Traveling alone is like dancing. At first you sit on the sidelines, sipping your beer nervously and watching as everyone enjoys themselves. Once the buzz hits, you sway softly from side to side hoping that someone will notice that you want to dance. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you are taken by the hand and led to the dance floor and a stranger smiles and swings his hips along with you. Other times you are destined to just sit there and watch as the world dances in front of you.
Partners change. Rhythms change. Just as you get the knack of it, the song changes and you start all over again.
For me, that is what traveling alone is like. When I said goodbye to my friends in Mexico City on Christmas Eve, and hopped on a 15 hour bus ride to Palenque to embark on my short journey through Chiapas, I was as excited as a single lady heading to the disco. Fresh clothes, neatly packed backpack and ready to take on the world.
I arrived to Palenque on Christmas Day; a cold, rainy day in the jungle. I had planned on heading out to the see the Mayan ruins, but due to the rain was encouraged to snuggle up in my little cabana over the creek. “What a great time to write in my journal, or read!” I thought. Pen in hand, Casa de los Espiritus by my side, I sat there in the silent jungle and enjoyed the serene and the solitary peace. That is what I came for after all.
My beautiful, long-wished for moment lasted about 40 minutes and then I was desperate for some company. Rather than enjoying the privacy of nature that I came here for, I took a bus back in to town to find an internet café so I could get in touch with my friends and family. Needless to say, I felt like a failure on first day traveling alone. Note to self: next time bring someone.
That night I decided to try on my social pants and headed to Don Mucho’s Restaurant for dinner. There were a few free tables to sit at. The others were full of loud groups of friends getting tipsy, and couples getting snuggly. I strategically selected a table in close range to the bar (where perhaps other lonely souls would dwell) and checked out the menu.
I find eating alone extremely difficult. It is not enjoyable, I eat too fast and then I don’t really know what to do when I finish. Drinking, on the other hand, seems to work out just fine when in awkward situations with no one to talk to! Note to self: order another one.
A few micheladas into the night and I started to loosen up and tap my feet. If you want to make friends while traveling alone, it is key to make eye contact with people as they walk by. Smile at them. The most likely scenario is that they smile back and walk on – kinda like being the white girl on the sidelines of a Cuban salsa club. But to be honest, this tactic ended up making me quite a few…ummm… acquaintances during my stay in Palenque.
Within a few hours at this restaurant, I met some very interesting people: a Mayan descendant who offered to give me a spiritual cleansing of some sort (I nicely declined and offered to listen to his drumming instead), the author of the books Breaking Open the Mind and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl, which deal with the use of psychedelic drugs and their influence on Mayan superior knowledge, and a Mexican world-traveling vagabond that brought me a bag of fruit to my cabana at 5am, surely with other intentions than giving me vitamin C. For some reason all seemed inclined to pass me some friendly words of advice: that I was distrusting, full of fear, and sleepy. Note to self: never talk to strangers.
Of course, without my pocket-sized friends Kate and Emilie there to boost my self-esteem, my first night of adventure turned into a long night of tossing and turning and worrying – why did these strangers all think I was so reserved and closed? I think the opposite of myself! True, a foreign girl sleeping alone in the jungle should and must take her precautions! But they hit on something and made me realize that I do have an inherent fear and I do always doubt people’s intentions. And yes, perhaps I have been a bit sleepy this past year on an intellectual level. Note to self: rid of the fear, put my brain to use again and let down my guard!
Don’t get me wrong – they were nice and I did like them. But if we had been on the dance floor, I’d say those were the guys with good moves, but stinky breath and bad B.O.
Luckily, partners changed and over the course of the next few days I met some truly brilliant people, including but not limited to: a doctor living in a Zapatista community, who looks exactly like Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean (!); a Spanish musician who made an instrument out of water pipes and somehow produced beautiful songs; lovely Caro that learned quickly that I didn’t like eating alone and invited me to join them at meal time; an adorable couple from Berkeley that also got excited when “Pump Up The Jam” blasted in the club on New Years Eve; and most importantly, all the nameless indigenous people I came across everywhere I went. I wish I knew their names and their stories.
By the end of my short journey, I felt comfortable, confident, open, AWAKE – and I zip lined hundreds of feet in the air above a waterfall, just to help kick that fear factor from my system.
Suddenly, being alone was easier. I DID start writing in my journal over morning coffee in the colorful streets of San Cristobal. And I wandered the streets at night, filming old couples dancing in the plaza and children inventing games with palm leaves. Suddenly, making buddies was also effortless and there was someone from all walks of life ready to join me in activities from all walks of life.
You may know how to dance salsa, but when cumbia comes on things get a bit complicated and you trip all over yourself and the guy dancing with you. It’s humbling, at times embarrassing or frustrating, but mostly inspires you to dance more! With practice, you DO get less patosa.
In summary, this is what traveling alone is like for me – a traveler’s dance that only with time, patience and confidence can twist and turn you in ways you never dreamed. And in one week I shall embark on another lone journey for a short 5 days…destination still to be decided, but it’s not the location that matters. It’s the company, whether my own or with new smiling and sometimes criticizing faces. As long as I’m open to both, the band will play on…