Alone But Hardly Lonely

Padre Miguel and I in the heart of colonial Quito, Ecuador

I have known loneliness. I don’t recall exactly at which point in my life the feeling washed over me. I do know I felt alone, adrift. But I also remember shaking off whatever it was and going out to do something fun. That’s just me. I have lived byars longa, vita brevis – “art is long, life is short.” Why sit around moping. Life is too short. I have seen too many of my peers die young. Snatched by illness or circumstance. I, too, have had some close calls and I’m lucky to be alive. Happy to be!

So when a friend, former newspaper colleague and now loyal follower of this blog asked me if I ever experienced loneliness traveling alone, especially for such a long period of time, my immediate response was no, not really. Sure I sometimes miss family and friends, but it’s not something that ties me down. And it’s hard to feel lonely when your spirit is continuously lifted by the breathtaking beauty of places I’ve already visited. If anything, I feel a bit of sadness, wishing friends and family could see what I am seeing.

I truly believe that the energy you project is what draws or pushes people to or away from you. It’s called aura. With apologies to Odd Couple Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, I don’t always feel “happy and peppy and bursting with love”. Sometimes I just want to be alone. But my good aura never shuts down, sometimes a bad thing because it also acts as a magnet for the world’s wackos:

“Quickly, do you know the capital of Bolivia?” a reasonably sane-looking man stops me on the street and asks.

“Yes, La Paz”.

“No it’s not!” he says to me. “Bolivia doesn’t exist, so how can it have a capital?”

“Okay,”  I say as I shift to flee mode.

“Bolivia only exists in your head. Your mind plays tricks. Tells you things. Makes you do things.”

“Aha…” is my simple response.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“The United States.”

“Do you know the capital of the United States?” he asks.

“No, I don’t. Goodbye!”

Then I think what the heck! Of all the people on this street, why does he pick me?

Now, all you out there itching to show off how smart you are, I know Bolivia has two capitals. For those who don’t know, Bolivia is one of a handful of countries with two capital cities. Sucre, where the judicial branch of the government is located, is the constitutional capital, while La Paz, where the Congress and president are based, is the administrative capital. So there! Just saved you some typing 🙂

I’ve always said I’m a magnet for crazy people. Is there anybody else out there who feels the same? Let me know that I’m not alone. But thankfully some people with all their marbles do approach. Because of them,  on this trip I’ve never been alone for any length of time or experienced loneliness. If anything, it’s been the opposite. Now, of course, dear amateur psychologist, you can be alone or feel lonely even in a crowd. But that hasn’t been the case for me at all. Something in my personality? Must be, because even when I’m wearing a frown (we all have our moods 🙂 here come the complete strangers!

On those days I want to be alone with my thoughts it hardly seems to happen. Some soul will look my way and strike up a conversation. Fast forward to us hanging out about town like old friends. It’s happened time and time again on this journey. It happened on the Caribbean beaches of Colombia. On a bus in Cuzco, Peru. Everywhere! But notably, it happened in the colonial center of Quito, Ecuador, where Padre Miguel one afternoon emerged from his church.

I was but one of hundreds of people snapping pictures of the centuries-old buildings when the portly catholic priest walked past a bunch of camera-toting tourists to ask me where was I from. A few minutes into our conversation, the good priest offered to give me a walking tour of colonial Quito, where he was born and reared. It was a fantastic tour, complete with anecdotes about where he played soccer as a child and the troubles he got himself in as a teenager. Father Miguel had information you would not find in the guidebooks, and he presented it with vivid accounts. He was a master storyteller!

I thought a tour like this would cost a lot of sucres, but at the end of the day I rewarded the priest with some sugar cookies he kept staring at in the reception area of a monastery he showed me. He ate the whole bag of cookies, and I chuckled a bit because as he gobbled them all, he didn’t offer me not one. 🙂 He obviously loved those cookies and I appreciated that he took more than an hour out of his busy day – every step along the way people would stop him to chat about this or that – to give me the history and his history of the city.

In nearly six months of travel, the list of people I’ve met just randomly on the street is long, too long to name them all. We’ve exchanged e-mail addresses and become Facebook friends, and I’ve added them to my list of people to visit when I get to their country. Travel does that. But I believe that if I were traveling with someone else, I wouldn’t have met as many people as I have met. When couples travel they generally don’t open up to others or people sense they just want to be left alone. Solo travelers draw conversation. People who travel as a pair or in groups are in their own little circle, forming an invisible barrier that they sometimes don’t realize they’ve erected. Of course there are exceptions, but solo travelers, generally have more fun than people traveling in pairs.

I recently posed the question to followers in the Mike Tends To Travel Group on Facebook as to whether solo or coupled travelers have more fun and I didn’t get many responses (I think couples were biting their tongues 🙂 but my friend Anita Gianella of Milan, Italy (she now lives in New York City), offered that it depends on many factors, such as the situation, mental status or the reasons for travel.

“Generally, travel alone means more time to think about themselves, past, future, dreams,” Anita said. “(It) means to be more prone to meet other people…and so sometimes more fun :)”

Anita added: “But travel with a real love, love with the “L”, I think it’s amazing.”

College chum Gan Sharma of New York City disagrees.

“Single, definitely, single,” he said. “You are not bound by somebody else’s agenda. Some people may not enjoy the same things you do. You are free to meet new people.”

Well, the two of them have good points. Anita is right about if you travel with someone you are madly, passionately in love with, it’s amazing. But does that bond with your significant other lead to meeting strangers, sane or otherwise? The short answer is it depends on the couple. On this trip I’ve met couples but the interesting fact about them is they behave like single people more than couples, even the ones who couldn’t keep their hands off each other. In other words, they sometimes explored the city or some museum on their own, didn’t put up a wall around them and were very eager to chat and hang out with others. And they were great fun to be around. There was never that sense I was a third wheel…Oh, but did we digress? 🙂

My point is Beth, my friend and former colleague who asked the question, loneliness never seeps in with so much going on during travel and if you are open to meeting people – and even sometimes when you are not. It all depends on how you feel about the skin and the world you’re in. When you travel, you must live in the moment. And live as if tomorrow may never come. Because, for all we know….


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