To Go Deep, Go Slow & Solo
“It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others.”
— Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
Five years ago, I went through a quarter-life crisis. (First world problems, I know). I didn’t need to purchase a red sports car to reclaim the youth I’d left behind, because I was (am?) still young. Instead, I bleached and dyed my hair pink — far more subtle than a sports car, eh? It was a reminder that I can still surprise myself, take control, do something unexpected and different from what had come to be associated with and expected of me. It was a small rebellious act to dissociate myself from the societal roles and responsibilities I’d unwittingly picked up along the way.
I was a couple of years from turning thirty, an age I had previously regarded as “old,” and now that that was within earshot, it forced me to reevaluate and reexamine my life lived thus far. At thirty, I’d lose the “young” in young adult. At thirty, I would no longer be able to disregard the slew of responsibilities I’d artfully put off during my twenties without some contempt or scorn from society. At thirty, every decision would be weighted more heavily than before. Whereas in my twenties, it was almost a prerequisite to give into short-term satisfactions and choose according to what I wanted “right now”, in my thirties, I would come to bear the consequences of some of those choices.
That year was filled with restlessness, uncertainty and anxiety. Thanks to a roster of daddy issues, my life had always revolved around men, for better or worse. By 27, I’d been a serial monogamist for a decade, and because I never learned how to be independent in a relationship, I’d neglected to do all the things I had wanted to do as a young woman. I’d never lived alone, I’d never traveled alone, I’d never had a one night stand, I didn’t invest time into my friendships or into a community, the list goes on.
My greatest strengths had always been my adaptability and go-with-the-flow mentality, but these are not without its drawbacks. Because of this, I always took the passenger seat when big decisions were made, even those that would impact my life. I figured since it was easy for me to adapt to a new environment or situation, I’d let my partner decide where to live, travel, eat or drink, and even whom to befriend. At the time, I thought this was a kind, giving act, but I know now it’s never kind to give someone else the steering wheel of your life. The excitement and novelty might last a few years but it wears off eventually. When it does, you come face-to-face with a life you did not choose, and too often, you’ve become someone you don’t particularly like.
That’s what happened to me. I was ready for a paradigm shift in perspective. And for once, I wanted to call the shots.
So my first rebellious act was to dye my hair pink, and then blue. The second was telling my boyfriend of almost four years that I wanted to move out and live alone; we broke up shortly after. In the months that followed, I quit my job, reinserted myself (however unsuccessfully) into the dating scene, invested time and effort into friendships old and new, accepted an offer for a dream job and met Mr. Right. Yet, the most transformative and empowering decision I made that year was not any of the above. Instead, it was a solo backpacking trip to Cambodia which set in motion the domino effect of knocking down all which no longer served me.
“To walk out of our houses and beyond our city limits is to shuck off the pretense and assumptions that we otherwise live by. This is how we open ourselves to brave new notions or independent attitudes. This is how we come to know our own minds.”
— Michael Harris, “The Benefits of Solitude”
Maybe you’re rolling your eyes at this point thinking ugh, there goes another privileged girl who embarks on a less riveting, abridged version of Eat, Pray, Love!I won’t try to convince you otherwise, but I’d personally prefer not to shape my own experience to someone else’s, even if that person is portrayed by Julia Roberts.
While I had traveled a fair amount before this, those trips had been spent in company of a significant other, friend or friend of a friend. They also attempted to cram as many places and activities into the span of two to three weeks as possible. The subtle difference of traveling slow and solo had such a profound impact on my life — it was revelatory — more empowering and edifying than the time I took LSD or when I sat in an ayahuasca circle. I think it’s because the experience was grounded in this dimension of consciousness, in this reality. Everything I gleaned was relevant, timely and directly applicable and actionable to and in my life.
The clarity with which I remember the details of that trip still astounds me. From the preparation leading up to departure day to departure day itself: researching the “best” backpacking backpack of 2014, experimenting various packing hacks so I could squeeze as many non-essential comfort items in as possible, creating a loose itinerary with plenty of white space left for spontaneity, contemplation and idling; the bittersweet feeling of leaving my then-boyfriend in the morning, catching my reflection against the darkened glass window of the subway with a colossal, over-packed backpack, the quickening of my heartbeat as the low rumble of the jet engines signaled take off. How free I’d felt in those moments! A near-perfect cocktail of nerves and delight that only became sweeter as the trip unfolded.
“The soul of a journey is liberty, perfect liberty, to think, feel, do just as one pleases. We go on a journey chiefly to be free of all inpediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind, much more to get rid of others.”
— William Hazlitt, “On Going A Journey”
I am reminded of something Esther Perel has proposed in her quest to understand why even those in happy, healthy relationships commit acts of adultery. “The quest of the unexplored self is a powerful theme of the adulterous narrative, with many variation,” Perel wrote in a piece titled “Why Happy People Cheat” for The Atlantic. She found that for many, an affair is a form self-discovery. Much like Hazlitt’s quote above, it’s not that the individuals having the affairs want to leave their partners, but rather, the people they have become. It’s this sense of a new (or renewed) self — what the person experiences in terms of growth, exploration and transformation — that is so enlivening.
And that’s exactly what I experienced on that first trip alone. I had an affair with myself, and I felt really, truly alive. My senses were awakened and reinvigorated. Like a snake shedding skin, I shed the roles of girlfriend, friend, daughter, colleague, manager, Chinese-American, and along with them, the expectations and responsibilities associated with each. To quote Daenerys Targaryen, it was a way to break the chains of modern society. Laid bare underneath it all was a version of me that had been dormant all this time, neglected and forgotten about. Finally, she was free. Finally, she was becoming. And I loved her.
To be clear, this wasn’t escapism. I wasn’t running away from reality in hopes that a few weeks of solitary travel would resolve my problems back home. Rather, traveling alone afforded me the time and space to sit with those problems, to let them marinate, so I could reflect and contemplate on them without distraction, without being influenced by others. It removed me, however temporarily, as the leading actor in my own life, and placed me in the audience so I could watch the film unfold from a third-person’s perspective and critique my role and performance impartially. It was, in some ways, meditation on steroids.
The exhilaration and thrill I felt during those few weeks, I imagine, is similar to what many feel in the throes of an affair — a resurgence of confidence, independence, desire (not necessarily sexually but a renewed zest for life). It was a process of self-discovery, excavation, recovery, and upon watching the film of my life play out a few times, it became clear where I’d diverged from the script, where I’d checked out and what needed to change.
The people I encountered along the way presented me opportunities to trial-run being the person I aspired to be when I returned home — curious, considerate, confident. Eating alone ignited a sense of independence; it taught me how to observe, how to be, and eventually the discomfort and loneliness gave way to solitude and even joy. Planning and coordinating my own travel and activities were not only empowering, but it taught me to trust myself. It was during this trip that I learned to say no, to listen to my inner voice, and that subtle change has made all the difference.
For someone who gets easily caught in the current of life, who has a compulsion towards meeting and exceeding expectations, whose adaptability allows her to quickly fall into the roles and responsibilities proffered by those around her, so much so she often loses herself in the process, slow, solitary travel was (and still is) a much needed reset.
The trip to Cambodia helped me realize how much I value freedom and growth in my life and how badly I’d been living out of integrity with my values. That year, I vowed to take at least one trip alone every year, even if it’s just for a weekend (quality over quantity). In addition to it being a treat, these trips serve as a yearly check-in with myself. They allow me to reconnect with my self beyond my adopted identity for the year, and most of the time, I come out of them with the clarity and insight needed to adjust myself and my life accordingly.
“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
Solitary travel can be a lot of things for a lot of different people. For me, the “solitary” usually takes precedence over the “travel,” which means I prioritize spending time alone, in introspection, above everything else. Being somewhere new and unfamiliar helps to enhance those feelings of quiet solitude, as does going slow.
For me, slow is less a pace than it is a mood, or attitude. In a world that prioritizes optimization and efficiency all for the illusion of saving time for hypothetical future use, slow travel savors time. It means doing less rather than more. It’s a kind of rebellion against what we’ve been taught and programmed to do. Slow travel is an art — it entails seeing with the eyes of an artist, listening with the ears of a musician, tasting with the sensitivity of a chef. It’s a meditation of-and-for the senses.
Slowing down creates the time and space needed for contemplation of the sublime — in watching people come and go in a small town plaza, in letting nature’s story unfold as a beetle predates a caterpillar, in sitting for an afternoon latte rather than getting it to go, in noticing the liminal — those in-between spaces and moments from where we’ve departed but not yet arrived. Slowing down allows for deeper immersion into an experience or environment because it rejects the conventional narrative of squeezing in as many places and activities as you can in one day, one week, one trip, one city.
Slow travel and solitary travel are complementary; they run in parallel, each enhancing the other. The combination of the two produces a potent potion, that when drunk, promotes self-awareness, discovery, exploration and creativity.
There are few things more beautiful, enlivening or rewarding than taking some time away from the quick pace and connectedness of modern life in a first-world country, and to do so without hurry, without a schedule, a time or even place in which one must arrive. To go slow and in solitude is its own form of meditation. It is in those moments when time feels plentiful and life feels full. There’s an African proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
I might add: If you want to go deep, go slow and go in solitude.“