Monday, January 20, 2014

Traveling solo: The good, the bad, and the ugly

As I find myself saying over and over again, it's been a crazy few weeks.  I last blogged from San Francisco and now I am writing from the north of Thailand where the traveler's scene is ripe with stereotypes of its own kind.  You might ask, why am I here?  Well, after a lot of contemplation, a prolonged period of indecision, and a hell of a lot of emotions, I made a really difficult (but exciting) choice to officially separate myself from being "Allison from GA" and accept a new job opportunity in Hong Kong.  It was, as expected, extremely difficult to step away from a team and a community that I spent the last year and a half of my life pouring my heart and soul into, but in a way that's why I felt I had to do it.  After surviving several separations of a more personal flavor last year, I felt like it was time to actually make my own life in Hong Kong, and not just one that was inextricably tied to my job.  Ultimately, I'm not sure how intertwined I want those those two things to be - of course I see my job as integral part of my identity, and I want to always (or as often as possible) be in love with whatever I end up doing… but there's got to be some sort of healthy balance out there, right?  Maybe not.  Anyway, I'll still be working with startups of all kinds, and as the second member of an angel investing team I will very much continue to be an entrepreneur myself.  

I knew this change was going to be a doozy so I decided to get away from Hong Kong for a bit to clear my head and physically force myself to disassociate from work.  As much as I'd love to be able to finish up my duties and then hit the mental and emotional reset button myself, I'm just not that strong and I'm okay with that. I chose eight days in Thailand because the weather is ideal, it's cheap, and it is generally safe to travel alone.  The last one is big and is both figuratively and literally my biggest challenge for this little adventure.  

I've done a fair bit of traveling in my adult life thus far, but it's always been with a partner or friends.  This is a completely different story.  Of course there is the element of physical safety to consider; where and when can I wander around alone, when to talk to strangers and when not to.  But what's more is that especially at a time where I'm finding myself unnervingly scared of being on my own - without a relationship or a job to define me - traveling solo is simultaneously intimidating and liberating.  There is absolutely no one to answer to, nobody to compromise with, nothing keeping me from doing exactly what I want to do and when I want to do it...  Or so you would think.  It's only been a few days so far but I still have some thoughts to share on a few interesting positives and negatives about my experience traveling alone so far.

First, the good:  You get to pick where, when, and how much to eat or drink at all times.  If I want dessert for lunch or beer with breakfast, I can.  I can plan as little or as much as I want to.  I can plan, then decide I'm feeling lazy, and not follow through.  I never have to wait for anyone.  I can sleep as much or as little as I would like.  I can walk as fast or as slow as I want to.  Nobody is nagging me to wear sunscreen (I know, I know, I should).  If I mess up the directions and end up hopelessly lost because I thought I recognized some sort of landmark but turned out to be wrong… it doesn't matter!  Love it.  

But then there's also the bad:  Things are more expensive because you're not splitting things with anyone.  If you forgot something, you're shit out of luck because there's nobody to borrow from.  If you order dessert, there's nobody to share with to prevent you from eating the entire thing. If some weirdo asks for your phone number, there's nobody to step in and deflect.  You sort of always have to be looking over your shoulder to make sure you're safe, and when night falls, there are real limitations on where you can go alone.  In fact, I find the evenings the most difficult anyway.  Especially when you see couples and friends joking around everywhere around you, it can feel a little sad, even a pinch pathetic to be sitting at the dinner table alone.  Though, I have to say, as a loner you find yourself doing a lot of high quality people watching and a good 80% of people eating together are just on their smartphones not talking to each other anyway.  

This leads me to the ugly part, and it's not just that I'm not wearing any makeup at all.  No, the ugly part of traveling by yourself is the fact that you also actually have to be with yourself.  If you are still reading, then you probably have read my blog before, or you know me and you are aware of the fact that I can be a rather intense person.  I think a lot, feel a lot, question a lot and it can frankly be quite exhausting.  I have a newfound respect for anyone that has spent a good deal of time with me because I can be really fucking annoying, so thank you to anyone that has stuck around for awhile.  Sure, Thailand feels exotic and far way, but there's absolutely nowhere in the world I can go to escape my hyper aware and overly analytical self.  

To first paint that in a constructive light, I can't help but view this all as a mini experiment.  In my little quest of "getting started" and seeing what I'm really all about, I am eager to place myself in completely new situations and see what happens.  What choices will I make, how will I react to things when I have no other limitations to consider?  It's a laboratory for self that I hope will help me understand myself better and allow me to make better and more deliberate choices about how I want my life to be.  As I observe what I really want to see and do, what kind of traveling I enjoy the most, it's sometimes fun to listen to where my cautious, type A, planning and list obsessed self ends and where my adventurous, spontaneous, romantic self begins.  They're always battling and sometimes I really don't know which side will end up winning.  

However, I am also finding myself stuck in an endless spiral of comparisons.  Having primarily traveled with others previously, I am constantly comparing my preferences with and without other people around.  Am I choosing to do something because I really want to or is it in reaction to what I did in the past?  This also applies in a larger sense as I am finding I have a lot of subconscious guidelines for myself for "how I want to be" as a traveler and as a person.  Though I purport to be out here "figuring myself out", "on my own", and "listening to what I really want", that's also a bunch of bull shit.  In all honesty, I know very well how I would like to be, and I can paint a pretty good picture for you about what I would like to discover.  I'd love to have this amazing vacation on my own where I come back newly confident in the fact that my self awareness is a good thing, that I am a fearless, independent, friendly, mindful, thoughtful, appropriately adventurous, and open person.  I'd like to find myself writing, engaging with the world in new ways, truly relaxing, and relishing in every moment.  If that's who I figure out "I am", I'd think that person is fucking awesome.  I'd want to be friends with her.  She sounds cool, right?  

Unfortunately, that's not exactly what I'm finding.  Nope, I'm still pretty damn scared of actually listening to my seemingly endless stream of anxious, stupid, fearful, sometimes judgmental thoughts.  Even in Thailand, I am finding it kind of difficult to meet other travelers (except for one overly persistent and creepy Russian gentleman) so I guess I don't give off such friendly vibes after all.  Plan-less evenings make me nervous, sometimes I feel like staying at home instead of venturing out, I have barely cracked open a book, I keep checking my email, and I still don't feel totally relaxed (obviously).  Indeed, there's a lot about me and my experience that I'm not so proud to admit and feel like insurmountable impediments to me being "the real me" - or at least the version I'd want to hang out with.  Even on my own, it feels like I'm still traveling with someone else - the actual real me, and the me that wants to be a certain way.  So it turns out that even when I'm alone, I'm still negotiating with someone else.  Whoever at some point in time threw their hands up in the air and excitedly exclaimed, "I have nobody to answer to but myself!" forgot to mention that "myself" actually counts as someone to answer to.  Go figure.

So anyway, in conclusion, as usual there is no conclusion except that traveling solo is every bit as hard as I thought it would be.  I guess the point of all this "getting away" and "relaxing" business may seem like it is to "figure out what kind of person you are", but maybe that's not the point at all.  Maybe the point is to embrace the good, the bad, and the ugly so you can be with your actual self, and see what happens.