Wednesday, February 17, 2010

One Hundred Hours of Solitude

Fellow blogger, Selena, asked me to submit a contribution to her blog and aside from being a hugely honored because I love the work she is doing over there, it might also have been just what I needed to help remove the giant writer’s block that has been clogging my head.

The premise of her blog is to deconstruct your high school self and kind of make fun of yourself (which is always good, because in high school most of us probably took ourselves way too seriously and couldn’t really laugh at our angsty dramatics). This got me thinking about high school and the feelings associated with being an angsty teenager, and then I remembered two things which went together in a thought like butter and bread: 1) I had not yet blogged about my recent trip. 2) I felt the high school angst all too recently, and it was acute, and it was unpleasant. And let me tell you, I am happy to be out of high school so I don’t have to feel it very often.

On our cruise, we stopped in various ports. I had this romantic idea about the ports that I would be able to walk around, explore, eat local fresh cuisine, chat with the people who lived there, find hidden non-tourist spots to explore. Unfortunately, when you set expectations you are bound to be disappointed. BF was scuba diving at all the ports, so often times he wouldn’t even come to the land at all, but instead tender off from the big boat to his diving spot. That left me many hours of a day in a foreign country (a developing foreign country, at that) to fend for myself. Being an independent and experienced traveler, I was not worried. Plus, the ship makes it easy to set up various excursions at each port. So, I picked excursions that seemed like something I could do alone -- for example, I wasn’t up for zip lining or cave tubing by myself, but some of the more mellow adventures would be fine for a lone woman traveler.

But “lone” really was the operative word. For 12 hours a day (8 on the excursion and 4 to fend for myself), I was alone. Granted, I was in a tour group (of mostly couples and their friends), but I felt very much alone.

I sat on the long bus rides alone. I ate lunch alone. I hiked alone. I walked alone. Full days of almost no talking, unless I was addressed by someone in my group, “Dear, are you all by yourself?” Yes and no, I would say. My boyfriend was scuba diving and that is a once in a lifetime experience, I would say, half reassuring myself. “Oh, that is very nice of you, dear,” they would respond.

In Belize, after a two hour bus ride, our group arrived at a remote Mayan ruin site. We toured the site a bit, and then were allowed to hike up a ruin. It was a pretty treacherous hike, so most of the people in our tour group decided to skip it (they were also much older and it seemed harder for them to get around). I, of course, hiked to the top. When I made it to the top, sweating and panting, I looked out over the vast jungles of Belize that seemed endless. I was alone.

There was something sublime about being alone on the top of a ruin. Something that made you feel important, like you knew a secret on this earth that no one else knew. And there was also something that scared you about being on the top of a ruin so high that your stomach dipped if you took a deep breath, and you felt like you had to take little breaths or you might lose your balance and fall away.

And in my little breaths I looked around for anyone who could witness this too: just one more person to share a real moment with, just so I could remind myself that it was all happening. Someone to give me a little wink or a nod to signify that though sublime and scared, I had been here and I had felt it -- and someone else had felt it too.

But I was just alone.

So, I climbed silently down the ruin. My head felt light from altitude but my heart felt heavy with loneliness. About halfway down the descent I saw a young couple climbing up, they were breathless too but they were laughing and talking to each other in thick Irish accents. My spirits brightened a bit and I asked, “May I climb back up with you and ask you to take my picture?” The said yes, and I climbed back up with them, they snapped my photo and I climbed down again. I heard the girl cheering about being on the top of the world as I climbed down, and I heard the boy laugh, and I imagined them twirling together, arms out, heads up, with their eyes focusing on the nearly touchable sky. I held back burning tears.

Later that day our tour group set up camp (we were in the jungles after all, we needed rest and repast) and we had a few hours to spend at camp before we jumped on a jungle boat through the rainforests. At the camp I walked around for a bit, collecting various sized walking sticks before drawing in the dirt with the shortest ones, and then I sat some more. Others in our group napped with their spouse/partner in large hammocks, or hiked around two by two.

I ate my lunch at that camp, sitting alone in the sun at the end of a makeshift gangway, my legs dangling so close to the water that when the wind blew I could feel the finest spray. And I felt the loneliness again. This time, it was something even more tangible than the loneliness I felt on the top of the ruin. It was as familiar and painful as a chronic ache.

My legs were still dangling, but this time I was sitting on a toilet seat, fully clothed, with no intention of using the facilities. A sandwich in a zip-lock baggie was on my lap: mayo, turkey, cheese, wilted iceberg, a tomato, and soggy wheat bread. Next to me was a brown bag with warm string cheese and a warm yogurt. I was wearing a shirt-style sheath dress made of shiny silver fabric with flowers on it, and white, platform tennis shoes. I felt so confident when I put on the outfit that morning, but in the bathroom stall of my new high school I felt only small and alone.

I chose to start eating in the stall after spending a few lunch and break periods sitting at a cafeteria table alone. No one talked to me, no one included me, and aside from the occasional pitying stare from a classmate, everyone avoided me. So when the lunch bell rang and everyone filed to the cafeteria, I would divert from the crowd to the girls’ bathroom that was located closest to the cafeteria. I liked the close-by bathroom because from my stall I could still hear laughing kids, so I felt both connected to possible kinship and wholly reminded of my loneliness. When the bell would ding to signal the end of lunch, I would wipe my tears, take a few bites of string cheese, flush the toilet for good measure, hold my head high, and exit the bathroom stall like I was a queen.

On the cruise, each excursion at port felt like a ringing lunch bell -- a stinging reminder that I must brace myself for a day of loneliness. But it was almost worse on my trip because I wasn’t confining myself to a bathroom stall, and it wasn’t just teenage gossip that I was missing out on. Instead, I was exploring ruins, hiking, boating, picking wild mini-plums from a rainforest and then eating them, and seeing amazing things like iguanas the size of dogs walking freely down the city streets. But I didn’t have anyone to be able to share these experiences with. The same feeling as the 15 year-old high school bathroom stall queen, but a little more complex and a little less insecure.

Though I don’t keep in great touch with my friends who studied abroad with me in Madrid, I know how to reach them, and I send them well-wishes via Facebook whenever I can. And they are so important to me because their existence reminds me that when I was in Spain, I really lived. I lived life to the fullest, I climbed to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, I saw my favorite band at the tiniest venue in Madrid with about 20 people present, I spoke Spanish moderately well, I lived in a beautiful apartment, I stayed up all night in Italy and drank sangria every night in Spain, and I took in everything and never took any of the experiences for granted. I was there. And I have a handful of friends whose very existence, regardless if I talk to them at all or not, reminds me that it was not a dream.

In Central America it wouldn’t have been safe to walk around as a woman alone, with not a soul knowing my whereabouts. So, I couldn’t explore much, I couldn’t venture into non-tourist places. Instead I took long bus rides, tuning out chatter and staring or sleeping. I took long walks in contained ports while singing to myself, drew in the dirt with sticks, foraged for berries, visited wild monkey sanctuaries, and made sand-angels on perfect white beach sand. I toasted to myself and drank a stout Belikin Belizean beer at a bar alone, making a mental note that it was hoppier than most stouts, but was still delicious. Though the memories I had were wonderful, they were always tinged with an underlying sadness that was laced with memories of warm string cheese and tears.

But, the show must go on, and the queen always leaves her throne with her head held high. If anything, from my trip I remembered an ache I am not used to, mostly because I have the most wonderful BF. I am grateful that because of him I usually always have someone who would save me a seat at the proverbial cafeteria lunch table. Maybe I took the comfort of partnership for granted, and the fates wanted me to feel that tangible solitude again. Not the most pleasant lesson, but one I can grow from.

Oh yeah, and next time I go on a cruise, I am inviting all of you. Then BF can scuba dive and someone can twirl around on the top of a ruin with me.


  1. Mars, this blog post made me feel sad. I'm not sure I would have drawn the same conclusions that you did. You really are an "instrument of peace" as you say...Maybe you and BF should take separate vacations because it sounds like you kind of did anyway.

  2. we should travel together!! the boys can scuba and you and I can explore!!


  3. Mara...I LOVED how honest and raw this post was. It was so nice to take such a vivid peak into your life. Whether the experiences bring happy or sad emotions, I'm glad they are shared. I think that everyone can truly relate to times of loneliness. I remember that Mother Theresa use to say that the worst thing to suffer from is lonliness, so if we want to change the world today...go befriend a person who is solo.

    I think your trip helps you (and us readers) renew our perspective on the value of companionship. We can take it for granted at times, but it is a vital source of nutrition for our spirit. Fabulous post!!!!! I look forward to hearing more stories from you:)

  4. I definitely know the motivation to experience and enjoy something when its being shared with friends. The times I've roommed with some of my best friends, everyday was a blast. Yeah, sure, there's nothing keeping me from going on that hiking trip alone, but it seems like a waste on just myself.

    Conversely, the couple times I actually lived with a GF... it was more like having a live-in, corporeal conscience that rearranged my closet. So, mad props to you for being able to let him go have his dream-vacation experience. I think part of being able to value companionship is knowing when not to grasp on to it at the cost of your companion, no matter the nature of the relationship.

  5. This is the Mom speaking... I know that feeling too. I used to say to myself (rather wisely, I think...) that you are born alone and you die alone and you are lucky if you find someone to share moments in between. Somehow that made it all seem better, since it was really all about the HUMAN CONDITION and not just my little life. I also travelled alone quite a bit, you know. Knowing that I could be alone and manage made me a stronger person, which has been really helpful along the way. Enjoy the moments with people you connect with and realize that on this trip you touched on something important... Love you!

    Your Mother...