Much has been said about solo travel, and how it needn’t be lonely and isolated. That you would meet people along the way, travellers and hosts alike. And so, while you may start out solo, it wouldn’t be the case for very long.
This story is not about that. It is about a different way that solo travel turns out not to be solo. The realisation etched itself slowly over my recent post-Blue Period years, and sharpened into relief when I returned from my birthday mission.
The Birthday Ambition
One year ago, I decided that on my next birthday I would be on Easter Island.
Like India, Easter Island had long been on my bucket list, the mystery of its moai and its faraway location a beacon to the little voyager deep inside me. It just wasn’t at the top, because it was far and difficult (i.e. expensive) to reach.
But I decided, at the end of 2016, that in 2017 I would flip my travel philosophy.
I would give mountains a chance, even though I’m usually a coastal creature. I would go to the destinations that I saved for ‘later’ because they were ‘too hard’. And I would find out what happens, if I switched my mind around like that.
But in order to do that, for various reasons, I must travel alone.
The Discomfort – and Allure – of Solo Travel
It was not very long ago that I first tried ‘real’ solo travel, in Tacloban. As an introvert who also finds novel social interaction mentally taxing, it took a lot to get to that space. And I did not take to it immediately.
So I took a break. And the next time I tried solo travel again, was pretty epic – to Nepal and India. In between was, well, something in between.
But why did I not turn back after Tacloban, even though it was uncomfortable?
The answer to that lies in a particular quirk in my personality.
I’m not an adrenaline junkie. I’m totally cool with my limitations. I mean, it would take far too much for me to be a mountaineer for example, and I’m not really interested to invest in that.
Nor am I ‘addicted’ to travel. It isn’t the case that I am comfortable with the unknowns of solo travel, let alone crave it.
Certainly the uncertainty of new social situations is not – and probably never will be – exhilarating. I’m not particularly motivated by superficial advantages of picking up skills I don’t enjoy.
But I’m even less comfortable with stagnation.
What this means is that I would not pick up, say, hardcore cycling and all its paraphernalia just to fit into someone else’s life.
But if I am tempted to chicken out on open sea snorkeling to see whale sharks just because I’m afraid to find out whether I could… it may take me a while, and I would always appreciate support, but ultimately I would do it. I have to pull the curtain aside and find out. I have to find out who I am, and can become.
And so, in a perverse sort of way, I’m not comfortable unless I also feel the underlying discomfort of my evolution, because I know that the whole universe unfolds and is evolving too.
Maybe the Germans have a word for this complicated existential need. Surely it would be them, if anyone?
The Bugis Princess
“So how is the Bugis princess, returned from around the world?”
So my mother greeted me, when I came home from my recent Netherlands-Chile-Australia journey. She was referring to our seafaring ancestry – which I also alluded to in my pre-Nepal article. Most of mine came from her side, though my father’s side also has a substantial Bugis line. And while hers is not precisely a royal line, it wasn’t entirely far off the mark.
Perhaps this heritage explains my aversion to stagnation. After all, an archipelagic nation that does not explore runs the risk of being trapped on ever more crowded land.
The inconvenient child
This quirk to my personality is like the knot in an otherwise even-grained beautiful cut of wood.
It makes me sporadically take inconvenient choices, including sometimes ‘sabotaging’ my own successful trajectory. Just because things were feeling too predictable and safe.
When prevented and forced to achievements that are meaningless to me, I become sullen and unhappy – much like a caged tiger.
I know it makes me a frustrating child to have. It makes me only ‘almost’ the pride of the nation. I could have compared so well with other daughters! I might have been a high flyer!
Only, I could not confine myself into those boxes. I keep veering sideways when I could have kept going up. To the horizon, instead of the mountain peak.
My contrarian ways
It is this trait that drove me to specialise in environmental studies when I’m ‘supposed’ to have gone for medicine.
This, that made me suddenly and completely out of character, sign up for the navy reserves.
Also this, that made me choose Wales for my advanced degree – precisely because Bangor didn’t have a large expat Malaysian community. Or much at all.
It was also this that made me take the gamble of a cross-cultural marriage.
And through all my inconvenient choices, my mother tried to soften all the risks and the dangers – to protect me from hardship.
Except… that’s not how growth works. And my need for independence clashed often with her need for security.
A Line of Fierce Women
If I am ‘almost’ a high achiever, my mother actually is.
She didn’t disappoint.
As a woman, she logged many national firsts and personal over-and-above contributions – but I have to stop short of giving details. Suffice to say that she more than meets the fevered dreams of your average feminist, but without being resented by anyone for it.
And she did this from a starting point of great hardship. War is a great leveller of the fortunes of families.
Her mother before her was also extraordinary – teacher, activist, humanitarian, experimenter of ideas, early adopter of technologies, and probable spy (ok that last bit is just a family joke).
My female line is peopled with incredible women of knowledge, diplomacy, insight – both worldly and occult.
And one extraordinary man.
I can’t mention all this about my mother, without also noting my father.
My dad was… not.
Yet, recognising all of this, he was nonetheless not at all intimidated. And he did the most baffling thing. He decided that my mother was exactly the one for him. Even though – or precisely because – she was so awesome that she might even overshadow him in life.
Now I’m not saying guys don’t choose cool, awesome women. But one that might eclipse him? And then afterwards take no action whatsoever to restrict her to make sure that this doesn’t happen? My mother couldn’t even be paraded as a trophy. She is famously not into adornments and self-beautification.
It’s not to say that my father doesn’t have other merits.
But if I were to choose his most valuable trait, it would be this. Because it is the rarest trait in men – worldwide. This complete independence from the approval and admiration of other men.
And I owe my existence to it… because by the time my mother was of marrying age, arranged marriages had fallen out of vogue! (I cannot knock the culture of arranged marriages too much, because given the high occurrence of unusual women in my line, I am certain it is the main reason that my mother even exists in the first place.)
Although… on the other hand, having a father like that probably ruined me for the age I’m alive in.
Solo travel: Wind and Wave
Solo travel is different than other travel in that you are forced to change your mode outwards. You must reach out and depend on the hospitality of the host nation. You face uncertainties and risks mainly with only your own resources. In a separate article I touched a little on why this is generally less palatable to Asians.
So I knew that my solo travel this year was especially hard on my mother. Precisely because it is not the typical way that Asians travel – especially Asian females.
I also knew from other female travel bloggers that the concern is not limited to me. Loved ones left behind are often shrouded with insecurity. Rejection is frequently reported – which likely stems from the fear of losing one’s child as she moves away, and maybe changes.
And again, people seem to think there are only two options: stubbornly staying still and push away those who wouldn’t stay; or be resigned that you will probably lose everyone anyway and therefore should stay for no one.
What a lack of imagination and daring.
If we have no choice but to face a time of high winds, then make a sail – or a wind turbine.
And if change disrupts the tick tock of an old routine, then set it to music and – dance.
If you would only dance together – then you won’t lose each other.
The Unfilial Filial Child
And this brings me back to my homecoming, and the epiphany that came upon me at through the waning of 2017.
The conventional mindset of my people, especially given the blessing of having great and eminent parents, is that I ought to be grateful. This should be expressed through filial obedience and removing as much worry and discomfort from them as possible.
And since my independence and need for travel and growth was hard on my mother, the right thing to do was to leave such notions behind.
I did not.
I moved out, and I followed the flow of the universe out into the world. And I began changing, absorbing – growing. Understanding people.
It was a bumpy ride.
But gradually, I noticed that I began to need to ask beforehand if my parents were home, if I wished to visit. My parents may be away – perhaps also travelling.
She began to mention more people who did or knew of similar things as things I’m trying, rather than travel tales with horrifying ends. Her general approach grew more measured rather than defaulted to control.
Surprisingly, it appears that my demand for independence gave her independence as well.
Unexpectedly, it seems to be a good push to the task they already knew they had to do: be the first Malay generation to figure out a later-life identity, in this age of longer lifespans.
(Traditionally, the post-retirement life is to lie back and bask at the sight of one’s progeny. ‘Old age’ consists of being resigned to a slow, inactive, often sickly, wait for the end.)
My absence and my relative silence had to be filled. It’s really hard to do that when your favourite people go away. And it’s really hard to take their hand and dance, when you can’t feel their music through your worry.
It turned out, that my solo travels didn’t test me alone. Others were forced to change too.
2018 and Beyond
It is just as well that this is the case.
It is very likely I would continue to be inconvenient. I would probably never give my poor parents the ability to rest on their laurels, free from the discomfort of uncertainty.
But on the other hand, it means never to be mired in complacency either.
Each of the past couple years, I grew into the neglected spaces of my self at a speed I can scarcely fathom. The universe brings me to new things and situations, and forces me into a faster and more varied succession of choices.
I do not know which way I would go in the space of the next year.
It is a space of growth and exploration. It is an unusual, eccentric life for which answers must be derived from first principles.
By definition I am forced to become more comfortable with the possibility of making an error. Not easy for someone who hates getting it wrong, and who also – secretly – just wants to rest and enjoy a milestone stage for a while.
And here is the other solo travel epiphany.
My mother enjoys feeling needed. I know she took it hard when I demonstrated that I could live on my own – because it implied that I did not need her for that anymore.
But the thing is, any average woman can keep house and make meals, and deal with the routine responsibilities and chores of settled modern life. An extraordinary person is not needed just to repeat the standard solutions to generic problems.
But here’s the thing. My parents – despite appearances (possibly a form of camouflage) – are not average.
The irony is that it’s only by being released to venture into an uncharted, bespoke life, would I have the opportunity to need my unusual mother.
But mama, unfortunately this means, you too, will always have to bear the discomfort of evolution.