Moving through the world alone

IMG_1747I wrote last week about trying to move my body intentionally every day in July as a way of “breathing in unison with the world.”  After a pretty stressful couple of weeks, I needed a really restorative weekend — a kind of shivasana from work and the news and a family loss.  Saturday I didn’t leave my house — I cleaned and did yoga and read and lay in my hammock — and then Sunday, after making a quick breakfast for a friend, I left the city and went for a 60km solo bike ride.

It was hot and it was perfect.  The route meant I only had to stop two or three times, very briefly, and I just rode and felt the road, bumpy and smooth, felt my hands hold me safe. I got home and though my body was hard-worked and I had to sit at my desk and do some work-work, I felt perfectly happy, perfectly restored.

While I was riding alone, I was thinking about a conversation we’ve been having among the blog writers about traveling alone.  When I was on my way back from Bhutan in May, Catherine commented about how comfortable I seemed traveling alone, and asked how I’d learned to be that comfortable.  I get this kind of question a lot — when I ran into someone at a Hannukah party last year I had only “seen” that year via social media, she gave me a huge hug and immediately asked how I was brave enough to travel alone.

I’ve written a few times about my evolution from being a person who was anxious about everything to being a person who has traveled alone in many many countries where I don’t have the language or even the most basic understanding of How it All Works.  For me, it really parallels why I needed to ride by myself last Sunday — I need the restoration of moving my body completely at my own rhythms, through space and time and whatever is swirling in my soul.  When I am with others, no matter how much I love them or enjoy being with them, I’m orienting myself to what they need, adjusting my rhythms to theirs.  There is something profoundly selfish and beautiful and grand and life-giving about orienting myself to just what I need.

I do have worries when I travel or ride alone — I’m not experienced at bike repair, so when I rode my bike alone across Latvia and Estonia last year, I said a little Tire-God prayer every day when I reached my resting place and I hadn’t had to deal with a flat or broken spoke.  And sometimes, when I travel alone, I go to places that I wouldn’t go if I was considering the safety of a companion — the most obvious example being a trip I made to the Democratic Republic of Congo two years ago.  (That’s a whole post in itself, but I had been traveling to places adjacent to the border for ten years, it was a pocket of momentary calm, and I wanted to see the contrast with Rwanda and Uganda, which I know fairly well.  But when I found myself in a tent at least 50 m from anyone else in the forest, rehearsing how to say “can I please put my clothes on before you kidnap me” in french before I went to sleep, I did wonder at my decision-making. And had to take a sleeping pill to get through the night.  And in fact, that park was closed to tourists in May this year after 12 rangers were killed and two British tourists were kidnapped by rebels).

When I ask other people why they like to travel alone, I see my own experiences reflected back. One friend said “What I like most about travelling alone is that I have only myself to rely on. As part of a couple for the past 30 years, you sometimes forget the “you” that existed before the “them”. You forget how naturally resilient you are, how curious and how open to adventure. Travelling alone gives me an opportunity to reconnect with those parts of myself I have not seen in awhile and to recognize my own abilities. Travelling alone brings me back in touch with my mind and my body – but most importantly, it gives me glimpses of my soul.”

Another friend — also married — echoed her. I like the quality of time when traveling alone. It seems to pass more slowly/fully (in a good, not boring way) and I tend to reflect more in real time when traveling along.”

When I ask other people why they are reluctant to travel alone (or why they think I’m “brave,”), some of the responses are what I expect — “I’m afraid of trying to navigate in another language and not being able to figure it out” or  “I like having a shared experience to continue to discuss and reflect on again and again after an adventure” or “I don’t know what to do with myself at night, when I don’t really feel safe going out alone in strange places” — but others really touch at the most tender parts of ourselves — like fear of assault or a fear of being judged as “less than” for being seen to be alone in the world, encountering one’s own deepest shame or sadness at being single.

Those tender parts of me do get evoked too, but for me it’s a kind of anxiety-driven crankiness that can show up in incredible impatience in the transitional points of travel — finishing the Estonia trip and tripping over a very unhelpful young hotel worker who made it very difficult to store my bike, dealing with a pugnacious woman in the security queue in the airport in New Delhi who kept pushing my backpack from behind and loudly denounced me as “holding up the line by reading.”  (I was reading and moving, trying to be patient with the long queue).  I am not at my best in these encounters, and sometimes I think I like to travel alone so the people I care about don’t witness this part of me.  (Ask my exes about this sometime ;-)).

But that’s just a fraction of my experience — and probably a fractal of my real life as well.  When I travel alone, I am reminded that I am comfortable being seen to be single in the world. There are many many reasons to value being partnered and to have companions weaving through the years with you — but that isn’t how my life has unfolded, and some of the comments I get from other women I encounter while traveling who really envy my freedom remind me that I have something precious too.  I get to be an Auntie in a global sense, and I get to carve out my own adventures on this unpredictable gorgeous planet.

When I was in Luang Prabang in Laos last year, in my five (delightful!) days alone between organized bike trips, I wandered into a small monastery and came across this post-it note on an old painted door.

Image of old yellow and red painted door with two post it notes, one in Lao and one in English: “if you want to [be] strong learn to be alone please”
Traveling alone, riding alone — this is the way I’ve learned to be alone.  And at this middle aged point in my life, this is how I keep discovering my strength.

What about you?  Do you travel alone?  What version of yourself do you live into?


Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is based in Toronto but planning a trip to Uganda and Kyrgystan next month.


4 thoughts on “Moving through the world alone

  1. My first job following school required a fair amount of solo travel that really changed who I am. It taught my fearful 20 something self that I could meet new people, handle myself and generally problem solve in unexpected situations better than expected. Those lessons have carried through to my 40s for which I’m extremely thankful. I see a lot of situations where I find myself afraid to try or do something new (concert, movie, weirdo circus class, etc.) without a friend along. I get that these things can be more fun with a friend, but I always regret missing out on the thing when I’ve chosen not to go because I couldn’t find someone to join me.

  2. I find it’s the thing you’re most afraid of, that you over-compensate for. If you are afraid you will be hungry, you will lug around granola bars that you end up never touching. If you are afraid of being bored, you will lug around paperback books. If you are afraid of biting insects, you will carry far too much insect repellant. If you are afraid you won’t sleep, you’ll take a pillow and a pashmina or shawl. The more you fear, the more you are burdened by the things you (think you) need to overcome that fear. It is liberating, if also scary, to walk out the door with few possessions. This is also why we have expressions about people with nothing to lose.

  3. I don’t travel alone much….well, actually, I just mean that I haven’t traveled anywhere adventurous much! Within the States, I’ve actually primarily traveled alone. It doesn’t scare me anymore.

    But I have been pushing myself to get outside alone more–for walks, rides, hikes, or other activities. Doing so does make me nervous sometimes. I almost always adventure in remote places where I’m fairly certain of hardly seeing other people, much less fearing assault, because that is something I worry about a lot. But then I worry about getting hurt in a remote place–just this week I was terrified I would be attacked by a bear in the mountains, not a fun feeling! But as I’ve continued to choose these adventures, I have, like you, felt more in tune with my rhythms, and less afraid of horrible things happening. I enjoy the sense of standing up to my own fears and nerves, of coming to peace with being a small, relatively weak human in the great wide world, and with not being bound to other people seeing me.

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