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
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As I continued to travel, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, I began to believe there was nothing a good adventure couldn't cure. The job from hell, a broken heart, nightmare holidays, the blahs, the blues, what Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's calls the mean reds, could all be fixed by a bowl of noodles in a café in Shanghai or a drive through Baja in a convertible.
Then I got sick for real. One day I was fine; the next day I was having hernia surgery. Two months later I was suffering from complications that baffled even the best doctors. The hernia surgeon sent me to a gynecologist who sent me to a bone specialist who sent me back to the hernia surgeon. Just when I was on the verge of recovery, I got a nasty strain of mono. My tonsils swelled, my ears ached, and my throat was so raw I couldn't drink or swallow. My asthma flared up and I had to make periodic visits to the hospital to be ventilated—that is, when I wasn't visiting the hospital to be fed through an IV because I couldn't eat. I was a freelance writer, and now there was no income. In four months I went through my savings. By 3 P.M. every day I was exhausted. I begged my doctor to tell me when I could expect to get better. "I haven't worked in ages," I pleaded. "What am I going to do?" My doctor just shook his head. "Rest," he said. "You are very, very sick." So I rested and I cried and I wondered what I had done to deserve this.
By the time I recovered, I had been ill for almost six months. It was spring, which seemed like a good sign. My friend Shandana called and invited me to spend a week with her in southern Spain: Andalusia, a region as lovely as its name. That week I received two freelance checks that I'd thought would never come. I had enough money to cover two months' rent and buy a plane ticket. Everything else, I reasoned, could go on my credit card.
I quickly decided I needed more than a week away. Tooling around online travel sites, I booked three additional weeks of solo travel—to Barcelona, Madrid, and Paris. The week in Andalusia with Shandana was lovely, partly because I knew it was only the beginning of my journey. I saw Shandana and her friend Greg off at the airport, then flew to Barcelona. There I adopted Gaudí and Picasso as my travel buddies; I visited all of Gaudí's tripped-out architecture and Picasso's early paintings. Sitting at an outdoor café one afternoon, I ran into my friend Joanne from New York. We became dinner companions for the remainder of the week, meeting each evening to compare notes and stroll along Las Ramblas, a mile-long strip of cafés, bars, and street performers. On the next leg of my trip, Madrid, I dove into the world of Diego Velázquez, enraptured by an encounter with my favorite painting in the whole world, Las Meninas ("The Maids-in-Waiting"). I was content to eat breakfast and lunch alone, but I found solo dinners intimidating. I would eat early, so as not to feel conspicuous in a crowded restaurant, or in my hotel room.
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So in Paris, I made a decision: It wasn't going to take another frightening illness for me to give myself a break, to say no, to remember what mattered most to me. Since then, travel has become more than a respite from the world I live in; it's a way to refill my emotional well.
Six months after Paris I was negotiating the subways of Shanghai alone. I visited a different wing of a museum each day. More than once, I was surrounded by groups of men and teenagers asking me questions and making comments in a language I couldn't understand. But it was part of the journey and I braved it.
Next, I spent a solo weekend in Brussels—eating dinner in a popular café, searching out the most exquisite chocolate shop, going to an outdoor rock concert with 30,000 screaming fans.
On my most recent trip, to Japan, I traveled through the countryside by bullet train. At one stop a Japanese businessman sat down next to me. He was preparing to give a speech in English at a conference and asked if he could practice on me. I agreed. The speech was stultifyingly boring, but there was something wonderful about being read to, something very Anna and the King about the way he was at once self-assured and desperate for my approval. After he finished, he asked if he could buy me an ice cream cone from the food car. And for the rest of our short journey, we ate our cones in silence. My self-consciousness was gone. Sitting on that train, thousands of miles from my home, we were less like strangers than like longtime playground friends who need no words.
Veronica Chambers is the author of the memoir Kickboxing Geishas (Riverhead).
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