I don’t travel to see made-for-tourists attractions.
I don’t believe in seeing every sight a city has to offer.
I travel in search of new perspectives. I want to see how others live. And I want to try to understand why.
Dashing from museum to famous monument to over-rated tourist restaurant will tell me little about a city or its citizens.
Traveling slow and solo through the landscape, noticing the planning and design, the pace of the people, the use of green space, the sounds, the cuisine, the architecture, and the street art, I can get a sense of a city.
In her book Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude Stephanie Rosenbloom explores how traveling slow and solo enriches one's life.
Solo Travel, Anticipation, and Courting Joy
To anticipate is to court joy, to fall in love with a place the way it is in a book or a movie, or an Eartha Kitt song. But to stay open to the unexpected is to truly embrace anticipation – to know that it serves its purpose before the journey begins and must then be set aside for reality, for whatever beautiful, strange, unpredictable thing awaits when we step off the ferry.
From Part 2, Summer: Istanbul
Part travelogue of the four cities, part memoir of her experience with solo travel, the book offers many thoughts to ponder. I particularly liked this musing on the joy of anticipation and how your anticipation must change during your trip. As a solo traveler, you do the planning. You anticipate the experience but along the way you must be flexible, ready to set aside what you expected for the circumstance you have. Your resulting travel story will either be one of joy or one of your wondrous strength for having successfully navigated a situation.
On my recent trip to Japan I was anticipating, with great excitement and some anxiety, my first experience of an onsen. It is a quintessential Japanese experience and it involves complete nudity and lots of rules. To complicate matters I went to a Super-onsen where none of the staff spoke English. Yes, I courted joy as I anticipated this experience as a solo traveler but I most definitely had to set aside my anticipation for the reality I faced. I was the only westerner in the onsen. I tried to do everything in the correct way (I did a lot of advance research), but there were so many pools and showers and washing stations that I know I didn't get it all right. But I did the naked part and, I must say, the experience was far more joyful than the anticipation.
Slow Solo Travel Reveals More of the World
“When do you pause?” wrote Julia Childs' husband, Paul, in the 1950s when they were living in Paris. “When do you paint or pant? When write family, loll on moss, hear Mozart and watch the glitter of the sea?”
“When you're alone,” was Rosenbloom's response in her introduction.
Yes, being alone, which sometimes only happens for an extended period of time when we travel solo, opens the space to loll, listen, and simply watch, something that is rare, at least in my home life. Life is busy. When I travel, even for a short trip, I try not to pack too much into it so that I learn as much as possible about my destination.
When I was in India in 2012 I stayed at the home of a friend for five days. I watched the household in action. How the daily cooking and cleaning was done. What the sleeping arrangements were. The pattern of the house slowly revealed itself to me. But it wasn’t until the fourth day that I understood the loud, periodic chants that I heard. I asked about it on the first day and was told that it was a call to prayer. Yes, that’s what I had thought. Yet, no one seemed to respond. No prayers were said. Ah well, I guessed that this was an optional task and, like everywhere, some people are more observant than others.
But on the fourth day, I finally realized that the chant, the call to prayer, was actually the doorbell. If I had been traveling faster, if I had left on day three, I would have held a completely different understanding of the chant in my mind. Traveling slowly gives you the time to see some of the nuances of a culture.
Slow and Solo Travel Enriches Life Away and at Home
Research shows that not long after we get home from a vacation, we tend to return to our particular baseline level of happiness. To help prevent that from happening, I didn't fully leave the cities I'd visited but instead made them filters through which I saw my own.
From Part 4, Winter: New York
I have yet to arrive home and not return to my baseline level of happiness. Ah, but I'm a fortunate person so my baseline is pretty good. Yet still, I have integrated some wonderful, transformative travel experiences into my life. I became a vegetarian on the road and continue to be one. I discovered hiking on my second solo trip and continue to do so on my travels and at home. And, most importantly, I've grown in my understanding of the world with every trip. That knowledge and experience are integral to who I am. Whether with intent or not, my travel, like Stephanie's, contributes to the filter through which I view the world.