Travel can be a lonely business. New sights, new sounds, new tastes, even new language and cultural norms– you can be surrounded by it all, yet feel extremely isolated at the same time. Even if you have a friend along for the ride, being in a strange new place can make you feel all sorts of alone. Subtract that friend from the equation, and you’ve got lonely to the second power.
When I decided to go down to Central America alone, a majority of the responses was “Why?” Some thought I was crazy, some thought I was a silly girl who couldn’t take care of herself, some were worried I’d have trouble making friends. I was most apt to agree with the latter sentiment.
I’ve always considered myself a relatively social person…in preexisting conditions. That is, when I’m around old friends I can be a social butterfly– making bad jokes and laughing the loudest at myself. But in new places, filled with new people, it’s like the first day of kindergarten all over again. I get shy and nervous and oddly sweaty. I’m six-years-old again, and it’s no fun.
Those who thought I was traveling by myself to prove a point, they were right too. I wanted to grow up. I didn’t want to turn into a six-year-old in new social situations. I wanted to learn how to talk to people, to learn their stories. After all, how else could I become a good journalist.
So when my fellow travelers and I parted ways a month in, I found myself nervous but also excited. Excited at the prospect of making it, just me, myself and I. Because the first step to curing loneliness on the wanderlust trail is to be OK with being alone.
It started with a day hike in the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica. I walked the hills from Santa Elena town to the Biological Reserve at Monteverde. For several hours, I was alone in the world. Just some rambling passersby, my thoughts and the occasional cow to keep me company.
In day to day life, we can pass hours by ourselves– surfing the web, zoning out in front of the television, even exiling ourselves to the three snug walls of our cubicles. But none of those hours bring us closer to ourselves. There are distractions at every turn, especially when a little human contact is only a text or tweet away. But when you travel by yourself, those banal distractions vanish. There is no longer a cell phone to check every five minutes for the latest Facebook status update or Twitter feed or Pinterest pingback or whatever other technological jargon is passing for human speak these days. All you have for entertainment is time and how you choose to spend it.
For me that meant actually seeing the land– observing rather than passing by, hurried and distracted. Being by myself meant I saw things I normally might have ignored.
That first day, I began the process of getting to know myself. Not the self I project when nervous, or sleepy in the grocery store, or trying to impress a group of new people. Just me. Because if I could become friends with that girl, I could make friends with anyone.