The dust has just settled on my recent three and a half week trip to Asia: an adventure that took me from remote monasteries in Bhutan to the mountains of the northern Philippines via the flyovers and temples of Bangkok. It was a richly eye-opening trip that delivered on many fronts, both personally and professionally, but the overriding feeling that seemed to dominate it was not one you may expect.
Solo travel is a powerful way in which to see the world but the life of a jobbing travel writer can be a lonely one. And I’ve never felt it more acutely than on this particular trip.
Travelling for pleasure is not the same as travelling on assignment, where the pressures of delivering a decent article and the expectations of an editor loom over you like the darkest of clouds.
Having toured the sights and hiked the mountain trails most mornings, I found myself with long spells of inactivity in the afternoons. Furthermore, some of my (near-empty and rather basic) hotels were situated in places with very little to see and do nearby. WiFi saved me from insanity but thoughts, inevitability, drifted to those whom I hadn’t seen for weeks and months.
I found myself longing to be back home, doing normal everyday things that so many take for granted: having a cup of tea with my mum, sitting in the pub with my friends or going to the cinema and I felt guilty, ashamed even, for feeling such a way. I was on the move almost constantly, which left me exhausted and swamped with work that had me riddled with stress and craving a conversation of substance with someone I actually knew. I updated my Facebook status: ‘Sad. Tired. Lonely. Can’t wait to come home.’ Within seconds my phone started beeping and flashing as though it might explode with messages from friends concerned at the uncharacteristic admission.
But even at home it’s easy to feel lonely. The short spells I have in London – sometimes just a single night – are often spent in solitary confinement, desperately trying to meet deadlines, send pitches and deal with edits that come in before unpacking and repacking ahead of another assignment. It’s a good job I enjoy my own company.
Of course, the vast majority of places are an unbridled pleasure to explore on your own but others tap into darker and more subdued feelings that lurk deep within.
Some years ago I visited Japan in midwinter. It was my third time in the country, a place that thrills, intrigues and excites me like no other, and this time I decided to venture north to the blink-and-miss-them onsen villages dotted around rural Tohoku.
Without even a guide to keep me company, I spent eight days travelling on public transport from one tiny community to the next, staying in traditional ryokans run by lovely families who didn’t speak a word of English and enjoying steamy and silent dips with strangers in age-old onsens. Towards the end of the trip, I was the sole occupant at a sprawling monastery hidden deep in the mountains. The entire complex was so bitterly cold that I was confined to my room (cell) with its futon, paper walls and wheezing electrical heater.
I left a day early and journeyed back to Tokyo, where, upon checking into my hotel got into a rather strange exchange. The person next to me in the queue made the grave error of asking for the time and I suddenly realised I hadn’t actually spoken to another human being for more than a week. The words came firing out like a machine gun. A million questions a minute. His eyes widened in horror and the poor chap made a hasty exit.
So, while it’s certainly true that travels allows you to meet the most extraordinary individuals - and you meet more than your fair share of those as a travel writer - sometimes the people you really long for are the ones you’ve left behind.
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