Yep. That’s me. Selfish and alone.
I’ve been pondering what it means to travel alone, both for myself and from the perspective of an outsider. Several people can relate to the freedom that comes with traveling alone, but are curious as to whether I ever feel lonely when I’m traveling, while others simply can’t comprehend why I travel solo. As I was thinking about it, I realised that traveling solo is actually a selfish choice… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but more on that later.
Swimming seems to reveal life lessons to me, as I wrote about previously, and today’s swim was another eye-opener. Swimming with kids must be the magic formula, since I always end up learning something when I choose to play with kids instead of completing a workout. I guess being too focused on productivity doesn’t always make for the best memories. I’m glad I gave up a good workout in favour of good play time.
At first, my heart sank when I saw the pool filled with people, because crowded pools are not the most productive environment for lap swimming. After just two laps, a little girl jumped in front of me giggling. Obviously, this was my cue to initiate conversation. Initiating a conversation led to two other kids, her brother and his friend, to join in the fun, and before I knew it, we were having a mini swim race and water fights as their parents looked on. As we were playing, one of the boys remarked: “I think you played with us last time.”, I was surprised that he remembered because at 6 years old, I don’t think I remembered anyone, let alone a random girl from the pool 4 months ago. He then proceeded to remind me of En Rou and En Le, the other sibling pair that I had written about in the previous post.
(Tangent: Nowadays, kids have such unique names. One boy was called ‘Sho’ and the little girl and her brother were called ‘Caylen’ and ‘Caspian’.)
At the end of an hour playing with them and splashing around, the dad thanked me for playing with them and letting them have a good time before he left with his son. It was a little sad to be thanked for merely playing with his son. Parents have the privilege of watching their kids grow up and so many opportunities to spend time with them, I feel like every moment should be spent making memories. The other two kids stuck around for awhile, and when I had to go, the little girl called out “Can you come to our house?”. I burst out laughing and told her it wasn’t a good idea to invite strangers to her house when her parents weren’t around. It was both saddening and somewhat hilarious to see her crestfallen expression because of how badly she wanted me to visit her house.
It reminded me of my experiences when I travel alone. I went swimming alone, but ended up having a great time with my new (kiddy) friends. When you travel on your own, you always meet a ton of people along the way, and I find myself talking to strangers all the time (Sorry mum and dad). You don’t keep all the friends you make, but you remember the conversations and the lessons learnt from each individual. You receive a lot of kindness from strangers along the way, sometimes so much love that you don’t understand why they give you so much when you have nothing to offer in return. And so you learn the spirit of paying it forward and being just as hospitable when you meet others, irregardless of whether you’ll meet them again, because you know what it feels like to be all alone in a new country.
Just like anyone, sometimes I wish I had a friend to share the experience with. But more often than not, I’m already with a friend… a new friend in the form of another solo traveler or a kind couple/family who decided to adopt this random asian girl. You meet new people, have a great time, and move on. Sometimes you’re lucky, and you meet people who stick around. I’ve been blessed with my soul sister in Germany and other amazing individuals and families who have invited me to live with them if I ever fly to their country. Yes, I am alone, but I’m never lonely.
Just like when I travel solo, I went to the pool to swim with every intention of being alone. I wanted time to think, and swimming is always the best option since you can’t talk and swim. Like swimming alone, traveling solo is selfish in the sense that I was being selfish with my time. When I choose to travel alone, I’m intentionally blocking out time for myself to do what I want, when I want to. It’s always easier to be alone because you don’t have to be aware of other people’s needs. While many have praised me for being independent and exploring by myself, I acknowledge that there is a selfish side to traveling alone because it’s easier to be me when it’s just me.
That said, protecting alone time isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it makes you a better person. Traveling alone forces me to reconcile my thoughts and to reflect on how I need to change as a person. The down time recharges me and gives me enough enthusiasm to get through another cycle of busyness. I’ve learnt a lot about myself, especially my weaknesses, when I travel alone. When you don’t have another person to rely on, you’re forced to step up and face your fears and make up for the areas that you are lacking.
If I had gone swimming with a group of friends, we would have probably stuck to ourselves instead of playing with the kids. Likewise, if I had travelled with a group of friends, it’s likely that we would have stuck together rather than creating new experiences with people you don’t normally talk to. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to travel in a group, I just prefer to travel in smaller groups because it allows more room for adapting to the circumstances. (Traveling in pairs is the best!) When you travel alone, it’s easier to be spontaneous. And that’s what I like. It brings back memories of play time, that my parents (very strategically) set aside each day. The importance of play, an intentional lack of structure/productivity/agenda, is something we tend to overlook as we get caught up in work work work. Being alone forces you to be more adaptable and daring, to cast all caution aside, and just go with the flow.
The kids I swam with today reminded me that it’s okay to be alone, as long as you are adaptable enough and willing to have fun with new people that you meet. In a sense, it’s to live like when we were kids and made friends with anyone and everyone. They showed me the selflessness and warmth that I experienced from strangers on my travels. They reminded me to be creative and find joy in the little things. They reminded me to let loose and play, rather than focusing on productivity alone. And so I write this today to challenge you to try to be alone…but not lonely. Talk to strangers (while maintaining basic discretion for your own safety haha), and to be as innocent as a child in building connections regardless of ‘what they can do for you’.
We’re not here to network, we’re here to be family.