A liberated solo traveller

A liberated solo traveller

Up until five or six years ago, I wasn't much of a fan of solo travelling.

What's the fun in that, if you can't share with one or more friends a table brimming with food, a murderous tuk tuk ride, a laugh, a night out on the town, a banded battle with the touts?

Some of my best and most memorable trips had been made with like-minded friends, during which we did all of those things and more.

Because the majority of people - me, up until five or six years ago, included - associate travelling with vacationing, the whole attitude of going out there is to crank up the enjoyment factor, splurge a little and make a fun, social activity out of it.

Then, one day, I decided to brave it alone because I was on a work trip to New York and it would be a pity not to extend my stay in the exciting city by a few days.

There, in the intoxicating Big Apple, I found myself hesitantly walking into busy eateries alone, wondering how I was going to chope a seat without placing a packet of tissue paper on it.

I treaded the grid-like avenues mindfully, averting the gaze of passers-by; and spent nights with a remote control surfing late-night TV talk shows in my hotel room instead of sipping a Manhattan in a Manhattan bar.

But that feeling of complete and utter freedom, of being unencumbered by someone or something, was also, well, hugely liberating.

If I choose to roll out of my hotel bed at 11am, the worst thing that would happen would be missing the buffet breakfast. If I change my mind about visiting the Statue of Liberty, I don't have to feel bad; I have a pass to change my mind as many times as I wish.

I thought about the five-week backpacking trip to western Europe with my friend more than 10 years ago, when I returned home suffering from severe cathedral fatigue because she wanted to see them all, the good Catholic girl that she was.

She gave me a crash catechism and told me stories of the saints in each duomo as we looked at pieces of holy bones, tombs and other relics, although my interest was really more in sampling the gelato cart parked outside in the piazza.

I thought about the times I milled around certain shops with absolute disinterest while my indecisive friends picked out souvenirs like they were choosing husbands.

I felt like a helpless, bored kid, sitting at a mannequin's feet while his mother browses the sale rack in Metro. Except I was in a worse situation since I couldn't simply pout and tug at the hems of my friends' dresses and whine: "Can we go now?"

After New York and many more companionless forays into foreign territory, travelling alone started to feel less scary; in fact, it became the preferred travel style for an introvert like me.

And as I get older, travelling has taken on a different meaning. Fun and communion have made way for introspection, more involved and intimate observations of cultures and daily life.

One of my favourite stories from Buddhist teacher Ajahn Brahm is the tale of Taoist philosopher Laozi and the sunset.

The master would, during his daily evening walk, allow one disciple to follow him. But the golden rule was it had to be done in silence.

One evening, he took a new disciple on his walk and they came to a ridge as the sun was setting. The scene before their eyes was so magical the young disciple couldn't help but mutter: "Wow, what a beautiful sunset."

When Laozi returned to the monastery, he told all his disciples this young rule-breaker was banned from his evening walks for life.

The other disciples tried to plead on his behalf, but Laozi would not budge.

"When my disciple said it was a beautiful sunset, he wasn't watching the sunset anymore. He was watching his words," he said.

It might be nice to share magical moments, but sometimes, taking it all in on your own is the best experience you can have.

Well, at least that was what I thought, until I went to Poland two weeks ago.

After spending a week in Berlin in January on my own and becoming fascinated with Nazi history and the Holocaust, I decided I needed to see Auschwitz.

What I didn't count on was a conspiracy of factors that made me question if I truly had the spunk to be a solo traveller.

I had gone to Auschwitz on the first day of Chinese New Year - the inauspiciousness of it all didn't even occur to me until a Singaporean friend texted me: "Great way to usher in the new year - at a death camp."

I couldn't change my schedule since I was going to Warsaw after that, but that thought sat so uncomfortably with me, I couldn't sleep that night.

Auschwitz was the sobering, somber experience I had expected, made more intense by the grey, biting, snowy Polish winter.

I returned to Krakow after a long day at the camps in low spirits, heart heavy with guilt. There was no one to articulate my mixed feelings to and I could only sit alone with that unsettling sensation which had stripped me of all appetite.

While I enjoy the solitude of solo travels, that day wasn't one of them.

But it got me thinking: If it wasn't a beautiful sunset that confronted his young disciple, but death, destruction and defying Chinese New Year traditions, I wondered if Laozi would still enforce his rule of silence.

Perhaps I'm still too much of a mindfulness novice to fully appreciate his message about experiencing life, rather than be caught up in thinking about it.

I'll have to keep honing that skill; I've already bought a plane ticket to Stockholm next week - in search of more beautiful sunsets.

dawntan@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Mar 8, 2015.
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