“Go alone” is the second entry in Paul Theroux’s “Essential Tao of Travel” list found on the last page of his recent book, The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road.
(I thoroughly enjoyed it, by the way. Theroux’s well-researched love letter to travel and the many travel writers who’ve influenced him is, if anything else, a portal into a world of timeless travel literature curated by one of the greatest travel writers of our day. My to-read list swelled considerably thanks to Theroux, though I do think he did his work a disservice by quoting himself so often in the early going.)
Before examining authors who never traveled without companions later in Chapter 9, Theroux first briefly elucidates his thoughts on traveling alone, with supporting sentiments from Jonathan Raban, Rudyard Kipling, and Henry David Thoreau:
I have always traveled alone. With the exception of large-scale expeditions involving a crew or a team, every other kind of travel is diminished by the presence of others. The experience is shared–someone to help, buy tickets, make love to, pour out your heart to, help set up the tent, do the driving, whatever. Such a person is a consolation, and inevitably a distraction.
These are hardly the only travel writers who champion the idea of embarking on travels alone without the “distraction” of companions; the great Pico Iyer is another. The challenges that solitary travel to destinations both foreign and familiar inevitably foster, and the uniqueness of a compartmentalized experience shared through the lens of just one set of eyes and ears, are certainly the bread and butter of many a beloved travel novel.
I do not refute the learned opinion of these prolific adventurers and writers, nor do I deny the heightened potential for personal growth and self discovery that disconnection on the road can create. I travel alone often, most recently living alone in and further exploring Bangkok for about a month, and enjoy the quiet stillness of personal experience and uninterrupted reflection. I know where Theroux and Iyer and countless others are coming from; I just don’t agree with the absoluteness of Theroux’s assertion, nor do I have much of a stomach for the somewhat haughty “badge of traveler’s honor” it implies.
Maybe I’m just fortunate to have a travel partner who greatly enhances the sense of place, and helps illuminate the adventure of experience, without distracting from it. Solo travel, in my case, is often best taken in short, sweet doses. It’s not the fear of solitude that drives my general preference for companionship on the road, nor an unwillingness to embrace that certain type of introspection afforded by isolation: it’s love, and yes, I do realize that sounds a bit trite. Oh well.
I’ve circled the globe a few times over during the past 5 odd years, traveling from Berlin to Buenos Aires to Bangkok and many parts between. To say my adventures were enhanced by my lifelong travel partner would be a gross understatement: they were in large part defined by her, and to me, that’s very much a good thing, not a detracting thing.
This fact has not encumbered my travels, nor do I feel it’s watered down my personal experience or the lens through which I processed the back alleys of Bangkok, the underground punk clubs of Berlin, or the food and wine of Buenos Aires. I don’t feel her presence has let me off the hook, so to speak, or made me any less of a curious or accomplished traveler than if I’d visited these places alone. The experiences, of course, would be vastly different. But better, more informed, less distracted? Nah, not really. Not at all.
Mutual experience is, in fact, one of the joys of travel.
Talking about the day’s adventures with an equally (or even more) open-minded and perceptive travel partner helps cement fleeting moments that might otherwise, sometimes, be forgotten. Shared travels are the building blocks of memory.
I find this is particularly true in destinations well-trodden. At some point experiencing the familiar, and tasting the already tasted, can become a perfunctory task carried out in meaningless anonymity rather than joyous remembrance. To have the opportunity, the luxury, of shared travels and shared experience with someone who knows and appreciates the same things is to truly celebrate and relish them.
In Bangkok, sweaty bottles of Chang are more refreshing and intoxicating; som tams are spicier; the wonderful, addicting absurdity of everyday life is magnified when she’s there. I’m not ashamed of this. I’m not a lesser traveler because of this; in many ways I’m a more enlightened traveler because of this.
Sometimes, shared experience opens doors in travel that might not otherwise be opened when we’re alone (the inverse, of course, is also true). I do not feel that physical solitude is an absolute tao of travel, or of great travel writing; it is one aspect of it and one approach towards it. In the end, we live a life of solitude. We are always ultimately alone, even when we are physically not.