The Human Element in Travel

What I remember most about wandering through historic Ponsonby, following the self-guided walking tour of the heritage listed houses and buildings in this Auckland, New Zealand suburb, was thinking how much more fun I had when I did the walking tour of Balmain with Merrolee. Without someone else to ooo and ahhh with, they were just old houses.

Over the past three-plus years, I’ve had the opportunity to tag along with my husband on his work trips. He goes to meetings, and I go explore the city. As I look back on those trips, I’m wishing I’d had someone to share more of the experiences with. My explorations in New Zealand could have been enhanced by more companionship.

If you Google “the advantages of solo travel”, you’ll find pages of lists enumerating the benefits: self-actualization, pushing your boundaries, the opportunity to be in total control, and the always popular – you’ll make new friends more easily.

While I’m not technically traveling alone on these tag-along trips – I have a built in dinner companion and someone to crawl into bed with at night – there are many similarities. When the husband walks out of the hotel room, I am on my own. Some aspects of solo exploration do appeal to me, some especially to my introvert self. I can wander around aimlessly observing the world around me. I can take as long as I want getting ready to leave the hotel. I can sit alone in coffee shops and read or write or people watch. Anytime I get tired I can rest, go back to the hotel for a nap. I can go to as many book stores, yarn stores, or fabric stores as I want, and I can dawdle there. I can try out all the coffee shops and I can even sneak a pastry and no one will be the wiser.

My solo adventures have encouraged me to be more self-reliant I suppose, although even when out and about with another, I like to have a fair amount of control over the situation. When I’m out alone, though, if I get on the wrong train, it’s completely up to me to find my way back. It’s helped me to step outside my comfort zone as well; wandering around Hong Kong alone, in a city where I didn’t speak the language and few people spoke mine, was vastly different from anything I’d done before.

Whether traveling alone or with a companion, it is the human connections that create the best memories for me. Shared experience, feeling a part of something with another human, is more impressive. On the New Zealand trip, my husband and I spent the non-working weekend together on the island of Waiheke. Those couple days spent wandering around the vineyards, drinking wine, eating delicious food and getting stranded when the bus didn’t come, are so much more precious because we can remember them together. And who would forever tease me about peeing behind a bush at the very closed and locked up whiskey distillery, if he hadn’t been there? (Note to self: call ahead next time.)

During the following three days spent wandering solo in Auckland, I found myself rather bored much of the time. The bits that do stick with me are the conversations I had. I was bored looking at the old houses in Ponsonby, so popped into the bookstore, where, chatting with the bookseller, I learned about local New Zealand authors. Back in Auckland city I remember a funny interaction with an American man at the yarn shop, who was trying to choose wool for his wife back in Utah. I pointed out to him that he was going to have to buy an awful lot of yarn to make up for not bringing her along on the trip. The shop owner liked that; the yarn buying husband, not so much.

On one of my solo excursions, I set out for the traditional Māori village of Whakarewarewa in Rotorua. The early morning bus bounced along through the emerald green expanse, en route to the village, where the heavy, yellow smell of sulfur greeted me as I arrived.  I presented my online payment confirmation and was pointed toward the cafe where I was to lunch on a hangi meal, cooked in an underground geo-thermal steam box. I was handed a plate with enough food for at least two people, maybe three, and took a seat at a small table, where I was joined by a cat who wanted to share my lunch. At least it was some companionship.

After lunch, I followed the crowd of tourists to the cultural performance replete with Haka war challenge. After the scary faces, that I wished I could make and get away with, we were taken on an educational tour of the village. I breathed in the sulfur vapors from the steam shooting up around me and the boiling pools we passed, contrasting sharply with the chilly late winter air. Even though I was with a group of people, I felt my solitude intensely. I remember wishing my husband was there; in my head I planned for future trips that would include him and a mud bath.

According to those online lists of solo travel benefits, I should have been making new friends with my fellow tour companions. I’m not a standoffish person. I join in conversations around me. I make eye contact, smile, and say, “hello.” But I don’t collect friends when I wander alone. I don’t really put myself out there and strike up random conversations. Neither do I ask people to be my facebook friend.

Here at the keyboard, trying to write a blog post almost two years after that New Zealand trip, I find myself with almost nothing to say about it. Yeah, I saw some shit. Sadly, peeing behind the bush is my most memorable experience of that week. This got me to thinking about how some of my traveling friends approach solo adventures, so I asked some questions.

Stephanie often finds herself in my same situation, accompanying her husband on his work travels. She told me she finds it rather boring to explore on her own. Stephanie is a person who has an extensive social network, both in person and online; when she is traveling, she looks to that social network to find people to meet up with who are either locals or tourists to the area, and plans these meet-ups in advance. She tells me that, meeting up with locals especially, she finds herself having experiences that she never would have done alone. “The days I don’t have something lined up, I don’t enjoy so much,” she tells me. There are places she returns to again and again, like Singapore and Japan; she says when she has locals to hang out with, “it’s like peeling off layers of an onion. I learn something new each time I go.”

On my first trip to Melbourne, I was lucky to have a local friend there who took me around and showed me her favorite parts of the city. On that same trip, Stephanie was also in Melbourne with another one of her friends; we were able to all meet up and have a grand time exploring the city. I’ve had a few trips back to that city, some where I’ve explored on my own, and some where I shared the visit with another tourist. Having been there a few times now, I both enjoy the experience of being alone in the city drinking coffee and reading, and at the same time feel like there must be things I’m missing, that if I had a local friend there still, I could find the hidden bits.

I did feel much less of a recluse when Stephanie told me that she doesn’t tend to make new acquaintances on her travels either. Like me, she also questions the plausibility of that idea. “It’s hard enough to make friends in the place where you live, much less on a four day trip.” Again, like myself, she is not technically traveling alone, and so may not be as motivated to pick up some new acquaintances. Perhaps for someone who is traveling solo, there is more drive to make those connections.

Another friend, from the Millennial generation, has done a lot of solo travel around the world and seems to make friends everywhere she goes. That generation does appear to be more outgoing and collect friends more easily than older generations, so perhaps it’s an age thing as well.

I do know that when I look back on my Australian explorations, it is the people that I’m going to remember the most. I relish the adventures I share with my expat friends exploring the various Sydney neighborhoods, the weekends away and visits to historic sites with our Kiwi friends, seeing Perth through a dear friend’s eyes, and of course the places I’ve explored with my husband by my side. As my time here wanes, I’m driven to fill it with as many friend-filled adventures as I can fit in. I want to build more memories, and the human connections that make them so much sweeter.