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November 3, 2002

The Serendipitous Life of the Solo Voyager


By the time I was 22 and backpacking solo for the first time, in France, I was already a disciple of Rogaine. Every morning, at whatever hostel I happened to be in, I anointed my fragile hairline before venturing out for croissants and sightseeing.

I wasn't a natural traveler. For example, I carried too few supplies, even for a monthlong summer trip. My day pack contained only spare boxers, a toothbrush, a towel and my Rogaine, and I washed my clothes nightly, putting them on damp and stretched out in the morning. The result: I looked like a bum in the land of haute couture.

And being Filipino-American, I was often mistaken for a Japanese backpacker, many of whom spoke little English or French. It's no wonder I couldn't make many friends or pick up French babes. Thus, I wandered the cavernous Louvre, rode the fast-moving T.G.V.'s, and tramped the great ramparts of the Palais des Papes in Avignon alone.

Three weeks into the trip, in Lyon, my loneliness peaked. I was standing on a bridge overlooking the Rhone in a whirlwind of anxieties. I kicked myself for having majored in English. I pined for my girlfriend, who was on her own yearlong journey to Southeast Asia.

And most bitterly, I railed against the tragedy of premature hair loss. Why me, God!?

My fingernails bit at the bridge's concrete railing, and I choked on tears as the river babbled below me.

Then, came a voice: "Excuse me, do you know where the youth hostel is?"

I looked up, and there he was: A lone traveler dressed in a fishing-style hat, khaki shorts and shirt, and sturdy boots. I recognized in his eye my own need for company.

The young man's name was Rob. He was Canadian and, ignorant of local custom (the tip is automatically added to the total bill), had been tipping waiters 15 percent throughout France. We quickly became dinner companions, sitting over steaks and wine in a garden restaurant on the peninsular Presqu'le. We watched the sun set on the Renaissance facades of Vieux Lyon, across the Sane River, and guarded our serviettes against the tugging breeze.

"Wow," I said, as Rob, a graduate student in biology, explained the sex life of your average yeast fungus.

"Fascinating," he said, as I explained my senior thesis 90 pages of unforgivable pomposity on the works of Sir Philip Sydney, J. D. Salinger, Paul de Man and Richard Rorty. In real life, Rob and I had little in common, but out there in France, we were bonded by our shared inability to pick up French girls.

Looking back, I was dirty, lonely and clueless. But I also discovered a great deal about myself: that I wasn't very good at being alone, that I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, and that I was fanatically attached to my hair.

After dinner, Rob and I took a bus to the youth hostel on the outskirts of town, and in the morning, we parted. He was heading to Marseilles, "for the beach and topless women," and I had cousins waiting for me in Geneva. Even as we exchanged addresses, I knew that we would not write.

It's a romantic life (until the car dies)

I learned early in my adult life the pleasures of traveling alone. I have a very romantic memory of sitting on my tiny balcony in the Excelsior Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland, one sunny summer afternoon a couple of decades ago, enjoying oeufs la neige and bubbly mineral water as I gazed out at Lake Geneva and below at the flower-lined promenade along the lake. The same promenade where affluent Americans strolled when stopping there on the Grand Tour at the turn of the last century.

I like to think I was just drinking in the physical beauty, but in truth I was equally taken with the thought of myself as a Henry James heroine passing through Montreux with my terribly stuffy family. Or, maybe even more fun, I imagined myself as a Nol Coward character, perhaps meeting my charming but infuriating ex-husband at the hotel. One of the joys of traveling alone, come to think of it, is the freedom of fantasy that it allows otherwise sane adults. There's no one around to remind you that you flew economy and your luggage is from Eddie Bauer.

Otherwise, the best-moment title would have to go to my first visit to the Louvre. In an embarrassing exhibition of tacky American touristness, I rushed in with no time to appreciate the museum as a whole, asking a guard in my best French where the "Mona Lisa" was. He smiled and announced, "Mais, mademoiselle, vous tes la Mona Lisa." I was very young.

Most of my worst moments have come when I've been traveling with people (which may be a reason I take lots of solo trips). But a very recent experience when I was alone may qualify. I was driving back to Manhattan after a weekend in Rhode Island, and my rental car stalled. I was on I-95 in Connecticut, in the center lane, in a blinding rainstorm. When I tried to restart the car, it kicked into reverse. It is a miracle that I didn't back into anybody.

Granted, this would not have been a pleasant experience even if I'd been driving home with Jude Law, but being alone definitely gave it dimension. I called the car rental company (tell me again how we ever lived without cellphones), and roughly 45 minutes later, a representative turned up with a new car.

I have always contended that there's a splendid solitude in vacationing alone, because it allows you to rest up not only from work and home demands but also from all the emotional demands in your life, too. Once in a while, though, a demanding, boring, annoying loved one can come in handy.

In Asia, just one big family

I could feel the eyes upon me before I'd even had a chance to catch my breath. We were in Pochentong Airport in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in the departure area for the afternoon flight to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I was running terribly late, but luckily the plane was too. The few rows of plastic seats by the gate were already full, so I found a space along the wall, tucked my bag between my feet, and fumbled for my book.

When you travel alone a lot, you tend to develop a sixth sense about sidelong glances. There are the quick, curious ones, the eyes darting away again if you so much as shift position, and then there are the long, considering ones, the glances with intent to approach. These are the glances I had come to dread.

The group to my right two men and a woman seemed to be peering at me with some concern, inspecting my dress, my novel, my sandals, talking among themselves. One of the men finally addressed me, in English with a heavy Vietnamese accent: "Excuse me, miss, are you traveling alone?

It was the question I most fear when I travel by myself.

"But where is your family?" he added.

In the West, I don't look nearly young enough to merit that question, but after several months in Southeast Asia, where young women rarely travel unaccompanied, I had grown used to it. How I respond depends a lot on the situation, but this man seemed kind, and genuinely puzzled.

I smiled and replied: "Yes, I'm traveling alone. But I work in Vietnam. I'm fine, really, thank you."

This last sentence was, I could tell, futile. The three of them were already moving their things toward me, to include me in their group. The woman held out a white box, offering me a piece of peanut candy.

"Don't worry," the first man said. "We will help you."

These "adoptions," as I think of such interactions, happened to me a lot in Asia. Usually a couple or a family would notice that I was alone, engage me in conversation, then ply me with questions and helpful advice about where to go and how to do certain things.

I found these scenes, with their implication that I might not be all right, sweet but embarrassing. I would usually be asked my age, if I were married, and most mortifying of all, where my parents were. But when, as in the airport, the questions seemed to stem from actual concern, I felt rude brushing them away.

We chatted until it was time to board the plane. One man and the woman spoke good English, and all three had been in Cambodia for a meeting, representing a Saigon-based hotel chain. The first man gave me his card, and said, "You come back to Vietnam sometime, you stay in our hotel."

When we debarked in Ho Chi Minh City, the trio found me again. They were remaining in the former Saigon, but I was continuing on to Hanoi, and had to change terminals. I said goodbye, thanked them profusely for the candy and fruit they had given me, and reassured them that I knew where to go.

I walked out of the terminal and paused. The Tet holiday had just ended, and there were hundreds of families behind barricades, waving goodbye to relatives who had visited for the New Year. Through the crowds, I couldn't quite see my way to the next terminal.

Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder, another grabbing my bag. My friends from the plane had noticed my confusion.

"It's your Vietnamese family again," the woman said. "Come, we will show you."

Enveloped by the Roman spirit

Enveloped by the Roman spirit

Traveling by yourself has both its depressing and exhilarating moments. Usually, they are only a few seconds apart.

Some people are well-suited to solo journeys, but I am not among them. If such trips had a sound track, for me it wouldn't be that old camp standard about wandering happily with a knapsack on my back "Val-de-ri, Val-de-ra" but "Courage," a song from Schubert's "Winterreise" in which a stalwart traveler tries, rather unconvincingly, to show he can hack it on his own, can fend off the loneliness and despair.

I haven't had specific crises; it's rather the general, predictable situation. Naturally, there's no one to share the joys. But more often than that, there's no other brain to pick, no other set of legs to choose between left or right at the next corner, no one's plate to pick off.

The hardest part is the meals, and there are lots of them, because they are easy, mollifying, something to do. You're thankful to bury your head in The International Herald Tribune, but if the place is dark, you're out of luck.

Perhaps this is why solo travelers write so many postcards. Go with another person, even if it's the wrong person, and you're spared that, along with the table for one in the corner.

But along with the sadness, there is a crucial bonus to being on your own: serendipity. People touring in pairs seem self-contained, impermeable except, perhaps by other pairs of travelers, often from the same place (home), often doing the same superficial things. When you are alone, and when you have the courage to appear as vulnerable as you really feel, this is when travel's most memorable moments occur.

For me, one of them was in Rome, at a crowded trattoria, 25 years ago. I had just arrived. I knew no one, didn't speak the language, had walked my legs sore, and was sitting by myself. A boisterous group of Italian men at the next table took one look at me, and brought me into their bosom.

They shared their food, their laughter, their companionship. They made me try things I would never have ordered. They probably got me a bit drunk.

One of them in particular seemed to adopt me. He worked in the Italian Embassy in Berlin, and was on home leave. I can still recall his account of how alien life was for him as an Italian in Germany how pedestrians stood motionless at red lights, even in the middle of the night, with no traffic within miles. He grew indignant as he described it; to him, it epitomized the irreconcilable gap between two cultures, underlining the joy he felt to be back in the anarchic spontaneity of his home.

In that moment in Pierluigi's Restaurant, I learned that I was not the only one to feel displaced; that by clarifying what really matters to you, displacement has its virtues; and that to be displaced in Italy could be very lovely indeed. I also felt as if I had peeked, if only momentarily, into someone else's soul. That's a lot to happen over pasta and Chianti.

I remember walking back along the Tiber to my pension, more contentedly now, on that late autumnal evening. And suddenly seeing him in the distance, standing on one of the bridges, waving at me.

Invited (usually) into other lives

I'm gregarious, so I like traveling alone. Occasionally, my unhurried solitude becomes an invitation for people to chat and invite me to glimpse their lives.

The father and son who found me waiting for a ferry in Sydney took me along on their constitutional, told me who used to live in each neighborhood and, after a beer at an old hotel and another at their favorite bar, led me to dinner in the Spanish niche of Chinatown. The father recalled his Austrian childhood, and how his wife wanted to live in one of Sydney's suburbs of stone villas, where now, he regrets, no children play in the streets.

At other times, being alone has made it easy for me to eavesdrop. People tell strangers intimate stories they tell no one else.

On a recent train trip in South Africa, I shared a cabin with two South African women who did not know each other. Over supper, one woman told the other an Afrikaner grandmother about a painful childhood experience during the days of apartheid. The first woman's mother, a domestic servant, worked for a childless English couple.

"All my clothes and dolls came from England," she said. "I was like their own child."

Then the couple learned of other relatives in South Africa and invited their new-found kin to dinner. Their niece, finding a rival child, lashed out.

"You're Colored," she said. "Eat in the kitchen."

The English couple enforced their niece's wishes. There were no more dolls.

Certainly, there are things I don't enjoy about traveling alone. I am 65, too short to manage bags in overhead compartments and too prudent to go some places by myself, especially now that I don't drive. And at times I do miss another person's sharing, insights and memories from a trip. But though luggage and logistics try me and solitary vagary can be hard, I am happy to travel alone when no one I like wants to visit X, or at least not when I do.

Eavesdropping again, in a Cape Town restaurant, I heard one woman complain to another about her boyfriend, "I want to go when I want to go." Indeed.

Some serendipitous conversations move toward friendship, a great pleasure. The Australian son called last year, accepted my invitation to dinner in Harvard Square and said, "Here's my address in France."

I may never visit him in the Dordogne, but the promise of friendship feels like money in the bank, one of the congenial surprises I love in travel.

Geronimo Madrid is a New York City Teaching Fellow in Brooklyn; Anita Gates reviews film, television and theater for The Times; Katherine Zoepf is a research assistant at The Times; David Margolick is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair; Rose Rappoport Moss teaches creative writing at the Nieman Foundation at Harvard.

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