Notes on Solo Travel
I was the last one to board the tour bus. As I made my way to my seat I noticed their curious glances up at me. I settled into a window seat and a few turned heads turned to look back at me. I smiled reassuringly. I was traveling solo. As the tour progressed from one Taiwanese attraction to the next their glances turned into stares.
A petite woman dressed in white walked up to me, “You alone?”
Her eyebrows raised, “No friends? No family?”
“No. Just me.”
“And you ok?”
“Yes, perfectly fine.”
She nodded, smiled and spun on her heels. She approached her group and reported on what I’ve said in Cantonese.
For the next few hours it would continue like this. One by one they came up to me and ask if I was ok. My enthusiasm waned as I felt I was in a fish bowl. Slowly, I even began feeling sorry for myself. I quickly shook that feeling off. I was taking a three day cruise from Hong Kong to Taiwan. Solo traveling is not new to me. In fact, it is my preferred way to travel. However, this was my first cruise. And I became acutely aware of being alone.
Solo travel sometimes garner pity. It’s as taboo as eating alone in a restaurant, or even seeing a movie by yourself. On a ship everyone sees your movements. So the feelings of pity are magnified. They see you eating alone, swimming alone, taking a walk alone, working out alone.
I missed English. I tuned into the ship’s only English station, which was a football (soccer) channel just so I could hear it. There was an aching loneliness gnawing at me that was unlike any other time I’ve traveled alone. This coupled with the fact of not hearing my language jarred me. You take hearing your own language for granted until you’re on a 2,000 tonnes cruise ship surrounded by Mandarin and Cantonese speakers and every activity on the ship and the tours is conducted in those languages.
We stopped for dinner and a feeling of dread washed over me when I saw the banquet hall. Where was I going to sit? Every table seated eight people. Since people were traveling with their families and loved ones, as the solo traveler I was the odd ball out. Where ever I chose I knew I would be interrogated.
Another petite lady dressed in black with a short hair cut brushed past me.
“Oh you’re by yourself! Come sit with me and my family. I’m Conee.” Her English was perfect. Her warm inviting smile beckoned me to their table. Conee and her family were from Singapore, however she and brother David, speak English. The rest of the family spoke Mandarin. As soon as introductions were made, David ordered wine and beer for the table.
As we clinked our glasses with choruses of “Cheers!” We seemed to be the only table having fun. David kept replenishing everyone’s glasses with Taiwanese beer and wine.
My plate was never empty for long, as Conee and her family kept putting bits of food for me try. “Try this. This is the best part.” They would say as I sampled tentatively. They were proud to share their Chinese food culture with me. It was my honor to be in their company.
“Diana,” Conee said breezily. “Join us on our tour tomorrow. No matter if you don’t get an English guide. I can translate for you.”
The next day I made sure I on their tour. When they saw me they chirped, “Nihao! Nice to see you. Hello!”
For the next hour I was prodded with an array of Chinese snacks. “Diana try this,” as they passed pickled ginger, rice crackers, dried prunes and roasted almonds over the seat tops.
This tour did have an English guide for me. She approached me and introduced herself as Edna. “I will translate for you today.”
“No need. We’ve been friends since yesterday, so I will translate for her,” Conee said flippantly with a smile.
Edna nodded and walked up the front to join the other tour guide.
At one stop, I was treated to a pineapple popsicle. I stood with Conee’s family in an intimate circle as we chomped down on our cold popsicles as the rain poured down.
If I wandered off during a tour stop they all waited for me. “Diana! Come on.” They chided with broad smiles.
I was treated like a part of this family. Strangers who I had met only the day before had welcomed me with open arms. My heart swelled with gratitude at their warmness and generosity. If they felt sorry for me, they never showed it. Conee’s family reaffirmed my belief in people’s innate goodness. I will never forget them.