Various Modes of a Woman Traveling Alone
At the end of 2.5 hours of ‘Into the Wild’, I was bewildered — to say the least — upon realising that the film wanted its audience to take the adage “Happiness is only real when shared” as its big lesson.
Visually, it was a gorgeous film. There are some tender moments that felt genuine but I hate how it promotes ‘meaningful aloneness’ as seemingly more noble than a middle class existence.
“Happiness is only real when shared” seems like a lesson too simple for such a high price to pay (with Christopher McCandless’ life), especially when during the entire film, he does not lack people who want to share the joy of life with him.
There was the old guy, who almost wept when asking McCandless to stay with him and be his son instead of continuing on to Alaska with its vague promise of life of obliviousness.
There was also the girl, played by a young Kristen Stewart, offering McCandless the possibility of love and strong emotional connection, only to be rejected because, again, Alaska. And of course, there was his family, his mother, who worried about him and wanted him to come home safe.
It takes a certain privilege (whiteness, maleness, middle class-ness) to think of aloneness and death as something to aspire to, only to consider at the last minute the possibility of how you might be wrong after all.
It wasn’t just McCandless’ selfishness (I’m referring to the portrayal of him as the film character instead of the actual person); the adage feel like a backhanded insult. As if any joy that I felt in my moments alone in my travel, due to circumstances, aren’t real.
What is it about male aloneness that makes it so desirable while female aloneness is seen as less so? What is it about male aloneness that is often seen as a heroic and poetic choice, while female aloneness is generally seen to have come from a lack of options?
I had planned on traveling to Vietnam and Cambodia alone before a friend wanted to join me. I had never travelled with her before, so in short, it was a disaster.
We travelled in different ways — I wanted to walk and mope around Ho Chi Minh City while looking at the architecture and the city’s piles of cable wires dangling dangerously. She wanted to take a taxi.
I wanted to get as far away from any mall in the vicinity, she wanted to go to one and shop. I wanted to stop in front of every building and take 50 pictures from the same angle, she wanted to get to where we were supposed to be as soon as possible.
She was all about our destination, I was all about my journey. We differed so much that ‘we drove each other crazy’ is a gross understatement.
I realised I wasn’t the best companion anyone can hope for, yet I still willed myself to get increasingly rude until I stopped talking to her.
We still weren’t talking when we got to Phnom Penh, where I was overwhelmed with emotion after seeing Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek killing field.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was an empty school building with empty classrooms that was used as torture rooms. I saw photos of hundreds of people with fear and worry in their eyes over how they will die (as their death was certain, only the way to it less so). I had seen piles of clothes and bones and shoes of those people.
And then I went to the place where they died, I saw their pile of bones and skulls, and listened to stories about how babies died after being held by their ankle, swung, and then bashed to a tree trunk.
In the tuk-tuk ride from the killing field back to the hotel, I was silent. It was too much violence to process in a mere 4 hours.
Frustrated from travelling with someone who can’t understand my mixture of sadness, rage, despair, and fear, I sent an email to a guy who I had a crush on.
He’s an avid traveller, an even more avid reader, and someone who, I assume, can iron away hundreds of confusion and feelings I have in regards to a nation’s history.
“What is it with the need to document pain and grief and violence of a nation? I ask that question, yet I am still in awe over Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s effort to officially document the pain and grief and violence in the form of a museum. Does Indonesia have something like that?” I wrote to him.
This was in 2008, when stories about what actually happened during 1965 has not entered national consciousness yet and was still a niche curiosity to some.
He replied that Indonesia has no memory over our past mistakes.
“Yes, we admitted that there are bad things from the previous regimes, but that admittance has never appeared in an obvious, official way. It’s more like saying, ‘Yes, we did something wrong in the past, but we did more good things than bad things’. We have a long memory on things we called epic, heroic, but we have such short memory on evil, rotten behaviours. But, isn’t ‘evil’ and ‘heroism’ sometimes depend on where we stand? Marcel Proust said, ”The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I hope you can find the truth in that. But if not, just enjoy your travel. It’s still much better than sitting still in one place for a long time, repeating the same life cycle over and over again.”
Obviously, he loved ‘Into the Wild’ and the portrayal of Christopher McCandless in it.
I thought about this guy again when I went to see Balzac house in Paris in 2009.
I thought about him when I saw Balzac’s pot of coffee that he used to make allegedly 50 cups of coffee a day. And I thought about how he will enjoy seeing the secret door that Balzac used to run away from his creditors who were asking for their money back.
I thought about sending him another email from my travels and about the existence of this place with all its trivia, but this was a time when most internet access was done through a desktop or a laptop and I had neither.
For years, I didn’t tell anyone about going to Balzac house, or if I did, I doubt they remembered it. I haven’t written about going there anywhere, except maybe for a couple of tweets, which severely lacked in minutiae.
Yet I still remember how beautiful, warm, and sunny that day was. And how tired I was from being unable to take a shower after an overnight bus trip from Muenchen because the youth hostel I booked won’t let me in until 2pm. But here I was, alone in Paris for a few days, excited and in awe over the city’s every avenue.
I thought (foolishly) that I was the only person who knew and enjoyed and visited Balzac house until four years later when I came across Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus in which she described visiting Balzac house with a lover.
Reading Nin’s passages, I felt my memory validated.
Yes, here was the garden, here was the secret door, she saw the rooms that I’ve seen too. But her memory of visiting the place of one during melancholic weather while mine was sunny.
Nin and her lover were met by a dour woman who opened the door for them. When I was there, it was an open tourist attraction, the door was opened, there was a guest book at the receptionist table even though the receptionist was somewhere else, though there was only two other visitors.
I wonder whether this was the first time Balzac house had appeared in a book.
My days of being alone in Paris consists of walking for 9-10 hours a day. There were too many things to see, too many things to stand in line for, and too much sophistication to be had.
I went to Musée Rodin, Musée d’Orsay, Musée de l’Orangerie, Centre Georges Pompidou, Versailles, Musée Picasso, ate Berthillon ice cream, and was about to walk and stand in line for the Louvre when I saw there was a complete Andy Warhol exhibition at the Grand Palais. So I ditched the wealth and pinnacle of the old world’s art for a Campbell’s soup can print.
Visiting Paris in June, in the middle of high season, I couldn’t stay at the same hostel for my entire trip. I had to change to two other hostels and carry my backpack in and out of the metro station, and haul it on to the third floor of the hostel using stairs.
It was heavy, but I preferred it to dragging a suitcase with wheels through cobblestone streets and up the stairs to the city’s surface after emerging from the metro.
I saw a tourist couple, the guy with a backpack and the woman with a medium-sized suitcase, walking through the city. The man walked easily while the woman had to stop several times because it was not easy to drag your suitcase through the streets of a city you’re not familiar with while finding the address of the ho(s)tel you will be staying in.
This was when all suitcases still use fixed wheels instead of the spinners one that modern suitcases now have, so the only way to carry it is with your arm stretched back. Your arm and grip will get sore after a while, so you have to switch hands, and you have to stop several times to lose that soreness.
I understand the feeling and frustration so well.
In my head I composed the perfect novel about the disillusionment of Paris as a city of love through a young recently married couple who spent their honeymoon in the city. In their trip, they’ll get into fights over small insignificant things with increasing frequency, and one of those fights will be about the husband’s insistence of using a backpack while mocking his wife’s suitcase for slowing them down.
The wife would wonder how she ended up marrying this impatient and unkind man.
It was only a partial fiction in my head, but ever since that Paris trip, I have always associated backpacks with self-reliance, because most of the time I will be travelling alone, I can’t afford to inconvenience or ask help from others in carrying my suitcase up the stairs from the metro platform.
Initially, I blamed this on being Indonesian or Asian or female (whatever that means), but then I came across this passage from Jessa Crispin’s The Dead Ladies Project in her chapter about London and Jean Rhys.
On the way out, there is a woman struggling with her suitcase. I recognise her as kindred. The men push past her, no one offers to help. I walk past as well, and then backtrack. “Do you want some help? I can grab the bottom and we can get it up the stairs that way.”
Her look of relief is immediate. “It’s heavy, you don’t have to,” but I already am. She was not there pouting, sighing, playing kitten with the men walking past, she was doing it herself, just not very well. “I can’t believe you stopped. None of the men stopped.”
I want to say, That is because you are doing it wrong, the needing help. You are not appealing to their patriarchal nature where they see women as helpless and in a constant state of distress. You are not flashing leg oh so subtly, your tear-filled eyes remain unbatted. But instead I say, “Men are awful,” and get her to the top of the stairs. I disappear back into the crowd.
I’ve prided in my ability in being self-reliant during travel and in being able to go to different places and cities in the world because of my own effort and/or money. But often I also thought about how easy it would be if I had someone traveling with me.
I remembered an incident in 2009 when I was in Copenhagen. It was a frozen December, right after a climate change conference that I covered ended up with a failed result. I was trudging through the slippery snow slush and wanted to sit down somewhere with a heater on. I realised that would mean more expenses in this expensive city, but I was miserable in the cold open air.
I found a chain coffee shop which was full, but then I stood in the line anyway. I ordered a no-frills cappuccino and waited for it to be made. But then people after me was already picking up their coffee order while mine showed no sign of being made.
I asked the barista in the pickup section why my cappuccino hasn’t appeared yet and he looked at me with a blank expression. I was wearing a veil back then and this was right after the Danish cartoon controversy of Prophet Muhammad, and the death threats the cartoonist received.
In the middle of my asking for my cappuccino (that I paid good money for), a middle age couple talked to me from the back of the line.
“You were standing after us. We haven’t had our coffee yet. You were standing behind us,” both of them take turns in saying.
The guy was half bald, dark haired, and short, just a bit taller than my 155cm height. The woman was taller, bleached blonde type with dark roots showing.
I looked at them confused because I saw them standing behind me.
“No, you were standing behind me, I was first,” I said again.
They debated me again, this time in increasing volume, turning us — me — into a spectacle.
“No, you were after me,” I said again.
I can feel my eyes darting in panic, trying to meet other people’s eyes that would corroborate my story, who would prove me right, but most people were just watching and looked at me strange like I was not a human being. Or they looked at me like I was a lying human being who cut lines.
Was I confused about where I stood in line? About where they stood in line? No I wasn’t. But who can confirm that I was right and not imagining things?
The couple said again, “No, we were first.”
Even the cashier didn’t step in because she couldn’t remember. The barista stopped making coffee because he needs to be sure who was first in line.
And in that moment, one guy who I later remembered looked a bit like Liev Schreiber shouted out, “No, she was first, and then you guys, and then this person, and me.”
All it took was this one (white) man validating my claim for the barista to hand me my cup of cappuccino that I should’ve received 10 minutes ago without an incident. He never said sorry about missing my order.
My eyes were hot, and when I muttered a thank you to the Liev Schreiber-look alike, I couldn’t look him in the eye because I can feel the tears welling up.
I didn’t want the stranger to see me crying.
I couldn’t hear what he said to me at first, but I caught, “…yeah, some people should just stick to their business. I don’t get why they have to get their nose in someone else’s business.”
I’m not sure that it was a matter of them sticking themselves in my business instead of them lying while also accusing me a liar, but I still feel grateful over this person’s action of saving me from further humiliation over something I hadn’t actually done.
I couldn’t imagine how embarrassing and painful the experience would be had he not spoken up for me. Maybe if I wasn’t traveling alone, it would be simpler and faster for me to prove my words against them.
I kept walking to where the waterfall is. I looked at the map again, amazed that these squiggly lines really do mean something. And that I was able to read and follow it. Right after that, I slipped.
I was okay. I got back up immediately but one particular fear instantly appeared. If I fell and got lost here, who would tell my mother halfway across the world?
I don’t have a local number, no one (not even my Airbnb host) knew I was here, and it had been 30 minutes since I last saw other people.
Probably that’s what a husband is for, so you can tell him you’ll be walking in a national park in the middle of the city in Brazil for four or five hours and if he didn’t hear back from you, he will be the one to break the bad news to your mother.
I realised that in numerous occasions during my travels, I had too many instances of wishing someone else was with me to make me feel less alone, so I’d have someone to share all these stories and fear and tiredness with.
Maybe McCandless was right.
But was it really okay to be in different European cities or in South America, or Southeast Asia, and think about men who don’t think twice about you? Will my mode of travelling always be this— of mourning the absence of something shapeless, of longing for an unknown stranger?
It feels like such a waste.
But, I argue with myself, are you just envious that you have no sexual currency to cash in? You, an Ugly Girl of Note? Because you will always be carrying your own bag, paying your own bills, you are just nasty about it because no one offers.
Maybe. But I have learned to recognise when the strength of someone I admire came to them parasitically, and I do not respect their methods. And while I might not be beautiful and soft and alluring, by now, carrying my bag across Europe, I am strong, and my methods of acquisition are legitimate, […]
Jessa Crispin, The Dead Ladies Project, London/Jean Rhys
As I was writing down my itinerary for Lisbon — a city I decided I wanted to go to after seeing some Instagram photos — I realised that this would be my actual first time traveling somewhere far, alone, with a ticket that I had paid for myself.
Usually my traveling alone came right after a conference I had to cover — whether it’s about climate change or development or death penalty—, and in the extra days before I had to fly home, I get to go to different places around the city. I have to make do with limited days and too many things to see.
But now I had one empty week in Lisbon that I had to plan for myself.
I went to see Sintra, a city that has too many castles and seeped so deep into my memory, I dreamt about going there over and over again.
In a rundown suburb of Queluz, just 20 minutes of Lisbon, I went to the national palace that looked like a mini version of Versailles with a completely empty ballroom. Aside from the guards, I had the palace all to myself. I tried to find my way back to the train station by asking directions and getting some in a language I didn’t understand.
I went to another palace in Mafra, that during its construction nearly sent Portugal into bankruptcy. But when I saw its grand beautiful library, I thought, maybe this was worth all the money.
I waited in the rain for the bus that would take me to a medieval village of Obidos, complete with its blue and yellow paint and castle wall. I regretted not buying Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet from there.
I went from one miradouros to another, looking at the view of the beautiful city from various view points, enjoying drinks at a rooftop bar, eating egg tarts nonstop, and drinking even more bottles of wine.
I had octopus with broccoli and carrot and potatoes for lunch in the lunch room of Confeitaria Nacional, one of Europe’s oldest cake shop from the 1800s. At least three male servers that brought me food in three different places in the city looked like a variation of Zachary Quinto.
When I was already there, I remembered reading a chapter from Sloane Crosley’sHow Did You Get This Number about being lonely in Lisbon. Of people speaking a language she can’t understand, of being followed by a strange guy until she had to end up taking photos of a chicken, of watching porn in a lonely hotel room.
I was relieved to have a different experience than Crosley. That loneliness was not my memory of Lisbon. I stayed in an Airbnb room with a balcony of my own, in an apartment owned by two doctorate candidates in social sciences, a couple with a lower and upper middle class background that eventually met in the middle. Like everywhere else in hilly Lisbon, I had to hike to get to their apartment in an area populated mostly by immigrants. But I could ask intelligent questions and get intelligent answers compared to Crosley’s experience of speaking through drawings in tissue paper with some people who went to clown school.
In terms of literary references, the closest thing I get to my mode of traveling in Lisbon was probably of a spinster in Barbara Pym novels — I became the unmarried ladies who enjoyed solitary walks, solitary meals, and unbothered by the prospect of doing so for the rest of my life.
One boyfriend asked me, why do you love Lisbon so much?
In my head I came up with the perfect answer, because it’s a city where I made a pact with myself that I would no longer question the absence of another, that alone will be my default mode of travelling.
But then again, I had messages blinking on my phone.
From one guy who said, “We’ll meet each other when you’re back in Jakarta, right?” and another one wishing me a safe return home.
So then, do I really travel alone?
I went to Yogyakarta for my birthday.
I slept in the overnight train and arrived sometime after 4.30am. The car picking me up is bringing me straight to Borobudur so I can be there at 6am, right when it opens.
When I got to Borobudur and climbed its steps, I can see the mist in the air. It was still quiet, cool, and beautiful. There were no signs yet of students in big groups asking for photos with tourists.
I remember going there as a small child, but I couldn’t remember whether I did the rounds, circling one level completely before climbing to the next one. Yet I remember passing through a hill of Chinese cemetery grounds near here and my cousin telling us to bite our tongue for 30 seconds until we passed it as a sign of respect. I’m not sure where she heard it from or whether that was true, but we believed her anyway and got a slightly numb tongue after 30 seconds.
I went to at least three more temples, and in an empty one, I walked around in the open, taking photos of rubbles, while muttering to myself, “I love ruins.”