Remember my friend who believes in making plans only to break them? He and I also debate whether it is better to travel alone or with someone. He likes the romance of solitary travel.
I do not.
He appreciates fluid mobility – even one travel companion will slow you down, make you compromise, change your agenda.
He’s right. I just don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.
I returned from my three weeks in Thailand desperate to tell someone about it – but couldn’t find anyone who wanted to listen. And because I’d been alone, I couldn’t call someone up and say, “I miss this” or “Do you remember that?” and have them know exactly what I was talking about.
A sense of shared experience is important to me. Kinship, community, a meeting of minds – whatever. I dig it.
Don’t get me wrong: I went to Disney World this summer with my entire family and it was work. 10 people, 10 agendas, 10 sets of feelings to consider, 10 appetites/eating schedules/energy peaks/lows/heat thresholds. There were moments of fun, but they were tucked into the pockets of days. They weren’t the whole day’s outfit.
But…traveling alone? Sure, there’s the self-discovery and total control of what you do and how you do it. You’re not accountable to anyone. You can come and go like the wind…
You can also spend 24 hours in bed because you’ve succumbed to an epic terror that you know rationally doesn’t make sense and yet that is so overwhelming you’d rather starve than risk an embarrassing interaction with someone who doesn’t speak English.
That was the low point of my trip.
Total control is a lot of pressure.
I can pretend it was jet lag, or claim there just wasn’t anything else I wanted to do in Bangkok. But the truth is, I was scared.
Which is another reason I like travel buddies: I’m shy and anxious. Other people make me braver.
I begged people to join me on this trip. I was willing to go anywhere as long as someone would go with me. No takers. Clearly this was life’s way of making me be brave on my own. But as my wasted day locked in a hotel room will attest, that’s easier said than done.
The irony is: I want to meet and connect with people. I’m just terrified of them. Them: you know, other human beings.
Anyway, I finally forced myself out of bed, determined to go to Ayuthaya (eye YOU tea uh, and boy did it take me a long time to get that right) to see centuries old ruins of temples and palaces and what not. It was one of the few things I knew I wanted to do in Thailand and if I didn’t GET UP I’d miss it.
We’ll discuss the disastrous cab ride in a later blog (oh yes, it merits its own blog.) Despite confusion and near hyperventilation – as well as mispronouncing Ayuthaya (despite 50,000 practice runs in my head, when speaking I nervously bungled it: EYE ooo TIE uh), I got on a bus. My plan was to rent a bike to see the ruins.
The bus dropped us off at a corner. No bus station. No street sign. Just a suburban intersection. I had no idea where the bike rental place was, or where the ruins were, despite staring at my tiny Lonely Planet map. I was immediately accosted by tuk tuk drivers.
I said no thank you, but tuk tuk man would not be denied. Out of nowhere, a girl who had been on my bus approached and asked if I’d like to join her group in their tuk tuk. But…I was gonna ride a bike. It seemed like a healthy, environmentally friendly, fun way to see the town, and….
Sure, thanks, I’ll ride in your tuk tuk.
This is one of those times where I managed to wise up and roll with it rather than rigidly adhering to my “plan.”
I joined a group of Germans and one trilingual Chilean. They were grad students, some studying in Bangkok, others visiting. They were very nice, not necessarily kindred spirits – not even Facebook friends – but it was a more pleasant way to spend the day than riding a bike alone (also because it was 7 million degrees and I would have sweat myself into oblivion).
I gave them complete control of what we saw. I didn’t even look at the pictures our tuk tuk driver showed to set an itinerary. They mostly spoke to each other in German and I had no idea what was going on.
I felt better that day than any previous day in Thailand. It was just nice to be interacting with people. To not be alone and in complete control of making all the decisions.
Decisions are a lot of work.
The question is: would I have met more or less people if I had been traveling with someone? If a buddy and I had gone to Ayuthaya, would we have isolated ourselves from the possibility of tuk tuking with another group? Would we have stuck with our own private plan?
Probably not. In the irony of life, traveling with a person would have led me to meet MORE people. Some of my friends can’t help but attract people. I’m the shy tagalong one. I couldn’t even make myself go sit in a bar alone on Khao San Road, Bangkok’s backpacker district.
Jumping forward: at the end of my meditation retreat, I was planning on going to an island in the Gulf of Thailand called Koh Pha Ngan. I had researched the crap out of the islands, of which there are many – and I’m bad at decisions, remember? But this seemed like the perfect beachy retreat. I had found a bungalow far from the touristy town, and I was ready to go lay in the sand and tan for four days.
Then I talked to some of my co-meditators (when we were finally allowed to talk) and one of them recommended Koh Phi Phi, on the Andaman Sea side. Another, a Dutch girl named Malika, was headed in that direction. The more we talked, the more it just came about that we would travel south together. Neither of us asked if we wanted to do it. We just tweaked our plans until we were headed in the same direction.
Look at new-flexible Meg! Totally zigged where I was gonna zag again. I had picked THE perfect bungalow on Koh Pha Ngan. Now I was going to have to figure out where to stay on Koh Phi Phi. And how to get there. Without a computer to research. This was total fly by the seat of your pants time.
Traveling with Malika, things were definitely slower than they would have been alone. I compromised on our transport south and a trip that should have taken 15 hours took 22. Picking a hotel was complicated (although that was due to the sheer volume of options). Switching hotels was an ordeal involving a three-hour, sweat-drenched heavy-backpack-laden walk up and down the island. I had 4 days to spend at the beach. 2 hours of it were actually spent laying in the sand.
All the things my loner friend warned could happen when traveling with someone did in fact happen.
And if I did it over, I would do it exactly the same.
Malika is awesome. It was worth compromising and slowing down my pace to have company, to share my experiences. She’s a lot like me (quiet, thoughtful, with a huge desire to see the world), but different in the right ways: she encouraged me to try snorkeling even though I was positive I would drown. She challenged me to stretch my concept of me.
And she had no interest in partying. Phi Phi is a party island. Rihanna wafted down the beach to our bungalows well into the night.
I had two alcoholic beverages on the entire trip.
So: none of my social butterfly home friends wanted to travel with me. The one travel buddy I met wasn’t into the bar scene. This was not a trip about partying: thus declared the universe.
Could I have been more social? Met more people? Tried harder to interact?
Yes. But then I wouldn’t be me. And the trip wouldn’t have been necessary.
This was a trip about growing.
Which I did, in my own stunted, stubby way.
So the universe decreed I needed to travel alone. And maybe I did.
Traveling alone gave me the chance to meet an amazing person whom I never would have traveled with otherwise.
Alone, I stumble onto perfect people.