Kandy Kids :)
'One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do.
Two can be as bad as one,
It's the loneliest number since the number one.'
- One, Aimee Mann
Having blogged my fingers to frayed, bloody stumps with six months of journal bashing in India (not to mention the twelve before those!) Stevie's decided to take a sort of break from constant scribbling and uploading his soul whilst in Sri Lanka. A month off. Kind of. A little less time online too. It occasionally feels I spend a third of my time travelling the world via its internet cafes. Hmm? Perhaps there's a publishing opportunity there? The Lonely Plonker's Guide to Cyber Travel.
Weselby's Wi-Fi World
Egret in Grass
. Around the World in 800 Uploads : The Adventures of Fibre-Optic Phileas
. I think not.
So, forgive me TB chums and forgive me Sri Lanka but there will be a little less than the usual deluge of reportage this month (though I started with a bit of a beast in Negombo didn't I!). And I've decided too to write occasionally on slightly different subject matter, though related to travel and my journey of course. On a number of occasions in the past I've toyed with the idea of running a sister blog to 'Me and the World etc...' entitled 'Me and My Thoughts etc...' offering little whimsical insights into the peripheral, incidental and the internal considerations of the experience of travel.
'Politicians and Palm Trees'
But I am yet young in the 'trade' of travel thinking. Besides at the thought of yet more blogging my brain just cried and ran for cover every time. There is such a thing as overkill too. Instead, sporadic entries from here on in (or maybe I'll just do two and give up on the idea) will be a little less about where you find me geographically speaking and a little more about where I am within myself after 19 months of schlepping about the planet. Just little windows in on the experience of this one man and his journey. In my mind I've dubbed them Psychological Postcards and we'll see if some of the ensuing prattle makes the title worthy of sticking :) Well, enough of all that and shall we begin?...
A Solitary Scene
Well, actually before we begin.
Get stuck in. Shall we peruse a quick snapshot of the scene? For yes, once again, you find me alone but for the hum of electricity and the small posse of mosquitoes who press their unwanted attentions upon me and who will undoubtedly whine and drill their way through the thin skin of my sleep tonight. No geckos to aid me today.
It's 18.43pm in Room 54 (although they only have twelve) of the Collingwood Hotel in Nuwara Eliya in the uplands of south central Sri Lanka. 'Little England' they call it. The room has white walls, no windows to speak of (natural light usually comes at a premium) and a cold tiled floor. No decor on those walls though watercolour blotch flowers blossom across the yellow duvet cover.
Mr S.S.Jayasundera who kindly invited me into his hom near Kandy for tea, and then dinner (Thanks too to his wife Jasmine)
A thickset wooden dressing table of an austere, angular English style stands to one side with two drawers, two cupboards and a large mirror within which we find the rooms occupant. A man, sat upon a bed with five days of stubble and a frown upon his head, the latter induced by a rare headache. Perhaps it's the altitude? 1,890 metres plus a bed with a yellow duvet above sea level. Perhaps it's reading Ulysses
? Perhaps it's some kind of allergic reaction to the advent of rain, coursing down outside as he types these words? ( 'Little England' they call it) So unused to it is he now. Atmospheric pressures? ( I think it must be Ulysses
.) The mirror reveals the man bent low over the light of a laptop computer wrecking both his posture and eyes to L*rd only knows what end.
Me and My Mate Geck : one of a traveller's best companions as they munch all the mosquitoes... as well as looking darned cute!
A loaf of bread stands besides the Happy Cow who smiles before the mirror from the cardboard pack of her processed cheese that will barely nourish him later. A Holy Bible 'Placed by the Gideons'
sits there too. His first in 590 days of travel accommodation. A minor miracle? He opens it randomly to see what the L*rd has to say to comfort him in his solitude :
Page 608, Psalms 78 - 'Give ear, O my people, to my law; incline your ears to the words of my mouth. / I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old, / Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.'
'Oh well' he thinks. A television sits besides a disembowelled backpack upon a squat table in the far corner of the slightly damp smelling room with no aerial and an incorrect plug fitting and so no hope of life.
The laughably ghatly 'Golden Temple' that sits before the Dambulla Rock Caves
A silent blank joke about the outside world. It would only have proven a portal to procrastination. And besides, there's a general election tomorrow, and who wants to watch that?!
) The man in the mirror bends once again and begins to type...
Solo Travel : The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger?
Okay, I'll put my 'Let's be serious and talk about this' head on now I promise. I decided to wax wafflyrical about solo travel for the first of my proposed Psychological Postcards as undoubtedly it's questions relating to this that are most frequently asked of me either by the TB Community or people I meet on The Road. 'You're travelling on you're own?!', 'How do you manage?', 'Don't you get bored?', 'Don't you get lonely?' and so on.
Burn in Hell Naughtiness ;)
The situation of course can be summarised by pointing out the obvious : that there are pros and cons to every decision you make when travelling. Though I am certain of my preference at this time. The decision to travel alone or in company is a choice of one particular style of journey-making over another and you have to think carefully about the type of experience you wish to have. Most importantly, I now realise, considerations with respect to the internal journey you will go on and that will run parallel to the one you make with your feet are strongly effected by this initial choice. To share the experience (i.e. every moment of it). Or to go it alone. But more on that point later.
Perhaps you don't have the luxury of choice; there's a partner, a spouse, a family and so forth.
Samadi Buddha inside the Dambulla Rock Cave monastery
No chance of going solo. But if you do, you have to look at the context of your life at that time and decide, knowing yourself, which way is going to be better for you. I can't pretend to have given the subject any thought before departure. I just assumed (correctly I'm sure) that at the age of 29 there would not have been many - any!
- of my married, mortgaged, nappy-fiddling friends willing and able to put Life, love, loan payments etc on hold at considerable expense for two years. Even if they'd wanted to. Even if I had wanted them to. So when people go pop-eyed with surprise at my solo enterprise and ask 'Well, didn't any of your friends want to travel with you?!'
(with strong undertones of 'He clearly can't have any friends'
) I just kinda shrug my shoulders in a 'C'mon people, get realistic'
Congregation of super heroes in capes?
As an individual, emotionally, I find myself by happenstance quite well suited to the psychological conditions of long term travel. That travel being ostensibly alone. A social slow burner. A listener. An observer. A pensive, plodding learner. In no hurry in life's Great Game. Happy in my solitude. I rarely crave company though happily take it when it comes. Keen on quietness. More people means more noise. Actual, psychological or emotional noise. Decisions split more ways than one means compromise. Friction. Basic physics. Friction retards an objects ability to move smoothly or freely. Travelling is an extremely high intensity activity where decision making is concerned. Being alone is a path of least resistance.
I am lucky in that I am little prey to loneliness or boredom. People often assume that the latter must inevitably stem from spending much time in one's own company but I certainly do not find this to be so. In fact the unexpected richness of 'internal life'; the life of the mind that travel, especially solo travel for me fosters is quite exciting. A revelation perhaps. Time to think and be thoughtfully creative perhaps in ways certainly smothered by a nine to five job (as once I had) and often by Other People too. Being with Other People on the road represents a minor paradox in as far as they are a constant source of inspiration (one reason to travel) yet a distraction at the same time. The boon of solo travel is the privilege of choice.
The Sigiriya Rock and irrigation tanks
And the privilege of having so much time, peace and quiet to nurture a less frantic, distracted state of mind on your own terms whether this be aided by others or no.
So, perhaps a fortunate coincidence of character and current purpose. Perhaps my personality, my soul has finally found its niche? I'm not sure as yet. 'Greedy little soul!' The world entire would be quite some niche to settle upon.
Returning to boredom briefly, as an adult I have always had a very high boredom threshold and have never entirely understand what 'boredom' is (though I know like all good teenagers I plagued my mother in claiming to be tyrannised by it) nor sympathised with those who seem to suffer it like some ailment that one is often expected to cure for them.
'Buddhist of Sigiriya'
Even when waiting for that train that's six hours late how can you seriously ever be too bored? You are far from home. In a foreign land. A source of constant stimulation. Just look around you (start writing about it perhaps?) and the boredom should evaporate from the heat of your curiosity. I often find too that people prey to 'boredom' are not great readers, which I suspect is one of many keys to longer term travel sanity. A love of the written word. The mind is good company. An inspired one better. As long as I have a book, my thoughts, notes and camera, You and my family at the end of the phone I find the concept of loneliness a little erroneous I have to say.*
On mention of 'the written word' perhaps one of the most important and pertinent points to note, given that I am sat here typing this now, and you are sat there ( I hope) reading this now, is that this journal; this 'blog' ( 'Brrrr, a word I've never been comfortable with!') would never have and could never have happened had I been constantly travelling with Other People.
The lions paw entrance to the summit of Sigiriya
Absolutely not. Not a chance. No way José. Impossible. Forget it. 'Me and the World etc...'
would not have reached entry number two. Which speaking with the benefit of hindsight would have been a profound loss at least to myself. The many ways in which the consideration and crafting over time of this journal has enriched my travel experience would take words too many to tell right now. Another Psychological Postcard sometime perhaps? But it’s one more reason to be happy. And to celebrate the potential of solitude.
I think people often wonder what I do with myself. All those hours, all that time alone. Particularly in the evenings (and I'll have no innuendos thank you!) when dark's drawn down and the travel community mostly retires, afraid of the shadows of unfamiliar streets, to their guest house rooms and own company for the night.
Grey clouds gather : a view from atop Sigiriya
And then in the same thought those same people might (and do) ask me 'How do you do it?
[meaning the journal] How do you find the time whilst travelling?'
But never put two and two together. 'Hello-o-oh!'
This journal takes time. A lot of it actually. But it's time I have. Oodles of it. Right here and now. On my tod. Tapping the plastic. Killing time in a hopefully moderately constructive manner. Time and clear mind I would likely not have had were my attentions and obligations to be split by Another.
Now with that last statement and by this point in the tract I realise (and anticipated) I would start to sound like some old curmudgeonly loner in the great British tradition of a Wainwright**
or such like.
All spikes and silence and sneers. But this is emphatically not the case. I like (though not necessarily always love) the company of people... well, mostly. No really, I do! I’m a friendly soul all told. As a traveller one would of course often be lost without it. The company and chatter of others that is. And whilst occasionally a tad shy, or quiet anyhow (the two often mistakenly construed as the same thing) I really can't wait to, and really do look forwarding to meeting You on The Road too someday. ( ‘Rini, Fran, Sim, I’m on my way!’
) Drop me a line all. (And a few of you do). Let’s see if our trajectories meet.
One sure truth of course is that you are never alone for long on The Road, whether you would wish it or not.
'Polonnaruwa Puzzle Pieces'
There's almost nowhere I have yet travelled where you do not meet at least somebody or other and make a connection, no matter how fleeting, every single day. Personality types from the friendly, fascinating or just plain lovely to the Strange Ones and infuriating (travel) bores. In general the travel community (as represented here in the microcosm of TB) is rich with engaging like-minded people and so the concept of being 'alone' also actually is a bit of a red herring. Particularly in this hyper-connected world we now live in. There's no denying that interactions with the TB Community have become a significant psychological crutch for this now slightly jaded globe-trotter and I for sure would have been a hell of lot more lonesome without you guys! Your smiles and comments are fuel in the tank.
Tongue-flicking temple inhabitant :)
Back in the 'real' world you have to go a long ways out of the way or be quite staggeringly anti-social to ever find yourself far from pleasant companionable moments too. And on an unambiguously positive note this social process includes of course getting to know the peoples, communities and cultures that you are travelling through. As well as those most treasured friends from all over the world you make along the way. I thank and love you all. You know who you are.
In fact the difficulty more often than not - and I often suffer some pains from this - is in finding genuine, unadulterated time to yourself, that book and your thoughts; in escaping the conversational snares of those clearly exhibiting symptoms of loneliness, so-called boredom or just becoming dyed in the wool travel bores.
Shattered Yoni in a Shiva worship temple
The human compulsion mostly seems to be to coalesce and interact. To force ourselves upon one another. All the time. The latter fact can be a little tiresome occasionally, living as we do, in an increasingly crowded world.
But this is why, to date anyhow, I like being a solo operator as you have the option of having it both ways. Meet people. (Avoid them). Make friends. (Don't bother). Go for dinner? ( 'Oh, I've already eaten.') Let's go see this!' ( 'Well, I'd rather go see that.' ) Thanks all the same. Freedom of movement and intent. You may not want to walk around the backstreets of a grubby city for six hours and many sweaty kilometres more. I may not want to visit temple number 1,245,762 and then have an overpriced approximation of a pizza at the 'multi-cuisine' cafe with the Coca Cola billboard on top.
The minute you're travelling in a group of more than two my observational experience is that this can lead to a paralysis of decision making. I tend to just keep quiet (the minority representative of One). Too many mixed agendas, desires, attention spans, boredom thresholds, cultural interests (or often not) and budgets etc. When alone you may spend as much or as little time with Other People as you (or they wish) and at the end of the day, the week, the month you can all just exchange e-mail addresses and amicably drift your separate ways. Revert to your independent trajectories around the world. Your solo tracks. No need for complication, uncertainty, guilt, indecision or disappointment. Nobody's journey need needlessly be compromised.
Of course there would seem to be strong financial arguments for group as opposed to solo travel.
(Polonnaruwa) Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
But maybe financials is subject matter I should ring-fence for a separate piece of writing. Suffice to say that whilst people always assume that because many costs - food, transport, accommodation etc - are often being split at least two ways when you travel in company it must be the cheaper way to travel I'm not convinced this is so.***
Again it's a pros/cons, swings and roundabouts situation. But in my observations and experience I tend to note that what you might gain with one hand financially speaking you just as soon tend to lose with the other(s). Sometimes several times over. Costs may go down in consideration (a) but go up in considerations (b), (c) and (d). And the financial life of your journey; your ability to make those pounds, Euros and dollars stretch into miles will depend more on the decisions you make and the kind of traveller you are or kind of conditions you're willing to endure rather than how many of you are splitting the bills.
Carved 'Guard Stone' at Polonnaruwa
The quickest, simplest example I can give (probably most pertinent to the solo male traveller) is that of 'beer Vs bed'. When travelling in Asia and the Indian Sub Continent (and other places too) the price of one beer will often be equivalent to, or sometimes even more than the cost of your bed for the night. Or a good square meal. Let alone if you have two or three. Which in constant company will often be the case. Do you want to travel longer? Or have a bunch more hangover anecdotes? Social life often is relatively expensive life on The Road and one more reason to cherish the choice at least of retreating into your shell if this is in the best interests of your travel aspirations.
So for the present time the preference for solo travel (though with frequent and enriching periods of good company on The Road) can be summed up merely as a vote with the feet for personal freedom.
(Moonstone) Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
Freedom in its purest form. Life struck one then two heavy blows, sometime ago, but in time an unsought after consequence of this was greater freedom for me. The privilege of the choice of freedom. And for a time freedom to choose to travel. (Thanks too for the encouragement sis!) Who knows but Life may yet strike more blows - positive ones this time - and Love etc could pounce upon me at any moment. At which point though my heart may expand as a consequence, my world, or rather my ability (and desire) to take in the world may shrink somewhat from that point on. Unknown futures and destinations. Enjoy your freedoms whilst you can.
A Solitary Scene (Reprise)
Anyway I'd best leave you be.
Mr S.G.Gunarathna who has worked for the Archeaological Service Department guarding Polonnaruwa's momunments for 34 years and is 1 year from retirement and pension :)
I noticed you yawning just then. I apologise. I notice now I've been rambling for quite sometime... as usual... and about little of any interest or consequence. Self-indulgent waffle. A Psychological Postcard intended. No more. G*d forbid, am I becoming a travel bore?! But you know, I don't get to talk to other people so often of an evening. Much neglected vocal chords of a quiet little music box anyhow, getting rustier by the mile. Perhaps. Talking to myself. 'A first sign of madness they say... or is that only when you answer back?' 'I don't know'
he says to himself. Ho hum. What shall we do now Muju? I smell the damp and look to my right. The man in the mirror still sat there, looking pensive and alone by the light of his laptop.
Buddhist Dagoba at Polonnaruwa
Wrecking his posture and eyes to L*rd only knows what end. He has the choice of engaging a literary voice, either God or James Joyce, but desires not their company tonight. But it's alright, for I hear an insect take flight ( 'Whuzzieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeuw...'
) and here comes a mosquito to make my acquaintance.
* Of course I shouldn't try to kid you (or myself) that I am impervious to feeling lonesome. But in more than 19 months on The Road so far I can honestly only pinpoint one period of time where I felt a little lost, fragile and in need of a good ole hug. This was whilst in Eastern Europe ( see previous entry 'Veliko Tarnovo to Bucharest : The Sunflowers' ) and I think there were contributing factors.
Time of course. I was approaching that major chronological and psychological landmark for all first time backpackers, One Year Away From Home. At this point I had also just spent one glorious month in the easy, comforting, sociable bosom of my Cypriot 'Second Family' and witnessed family life at its richest. The birth and first month in the life of my best friend's first child ( 'How's it goin' Little baby C?'
). Also what I call the 'gravitational pull' of my own much missed family. In Eastern Europe. Cultural familiarity. Geographical proximity. Just one cheap budget flight away from Home hugs, sugary tea and other luxuries. But that would have been an end to this story - a break in the narrative at least - and I didn't want that to happen, so I galvanised my heart (much buoyed by encouragement from the TB community) and plodded on.
.. and on... and on...
** Alfred Wainwright the legendary wayfarer, trekker and chronicler of the majestical English Lake District region who, legend would have it, or so someone once told me, would go to great pains to avoid fellow wanderers in the Cumbrian hills and dales (especially once his renown from his books and synonymy with the landscape were in the ascendancy) and would often turn his back to oncoming ramblers and feign taking a piss ‘au naturelle’ so as to deter and avoid the likelihood of being drawn into undesirable conversation.
*** One important exception I must concede here is if you wish to undertake organised tourism activities such as day trips in hire cars, safaris, boat rides etc at which point having the shared purchase power of a group comes in very handy. Occasionally it is essential. The only way to undertake said activity. So this represents one important example of when going solo can conflict with or slightly limit your travel aspirations. These situations though are rare. The only time I felt I ever really lost out by being a lone traveller was in the state of Sikkim in India where special (additional) permits were required to travel to many outlying parts of the state. Normally it’s as easy as anything to find a temporary travel pal or to graft yourself onto a group for such excursions but the time of year and weather conditions meant I failed on this one occasion to get where I wanted to go. Into the snow. Having someone to keep an eye on your bags whilst tacking off to find cheaper accommodation or whilst taking an impromptu dip in the sea or a river is also another example of when being solo slightly reduces your freedoms and options.