It goes on and on and on and on…
My career as a cowboy has been unfortunately short-lived. To be honest, I can barely blame myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t get along with my employers; it’s more the case that I, an enrolled English major who had spent a month partying with drunken Irish in Melbourne, could unfortunately not decipher anything that came out of my boss’ mouth. You’d think that communication would be a priority when you throw an inexperienced stick of a girl in the middle of a herd of confused heifers, but apparently not. So much I struggled with their mumbled Queensland accents that at first I didn’t even realise they were firing me – I thought they were saying there would be more work for me.
So it was that I found myself in Clermont that at 2,000 inhabitants and four hotels was more than I could really expect from an outback town. Graham drove me; he was always nice to me, even when I lost my stetson that first day of mustering cattle. He dropped me off at a newsagent’s, where I quickly learnt that there was only one way out of this one-horse, 1000-cow town, and it was a 5 a.m. bus.
At sixty bucks a night, hotels were a no-go. (Although a part of me would have liked nothing better than to launch myself backwards into a cloud of pillows, I suspected that the beds in this town would have been as its inhabitants; unadorned, hard, with no time for my nonsensical princess fantasies.) Luckily, the only camping ground in town let me pitch my tent for a tenner a night – a steal, really, when you look at regular prices in Australia. I think the campground owner pitied me a little. I was the only burnt-faced, bright-eyed tourist in town, with a backpack so big people habitually stopped me on the street to ask if I needed help carrying it, and now also the only person with her tent up – all of the other campers were snuggled up in their steel-sided trailers.
I wandered around and took a few pictures, but there wasn’t much to see. As dusk crept in, I found myself a block away from what seemed like the only lively pub in town. The concerned campground keeper had advised me earlier to give it a visit – ‘it’s where all the young kids go’, she’d said. I stood there, looking at the lights, hesitating. Wouldn’t it be nice to get back to my tent, read some, then retire on the thin mattress for some nicely shaped Z’s? Something was urging me on, but my feet were growing roots. I found myself wondering how it is that people talk to other people.
I went in.
The lighting was smooth, yellow even, warm. The walls were wood-paneled, the back porch open for smokers to come and go as they pleased. A couple was playing pool at the back of the bar. A few patrons occupied the seats in front of the counter, so there I went, too, sitting myself down on a tall stool as out of place as I’d ever be.
The bartender had a few more years to me, but not much, and she wore her dark hair down. ‘Hi, what would you like?’
‘What ciders do you have?’ My accent back then surely would not fool anyone. Just by opening my mouth I drew a line between me and the Australians around me.
We chatted for a bit, but talking to her felt like trying to push through a wall of glass; I saw her, I heard her, and yet I didn’t get anything from her. I raised the can of Somersby Pear – my favourite at 19 – to my mouth. I was drinking too quickly, and soon I’d be finished and I’d have to order another one and sit here like a sad old drunkard, or I’d leave as a failure, a friendless loser, who –
A guy dropped into the seat next to mine. He looked too drunk to be able to perch on such a precauriously small seat, but he leant his arms to the counter and somehow caught himself from falling over.
I wish I remembered what he said, even if just to reiterate his words now, but for the honesty in me I can’t claim I do. His name might have been Rob, but it might have also been Jake or Pete or Brandon. Names have always been my strong suit, compared to faces which I tend to forget, but now, years later, both have escaped me.
All I know is he tried to flirt with me. Badly – he was off his face. A song was stuck in his head, playign in a loop, but he was so off the key I had no clue what he was trying to deliver. He tried to flirt with the bartender, who clearly was a friend of his and was having none of it. They shared some gossip about some mutual acquintances. He bought me another Somersby. Then he said: ‘Hey, let’s play my song!’
It was one of those bars with a jukebox in it, a rarity even odder since this one wasn’t one of those old-timey music boxes but a modern one that did mostly stock up on mum-and-dad hits but also showed music videos on the little TV by the bar. I didn’t have any coins, and I doubt I would have known most of the songs on the list anyway. Rob didn’t seem to care as he happily dropped quarter after quarter into the machine.
He pulled me back to the bar to get himself a new beer. We sat down, and he pointed at the screen, his drunken brain excited as a kid at Christmas. ‘It’s starting!’
Just a small town girl living in a lonely world…
My grin jumped from ear to ear as I heard the evocative opening chords, but something about the vocals didn’t seem right… And as I glanced up, my gaze was met with Lea Michele’s and Cory Monteith’s, side by side on the screen in matching red shirts. I couldn’t believe it – they were playing the Glee version of the song! What was this, a road trip with my little sister? Just a few months earlier, I had been watching this same scene play on the comfort of my couch, my dad in a bathrobe and my mum with her hair rolled into a towel, my little sister with a plate of snacks next to her. Catching up on the shows we all loved was our Friday night tradition.
In this little pub in the middle of the Australian outback, I had not expected to come face to face with the world’s most popular glee choir. The thought of it was hilarious, and I laughed and laughed and laughed, and I couldn’t explain to Rob what was so funny because he was immersed in the song, and anyway he would not have understood.
Someone came to say hi to him and they asked if he was bothering me. I was quick to reassure that no, vice versa. They asked for my name, and where I’m from, and what I was doing there, and even though those were all the simplest questions, they were there to take me in and I accepted this small show of grace.
I played pool with her, and that’s how I met her friend, and then I went out back to sip my cider as they smoked cigarettes and went through town gossip; and then I met five of his friends, who took me back inside and introduced me to three more people. One of them told me I should stay a little longer: there would be a fishing competition the next day, and even if I didn’t know how to fish, that’s ok, watching’s just as fun anyway. From the ladies’ room I texted my friend, fingertips shaky with excitement. She texted back and said she admired how I could be that brave to just walk into a bar and turn a bunch of strangers into familiars. And I beamed. Yes, that was me: the girl who could walk into a room and make friends with everybody.
I stayed until the closing time. Rob was sitting on the curb, too far gone to remember ever having met me but still singing the song in a broken beer voice. When I reminded him of who I was, he invited me to stay for the fishing competition, too. The day was still a few hours shy as I stumbled home, mind buzzing, stone cold sober albeit feeling a little nauseous from the sweetness of the cider. As I lay down on the thin mattress and stared at the ceiling of the tent, I thought: I could stay but I never will. I can go anywhere and do the same as tonight, and I will. I will.
It is the loneliest thing, to be surrounded by people but with no one to talk to. In Yangoon I had been fine. We had drank Mandalay beers and I’d picked at everyone else’s overflowing plates since mine had never arrived, and afterwards we’d raced back to the hostel on the wide empty streets as the two cycle taxis were trying to beat each other. That night out laughter echoed between the tall, dilapitated skyscrapers; but in the morning the whole bunch of them were gone, and I was going, too.
I found myself alone in a strange city, a scene that was by now too familiar to me, but instead of a sense of adventure, a feeling of dread hit me. It had been following me for days, I knew; the dark creature that sometimes likes to take control over one’s life, whispering grim half-truths in your ears and making you only believe the more rotten side of them. Suddenly I had forgotten how to speak. The words stuck to the back of my throat, and I looked at the people around me and felt strangeness as I had never before.
I called Ben that night just to have someone to talk to but he didn’t pick up. He texted me back fifteen minutes later, saying he was out with his mates and didn’t hear me. With my finger hovering over Send, I hesitated, but the creature wrapped himself tighter around my chest and I could not bring myself to admit that I was lonely. He would never know. Instead, I wished him a good night and made plans to talk tomorrow.
That night I cried before I slept, listening to others in my dorm swap details of their lives, laugh and joke, as I hid behind the towel slung in front of my bed.
I spent the next day figuring out my e-bike on my own. When I flew down the road at the tentative speed of 5 km/h, I could convince myself I wasn’t alone by default, it was by choice since I always toured on my own. It was better; I was convinced that no one else could stand me for my many photo breaks and grandma style of cruising. I climbed the first temple I could. Some Swedish girls took my picture. In it I’m laughing, wearing my best clothes as if nothing was wrong, and in all honesty, under the hot skies of Bagan and surrounded by thousands of temples rising from the ground like hills of especially technically minded ants, this image might not be too far from truth.
Later that day I met Brian. I met the others, too, but Brian was the one travelling in the same direction as me. He had a personality like a gravity field, and I drew from his energy until I felt alive again. I made friends that day. We went out for mohingar, traditional Burmese noodle soup, and we took friendly swings at each other as we walked back. Norah told me about her stick-and-poke-tattoos; Georgina and Sophie brought up their love for Sunday roast again; and Brian nearly toppled over in excitement as we found out we’d crossed each other’s paths in the past, in Sydney and in Paris, without ever actually meeting.
People always say that the best thing about travelling alone is how you meet people along the way and form groups that grow like a snowball as you roll from one destination to another. I had rarely experienced this. I was always moving too fast or too slow, going the wrong direction, going to some obscure destination that held little true interest to anybody else. Not this time. Brian and I were heading out the same day, to the same destination, by the same tour operator. As my plans became clear, he high-fived me: ‘That’s my dude!’ I got up from my chair so quickly to return the high five that a menacious little nail ripped a hole in my yoga pants.
Our Bagan crew spent time together exploring temples and driving in orderly lines on the bumpy roads, a parade of Westerners on laughably slow e-bikes. Heavens poured down on our last day in the city, and we rushed to the night bus soaking clothes haphazardly strung on the outside of our backpacks. It was 2 a.m. when we arrived in Kalaw. The town was asleep except for a large gathering of men hollering over a late-night football game in a nearby teahouse and the pack of stray dogs yapping at each other a few streets over. We chose a bench between them two, and I blew up my travel pillow ready for sleep, but sleep never came. Instead we told each other stories. I wish I could remember what was said, but maybe it is more important to remember the way it felt like to laugh out loud. I remember the way he was careful not to smile – as if trying not to jinx it – when he talked about Serena, whom we’d met in Bagan and whom he was hoping to meet again at our final destination. I wonder if they did find each other. I can’t remember. I don’t think they did.
We walked alone for the first day, listening to our guide tell stories about Myanmar. The rain started at lunch, and he quipped: ‘Two things you can never trust in Myanmar – the weather and the government!’ He was wrong about the other one, though: you can always trust Burmese summer to drench you. On the second day, more people joined us. They were a ragtag band of foreigners all living in different parts of the word that were never their own, and together we trudged our way through a miserable, slippery landscape as the Asian monsoon season let loose on our necks. I liked to walk in silence, listening to others talk. As the group grew, previous topics of personal history made way for comparing favourite TV shows, discussing career paths and engaging in the age-old battle of whether dragonfruit, in fact, tastes good. I felt the proximity of oncoming disconnection; the creature stirred. But I was focused on keeping my feet on the track. It pulled back, disappointed but no doubt waiting.
When we finally reached Nyaung Shwe, we were tired and drenched, my poor shoes barely discernible under all the red mud. Norah had arrived at the hostel a few days earlier; she laughed as she saw our miserable condition. A long, hot shower had never felt better. After I’d slipped into clean clothes, I headed out to the roof top where the guys were already drinking.
I ordered myself a red Mandalay and swiped my hand in a negating gesture as one of the Americans shoved a bottle of 10 Kyat Myanmar whiskey my way. The sun had just set; over the low roofs of this sleepy little tourist village the sky was deepening ink, wisps of white cloud in between. The music was good, even though later I would notice the playlist consisted of only about twenty songs played in painful repetition.
A hike like the one we’d completed can suck a strong man dry. Soon the only ones left were me, Brian, and another American, whose name might have been Andy and who had told me about the process of becoming an astronaut. Andy the Astronaut. Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Familiar first chords struck the air. An instinctive smile stole to my lips, as I remembered – as I always did – a night in another bar far away, long ago. I thought no one would notice. But as soon as the first notes were out, Brian shouted: ‘Oh man, I love this song!’
Just a small town girl living in a lonely world… She took the midnight train going anywhere…
Admittedly, none of us were very good at singing, but it didn’t stop us. We knew the words by heart, and we sang every one of them, with head-banging, grin-inducing, blood-boiling gusto. As I sang: some will win, some will lose, some were born to sing the blues, I wondered as I’d always done which one of them I was, but as I got swept away by the oncoming chorus I soon forgot all about it.
Loneliness is a terrible thing, but as I told the guys good night that night, I didn’t feel its claws on my shoulders. I felt my feet firmly on the ground; my head full of dreams. And the creature would return, I knew; but not tonight, no, not yet. Not now.
Last night I had decided I wanted to be happy again.
With the fire of the sunset on our backs, frozen fingertips rubbing against each other in order to keep warm, barely escaping sleep from the exhaustion that the daily activities had brought in their wake, I stared out the window into the darkness only broken by the first of the many stars of the night and I made another firm decision to be happy. It was strange how it should be a conscious decision. Just a few years earlier I took happiness for granted; indeed, I spent it up like millionaire’s money, believing there was no end to it. Then the figurative credit card bill hit me and I found myself a pauper.
I wouldn’t consider myself sad. I am a person who gets sad, maybe too often these days, but I would not describe myself as a sad person the way I used to describe myself as a happy person. But lately I have not been happy. I used to get so excited about the smallest things. I talked to everyone in hostels, I wasn’t scared of making a fool of myself (and often I did just that) and I dived headfirst into new adventure probably faster than was good for my health.
When did I become so guarded and careful? The change must have been so gradual I never even stood a chance of catching it or stopping it. But like any disease, if caught early, may still be reversible.
Scott has conquered the passenger seat – a privilege granted to him for his long legs and endless supply of pop bangers. Us tiny people are stuffed on the backseat, alpaca sweaters filling up all the extra space, sunnies on even inside because the pale vastness outside is just too bright. We’ve spent the day before fighting dragons and dancing out of Pringles cans on the largest salt flats in the world. (Whatever they say about Despacito, I will never be able to hate it – it will always bring me back to South America.) Today we are traversing through rough lands, still partly covered in snow, breathtaking enough to make me want to photograph every inch of it but at the same time knowing the camera could never see it the way I do.
After the tour, we are parting ways – me on to Peru, the rest to Chile. I will miss my travel mates for sure. Sarah has slipped and slid through muddy roads and boozy backpacker bars with me for the past two weeks, but we go back further than that. After the first time she had to listen to me puke out tequila in a hostel room in Brisbane, we’ve met up in four other countries and two other continents. If you can keep a travel friend hooked for five years, then girl, I’d say that’s a permanent contract. No way to get rid of me now, Sarah, because apparently I will literally follow you to the other side of the world. On accident, maybe, but it’s the kind of a happy accident like an ice-cream truck AC breaking down so that they have to start giving out free ice cream to everybody.
And truth be told, she has eased me back into the solo travel lifestyle and reminded me again why it is good to go at it alone. You are all the more adventurous when you don’t have to worry about the comfort of another person. And sure, South America will not be easy for me – I will be sick most of the time, and lonely, too, and I will doubt whether I am cut out for aloneness at all, but the road will also build me up back to the shape I had when I was nineteen and fearless.
But all this is still to come.
The playlist has spung around to Foreigner – quite fitting, actually, any one of us in the car could name ourselves after the band – and my mind immediately goes to another with a travel-themed name. ‘Ooh! ooh! Scott! Do you have Don’t Stop Believing?’
‘YES, I love that song!’ Sarah agrees. ‘Give me the phone, I’ll put it next in the queue.’
Working hard to get my fill, everybody wants the thrill…
And thrill it is, racing through the Martian landscape that is Bolivian badlands. We all sing along but the rest of them, they have no clue about the places these vocals take me, all around the planet and back to this moment, here, now.
Even if I wrote it down in a million words (well, this post is starting to break 4,000), I could explain the little sentiment behind the words, but I could not take them with me to that bar full of friendly strangers, to that rooftop, back home to my own couch where it all started. If life is a journey (heh, see what I did there), I have walked it up and down. And I’m only twenty-four. What else is waiting for me?
It has been a while since I was on my own like this. I got too used to seeing the world with my hand in someone else’s hand so that now that I’ve gained full mobility of my limbs, I’m not quite sure where to put them, and I just shyly tuck my hands in my pockets. Doesn’t matter if you do it once or a million times, travelling solo is always scary. Even when Ben and I started to fall apart, I still held on so tightly, maybe because I preferred feeling lonely with someone else to being completely alone. But any relationship that is based on dependancy can not last. I think he never even saw how heavily I leaned on him. Now that I’m standing up again, I have found that my own two feet still carry.
Hannah groans something about the eighties. She picks some Beatles to make up for the crime we’ve committed in her ears, as she sees it. Poor her – it ain’t easy roadtripping with a bunch of synth-pop loving weirdos if you’re more into Noah and the Whale.
That might just be the true danger of travelling alone – that you end up in a car full of people with completely mismatched tastes in music.
Thanks for reading, guys! I’ve been kinda AWOL recently – honestly, though, hitting a spring slum is nothing new to me. Can’t help it if Gilmore Girls has kept me busier than blogging. #sorrynotsorry. Anyway – this is a post that has been in the works for some time, and even though it’s scary personal – like, if we ever meet and you mention reading this, I will probably run away, get on a plane, change identities and start farming land in Kiribati with a nameless dog friend just to avoid talkign about it – I am also kinda happy to finally put it out. Travelling alone is not always easy on the psyche, but it does deliver moments of wonder that kinda make it all okay.
Do you have a song, a movie, a book or a specific brand of crisps that always brings back memories? Tell me about it in the comments!