Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Traveling Alone

You know how there are people who prefer to travel alone?

I, as much as I am attracted to the idea of being the independent, lone globetrotter, do not belong to this group of people. I do go places alone; to work, visit friends. But I am not the lone traveler type.

For a long period of time, I tried to play the part, however.

Example one: a few years ago I decided to explore Egypt on my own. I was visiting friends in Cairo, and thought to myself: while I'm here for the 20th time, I should totally take the opportunity to go and see Alexandria and Aswan too.

Because that's what a suave lone traveler would do.

Result: I arrived at the train station in Alexandria, lump in throat, feeling more abandoned and alone than ever before in my entire life, I think. There were no more trains back to Cairo that day, so I went and checked in at the hotel I had booked beforehand, notified the young guy in the reception that I would only be staying one night--not three--turned down his kind invitation to share his meal, and went out and took a walk along the Kornish. Alone in a sea of families that were taking evening strolls, children eating cotton candy, men sitting on plastic chairs placed on the side of the beach walk, drinking tea and eating roasted seeds.

The years add a certain romantic hue to the image in my head, but I know I felt utterly, utterly alone that day. Until two young Egyptian university students took it on themselves to keep me company, which made me feel approximately a hundred times better about the situation even though we hardly understood each other. We smoked shisha (well, they did), drank mango juice and discussed politics and religion with their broken English and my even more broken Arabic.

Alexandria's evening breeze was actually a nice change from Cairo's stifling diesel-scented heat, after all.

Example number two: when I first came to Palestine I spent the entire summer in Jenin. At the end of my stay here, I had managed to see Jerusalem, Bethlehem (barely), a Jericho hotel swimming pool and Ramallah (mostly alone actually) but I said to myself: Self, you can't go home without having visited Israel. I mean: independent woman, independent woman.

So I packed a bag and took a bus up to Haifa. Again, lump in throat, feelings of abandonment rushing through my system. I immediately thought: rebook ticket, go back to Palestine. Now. But Shabbat had started and I was stranded (everything stops working during Shabbat in Israel).

So I walked around on some street whose name I can't recall, and the next day I met a friend's friend who showed me around the city. Israel may have the sea of Palestine, but they never did adopt the local custom of hospitality and the Arab tradition of showing kindness to strangers on the street.

So you can imagine how relieved I was when I finally returned to the West Bank. But at least I had made an effort to see Israel too.

Example number three (all good things come in threes): last week I went to Istanbul with my (very lovely) boyfriend's mom. She has a clothing store and buys her clothes from there. Tarek couldn't come because of university, and his mom would be working most of the time, but once again I imagined I was an experienced, assertive single traveler and decided to go with her.

Going through Jordan was fine (if you don't follow my blog, you might not know that Palestinians can't travel anywhere unless they go through Jordan--Israel doesn't allow them to go through the Tel Aviv airport that is so much closer and would be so much easier to get to, if they only allowed them to). Anyway, Jordan was fine, but the minute we landed in Istanbul the feelings of abandonment set in.

I wasn't technically alone yet, but I hadn't factored in the I-miss-my-boyfriend part. At first I thought that I had become a very unindependent woman all of a sudden, but then I came to my senses and realized that it's only natural to miss somebody that you not only love very much, but also spend almost all your time together with.

It was the first time I was away from him longer than a couple of days, and I was experiencing the classic you-don't-know-what-you've-got-until-it's-(temporarily)-gone.

Then, after having spent a day and a half together with my boyfriend's (very hardworking) mom, I decided to go and explore the city alone.

I had barely left the office in the wholesale market in Osmanbey before I got lost in their very uncomplicated tram system. And with all the clever people who know to travel in pairs around me, tears of loneliness and envy suddenly welled up, one blink away from falling down my cheeks.

I was beginning to realize once and for all that I'm pretty lousy at playing the part of the lone traveler.

I got off at Sultanahmet at last, walked around because I couldn't not walk around, snapped some pictures of random rooftops, and swore to myself never to travel alone again.

Mosque rooftop and minaret reflected in puddle

The next day, however, I had learned the tram system, knew my way around (well, not really, but I had gotten into the Istanbul mood and was feeling more confident of myself), and actually started enjoying my trip.

Sure, I kept wanting to turn to Tarek to share my thoughts with him, and I kept texting him descriptions of random scenes such as:

"Honey, I just saw the Cup from which Prophet Mohammad Drank Water and Prophet Abraham's Saucepan!"

(Which I actually did. They can be seen at the Sultan's Palace Topkapi, together with the Cane of Prophet Moses, a rather impressive collection of small glass containers with gold inlays containing a hair or two from Prophet Mohammad's beard, and an even more impressive collection of golden locks and keys for the Kaaba in Mecca--one for each dynasty who ruled the Islamic world).

The morale of the story? Traveling alone sucks the first day, to be frank. Then you usually somehow find something that makes it all worth while--a friendly smile, mango juice, a way to understand the tram map--and it's not all that bad.

But if you travel together with the right person to begin with, you always have that friendly smile, the mango juice tastes so much better, and not understanding the tram map is just another adventure you share.

And that's why I'm not the lone traveler type.

Memo to self: remember this for next trip.

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1 comment:

Hani said...

Well written, Ruby. I, however, feel differently about this travelling alone thing. Here is why (a blog post from four years ago!)