Confessions of a Solo Traveller

Here I sit on flight CO1421 somewhere over the southern states, my iPod churning out music from home. I have heard jazz in New Orleans, Cajun in upstate Louisiana and all sorts of stuff in Mexico. Bizarrely yesterday one of the CD sellers on the Mexico City subway was playing “those old cotton fields”. Was he following me, or just reading my mind?

But now it’s time to play some 10cc and Coldplay and prepare to re-assimilate myself into home in good old England. I am in the airlock of Continental Airways, and I can almost smell the fresh October oxygen of England flooding into my nostrils. Realignment of time, senses and perspective will take an elapsed time of over 18 hours door-to-door. The final step from Birmingham culture to East Midlands could be the hardest. Let’s hope I make it.

I am really looking forward to home, family and friends, in fact to any human being with whom I can speak English. And to do so without the need to sprinkle it with purely decorative Sis, Nons and Gracias (as if that fools anyone that I am Spanish or making a serious attempt to use their language). It is a good thing that we are born not only with the ability to learn a language (if we dare try) but also with the full compendium of international hand gestures and expressions pre-installed. A shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders are elementary signals. The gesture for “I want a ticket there and back” is one I didn’t know was in the human hard wiring until I tried it with the woman in the subway ticket booth. It’s a good job the euphemistic restrooms are labelled – I wouldn’t like to test out the “where do I go” gesture on the spur of the moment. In Mexico they call them WCs – although there is not much sign of water in some of the closets. You have to buy loo roll on the way in – fortunately I read this before I found it out! That would have needed an international gesture from the real bottom of the pile.

So what possesses a so-called grown man to subject himself to such problems, when he could be at home communicating in reasonably coherent sentences to his nearest and dearest? Being alone in a country devoid of anyone you know and surrounded by people who speak a different language is not everyone’s cup of iced tea. There are two questions to ask. Why travel? And why travel alone? The first is almost unanswerable. If you have to ask the question, you will not understand the answer. It will harp on about exploration, curiosity, experiences, challenges, wanderlust, seeing, smelling and hearing the world. One side of my family climbs mountains, my daughter patiently completes impossible puzzles, one of my sisters likes to camp outdoors and the other runs and supports Manchester United. My wife watches Strictly Come Dancing, and I believe she is not alone. Who can explain these great mysteries? I can’t. Save we all do things just because we like to.

But why travel alone? The main reason is the practicality. When one’s other half works during school terms and makes the lad his sandwiches for school; the bare necessities of life can get in the way of international jaunting. And she is not quite as infected with the exploration bug as I am. I shared the Louisiana leg with my Jazz/Zydeco and fellow travel enthusiast, Paul. And when I was without him in Texas, most people did speak a form of English, albeit sometimes primitive, and seemed to share a similar, if bigger, way of life. In Mexico, things were very different. Although, they did make me welcome by driving on the left, filling the city with police cars and sending out armies of street cleaners to keep the place free of crime and litter. And the hotel staff could not have been more helpful and polite. Yet I felt like a lone alien in their country, with my blue eyes and strange accent.

I spent one whole day without hearing a single word of English or American until about 5pm. Yesterday, I heard an Australian voice in mid-morning. It was like water in the desert. It sounded so English – strange how our mind conjures up mirages. I was compelled to engage her in conversation, and felt this strange voice coming out of my mouth. I was speaking sentences in English after 2 days. It was a miracle!

I had spent a fair amount of those two days speaking instead to myself inside my head. I found myself having internalised conversations, “Wow, look at that” or “hey, where is my room key?” or “don’t wear that it has a mark on it” (Debbie will laugh at that). I found myself coaching myself. My alter-ego conversing with my ego in some great dialectic dialogue. Calming myself down or congratulating myself for getting on the right train. You become an emotional contortionist, patting yourself on the back, shaking your own hand, or kicking yourself. I soon learned how difficult I am to live with. Wow that guy has issues!

So thank goodness for phones, texts, emails and Facebook; which at least enable you to send messages back to the Mother Ship. And for CNN news and English films with Spanish subtitles. In Greece they overdub all the English films, making them amusing but unintelligible. Here, I could at least hear the words to the inane legal soap opera I tuned on at 5am this morning. Those people on the TV are my friends. I hope to see them again soon.

We are creatures of conversation and we are designed to share. One of the major negatives of flying solo, is that you make no shared memories. Yes, I have taken hundreds of digital photographs. Yet we all know, there is little less interesting than someone else’s holiday snaps. At least in the days of plastic film capsules and Truprint, we only had to bear 24 at a time. Nowadays people snap without looking, preserving images without actually engaging with the experience. At Teotihuacan yesterday, I made myself put my camera down to breathe in the amazing sight and sense of the place. Those are the experiences we travel for. Or swinging with the jazz in New Orleans, walking the Mississippi at dawn or touching the moon in Houston. These cannot be capture in two dimensions. And they can only be shared with someone who was there with you.

Being single again did have a few other disadvantages. I was reflecting on some of them as I was washing my boxers in the sink and drying them with a hair dryer. It means I don’t have a lady with a handbag. At one level this is easily fixed with the attachment of a manly bum bag. At a more complex level it means constantly checking what I have – phone, passport, money, boarding pass, camera, batteries, plasters, hotel room key, glasses, sunglasses, glasses case, map and marbles. Check 13.

To deal with the absent wife and handbag situation, I developed the 4-layer pyramid travel packing model. The base is the suitcase – things you don’t need in transit. These items may safely be relocated to hotel cupboards on arrival. Layer two is the carry bag. This goes in the cupboards above your head on the plane or in the boot of the car. It contains thing you may need occasionally when travelling, plus breakables (e.g. laptop, camera and neck rest). Level three is a small rucksack. This contains essential travel items, to be kept under the seat on the plane or on the back seat of the car. This is the large handbag substitute. I have no clue what ladies have in their handbags, and nor do I want to know. But we guys have a easy-read novel, a small camera, travel guides, a hat, an iPod, spare batteries, more spare batteries, and a fully equipped first aid and survival kit (in case we get lost in the bush) and some hand cream (ok, that’s traditionally a ladies’ item but I am a modern man who likes to keep his hands soft). If I were allowed three luxuries on my desert island, I would pick hand-cream along with slippers and a bottle opener.

Another particular issue of being alone in a strange city is eating out. How do you sit in a restaurant full of couples and groups, sat on your own, without looking sad, undesirable and lonely? Plastic surgery I hear you say. Well that may help, as does taking your mobile and making sure the restaurant has a free and unsecure wireless network to connect to. Last night I ate in a beautifully decorated taverna, serving delicious enchiladas and salad. As I ate, I caught up with the football results and world politics on my phones. If musing on Oldham’s 2-0 win at Brighton grated a little on the environs, it gave me something to do whilst eating. Better than staring into space, as if there was something captivating me, whilst people talk about “that poor guy on his own on the next table”. Meanwhile, you need to be poised like a rattlesnake, ready to strike up a conversation with anyone who catches your eye, whether they want to or not. You show them no pity.

The final issue is who takes the the photo self-portrait – the record of you ever having been on the trip? Unless you have unusually long arms, you have a problem. I’m not usually bothered by this, being the sort of person who feels animate objects can only spoil photographs by posing, grimacing or moving too fast. But I did want a shot of me at the top of the Teotihuacan Piramide del Sol. The challenge was to find someone amongst the hundreds on its peak who (a) understood English (b) looked like they could take a half-decent photograph and (c) would not run off with my camera.

I sat and sifted through the crowds carefully. I heard a German accent. I saw a woman who looked as British as British could be, but spoke Spanish. Others didn’t speak, so remained unidentified, as if they knew what onerous fate would befall them if they broke their silence. One English lady had no camera. On a world famous monument, one can only assume such a person must have some congenital inability to take photos, or be against them for religious reasons. Having decided that running down the 200+ steep steps of the pyramid with my camera would eliminate factor (c) I decided to change tack. Having talked it through with myself of course. And I agreed.

I bypassed rule (a) and pulled out the international gesture for “would you take a photo of me with this behind me” to a likely looking Mexican. Snap. On the next pyramid, the recipients of my mime artistry were a couple of Spanish women. They asked me if I was English. I had them now, and lured them into a conversation like flies in a web. Unfortunately, as it turned out their camera operation left something to be desired, and their English was deceptively rudimentary. Whilst they got me in the framje, somehow they missed that big triangular thing in the background – the pyramid.

There is an upside to travelling on your own, and it’s a big one. You have almost total freedom and independence. You can eat, sleep and travel whenever you like. If you want to take a photo, or double-back, you can do. In other words you can be totally selfish – rather than the normal state of being largely selfish! Moreover, there is more room in the bed, twice as many towels, two sets of shampoo. And a guy can drink a Corona in bed watching TV, no questions asked.

But I will be glad to be home. Aloneness is not most people’s natural state. Like most regular human beings, I am incurably attached to other people, and the need to explore and share this amazing world with them. I am also the tactile type and missed someone to hug and stuff. Was it my imagination or was every Mexican couple I saw snogging and kissing and holding hands? Maybe it’s the Latin blood, or maybe I just noticed it more. It was all I could do to resist hugging the receptionist in the hotel. I don’t think he would have appreciated it.

It will be good to reconnect. On my first day in New Orleans, I woke at 4am (9am on my English body clock) and felt an almost overwhelming sense of separation from home. I was ready to fly straight back. I felt every mile and minute of distance. Whilst the feeling lessened as I acclimatised, it never disappeared. It’s good to be reminded that beyond all of the adventure and excitement of exploring new worlds and new civilisations; home is most definitely where the heart is.

And so endeth my round the Gulf blogs. As a boy, I loved listening to Alastair Cooke’s “Letter from America” on a Saturday night. He was a genius at reflecting on the world, processing it and articulating it to his listeners in an interesting and captivating way. If my humble letters from the Americas have brought 5% of this entertainment and reflection to my friends, I will be chuffed. Thank you for those who have passed on kind comments – they only serve to encourage me!

When I post this on Facebook, I will be home, sleepy and happy.

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