The Christmas season has come and gone, and to be honest, outside of interspersed mutterings of “Merry Christmas” from strangers, nothing about the holiday felt real.
I spent Christmas Eve hiking alone through the remnants of a recent forest fire along the dunes that trace the southern shore of the African continent. Emerging from the greenness of the fresh brush were thousands of blackened trunks, their scorched branches rising from the ground like the hands of corpses protesting their deaths, rejecting their burials. I found myself navigating a place that felt as conflicted as I do right now: the terrain striking a strange balance between life and death, myself happiness and sadness.
For Christmas I accidentally booked a hostel with no Wi-Fi, and in the absence of the connection to my friends and family back home, I felt lonely. I wasn’t 100% by myself, I found myself with strangers also traveling solo, or on working vacations, a pack of lone wolves, united only for the night, but I can’t remember their names now. I wasn’t even there for a full day. We braaied (grilled over a wood fire) on Christmas Eve and the next morning, I managed to sneak my way into a fully booked Christmas lunch that the hostel was hosting after some guests cancelled. I sat at a table and was joined by some others who were simultaneously on the side lines watching big local families enjoy their meals around communal tables. I ended up napping on a lawn for three hours and then caught a bus to the next town.
I don’t want to say that this is the first time loneliness has struck me on this trip, but I think being mostly by myself, without my normal distractions (everyone was at home with their families) these last few days has really made me contemplate it.
Ironically, I feel myself becoming more introverted despite my sense of loneliness. In some ways this lifestyle lends itself well to being social, but in others it can be vastly more challenging. Although there are always people around, unless I intentionally go for a solo hike, or distance myself from my residence, I must confess that it can be exhausting.
I’m tired of trying to make plans to do things with flakey strangers, of being forced to insert myself in groups of friends that have known each other for years. I find I’m less interested in talking to people because I’m tired of small talk. I’m tired of retelling my story every day to someone who is going to forget it in a week or less.
I went for a hike maybe a week ago with another solo traveler from France. She gave me her number so that we could share photos from the hike and said, “make sure you put ‘Table Mountain’ after my name so you know who I am. After all, I’m just this Thursday’s hike.” And she was right.
Yesterday I went for a walk along the beach in my current town, Jeffrey’s Bay, a small town turned surf mecca in the middle of the coast. As I strolled past families reclining on the beach, groups of children splashing each other in the surf, fathers teaching their daughters to fish, and couples playing catch, I realized that what I really wanted at that moment was a friend.
I want someone that I don’t have to explain myself to. I want to hang out with someone who isn’t forming their first impressions of me the entire time I’m in their presence, a friend who I can rely on when it comes to planning. I want to be around someone that is as comfortable with me as I am with them. I’m becoming more introverted because I’m tired of accommodating other people, of the constant need to be cordial, and the disappointment when the work I put in ends up being for nothing.
And in living this lifestyle, real friends are hard to come by. Changing places at least every ten days doesn’t lend itself to forming lasting friendships. I’m not saying it’s impossible. I have made friends along the way, but in that short period of time (for me often shorter), it is difficult not only to find people you connect with, but to have meaningful experiences that reinforce that connection because everyone is on their own schedule. Everyone has their own deadlines, and it’s hard to make them line up with the people that you encounter.
But despite this, I’m not entirely sad. I still wake up each morning elated in some unbelievable, exotic place, doing things that I never dreamed I would do. I would have laughed in your face three years ago if you had told me I would learn to surf in South Africa, or that I would mountain bike the Andes, or that I would play with a locals pet monkey in the heart of the Amazon on the same day that I saw my first dolphin swimming in that same river.
In many ways this isolation is the price I pay for the unrestricted freedom that I have in a world of people constrained by work, school and deadlines. But I still feel like it would be nice to shuck some of that freedom, and settle myself down for a little while. I head to Tanzania tomorrow, and I am hopeful that maybe I’ll do just that while I’m there.
Until next time,