I’m heading off to Mexico today! I’ll be arriving in la Ciudad de México just in time to avoid New Year’s Eve, part of a suite of holidays created by Satan (or a cruel version of God) to celebrate couplehood and punish the single. My ratio of depressing-to-good New Years Eves is a pretty sad one, even counting the three years I’ve spent in the company of men I’ve been romantically entangled with. It’s just too much pressure, too much money, too much everything. After sobbing in my sister’s colleague’s closet in Chicago two years ago and barfing at midnight outside of a cab door, I decided that I didn’t want any more American-style bullshit. Last year I headed down to Costa Rica; this year it’s Mexico.
Have I brushed up on my Spanish? No, no lo hice. Have I planned anything beyond a vague intention to visit Frida Kahlo’s house and see some Aztec stuff maybe? Definitivamente no. Shit, did I at least find a place to stay? Ugh, of course I did, Mom!
“Who are you goin’ with?” asks everyone when I share my plans. When I tell people that I’m going by myself, the responses range from impressed to worried. Kind Uncle Ron spent all of Christmas begging me not to go and wondering if it would be possible to check a can of mace in my luggage.
Traveling by yourself complicates things. Just considering it’s not how most people travel means that the paradigm isn’t set up for the single traveler. All those amazing (ha) travel deals on Groupon? The fine print reveals that a single traveler would pay half again over the price that a couple pays. This includes when I tell Expedia that I’d be happy sleeping in a broom closet.
I started with finding a place to stay. For the (brief) Cancun leg of my trip, finding a good hostel was rough. The majority of the options were terrible; advertisement photographs showed skinny barely-adults chugging tequila out of each other’s buttholes (perhaps that was simply my perception.) Instead, I’ll be staying in a quiet hostel about a mile away from the party epicenter, near to where the ferry to Isla Mujeres picks up.
Mexico City was tough in a different way. The city is checkered with cheap and beautiful Air B&Bs, which I knew back when I started planning this trip and I thought a friend was coming along. I don’t want to stay in somebody’s apartment by myself, though, no matter how fancy and what a nice pool they have (sigh.) When I solo travel, I always try to find a group of temporary friends to glom onto for excursions and side trips. Even the best Air B&B host isn’t going to want to look at waterfalls with me on a Tuesday.
My flight to Mexico City gets me in at around 5:00 PM on the 31st. This means I have this razor’s edge situation of wanting a convivial atmosphere to chase the holiday blues away, but not such a convivial atmosphere that a woman vomiting upon my hair at 3:00 in the morning is a likely scenario. After a great deal of clicking and pondering, I landed on a hostel that seemed to have a good mix of friendly folks, plus a single room where I can go escape if things get nutty.
Whew. Accommodations covered.
I first traveled alone in Hawaii. That’s where I had my first, golden experience of temporary friend making. I stayed at a super chill hostel on the island of Kauai. On my first night there, I was getting ready for bed for a planned 6:00 AM hike wakeup time when a group of college students invited me for a beachside party. With a mustering of “yes, and” spirit, I went along with them and made some truly excellent temporary buds. We went snorkeling together, drove around, and kayaked up to a trail to see a waterfall through some truly Neverending Story-like mud.
Since then, I have traveled alone to Porto, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Tucson, New Mexico, New Orleans, San Antonio, Austin, and Madrid.
I like that I’m a person who can travel alone. As I know from going on roughly nine billion dates per year, many people spend their whole lives thinking about the travel they’ll maybe someday possibly probably do. I’m not going to spend my life waiting for the perfect financial or relationship situation. I want to go to Mexico, so I’m going to Mexico.
Do I wish I had the option of traveling with someone else? Sure. I have a fantasy that I keep tucked in a part of my mind and heart that I try not to dwell on of exploring the world with a lover. It feels impossible for me, but I know it exists. Back when I lived in Korea I saw people find that brand of luck in love. They would post pictures of their trips to Thailand or India. Traveling with a partner would mean I wouldn’t have to worry about finding those temporary friends. On my trip to Spain this past summer, nothing really managed to stick, so I spent the week by myself. Oh, I was perfectly happy exploring the Prado by myself, taking a day trip to Segovia by myself, visiting the Mercado de San Miguel by myself. I probably enjoyed the El Bosco exhibit as much as is humanly possible, taking all the time in the world to stare at the details without worrying about anyone else’s timetable.
Traveling alone means there’s no one else to catch the shrapnel when shit goes bad. When it turned out the rental car in Costa Rica was going to cost twice what we accounted for, Ryan had me to commiserate with about the ridiculousness of how much more expensive that damn trip turned out to be than we thought it would be. When I lost my iPod with the hotel address on a bullet train to Kyoto, I had Ryan to say “hey, let’s figure this out. There’s an Internet cafe over there.” Then suddenly we were having the strag(ely) wonderful experience of a Japanese Internet cafe and it was part of the whole weird experience, not a nightmare to figure out on my own. When Katie wore ballet flats on the very muddy Namsan Mountain in Gyungju, we had each other to lean on as we tromped down the statue-littered holy site. I’ve been lucky in my travels – missing an airplane back to France from Amsterdam is pretty much the worst thing that has happened to me when solo-traveling- but I don’t count on that always being the case.
It’s nice to have someone to share memories with, too. All my solo travel memories are uniquely mine, and I know what a terrible memory I have. Whereas travel buddies of the past hold key memories I may have forgotten in their hearts (hey, remember the deer that chased us in Nara? Oh Gosh, remember the Rat’s Nest in Charlotte?), all of these moments exist only in my mind. When I travel alone, no one shares those memories. No one else can relate to my particular sensation of looking out over the stunning red and green cliffs of Waimea Canyon- only I can see them. That’s fine and sometimes it’s not fine. It is what it is.
So, I’m off again. I hope I haven’t downplayed the things I love about traveling alone- the things I might even miss if I managed to find my dream travel partner. Hell, maybe I don’t forget as much as I think I do. As I sit here, I remember riding my bike along Coronado Island, dipping off onto a totally empty beach, breathing deep, salty air. I remember the hills of the vineyards of Porto, rolling in waves like a heaving ocean. I remember the weight of my boots on the desert dirt in Tuscon, a red universe of heat and life and the coldest water I’ve ever stuck my toes into after nearly dehydrating my idiot self. I remember the crunch of my first-ever po’ boy, crispy and perfect overlooking Jackson Square as a band played slow songs. I remember tasting my first cannoli in San Diego’s Little Italy, the sun shining on my shoulders, time that belonged only to me stretching across a full, empty, limitless afternoon. Without the distraction of conversation, of trying for someone else, of being for someone else, of planning for someone else, experiences can feel extraordinarily profound.
Mostly, all things considered, I prefer to travel with someone. I can’t spend my whole life waiting for friends to have the same free time as I do, though (hi, adjunct professor-ing). I certainly can’t hold onto my travel dreams until the perfect (or even just OK) guy comes along, passport in hand. We live such short, bright lives. There is so much I want to see, taste, smell, feel. There are so many mistakes I want to make and silences I want to hold to myself, taking in the magnificence of it all. I read a Jezebel piece recently that spoke to me about this idea. I can either see myself as half-finished, always waiting, never complete, or I can see myself as alone, one, whole, passport in hand.
See you soon, Mexico. Show me something I can keep forever, only and completely to myself.