Isn't Traveling Lonely?
A few months back by brother asked me - "Isn't traveling lonely?" I responded about missing family and friends and finding it hard to make new ones. But weeks later, I was still thinking about it. The traveler goes out into the world to see how others live. Do they always end up lonely and missing home? Yes, yes of course travel can be lonely. Traveling can be hopelessly lonely, especially if you stay within your shell.
While not common, we've had our share of lonely times, which have assumed many names and faces over time. At times, we've felt the surge of culture shock - and utter frustration - when we've tried and failed to communicate and have become fed up. When we start to learn about a culture, we are familiar with the feeling of isolation by the parts we can't accept. We've felt hollow every time we realize our curiosity is being met with heavily crafted responses: "This story is made special for you, gringo!" And when we do finally make friends, we've felt disconnected when people turn down our transient lifestyle.
While we're not in the same position as single travelers - we're thankful every day we have each other - we've thought quite a bit about how and why we get lonely. Many of the reasons are obvious. We've left our family, our friends, our country, shared (heh) value system, all our cozy comforts and places we love (and those we don't). We've electively traveled halfway across the world, where we have little security net and few familiar faces.
When we're walking down the street in the first fews weeks of travel and we encounter people, each and every person seems like an exciting new opportunity. Everything is novel, so we have little time (or care) to discern between age, race, class, dress, body language, etc. We look for signs of danger, and, not finding them, we think "Hey, human! I'm human too. Let's garble each other's languages and try to communicate together." We usually smile or wave or say hello in an innocent effort to elicit a response. This is almost always followed by giggling. Laughter is a universal form of communication, like waving, which originally meant "I come in peace" (no guns). It's an honest experience that we try to respect.
If we walked down the street like this in our own country everyday - like every new face was an opportunity - the world would feel quite different. Granted, most of us would probably hate this experience, feeling we have too much to do. But it's still an interesting exercise. Matt and I like to imagine how the behavior we exhibit comes across - by imagining the reverse - for our own amusement. We are constantly wishing we could find someone who speaks as little English as we do Hindi (or Spanish or Portuguese, etc) just so we could visualize what we sound like. Imagine someone walking up to you, smiling, then taking about 10 seconds to stutter out a half-broken sentence like "Nice, um, day you am."
While we're on garbled language, communication is one of the most classically lonely aspects of travel. It's the form of culture shock we're most familiar with. In fact, I don't think I've actually experienced any other form. I used to think of culture shock as your senses being bombarded with smells, tastes, sounds, textures and sights so foreign you felt you were going to panic - like being in some trippy music video. What we've experienced, however rare, is a classic us/them dichotomy because we could not get across a simple idea. Transplanted into a land so different from your own, without the ability to communicate, your mind starts to feel trapped. You withdraw, slowly, rejecting your environment and the people in it. Simple things fix this, like learning even bits of the language, making easy friends with market vendors and people in your neighborhood, and slowly but surely you start to integrate.
When we first started traveling in South America, I imagined learning the grammar of a romance language and rolling my Rs. But as we've traveled farther east, I have come to learn that grammar is only one small piece of communication. In fact language itself now feels like a myriad of new sounds, melodies, body language, social expectations, glances, stares, and gestures, interwoven in and around words and sentences. That's why immersion is such an amazing thing. You gain access to all aspects of how people communicate simultaneously.
Whenever we have had time, we've learned the local language. But even then, depending on visas, we may barely get to cracking a joke by the time we need to leave. Yet when we've successfully picked up enough to make some local friends (or depending on how terrible our language is, local friends who speak English as a second language!), we feel as rich as kings.
Once we get past these first awkward conversations, complications set in. We've found that while the thought of learning the local language makes most travelers shudder, for us viewing culture with curiosity but without judgment is the most challenging.
For example, across India women are dealing with unequal rights and unbelievable restrictions every day. Yet in many parts of India expectations for western foreigners are very different. This is not unique to India, but it's a good example. Being a western woman in India, you are judged (yes, oh, yes) yet simultaneously absolved from many of these practices. I guess we have the British to thank for this. No one expects you to follow the customs, let alone speak the language, know much about India, or dress appropriately (except in temples, etc). In fact, we found The Oatmeal's illustration of what the Brits think of American accents to be somewhat universal.
The social and gender inequalities are especially troubling. They're something I think about all the time. It makes me feel angry, helpless, and altogether foreign. But as a foreigner, it's my choice. I can either choose to feel judged and insulted (by their low expectations), horrified by the conditions for women, or I can try to connect and understand people. Even when Indian women recognize their inequality, many times their response is "Yes, it is difficult, but what can you do?"
If we've passed all these barriers and made friends, when we think about the difficulty of actually keeping friends longterm, we do feel isolated. Transience is usually a quality people avoid unless they are in a transient place in life. When people find we're only going to be around for a few months, it's common for them to get cold feet about investing time. This is especially true in the US. Some don't think we're serious, others find it uninteresting or threatening to meet people who are moving about. But for those with open minds, we've found its truly a wonderful experience to meet a person traveling in the same direction as you, for however long your paths may cross. One of my favorite experiences was traveling with a Spaniard and a Frenchman on a boat en route to Manaus, Brazil from Iquitos, Peru. Time-wise, it was a limited experience. But that freed us up from all the common "How do you do? What do you do"-type conversation to focus on what we all really cared about. Which, well, turned out to be what most of us were doing. Of course this practice can apply to anyone, anywhere, but we've found it's a common trait of travelers.
Yet despite all this, because of all I've left behind, however temporarily, I feel the opposite of lonely. Sometimes, to be honest, it's thrilling, invigorating. Other times so much emotion wells up I feel a general sensitivity which, if I can describe it at all, feels the exact opposite of lonely. It feels like, well, empathy and unity. Feeling lonely can get you down, but it can also make you push to connect with people. One of the primary reasons we travel is out of curiosity and a desire to learn about how others live. And we find, generally, that people have as much curiosity about us as we do about them.
Of course all of these connections - while vibrant and intense - aren't the same as the family and friendships we've developed over time. That's the true loneliness, the heart of my brother's original question. With our friends and family at home in the US (and abroad), we connect however we can (and sometimes fail miserably) - through Skype, through email, and most importantly in a way, through this blog. And while it's not the same, it helps us to know we have the might of all these people -- you people -- rooting for us. We are traveling for ourselves, but we don't want to feel alone in our endeavors. We also feel, in no small way, that we are traveling for everyone we know, and everyone we will come to know. And that starts here, with you.