I am alone in the back of a saungthaew, speeding through the countryside on the way to Surat Thani airport, having decided quickly to go to Bangkok for some reason. Smoking a cigarette out the back, my backpack looped around my ankle to prevent it from falling out and smelling the rice paddies and exhaust as the truck roars down the road and the evening turns to night.
Squatting under a pine tree watching the monsoon smash the ocean with rain in Khao Lak. Feeling like I am alone on the edge of the world. Sitting there for hours as the rain comes and goes, swimming and smoking and watching the world.
Floating in the ocean under a black velvet dome punctured by stars, unable to sleep and so out for a night swim. The moon lights the beach up like an overexposed black and white picture. Looking up at strange constellations, trying to figure out the map of the sky from my new vantage point beneath it.
These are some of the most vivid memories I have of traveling – more than visiting any sight or eating any food. Noumenal experiences burned onto my subconscious for the memory of near perfect freedom each one has left me with. The common thread with them all is that I was alone at the time of each.
I appreciate these moments when they occur more than a younger version of myself might. A young man has probably known nothing but freedom in his life. I first set out at middle age, aware of the freedoms only an open road can provide and after many years of feeling stuck in a career I had fallen into but wasn’t satisfied with. It was an escape that my younger self wouldn’t have relished quite as much.
I travel alone but I am not often lonely. Loneliness does occur though and is a price to pay for the freedoms I enjoy. When I experienced it abroad for the first time it redefined the concept of loneliness. There is being lonely and going through a rough patch in your home country and then there is being alone on the far side of the planet when something goes wrong in your life. But it doesn’t often occur for me and when it has, I have only ever viewed the experience as a transformative one; character building 101.
Another price to pay is that I am always saying goodbye to the friends I make when traveling. I am picky about traveling companions but the ones I do choose to travel with tend to become fast friends. I have particularly good luck with Portugese people for some reason. Anyhow, I am a firm believer that people who can travel together tend to have strong bonds. It is an excellent test of how much you have in common with someone – hit the road with them. So to be forming these types of friendships and then having them end repeatedly can be difficult. It is a true joy to travel with friends, the ideal and it can be very hard to go back to being alone.
But impermanence is the one constant in life and new people will be met, old friendships will be retained, the beat will go on. Those moments of absolute freedom are worth any short term downturn. The ability to experience a place in exactly the way you see fit, to live your life moment to moment, always exactly where you want to be and exactly with whom you wish to be (if anyone at all) is an almost superhuman state of existence. True freedom is a myth, there are always parameters and limits to it; reality dictates that no man is an island. But to come as close as I felt at those times I talked about above and on other occasions is a window into an ideal; a peak into Eden, a bite from the apple.
For me, to have experienced that saungthaew ride, and that storm and that starry night in the ocean were more powerful experiences than walking on the Great Wall or visiting the Colosseum. These moments are the juice of travel for me, or part of it at least. But it would have had to have been quite an accommodating companion to put up with a major u-turn or sitting on a beach in a storm; that person exists but until we cross paths I will gladly go it alone. The freedom is worth it.