First published by Fairfax Media/Stuff. This is an expanded version of the original essay, republished with permission.
The first stage of being a solo traveler 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 ten thousand kilometres away from home, and suddenly it hit me that I might have made an enormous mistake.
The second stage of being a solo traveler 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 traveling 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 travelers, 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 an ever-present stream of new companions.
I ran into a former hostel mate 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-of-mouth 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, or cool kids, or 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 traveler 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 and flashing their brilliant photos. After having the exact same conversation 1000 times, it starts to wear thin. Soon you’re just going through the motions, and never want to hear another word about how breathtaking Angkor Wat is.
There’s only so long you can ride the wave of excitement, a rolling swell of new people and new experiences and new places that rise with you for a brief glorious moment and then fall behind in your wake. Eventually the momentum runs out and the wave breaks and sends you crashing down on some foreign shore, flat on your back and too tired to move another inch.
When everything is fleeting, there’s nothing to anchor yourself to. Most people are single-serving friends. Your Facebook feed fills up with companions from all over the world, and you part ways with the best of intentions – good luck, see you some day, stay in touch – but you know you’ll never see them again.
Even the people you forge a stronger connection with are inevitably going to leave you just as you’re getting attached to them. Sometimes you can keep the wheel spinning for days, or weeks, a month – but it only makes it all the more gut-wrenching to say goodbye, and start the process of rebuilding anew: Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going?
The fourth stage of being a solo traveler is community.
I returned to Chiang Mai, the city where I first felt my fortunes changing. This time I settled in for a few months. I got a local driver’s licence and a bank account. I became a regular at my favourite restaurants. I fed familiar coins into the same laundry machine.
With an apartment of my own, I hosted some couchsurfers, and hit it off with a pair of visiting Americans. They had similar interests to me, but they’d gone deep down rabbit-holes I was only just discovering. Sanjena invited me to come on a retreat she and her boyfriend were organising near Mumbai. I was intrigued, so I bought a flight.
The group was styled after Ben Franklin’s Junto, a society for mutual improvement and discussion which met every fortnight. One of the talks was on ‘community’, something I’d never really thought about before. All the practices in which humans have historically found a sense of purpose – belief in God, patriotism and nationhood, traditional family structures – are dead or dying. The waning of the commons has coincided with the rise of rampant individualism, further encouraging a life committed to nothing larger than itself.
Cogs turned and fell into place. Finally I knew what people meant when they talked about ‘finding your tribe’. I had a name to put to the thing I was missing – the feeling of being alone in the middle of a crowd; the itching sensation of having had and lost some phantom limb.
The shared connection between solo travelers provides enough of a kinship to scratch the itch. If you’re on a backpacking trip over summer, no worries. But if you plan on living the nomadic life indefinitely, prepare to run into a wall of yearning. There’s a beautiful randomness to being thrown together with complete strangers, but you can’t build a community out of a shared enthusiasm for elephant pants and full-moon parties. Without stability, routine, and some sort of central ethos or common goal, the common thread unravels quickly.
I don’t know if I have any good tips for finding your tribe yet, but I guess it’s mostly just a numbers game. The more I introduce optionality into my life, the more good things seem to happen. Couchsurfing, Tinder, meet-ups, and joining a co-working space are all useful tools, with built-in filters to help nudge you towards like-minded people. It’s hit-and-miss, but almost never a total waste of time, and every now and then, you strike gold.
And so, after living my fantasy of constantly being on the road, I’ve come full circle. These days, I travel as slowly as I possibly can. I often go on trips with close friends, although I’m never tied to anyone else’s schedule. I max out my visas in each country, spend days or weeks idling in quiet towns, and solid months at a time back ‘home’ in Chiang Mai.
This is a work in progress. I’m 20 months into my journey and I’m still figuring it out, but things are moving in the right direction. I have a community in New Zealand that I’m looking forward to visiting soon. I’ve built a community in Thailand. I’m returning to Mumbai soon, and hope to build something there too. It’s been quite a while since I felt that phantom itch.
There is a Māori proverb that asks: He aha te mea nui o te ao? What is the most important thing in the world?
He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata – It is people, it is people, it is people.