The following excerpts from my travelogue illustrate one of the downsides of travelling alone – it can really get to you when you don't meet people for a while. But you do meet people on the road, especially in Asia, as the following two stories show. So if you're on the road and feeling lonely, rest assured we all get like that sometimes. It does get better – honestly!
Back on Magnetic Island, one of the girls who read my travelogue, Mel, asked if I believed in fate: I'd used the phrase 'as if by fate' somewhere along the line, not through any great belief, but because it's a good old stock phrase for journos trying to sound mystical. Judging by the events of last Wednesday night, I'm beginning to wonder if fate isn't a constant companion of the solo traveller after all.
I spent the early evening sitting on my little veranda, swatting mosquitoes and wondering where to eat. The truth was, I was feeling alone: not so much lonely, just alone, and the reason was obvious. Throughout my wanderings in Ubud (excluding Sayan) I had been surrounded by white folk, mainly in couples or groups. Nothing makes you feel more alone than being an unaccompanied traveller in a sea of white faces: when everyone else is obviously not a European, it's more acceptable to be alone, and any success in talking to the locals is a challenge, and sometimes quite rewarding. It's only when there are loads of other white people around that you feel the pinch of being isolated and a long way from home.
It was with this feeling that I set off to a warung for some nasi goreng. I wandered around, found a good-looking spot, and parked myself in a seat: as with most warungs, you just pick a seat at any table, rather than getting a table to yourself. When I looked where I had sat, I saw a European guy opposite munching his way through a plate of nasi padang (a mixture of rice with whatever you fancy from the various cold dishes sitting in the warung window, originating from Padang in Sumatra). I told him that it looked rather good and asked him what it was, and the conversation flowed from there.
Simon, from Lincolnshire and Derbyshire in the same way I'm from London and Staffordshire, was the perfect nattering partner for this stage of my travels. He was just finishing off ten months travelling round most of Southeast Asia, taking in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, including every island on my Indonesian itinerary, and a couple of the more out-of-the-way places I'd earmarked for Malaysia. He filled me with stories and tips, and when I discovered he was a keen walker (taking a tent with him round Asia and camping in National Parks, a familiar concept to yours truly) I told him of the wonders of Godzone and Oz; we both came out wishing we'd done what the other had done, the sign of a good meeting of minds. We tried to go for a cheap beer afterwards, but found that the cheap beer hole was closed for the festival and so called it a day, but he really fired me up to visit Lombok, Flores, Sulawesi and Kalimantan.
It was just what I needed. Perhaps I do believe in fate: if not fate, then perhaps there's somebody upstairs looking after me. It certainly feels like it sometimes...
I feel change: everybody does, when it happens relatively quickly. Whether the reaction is a scared 'We Fear Change' or a mellower 'Go With The Flow', humans have an uncanny knack of knowing when something is amiss, when things aren't quite what they used to be, when the gods are rolling the proverbial dice. As I write this, I'm feeling a change.
In this travelogue, I'm sometimes guilty of hiding my real feelings behind semantics. My earlier claim that I was alone but not lonely back in Ubud is not strictly true: in fact, it's complete rubbish, but I have left that section as written to demonstrate the process of change. The truth of the matter is this: when travelling in western countries, it's easy to talk to the locals, to pop into a pub or restaurant and mix and mingle, and any conscious decision not to do this is justified by financial restrictions, normal reticence or simply the sometimes less than salubrious nature of the establishment. However, the option of joining in with a local social scene, or even a travellers' social scene, is always there.
In Indonesia, indeed in the whole of Asia, that option is no longer there to provide hypothetical assurance to the lonely traveller. When you are alone in Asia, you are very alone, and conversation with the locals makes one feel even more isolated, with the inevitable succession of pleasantries and small talk, and no real substance. Talking to other travellers is rewarding, and is really the only solution, but these meetings are, by their very nature, transient.
It took a good couple of weeks of travelling in Asia, but I soon realised that a change had occurred in my outlook. Before, I was delighted to be travelling alone, able to make up my own itinerary, able to do exactly what I liked, satisfied beyond all measure to be achieving things by myself, without help from anyone. And always the spectre of solo travel in Asia loomed on the horizon, the ultimate challenge, the big test of my ability to survive on my own in an alien world. I've managed to succeed in clearing the hurdle – that of finding my feet in Asia – and from now on it's reasonably plain sailing. But there's something missing.
That something is a travelling companion. I met a girl back in New Zealand who was very interested in how I managed to travel alone. She heard about how I could decide where to go when I woke up; she listened as I told her of the thrill of solo bushwalking; she put up with my soliloquies on how coping by yourself means you experience everything, and I mean everything. My argument was that travelling with someone split the experience, halved the responsibility and watered down the intensity of the challenge by providing you with someone to help, to take the first step when you can't be bothered, to share the burden. Her reply was that to her, one of the most beautiful aspects of travelling was being able to share the sights, the sounds, the whole experience, and without a travelling companion, she would only get half the story.
I didn't really agree with her – at least, not as far as my travelling experience was concerned – but Asia brought her words back to me. I wondered: is sharing essential to the appreciation of an experience? Without someone to bounce ideas off, is life monocular as opposed to binocular? Do we need to paint our experiences on the canvas of company to bring it to life, or is a view, a culture, a journey just as amazing if you have nobody to talk to about it, nobody to relive it with over a beer and packet of crisps? Even this travelogue, by its very definition, needs a reader to make it worthwhile: it's interesting for me to read it every now and then, but nothing beats the thrill of having other people look at it, and to see their reactions.
So, that's the change: after a little over two weeks in Indonesia, I have revised my opinion on solo travel and, for the moment, will actively search out travelling companions. There's only one problem: my rather out-of-the-way schedule is hardly tourist-friendly, which could prove a problem. We'll just have to see.
(And the very night after I wrote this, I started meeting people in Moni, some of whom would make it all the way through Maumere to Ujung Pandang with me. Fate again? Perhaps...)