The Difference Between Travelling Solo and Travelling Alone
by Masaki Watenabe
‘Life is a journey,’ or so they say. This is not just in the metaphysical sense, I believe. It is also about our actual physical movements over the years from one country, city or locality to another, and even about short family holidays or business trips. ‘Journeys are also part of life,’ might be one way to put it. That’s why we enjoy good travel writing, as I came to discover while editing and writing for an airline inflight magazine in Singapore back in the 1990s. I’ve also found that given Britain’s long history of colonial rule during which some of her brightest youth went out to all corners of the globe as administrators, soldiers, merchants—and de facto correspondents—travel writing has to be one of the things Britons excel at. One gem of an example I came across in the UK daily Guardian a while ago. It’s about the difference between “travelling alone” and “travelling solo.”
Author and veteran traveller Jenny Diski writes: ‘You travel alone, you do exactly as you want.This surely needs no further explanation.’ It sounds to me like the very essence of the “spirit of freedom” with which the English, along with their Irish, Scottish and Welsh “cousins,” seem able to behave and act at ease wherever they go, helped considerably by the widespread use of English, today’s global language of business. I think that mindset behind their confident attitude is relevant to our Canadian Japanese cultural context, because it stands in such clear contrast to the way we Japanese think and behave when we are abroad. Outside our cultural context, we tend to be reserved, non-assertive and sometimes even out of our elements.
Language is obviously a big factor. As one who picked up English as a child, I believe I can relate to and function within the mainstream Anglo-American culture as well as any Nikkei person. But having had many Japanese-Canadian and -American friends and acquaintances over the decades in Tokyo and San Francisco as well as Vancouver, I sense that they, like me, retain some Japanese traits and values that transcend language, such as those above.
Ms Diski notes that ‘there are those who find the word “alone”’ distressing, and quotes a line from the classic French movie Les Enfants du Paradis (1952, Director Marcel Carné): ‘Vous êtes toute seule (all alone), madame?’ which makes toute seule sound like ‘a lifelong terrifying prospect.’ ‘Well then, try “solo,”’ she admonishes, declaring: ‘The difference between traveling solo and traveling alone is a STATE OF MIND (capitals mine).’
A middle-aged single-mother, Ms Diski, who has done a lot of writing and traveling on her own, has noticed that some people become curious and even suspicious when they encounter her. “You tell them you’re a writer and not only is everything explicable but people will stay and talk to you, telling you sometimes wonderful stories about their lives. Use the writer excuse with a different look on your face, and people will understandably leave you alone.”
You may very well say ‘She’s a seasoned professional writer, that’s why she can feel so secure in her solitude.’ Hence the words “STATE OF MIND” in capital letters above. If you make believe you are a “writer” of some kind, then you are. You don’t have to be writing a real book or be on assignment for a newspaper or travel magazine. You could be out looking for observations to scribble down in your own journal or website. You might be just out strolling on a fine spring day, hoping cherry blossoms in their full splendour might inspire you to a line or two of haiku.
And all you camera buffs out there, have you ever “sort of pretended” to be on some kind of a photo assignment? With a camera in hand, you can physically approach things differently in public places. I take my trusted Sony digital camera on walks from time to time, vaguely hoping to capture something beautiful or quaint. With development projects large and small constantly going on here and their, our multicultural, international city Vancouver never lacks for variety of things to shoot.
Coal Harbor on a fine day is one of my choice spots for strolls even if I only have an hour to spare. The presence of large numbers of out-of-towners from near and far makes it easier for me to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes—looking at different parts of my own city anew through the fresh eyes of a tourist. The sea, the trees and the cityscape look as enticing as the first time I saw them 16 years ago.
During one recent stroll along that waterfront, I ran into an old acquaintance, the father of one of my son’s highschool classmates. He happens to be from Penang, Malaysia, where we used to vacation while living in Singapore. Mr Lai and I used to enjoy brief chats while waiting for our sons at school. Several years have elapsed since, but we still appreciate our brief chance encounter. The talk this time turns to an old pond at the botanical garden in Penang, the island city knicknamed “Pearl of the Orient.” It was one of the most relaxing spots on the island for me, and Mr Lai used to go fishing there as a little boy.
Back to Ms Diski. Having ‘chilled out in the Caribbean, encircled America by train, cargo-shipped across the Atlantic and explored the Antarctic peninsula, all solo and at ease,’ she says just think of yourself as a writer on an assignment and ‘the unease falls away.’ With her laptop (It could also be the old, analog notebook and pen, I suppose) ‘as a flag of peace and quiet,’ she never feels awkward in such circumstances as ‘eating alone in a restaurant full of holiday couples and families, lizarding on a beach hoping for perfect peace, ordering a drink at a bar in a small town.’
It’s all about our state of mind. You and I may not go on an Antarctic expedition or a trans-Atlantic voyage, but we can still enjoy the subtle thrills of “traveling solo.” Just make believe you’re a tourist and check out some part of town you haven’t visited lately. The journey of life is spatial travel as well as travel in time. Even for an instant, even just to make believe, you might enjoy “traveling solo” once in a while.