[Translated from original post: “¿SOLA?”]
“I am amazed,” our free walking tour guide tells us. “90% of the people in this group are women and they’re all traveling alone. It’s a bit unusual.” I look around me. Sitting at the bar are approximately ten women; the ages vary, filling the air with a mixture of youth and wisdom that is almost magical. They chat and nod their heads while they taste beers and wait for the next installment of the tour to begin.
I’d like to say our friendly guide’s comment surprises me. Sadly, it doesn’t. Even before I put a backpack on my shoulders the mention of the word “alone” quickly raises eyebrows.
I hear: “Alone?” from those who don’t want to tell me what they really think. “You must be crazy. Are you not afraid?” from those that don’t know that what really scares me are the things I won’t get to do in my life. And I’m instructed by those who are well informed: “Look,” they say “it’s all very nice but the reality is that for a woman, traveling alone is much more dangerous…. Have you not seen Taken?”
In a month and a half since I left home I continue to come across more and more people, men and women alike, who think this way. Their reactions vary between amazement, horror, worry, and doubt in regards to my family’s common sense.
“That’s very brave,” says a man who I came upon hiking one of the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland. “Walking in the woods and mountains all alone is not something a woman, certainly not my wife, would do.”
It could be. But more than anything I feel normal- for the first time in my life. Being here, alone, just makes sense. Simply because I can.
“And you, sir, climbing up a mountain alone…do you feel brave?”
It’s sad and interesting, like any long-lasting story. From the moment I decided to travel alone I became a potential victim of all that, without even having packed my bag, could happen to me for doing it. I would be lying if I said that at times I did not wonder whether I should wait for someone to travel with me. I would also be lying if I said that the first month or two were no moments where doubt, fear and insecurities- instilled in me years ago- arose.
Was it wrong to not feel like at every corner I turned there might be a villain with a mustache and a cape waiting to tie me to the tracks of a train?
I travel “alone” but I never am.
Because when I walk down the street, or silently up a mountain, and let everything that is around me fill every inch of my body I’m more accompanied than anyone else.
When I sit on a bench, on a cold night in Bruges, to listen to a violinist play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, I don’t feel alone. History, musical notes frozen by the cold winter air, a dim enveloping lamp light, all squeeze me tightly in their arms.
I carry two backpacks- one that is twice my size- and walk over 20km every day. I feel my legs strengthening and each day they become easier to carry. My walk becomes lighter and lighter over time, not only because my arms and legs are getting stronger, but because as I move I leave behind doubts and fears that I have carried on my back for twenty years.
I leave them behind to make room for those I know I’ll have to carry later on.
I’m not “alone” when I decide to spend an hour walking up a hill to watch the sun set over the city of Edinburgh. Not even when I hike Mount Tatra for nine hours, just to get a sight of an elegant, gray, frozen lake surrounded by snow capped mountains.
When I reach the top and lie on the grass and I feel my breathing slowly settling down as I place my hands on my chest. My lungs filled with fresh air. Free air. As free as I am in that moment.
My thoughts, my reflections, my few years keep me company. Everything I want to do and see. The person I was and sometimes can’t remember; the person I am and the one I’m turning into.
I’m accompanied by the warm smell of recently baked bread on the streets of Istanbul and the low murmur of people waking up to get to work.
The memory of my grandfather holds my hand as I find, hidden in a small, narrow street, a house selling ceramic statues that look just like the pictures he would draw before time grabbed him by the hand.
I’m accompanied by my memories: many good and some bad. All part of the unending puzzle that I continue to put together within and without.
I sip on a pint in a pub on the outskirts of Dublin as I talk to Mike, an Irishman who tells me the stories behind the traditional ballads sung by a band in a corner. We share tales of our travels, while we avoid distant glances judging the outcome of a simple talk between two beings: one young, the other old; one waiting anxiously for the future, the other lingering on the past.
I rant about the expectations everyone has for each other. The necessity to instill the “right” way to live life. The mold, I tell him, the glass box- so transparent that we end up believing it doesn’t exist.
“Stop looking for excuses in others and star doing” he says sternly but with a comprehensive air. “Respect other’s choices and views, but go for what you want. You know exactly what it is.” We don’t know each other but in half an hour his words pin my restless feet back onto the surface of the earth.
Uncertainty comes on walks with me sometimes. Like when I fall asleep on a train and end up in an unknown town in the middle of Poland, at 2:00 am, without a soul around to tell me what to do. And yes. I miss the company of my friends and family, more than I like to admit. Especially when there are thoughts to share and I have to settle for the echoing silence of a street, or a page on my notebook.
Despite those brief, towering, moments of solitude, I know that I am doing what I have the right to do, as a woman and as a human being, in order to grow, to learn, to stand up to my fears and my preconceived notions of how the world is supposed to be. To live fully, surrounded of new people, cultures, and places- and in this way better understand the old.