My friend Angela has an amazing capacity for rallying people to travel together. Last year she managed to summon dozens of friends to her 30th birthday bash in Paris. This year she's planning a Christmas party in Australia. I, on the other hand, have found it nearly impossible to coordinate trips with my friends. Our schedules or our budgets don't mesh, and I usually end up traveling alone.
For a long time this made me feel slightly deficient. There's always a moment when someone asks where I'm going, I answer, and the next question is, "Who are you going with?" Then I say, "No one. I'm going by myself." "Oh," the other person says. A very loaded "Oh." It's as if I've just told her I have no boyfriend, I have no friends, I've only recently gotten my wart problem under control, and I live with six cats. But once I'm actually on my way, I feel a swell of excitement that I never quite lose.
I took my first major trip alone in my early twenties after I received an unexpected windfall. I had heard about a two-week photography course in Morocco that I had always wanted to take but had never been able to afford. Now that I had the money, I sent a check right away. I did not consult a friend. I did not ask anyone whether or not it was a good idea. I didn't ask anyone to come along. As I suspected, neither my boyfriend at the time nor my pals had the money or interest.
I had studied photography as an undergraduate. While framing the portraits for my senior show, I dreamed of becoming another Margaret Bourke-White, traveling the world to take pictures. The Morocco class gave me the chance to play out my fantasy. I shot a good 40 rolls of film during those two weeks. I also bowed outside of mosques, sipped mint tea with nomad tribes, and rode a camel through Casablanca. Sometimes the sunsets were so beautiful my heart would ache with longing. The sheltering sky that Paul Bowles so vividly captured in his novel of the same name was incredibly romantic, and while I dreamed of making love in the desert, my deepest desire was simply to share the view with someone. To tug at a lover's sleeve and murmur, "Look at that. Just look at that."
But for the most part, I wasn't lonely. And when I look back at pictures of myself from that trip—snapped by other students—I see a remarkable peacefulness in my face. My smile is broad and genuine. Each day of traveling through the bazaars and souks and hand-tiled palaces was a delight to the senses. There was always something new to see, to smell, to taste. And if I was there alone, what did it matter? I was there, in the thick of life. It wasn't passing me by.
I learned something valuable on that trip about traveling solo: A camera is a good prop. As a somewhat shy person, my first line of defense is to reach for a book. But if I'd traveled through Fez, Marrakech, and Rabat with my head buried in a novel, I would have missed so much. The camera forced me to pause and see the details. It was also a mask that hid my bashfulness, my astonishment, and sometimes my tears.
Next: Another good prop for solo travelers