"Are you travelling alone?" I'm frequently asked. "Don't you get lonely?" they wonder. "Aren't you scared?" they inquire. "You're brave," they ultimately decide. But even when you're a solo traveller, are you ever really alone? The answer is no.
Sometimes I even find myself craving alone time in order to write one of these blogs, read a book, or just enjoy a little silence. I search out a quiet cafe or secluded spot on the beach far away from the camera-happy tourists, honking horns and constant refrain of travel questions: "Where are you from? How long are you travelling for? Where have you been? Where are you going?" If it's a local person, you can almost guarantee to also be asked, "How old are you? Are you married? How many children do you have?” While I’ve enjoyed the beauty, culture and cuisine of the countries I’ve visited so far, the true gems found have been in the fellow travellers, locals, and friends and family that have joined me, in one way or another, on this journey. The mere fact that it’s taken me more than a month to post a new blog is evidence enough that I’ve been busy being a “solo traveller”.
Almost immediately upon landing in Thailand in January, I made friends with fellow travellers. It started with two Spanish guys who invited me to share their table at breakfast. The next day I joined an American and German girl on a trip to a nearby island. Since those first blurry and jet-lagged days, I’ve met hundreds of other people. Some simply became a footnote of my journey while others have left lasting imprints on my life. Fiona is one of the latter.
Fiona is a kind, funny, and saucy Irish woman that I shared a hostel room with in Vietnam. As ‘older’ backpackers, we got on immediately. We enjoyed rolling our eyes together and complaining about the constant stream of inconsiderate roommates we suffered. In the evenings, we’d drink Saigon beer and eat delicious Indian curry. She had been in Ho Chi Minh City longer than I had so she knew of a cheap pool where we could escape the city heat for a few hours. She also took me on my first local bus ride where we literally had to run and jump onto it. Over two weeks, I discovered that we shared a harder edge and frankness that I attribute to our equally challenging childhoods. I came to know her as a brave person. Unlike the support of my family and my own financial safety net, she ignored her families’ opinions of her nomad lifestyle and carefully managed her savings in order to try teaching English in Asia. I was so pleased when she landed her first job in Ho Chi Minh City. I still chuckle at the thought of hearing Vietnamese children practicing the puzzling Irish expression “Your man…”.
Thanks to email and Facebook, I’ve kept in contact with people like Fiona and have been able to meet up with other fellow travellers again in other cities or countries. For instance, in Vietnam I had dinner with Bruce, a retired American who I’d met while scuba diving in Cambodia a month previous. On a weekly or even daily basis, we offer one another advice and travel tips. I also reconnected with my American friend Levi in the South of Vietnam after meeting him a few weeks before in the North. He is hilarious and just about as charming as they come. He should update his business card to include Pubcrawl Professional. The best part about meeting new people is that when you get to their home country, you have an automatic tour guide. No tipping required! I’m most excited to see four friends that I floated down the Nam Song River with in Laos a few months ago. Three of them go to “uni” in Melbourne while the fourth has just moved to Sydney from Britain. Serious reunion planning is underway.
While reconnecting with fellow travellers can take some planning, sometimes I meet up with past acquaintances with no planning at all. A fellow Canadian that I met while diving in Nha Trang, Vietnam simply walked by the restaurant I was sitting in a few weeks later in Ho Chi Minh City. Last week, I spotted him again in Canggu, Bali. In Pakse, Loas, an older couple recognized me typing on my computer at a café after they saw me doing the exact same thing at a restaurant two weeks before about a thousand kilometres north. If nothing, I am predictable. At least while finishing my Masters. These, of course, are just a few of the people I've met along the way.
Some of the best people I've met so far have been the “locals”. Sometimes they are actually local to the country. Other times, they were once fellow travellers who simply never left. To be clear, there was no official pub crawl at Flipside Hostel in Hanoi but the guys that ran it partied every night and were more than happy to let you tag along. Thanks to the ‘local’ Kiwi and South African, a few of us found it difficult to get back to the hostel before the sun rose. It was with them that we could find bars open past curfew. You would still see the police show up at the door but the owner would scoot out momentarily, evidently with some kind of bribe, and the party would continue.
In Ho Chi Minh City, I found three locals that made all my time spent ignoring Vietnam and writing my research paper worth it. First, was a Vietnamese girl named Ann who took me on the back of her bike for a food tour of the city. While I couldn’t spare a whole day, the few hours were delicious and memorable. Between bites, she told me of her life and that of her friends in the different districts of the city. She explained that because her grandparents were from the south and therefore branded anti-communist that it would be difficult for her to ever find a job in the north. Another local named Johnny who worked at my hostel brought me to volunteer at a soup kitchen one morning. Without a doubt, this was one of the more rewarding days of my trip to date.
Sometimes I met locals through my hostels or tours and other times it was pretty random. One evening, after failing to find a restaurant highly reviewed on Trip Advisor, I settled for a place I’d already been to. As I was going to spend yet another meal working on my paper, I wanted to at least have a view. I asked a guy who appeared to also be working if I could sit at the end of his table next to the railing overlooking the street. Nearing the end of our separate dinners, we chatted about what we were each working on. I learned that he was an Aussie living in Vietnam writing for a magazine. Given this is pretty much my dream job, I peppered him with questions. While he gave me lots of tips on finding a job abroad, we didn’t exchange names or contact info. The next day I found my way to a café he recommended with high hopes of finishing my paper. Next to my table lying there on the book shelf was the magazine he wrote for. I thumbed through its beautiful pages boasting of Vietnam and found his name and contact info. I sent off an email thanking him for the café recommendation and commending him on a recent article he'd written. Once my paper was finished, he showed me some of the city. As luck would have it, he’s taking holidays next week and our paths will cross again. This time in Malaysia.
On Nusa Lembongan, my awesome diving instructor offered to show me a bit of the island by bike. Even though I’ve been in Asia for 4 months, I still have not learned how to ride a scooter or motorbike. Without Willy’s generous offer, I would have missed some of the most beautiful cliffs and lagoons. We capped off the day with a few Bintangs and watched the sun fall into the sea in front of the dive shop. I’m already considering a trip back to Bali and Nusa Lembongan thanks to the awesome hospitality of Indonesia people.
Friends and Family
Even though I embarked on this solo adventure to explore and test my own capabilities and limits, my family and friends have never been too far away. In fact, I’ve never felt homesick. I attribute this to the internet making it incredibly easy to share my travels and experiences with those back home. My parents and friends are always at the end of an email or a FaceTime chat if ever I want to share an experience or need someone to talk to.
Some friends and family have even come to visit me. I’m incredibly grateful that my parents braved a 30 hour flight and a 12 hour time difference in order to meet me in Cambodia for two weeks. My friend Sean took two weeks of his vacation and booked his first trip over the Atlantic to hang out with me in Indonesia. We spent two weeks working on our tans, trying our hand at surfing, canyoning, and exploring Bali and Gili Trawangan. Within minutes of arriving, Sean witnessed the application of my political debate skills on an unsuspecting taxi driver. It’s important that you can negotiate in Asia, particularly when you’re a solo traveler. Not only are you usually covering the whole bill, but as a woman you are often deemed easier to scam. I give full credit to my former boss, Gerry Ritz, for helping me hone these skills over four long years. After collecting Sean at the airport, we departed with a taxi driver that refused to use the meter and then pretended not to know our destination. He also tried letting us out early as he wanted to avoid the traffic filled ally that led to our hotel. Needless to say, we were dropped off at the entrance of our hotel, paid the price on the meter, and he told me I was beautiful as we exited the car. To cap it off, he laughed, clapped his hands, and yelled “Bravo” to Sean for apparently wrangling a tough woman.
Despite intentionally leaving my political world behind, it’s been a comfort to meet up with former political staffers abroad. They understand my need for this journey better than most. For a week in January, Linton joined me on the Thai island of Koh Phi Phi and we commiserated about the recent election loss over beer Changs. While in Cambodia, Shuv, Aliya and I had dinner and drinks while contemplating what life after politics might mean for each of us. It was more than a little ironic that we did so at a bar called the “Metro” given our former political haunt was "The Metropolitan". Even if I don’t meet up physically with other staffers who have also taken to the road, we share our experiences and pass along advice just as we used to when we worked together. I've been seriously considering heading to Napal after seeing Nick Bergamini's photos.
As I alluded to in my last blog, leaving my former identity as a political staffer behind has sometimes been difficult. However, it has been a rewarding and an awakening experience. I feel like a chameleon shifting in and out of my different skins depending on the crowd near the pool or those in line at the airport. Along with my tan, my character also seems to be getting more colourful. I’m learning more about myself and my capabilities. I’ve learned to negotiate and navigate my way through anything. I’ve met new people, tried new foods, visited new places, and learned so many new things. Sometimes I love what I find, sometimes I don’t. But all the while, I’m finding out new things about myself. Has it been lonely? Not for a minute.
Here are a few more people that I've met, and took photos of, along the way...