Image Credit: Medical Daily
It is 7 PM in Madrid and I’m dining out near the Plaza Mayor.
Today is Spain’s National Day, and the popular restaurant is packed with people. Not just locals, but tourists from other parts of Spain who have descended upon the capital for the long weekend. There are few foreigners or couples this evening and almost every table has been merged to billet the rowdy, battalion-sized Spanish family gatherings.
Meanwhile, I am sitting alone at a table for 4, shovelling eggs into my mouth and staring blankly into the abyss of my wifi-less phone.
I don’t know how I ended up as the loneliest man in Madrid, but I blame Thought Catalog or Conde Nast or any of the nine million essays singing praises of solo travel. Every lifestyle site worth its salt has one of these ‘flying solo’ articles – and every one of them seem to be authored by the same delusional hipster.
The feature image is usually a young woman on top of a mountain. If a mountain is not available, substitute a lake or a forest. In fact, any landscape will serve so long as it makes the traveller’s solitude seem natural or vaguely romantic. Following that, the author will start by telling us that solo travel’s poor reputation is undeserved. This stigma, she assures us, is the product of a dark age in human history or a smear campaign by couples. In fact, travelling alone is perfectly fun, not sad, and very very cool.
<Insert product placement for Hotels.com>
This is backed by a list of increasingly dubious benefits that includes everything from ‘empowerment’ and ‘self-discovery’ to ‘increased bladder capacity’ (I kid you not, it’s 15th on the list). At the end of the article, the #wanderlust tone abruptly turns cautionary, warning us that we shall regret it on our deathbed if tickets to Nepal are not booked immediately.
Sorry, a ticket* to Nepal.
Having travelled alone in England, Denmark, Spain and Sri Lanka, I want to say that solo travel is at best a mixed experience, and at worst a total existential nightmare that will leave you viscerally homesick. Contrary to what the travel evangelist preaches, it is hardly a Instagram-friendly journey of fruitful introspection and unbridled freedom.
Firstly, nobody ever talks about how expensive solo travel can be. Food and attractions may cost the same, but unless you’re staying in a hostel, the price of accommodation effectively doubles because double rooms are the basic building blocks of most hotels.
Even if you do manage to find a single room located close to town, it rarely costs much less than the double, leaving you slightly peeved at this tax on being forever alone.
The same goes for transport. Whether you’re renting a car or taking a tuk-tuk, it’s going to cost more for the lack of a companion to split the bill. Not a big problem if you’re in a city with metro services like Madrid, but good luck if you are in a developing country where public transport is still the title of a blueprint—last year in Sri Lanka, I blew S$400 (or nearly a third of my budget) just getting to point B.
However, cost is not what deters me from solo travel. What puts me off is the unpleasantness of the whole experience.
Every sermon on solo travel insists that the solitary wanderer is ‘alone, but never lonely’, a phrase that reeks of defiant self-delusion. In my experience, it is one of loneliest things that you can do, beating out even mid-afternoon binge-drinking in an empty pub or spending Christmas Eve in the library.
No matter how much you love art, the museum’s silence will start to stifle after 4 hours in the company of mute renaissance nudes. Nature-lovers might fare a little better, but what does one really do after the hike? While waiting for the bus, I find myself smoking one cigarette after another for the lack of something better to do.
My point being, no matter how well you pepper your itinerary with fun activities, there will always be gaps in-between when you ache for someone to talk to or just sit with in silent companionship.
This awkward loneliness reaches a fever pitch come dinner time, when you must make the most important choice of every solo traveller: Dine out or stay in. If you choose the former, prepare yourself for an uncomfortable ordeal where every iota of your body desires nothing better than to disappear or shrink from existence.
If you are Singaporean, you most likely travel to eat. This is a massive problem for those flying solo because there are few hawker centres abroad and formal restaurant dining is an inherently social activity. When you walk into a restaurant, ‘Table for one?’ always sounds like censure from the waiter’s lips. When you are seated, this awkwardness is amplified tenfold when you find yourself amongst a sea of contented couples or raucous families; you feel their judgment and curiosity burrowing into your skull by the time the waiter offers a menu to hide your face.
This is especially painful in countries where you are racially conspicuous. There is nothing more uncomfortable than walking alone into a restaurant and having half its clientele stare in interest while you try to attract the waiter’s attention to no avail.
More often than not, I avoid dining altogether in favour of room service or takeaway. I enjoy these takeout dinners, but it always feels like a cop out. After all, travel comes with a certain set of expectations, that you should experience new things, ideally in photogenic locations, and recorded in HD for the benefit of posterity.
Eating alone in your room and laughing at the absurdist drama of a foreign-language soap really fails these expectations on every count.
However, loneliness is a small price to pay if solo travel can really deliver on its outsized promise of self-discovery, empowerment, adventure and the other lofty abstractions. If the experience truly changes you, no petty grievance about taxi fares should be allowed to matter.
Unfortunately, these promises never come true for me or for the majority of solo travellers, I suspect. Even when they do, it may not be the positive, enjoyable and snapchat-friendly #moments that the marketing machine advertises.
Take, for example, the promise of ‘self-discovery’. We are told that spending time with ourselves is the key to new insights or even self-enlightenment. This is the premise of best-selling travelogues like Eat, Pray, Love, where Julia Roberts discovers a new Julia Roberts thanks to a year-long journey of pasta, spirituality, and casual sex.
But what if the self you discover at the end of your journey is not one with a boundless capacity for love, but some joyless asshole best kept hidden away?
That’s what happened to me. After a seven-day journey in the mountains of Sri Lanka, the only thing I discovered about myself is that I am a socially awkward robot-person who relies on caffeine, alcohol and other chemical substrates as a substitute for actual human connection, incapable of appreciating natural beauty or wholeheartedly embracing the warmth of friendly locals.
Of course, by the time I discovered this, it was already too late. I was stuck with the shitty me for another six days with no chance of escape.
Perhaps I am alone in this feeling, but I doubt so. Finding one’s self through solo travel is based on the assumption that your best/true self is always found when you are alone and free from the daily grind. I don’t think this is true.
Sometimes, it is other people who bring out the best in us by stirring our sense of compassion or courage. Likewise, solitary idleness often just turns you into a whiny prick rather than an introspective poet.
Despite these misgivings, I kept trying for many years, convinced that I would eventually reach a state of zen where solo travel becomes tolerable. After thousands of dollars and many many miserable meals alone, I’ve finally given up and concluded that travel is a social activity.
Like drinking, it is always more fun with company. And the reason is simple.
Not everyone likes themselves enough to spend a week in his or her own company. Oftentimes, travelling alone will bring out our worst rather than our best, surfacing all manner of doubts, insecurities and fears as we venture into a strange environment. The solo travel evangelist will tell you that confronting these demons makes you a better person, but call me a skeptic if I don’t think that personality can be changed by a holiday in Boracay.
Also, I actually want to have fun when I travel. What they advocate sounds more like painful self-therapy; a sort of fire cupping for the soul to cure imagined personality defects.
So pardon me if I pass on this.
I do not have the self-assurance for the masochistic exercise that is solo travel and I think that few people do. Travelling with friends or family brings inconveniences and petty arguments, but it allows you to forget the shitty parts of yourself by focusing on other people’s happiness. Given the choice, I would rather be the charming and knowledgeable guide rather than the sullen hotel bar alcoholic, even if the latter happens to be my true self.
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