The single biggest item in the ‘cons’ column when I was deciding whether to travel alone was loneliness. I couldn’t imagine the isolation of working alone, eating alone, going to museums alone, hiking alone, never even having lunch with a friend to look forward to, possibly for years!
Men who travel alone often talk about the joy of meeting locals, and being invited to their homes. A woman alone does not have that freedom. I can’t imagine a situation where a man might invite to his home and I would feel like I could say “yes.” And women don’t issue those invitations much; they don’t have a wife at home to cook for a visitor and clean up afterward. Besides, a foreigner is exotic. What sane wife invites an exotic single woman home to meet her husband?
Before I made my decision, I read the book Tales of a Female Nomad, knowing the author had traveled alone for years, to see how she handled the loneliness issue. She talked about the ‘traveler’s network’ she could hook up with in hostels, and also about friendships she formed by staying in people’s homes, or striking up conversations with vendors she saw every day near her apartment. I thought: Yeah. I can do that. So I set up my first home as a private room in a shared penthouse apartment.
First, though, I was alone in a tourist apartment in the Old Town of Cartagena for a week. It wasn’t hard to find the English-speaking waiters, bartenders, and street vendors. I made sure to visit the same places regularly, and each time they would engage in longer conversations. It wasn’t much, but it eased my loneliness a bit.
I’ve only been in my primary apartment for two weeks, but being in a shared space with housemates is wonderful. I hang out in the shared living area a lot (partly to be accessible, partly because it’s way cooler than my room!) The others come out less than I do, but we chat a little more each time and they are getting comfortable with me.
Traveling means that my friendships won’t be deep, or long term. They’ll be ‘single-serving friends’ as the Character With No Name calls them in Fight Club.
Here are the stories of my single-serving friends so far. It’s been easy and fun to get to know new people here!
My housemate Helen is from Providence Island. She has deep dark skin and a thick Creole accent; years of Hollywood programming make it hard not to assume she’s wise beyond her years and vaguely magical.
We started, as women do, by offering each other food. (I ate an entire apple, even though I’m allergic, just so I wouldn’t stop the flow of the budding friendship.) When she invited me to go to the mall with her, for dinner and some shopping. I was thrilled.
Helen plays in a reggae/calypso band. Her band was going to play at the Sofitel Santa Clara Hotel, just named the #1 hotel in all of Colombia, and she wanted me to come watch. It was sort of an audition for them, and she was nervous. When I said yes to that, she asked me also to shop with her for something to wear. Stage presence is my forté, so we spent an afternoon shopping.
Fortunately, I had the full support of the shopkeeper when it came time to talk her into a shorter and blingier dress than she had in mind. I couldn’t make out everything the shopkeeper said in Spanish, but I could decipher “Singer,” “Artist,” “Diva” and “Sexy” and then she strutted around, letting her hips sway and waving her arm imperiously. I just kept nodding my head vigorously and then reinforced the message in English. “You’re not going out for dinner. You’re taking the stage, Helen! You should look like the star from the moment you walk in the door. You’re allowed to dress a little sexier than the average woman when you’re onstage, as long as it’s classy.”
She bought accessories on her own, and before we left for the gig I dusted her shoulders and legs with body glitter. She loved it!
In the hotel lounge, I grabbed a good seat among the older tourist gentlemen and their impossibly thin trophy wives, and Helen joined me to wait for her band members. She seemed nervous, and I assumed it was about the gig. Then she said, in her heavy Creole accent, “I don’t feel like I should be in here.”
“I’m too dark.”
I told her to knock it off. “You are the singer with the band. You are the star! Every woman here wishes she was you. You are Tina Turner. You’re Lena Horne. You’re a Diva. Sit up, look relaxed, and smile. Strut when you walk. Own it.”
She laughed nervously, but she did it, and said “I am learning so much from you, Lauren!”
And I thought to myself how true it is that even the worst bigots manage to create space in their tiny brains for artists to be stars. It’s true for gypsies the world over, they are reviled by day and brought into restaurants to play the violin or dance by night. It’s been true since slaves were brought up to the plantation house to sing and dance. True for Josephine Baker, for Khayriyya Maazin, for Cab Callaway and Alvin Ailey. Lots of performers have graced stages in buildings where they’re not allowed to walk in through the front door.
What is this strange place performers have in society?
Anyway, Helen and her band rocked the house, and they’ve been asked back already! They may be playing a regular contract at this top-of-the-line hotel.
Afterward she and her keyboard player Adrian and I walked to Hard Rock for nachos and drinks. They were so pleased with my photos, I’ve been asked to come with them to a wedding performance at the convention center this Saturday to take more photos and videos. A local wedding! Another night out, with actual people! Score!
Even better, a friend.
Cameron is a very quiet young man. Making friends with him has been like befriending an uncertain cat. At first, we stuck to single syllables.
I didn’t push.
In time, he came out and sat nearby in the living room, each of us on our laptops. I didn’t make eye contact, speak, or do anything else he found threatening, so he stayed.
Soon we were exchanging info on where to eat, where to shop, and which coffeeshop has the best air conditioning and wifi for working. I mentioned that I wanted to go to the castle. He wanted to go, too, and soon we had plans.
We got up early on Saturday and walked to the Castillo de San Felipe. We explored the tunnels and turrets, ate ice cream, and walked back home again. He mentioned that he might like to go to the art museum, so maybe I’ll suggest that next.
I’m not sure José actually counts as a ‘friend’ but we are friendly. He’s a street vendor who works the area outside of my first apartment. He speaks a lot of English and would always try to chat me up on my way in or out of the apartment.
At first I thought he wanted something from me, and I was a little rude to him. Eventually I realized he’s just a chatty, friendly guy eager to practice his English (though he wouldn’t object if I wanted to buy an emerald ring from the shop he works with).
I go back to that neighborhood all the time to drink beer in the square, and José never fails to call out to me when I pass him on the street. So one day I invited him to sit with me and bought him a beer. We chatted about life and relationships, and he told me some of the crazy things he’s procured for tourists. (This blog is not the appropriate place to relate those stories!)
Then he asked if I’d like to go to a cockfight sometime. It’s legal here, I can take pictures and everything. SCORE! Now, I will probably be horrified by the cruelty of the thing if I go. But I’m not a vegetarian, and I have to admit that the chickens in factories at home would probably prefer the life and death of a Colombian fighting cock, given the choice. It might be hypocritical of me to eat a hundred Purdue chickens a year and then judge the Colombians. When you travel in foreign lands it’s best not to judge the culture, lest your culture be judged as well.
Anyway, Cameron is interested in the cockfight. So is my landlord’s wife, Tara, maybe. SCORE!