Solo Travel Story from a City Host: Scott
(I am in awe ~ janice)
Allow us to introduce you to a Solo Traveler City Host! The City Hosts will hold a meetup or two each year in their home town, helping solo travelers to connect face-to-face. Over the next number of weeks, they will share with us a personal solo travel story.
Please meet Scott. He is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who has been traveling solo since 1981. You can check out his work at www.farawayeyes.org
1981: The world’s population is 4.5 billion; a postage stamp costs 15 cents; the first personal computer comes out; a year later, Scott Fahlman creates the first smiley emoticon. On February 18th I turned 26; on December 26 I left for my first solo trip around the world.
No sooner had we touched down in The Land of the Rising Sun than the sun set, like a rock; a two-nonillion kg rock. We’d been following the sun ever since leaving Seattle, just before lunch. At 47 degrees north latitude (Seattle’s latitude) the sun is “moving” west at 660.6 miles per hour. Once we’d reached cruising altitude and the smoking lights were lit again, the captain informed us that we were flying at 575 mph. Another eighty-five miles per hour and the sun would have never set. Ever.
It didn’t dawn on me until we were back in the air and headed west again that it was all going to be different. Except for the people on either side of me, I thought I was alone in the plane. With the seatbelt light still lit, I pushed up on the armrests and strained for a view in front of me, and saw no heads. I loosened the belt, strained higher, and noticed that everyone’s hair was black. Beside me. In front of me. Behind me. Black.
While planning for this trip I had imagined it might be prudent to stop in Bangkok for several days before reaching Calcutta, my final destination. From the time that I was very young, my maternal grandmother had referred to me as an “old soul.” My conscious decision to stop was to allow my soul to catch up with my body. Intuitively, I had my grandmother in mind, and the idea that an old soul might take even longer.
There is a Spanish proverb that states: “If a man would bring home the wealth of the Indies, he must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.” I am nothing if not prepared, nothing if not a researcher, but now – with 29 years of retrospection in my wake – I realize that research is a kind of map, and that as the Polish philosopher Alfred Korbzbyski said, “The map is not the territory.”
Standing on the edge of Sukhumvit Road on that first morning I knew who Shiva was. I knew not to eat with my left hand. Knew that bathing in the Ganges River would wash away a lifetime of sins (I also knew that bathing in the river might kill me.) What I didn’t know was which side of the road they drove on in Thailand.
Looking to my left I saw no traffic and I took my first step in Asia. Before my foot reached the ground I felt a hand grab me by the collar and pull me back. As it did, four lanes of Sukhumvit Road traffic roared past me from the right at warp speed. I turned and heard the Aussie who’d saved my life say, “They drive on the left side of the road here, mate. Think counterclockwise.” Though I didn’t realize it at the time, it would become my mantra for Asia: counterclockwise. Think counterclockwise.
Two days later I was back in the Bangkok airport. It was there that I met David. I don’t know why we gravitated to each other. It could have been that we were the only people who didn’t have black hair. Or that David’s hair looked like it had been cut with a bowl on his head (I learned later that it had), or that the soulless me was looking for guidance (I was).
David was a missionary and I followed him apostolically. Onto the plane, Off. Past a gauntlet of limbless children. Onto the bus for Calcutta. Off on Sutter Street. Past families living in cardboard boxes. A dead man in the street. Into the Red Shield Guest House. Onto my knees that night to pray.
By the time I woke up the next morning, David had gone.
In his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace relates this story:
In a remote bar in the Alaskan bush, two men – one religious, one atheist – are debating the existence of God. The atheist says to the other man, “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I’ve never experimented with the whole God-and-prayer thing.” It seems that two months prior, the atheist was caught away from his camp when a blizzard hit and he lost his way. The atheist fell to his knees and beseeched God’s help. The religious man suggests that his presence, alive, here and now, must be proof of God’s existence. “No, man,” the atheist said, “all that happened was that a couple of Eskimo just happened to come wandering by, and they showed me the way back to the camp.”
Heading back to my room after my first Indian breakfast – dry toast and chai – I bumped into a man with a small pack on his back on his way out of the door. I began to apologize profusely. He turned, faced me, and without a word, bowed, smiled beatifically and was gone. I remember consciously exhaling for the first time.
I had only two things to do that day – buy a train ticket, and cash traveler’s cheques at the bank. I smiled when I was told this would take all day. It did.
With my train ticket in hand, the two hours I’d already been waiting at the bank began to be a relief. I was overwhelmed on the street. The sensory overload that defines urban India was taking its toll, and the dry toast and chai had long ago worn off. To the rhythmic cadence of a battery of clerks stamping cheques I looked outside for the first time.
Across the dusk-laden street, on the second floor of a deserted, windowless, colonial-style building a man with a small pack on his back was walking slowly through one of the rooms. His head was tilted back, his arms at his sides, except when he raised his hands to his face and mouth, palms touching, as if praying, or looking at the roof of the Sistine Chapel for the first time. Turning slowly in my direction, I recognized the man I’d bumped into at the Red Shield that morning. His motions were slow and deliberate, in stark contrast to the chaos one floor below him, and in me. He moved like a feather in the wind. I began to walk with him, to float with him, began to see what he saw, began not to feel peace, but to be it.
I looked for him that night at the Red Shield, but was told he’d caught an evening train for Rajasthan. I wanted to tell him something, I wanted to thank him, but for what I didn’t quite know. But I know now.
Thank you for showing me that it would be OK. Thank you for your grace, for exhaling, for breathing deeply. For whatever length of time I needed, thank you for letting me be you. At that moment I needed to be you, for me. Thank you for never leaving me. Thank you for reminding me that I can be that for someone else. And I have.