Far be it for me to claim some sort of enlightened lock on content solo travel. I have been gone from home just over 20 days, now, and there is still enough novelty in my day-to-day to forestall feelings of loneliness just by booking a tour, or wandering into a shop or museum.
Travel does wear on me, after awhile. I have the same conversations over and over with my fellows -- Where are you from? Where are you going? Where have you been? What did you study? What do you think about Trump? Populism? Immigration? Climate change? Many such topics come accompanied by apologies from yours truly. Americans are uniquely responsible for some global woes.
The trysts I write about aren’t the only times I’m surrounded by others, too. The light under the bedroom door contains a mix of tours, one-off couchsurfing connections, and conversations with fellow tourists, guides, and locals about archaeology, psychology, history, local and international politics, environmental science, and travel. We lament our woes (the bus broke down in the middle of the night, leaving 60 people stranded in the freezing cold for five hours) and celebrate our joys (a fellow traveler’s amiable seven-year-old has been to as many countries. He regales the group with his youthful memories). People mark places on my map for me to explore as I journey to where they have already trod.
Still, much of my travel is solo. I visit museums, movies, and book tours with no expectation of a partner joining me. On my last night, I google “best Alpaca in Cusco” and then walk several blocks from my hostel to Ucho.
I sit by myself in a corner, my faded and stained khaki zip-offs and sneakers contrasting with the cosmopolitan decor. I imagine I’m an international food critic or writer for Lonely Planet as I listen to an audiobook and sip from a glass of Casa Silva. I am a foodie -- one of my few indulgences, other than kink and body work, that highlights my hedonism. I relish my private dinner. I don’t know that I would have enjoyed it more if I had to navigate the social complexities of sharing it with a partner. I would have -- at minimum -- worn different pants, lest I reflect shame on someone better groomed.
“Happiness is only real when shared,” writes Christopher McCandless, on the inside of one of his books before he dies, far from home, in the Alaskan wilderness. Some enterprising soul painted this quote on the wall of my hostel. I raise a skeptical eyebrow at it each time I walk past the purple words.
I consider my last couple of years of steady improvement in mental and physical health. The joy and openness that I can now bring to bear with new partners. The successful short-term relationships I have created while traveling, where two people come together for a moment of joy and then part in full support of each other’s continued adventures. The fears I’ve shed, and of the connections forged back home. The friends I've made who build me up, who celebrate me, who watch me explore, learn, and then leave for indeterminate periods. They offer me an abundance of compersion and support.
I share plenty of happiness with others.
But when I run my tongue over crisp, tangy mango ceviche in a private corner at Ucho, or relish a night alone in a simple hotel room in freezing cold Puno, or wander into the live-action Aladdin by myself, these are not acts of self-care from an introvert who needs to recharge. No, they are joyful experiences in their own right.
Alone and without strings to tie me romantically, sexually, or emotionally to partners thousands of miles away, I pursue my whims at will. I change my plans. I connect or withdraw from others as it suits me. I might meet the love of my life around the next corner, on a doubtful Tinder date. I might fling myself off a cliff, cascading down an 800 meter piece of wire, on a trip I decided to book the night before. I might wander down an improbable side street into a museum as the skies threaten grey thunder, then make my way through exhibits on metallurgy at Machu Picchu. I might spend the afternoon sipping café au lait on a second floor balcony of a trendy restaurant, overlooking the parade of horns and drums that circles around the Puno Cathedral, while men clad in blue and white vests tear up the sidewalk with hammers and chisels.
Alone, I do not worry about how I am reflected in the eyes of another. Alone, I distill my essence and desires. Alone, I build my strength and skills. Alone, I am free.
Alone, but not lonely.