[Translated from original post: “¿SOLA?”]
“I am amazed,” our Dublin tour guide tells us as we sit down. “Ninety percent 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, and at the tables crowding the stuffy room, are approximately ten women. Their ages vary, and the air is filled with the capricious will of youth and the sagacity of experience. We chat and nod our heads while sipping on polychromatic glasses of beer.
True, there are many women in this group. But there’s something about the word “unusual” that catches my attention. I wonder if these women also feel “unusual.” I realize, then, that our friendly guide’s comment doesn’t surprise me. Even before I had bought a plane ticket and put on a backpack the mention of the word “alone” had made many eyebrows rise.
“Alone?” they asked. Then there was usually silence, coming from those who didn’t want say what they really thought. I also heard “You must be crazy,” and “Aren’t you afraid?” many times. I never knew what to answer then. I laughed politely and said I wasn’t, then quietly wondered if I should be afraid. My personal favorite, the one that made me determined to do it- and gave me a reason to reconsider the definition of “crazy”- was when someone gave me a lecture on dangerous reality of travel for women and ended with the question, “Haven’t you seen Taken?”
I was scared; uncertainty, whether its physical or abstract- a place you’ve never been to, a new idea, the future- is composed, in part, by fear. But my fear didn’t have anything to do with my gender.
It’s riveting, like stories that last an eternity. The moment I decided to travel alone I became a potential victim of all that could happen to me for doing it. Was it wrong to not feel like at every corner I turned there might be a villain waiting to tie me down to the tracks of a train?
A month and a half after leaving home, I continued to come across people, men and women alike, who found a woman traveling alone to be something “unusual.” Their reactions varied between awe, some kind of admiration that wasn’t quite that, and worry. Some even doubted my family’s common sense.
“That’s very brave,” says a man whom I came upon while 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.”
I didn’t feel brave, or unusual… I felt normal- for the first time in my life. Being there, being everywhere, alone, just made sense. I owned the ability to do so.
I may have been lonely, at times, but I never felt alone.
Sometimes I walked up and down streets, in silence, with my thoughts to keep me company, and that felt just fine. I’ve always been someone whose mind is like what a close friend of mine calls “a washing machine.” The problem with these is that you can’t enjoy them in the daily grind, when there’s no time to think a lot. So I thought a lot, and in my solitude learned how to pay attention to the inconspicuous details threatening to go unnoticed around me.
Once I sat on a bench, on a cold night in Bruges, to listen to a violinist play Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I didn’t feel alone. History, musical notes frozen by the cold winter air, a dim enveloping lamp light, all squeezed me tightly in their arms and suddenly I was home.
I carried two backpacks, one was twice my size, and walked over 20km every day. I felt my legs strengthening, making it easier every day to carry the bags. My steps became lighter, and lighter, over time; as I moved my doubts and fears fell like crumbs, but I didn’t leave trail. I wasn’t interested in going back.
I wasn’t “alone” when I decided to spend an hour walking up a hill to watch the sun set over the city of Edinburgh.When I reached 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.
Not even, when I hiked Mount Tatra for nine hours, just to get a sight of an elegant, gray, frozen lake surrounded by snow capped mountains. 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 was 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 held my hand when I found, 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.
Uncertainty makes itself known often. I can’t remember how many times I got lost, or how many times I didn’t understand what others were saying, or how many trains and planes and buses I chased. But in those moments, where I felt lost, and vulnerable, and “unusual,” I managed. And if I needed, someone was always there to lend a hand; to give me a reason to think I was in the right place.
Later that night, after the tour of Dublin, I sip on a pint in a pub on the outskirts of the city 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 stern-fatherly way. “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 a second his words pin my restless, unusual feet back onto the surface of the earth.