled, perfect places you imagine exist round the next corner. It takes at least an hour of wandering, retracing steps, and critically assessing every establishment before the ridiculousness of the situation becomes obvious. In Beijing I walked almost 5 km around Hou Hai Lake and the Hutongs trying to find a place to have dinner, before eventually I managed to tread in some dog shit whilst avoiding a street hawker. I spent the next thirty minutes trying to find a puddle in which I could wash it off. I gave up at 7pm, turned back to the hotel and spent the evening power showering the crap off in the ensuite.
Apart from endless walking, people watching takes up most of my time. Busy Asian cities are perfect for this, especially in South East Asia where the atmosphere is more slothful. It is possibly a very rude habit of mine but I can construct extensive back-stories for these characters and I may be married to one in my mind before they abruptly leave. In Europe people watching is futile; we all watch each other with such intensity that we have been in deadlock for most of modernity.
What makes solo travel so scary is not only the disorientating effect of being in a new place, but also the implication that the majority of the world’s people live entirely independently of you and your ideas, in places you have no experience of and can’t possibly ever hope to. The fear also comes from having so much freedom: you are aware of all the things you could have been and all the choices you still have left to make. Now you can see your day-to-day life as if it existed in a parallel universe. With the benefit of distance you know that your options extend far beyond the limited ones you complain about everyday. It is empowering, but you can also end up feeling profoundly lost.
Travelling alone will not allow you to ‘discover yourself’; neither will it necessarily make you more confident. It will however brutally hold the mirror up to your weaknesses. So why do I continue to set out on my own when I could happily be ensconced at home in bed? It’s because the self-consciousness that accompanies my journey reveals all the small choices I make everyday, as well as the things I usually ignore. Recently I have even found myself enjoying the ridiculousness of my many failures. When we let go of the need to perform our every move to western standards we open ourselves up to change and have a better ability to connect with others. They say that a change is as good as a holiday, but both are even better.