Dear readers, perhaps you remember the days when I railed against the deficiencies of traveling alone. But then I traveled with other humans, and oh dear readers, is not the grass always greener?
Last year a friend from New York and I visited a third friend in South Africa. The third friend, though American, spent months on end in Durban; she is an honorary native, adopting South African slang and their laidback vibe. She rented us a car and mapped out a road trip route, hitting all the honest “can’t misses” of the tourist trek plus the off-the-beaten path “would misses” because we foreigners just wouldn’t know any better.
When you are on vacation and you’re visiting someone who is essentially at home, you have two different concepts of time. A local has errands and work and people to see. NY friend and I wanted to GO and SEE and DO. Our SA friend wanted to deal with her life. Understandably.
Once we got in the car and set sail out of Cape Town, I thought we’d all be on the same page: after all, it was just the three of us then, in a tiny white car. No real-life distractions.
Perhaps we were all on the same page. We were just reading different books (I happened to be immersed in Fifty Shades of Grey). In a tiny, tiny white car.
After a few days of driving, I was unraveling. I was proud of myself for rising early each morning to take the first shower, allowing my traveling companions precious extra sleep, and ensuring we could leave by our daily target departure time. I was patting myself on the back because I am notoriously slow in the morning. I have been known to stay in hotel beds until my parents have showered and eaten breakfast and are ready to go.
To my friends, I was just using up all the hot water.
I wanted to surf in Jeffrey’s Bay, a gorgeous beach town with some of the best (shark free) waves in South Africa. My NY friend had gone on some NY escapades with me, and I just assumed we were adventure-compatible kindred spirits. Well, you know what they say about assumptions. She just wasn’t interested, and I knew my SA friend couldn’t care less about surfing. They were all graciousness, but I didn’t feel comfortable putting our timetable several hours behind schedule for such a small fraction of the group consensus, and I didn’t want to go alone: what was the point?
I was stewing. Why had I ever wanted to travel with people? If I’d been alone, I could do whatever I wanted guilt-free. Backseat grumble grumble.
Not-Celine Dion threw me completely over the edge.
For some inexplicable reason, South African radio played ‘80s pop classic “The Power of Love” three times as we moved east across the country. It was not Celine Dion’s version, but my friends declared it was. I don’t know if I listened to the Titanic song on repeat for my entire seventeenth year or if I had to listen to Celine’s greatest hits multiple times with my mother, but I know the Skinny Quebecian’s nasal wail.
This was not Celine Dion.
I had no way to prove it, and who cares? Why was it bothering me so much that they didn’t believe that I was CLEARLY RIGHT? But by the third time we heard it, I looked at my friend across the dinner table as she leaned against the wall, staring into space away from me, and thought, “We’ll get through this. But when we get home, we won’t be friends anymore.”
Melodramatic? Yes. Road trips can lull you into a surreal out of body and time mental space, where you’d rather keep going than get anywhere, where pringles and coke and gas station pies are the only sustenance you need, and blurry pictures out the window become a metaphor for life.
But that only comes after you lose your mind from spending twenty-four hours a day with the same people, breathing the same air and compromising every decision into a collective brainspace. Roadtrips are a rebirth that arise only after the death of expectation.
I think it was the first wart hog that brought me back to sanity.
We drove into Addo Elephant National Park and I was broody and pouty and generally unpleasant. I wanted aloneness.
But you just don’t expect to see a great big ugly-but-cute, tusked, snouted beastie staring at you placidly as you drive around a corner.
I couldn’t help but smile at this life-size Pumbaa, in need of a good shave and bath. Silly ugly beastie.
I took my camera out. What else could I do? It was time to give in.
It is a testament to my friends that they didn’t abandon me, at least emotionally, when I lost it. I gradually learned to take deep breaths and better share the limited air in that tiny white car. My NY friend had her own meltdown several days later for completely different reasons, because we’re all individuals with complex and varied needs. I felt so zen by that point that I was willing to sleep on the floor with ants crawling in a superhighway crack a foot and a half from my face. My finally mellowed attitude meant I was able to accommodate and empathize with her feelings of travel stress.
I saw more on this trip than I would have had the courage to strike out and seek alone. Or that I could have possibly known about without a local’s perspective. I have pictures of myself that don’t have my freakishly elongated arm stretched out in the foreground. I have people to share stories with. That’s the best part.
It would take more than Celine Dion to sunder these bonds of wanderlust friendship (especially because it wasn’t Celine Dion. I looked it up when I got home and the song was originally performed by Jennifer Rush in 1984. I don’t think I rubbed this fact in my friends’ faces. Or maybe I did. Or maybe I am right now…)
I hope these ladies know how grateful I am to them both for an amazing trip. And I hope we can do it again someday.