There is something lonesome about travel.
It is paradoxical that something that by its very nature draws my concentration outwards to absorbnew sights, sounds, and smells, and that demands so much of my attention (don’t get lost, figure out when the last train runs, is that food going to have my stomach churning at 4am?), summons up in me my most insistently introspective state.
I can spend hours on a train, staring at the lights that zip by in the darkness, considering my place in the world and the nature of my being. I can while away whole nights on a plane, curled up in my little seat (more expensive per square inch than any other space I’ve ever occupied in the world), happily perusing the recesses of my mind, picking up on little parts of myself that have been neglected for months or years.
In these moments, waiting in airports or high-tailing it through foreign countrysides, I feel more isolated from the world than I have ever felt elsewhere. Surrounded by crowds and queues and fellow travellers, jostling for elbow room and wishing that child in the next row would just-be-quiet, I feel more alone than when I am actually alone.
Perhaps this feeling of solitude reveals itself because, in a way, I am more alone than when I am alone at home–at home I am accessible to the people in the world with whom I am connected: they can pin-point my location in the world, and find me by landline or cell phone or Skype or Facebook, and expect a swift reply.
Sure, with the joys of modern technology I could call a friend or chat online in an airport or train station, but I jealously guard these moments of isolation. I am travelling and no one would have the audacity to expect to reach me then. I am travelling and no one in the world really knows exactly where I am but me. I am travelling, left to my own devices and defences, experiencing new parts of the world in my own unique way, and this somehow gives birth to moments of unexpected insight.
Travelling can often seem a rushing whirlwind of check-ins and train connections and fumbling for identification, and I used to abet its occupying nature by bringing piles of magazines and books and films to hurry through the hours of solitude. I would always be surprised when my flight ended and I hadn’t read a word of print nor watched a film on the tiny screen on the seat-back in front of me, wondering why I hadn’t sought out the inundation of entertainment we seem to crave so dearly these days.
But the truth is I always end up involuntarily occupying the eye of the storm, in a quiet limbo between destinations and events, goodbyes and hellos, foraging curiously through my experience of the world, happily lonesome in a sea of strangers.