Talking to myself

When traveling alone, my inner mind buzzes so feverishly with thoughts, words and soliloquies that I often forget myself and think I’m making a racket that everyone can hear.

But no one can hear me, I realize, and I fall back into the hermetic hum. The brain rattles in verbal commotion, synapses chatting away, echoing through cranial canyons. It’s the classic internal monologue, an incontinent loop. (Do I ever get tired listening to myself? And how.)

In countries where I don’t speak the language — most of them — I can go hours, even whole days without uttering a word. Transactions are reduced to semaphore and sign language. There’s lots of pointing. The lingua franca of a candid smile goes a long way.

Talking aloud is good and healthy. Being a mime all day can be suffocating while alone on the road. You need to air out. I’m always relieved to hear my voice stir to sonic life at the end of the day when, say, I order dinner at a nice restaurant and converse with a waiter, or, if lucky, when gabbing with patrons at the local pub.

I blush to admit I’m terrible about learning languages of places I visit. It’s pitiful, really. I’ve never used a phrase book and only bother to learn terms for “hello,” “goodbye,” “please” and “thank you.” (In French and Spanish, I also know “Do you speak English?”)

And that’s always been enough (except with cab drivers, who invariably need written directions). English is so uniformly familiar around the world that I find getting by something of a breeze. 

Still, those basic words — spasiba (“thank you” in Russia); proszę (“please” in Poland); bro! (“hello” in Las Vegas) — are invaluable social tools that make life easier amid the exoticism of a new land. 

But there I am, tramping across jungle villages and cluttered cityscapes, locked in my own head, mostly mute but open to vocal interaction, the human touch. I can tell you there’s nothing like laughing with a local during a far-flung voyage. 

When you’re going solo, getting out of your head takes an effort, as does anything worthwhile. It’s easier than you think. And the rewards are rich. Just watch as the elderly shop lady goes from mirthless money taker, pensive her in her task, to beaming with gratitude all because you simply said xiè xiè (“thank you” in Chinese ) with a smile. It’ll make your day, and possibly hers, too. Nothing is lost in translation. Everything is gained.

Travel travails: trying to jettison on-the-road angst

Just before I embark on my vacations people reflexively ask if I’m excited and looking forward to it, assuring me I’ll have a wonderful time and wads of other tinkly bromides. Invariably I grimace and nod, “Yeah. I think so … Sure. OK, thanks.”

But I’m never sure, and it’s not OK. As I pack and prepare I’m a minor wreck, wracked, withdrawn — enthused, yes, but freighted with the cargo of myriad far-off what-ifs and other terrifying variables.

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I have no qualms about flying; I like flight. My innate angst resides in about, well, pretty much everything else: Flight on time! Make my connection! Will it rain at my destination! Will my Airbnb be as cool as the photos! Will I be able to communicate with the locals! Will I get robbed! Will I contract a food-borne illness! Is that baby-jar museum as rocking as it looks!

I had a small stroke applying for my Russian visa recently. As I’ve noted earlier, it was a multi-tentacled task and very pricey. With the stroke, I developed a bleeding ulcer. For some reason this trip — much more than my jaunts to China, Vietnam, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria — has me more angsty than ever.

I write this today attempting to relax in United Airlines Terminal C at the airport, from which I’ll depart to St. Petersburg, Russia, with a brief stopover in Zurich, Switzerland. I have mere minutes to catch my connecting flight. The layover is impossibly miniscule.

It is not promising. I have four stomach-twisting inklings: 1) I will miss my connection. 2) I will be spending the night in Switzerland, on my dime. 3) My luggage will be in Russia. 4) I will lose a day in St. Petersburg. (Bonus inkling: I will sob.)

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Besides that eventuality, I am also worried about the fact that you can’t drink the water in Russia — it will do a number on you. That’s barely a concern. Bottled water is a cinch and I’ve done the don’t-drink-the-water routine in several countries. But will the hair dryer work sufficiently? Will I fumble financial transactions, not knowing well the rubles/dollars exchange? Will my accommodations’ TV have satellite or simple local cable (I kinda need my CNN)?

These are obscenely, stupidly first-world worries, of course. I do swimmingly out of my comfort zone while traveling and I revel in the developing-country experience. I’ve proven it repeatedly. But I’m weirding out a little this time.

Relax, you’ll have a great time, they say. And I believe them, shakily. I’m conjuring my own anxieties via my own dark thoughts. These are fictions. I’m in the airport, through security, decompressing, with hours till my flight. I have a glass of wine. The journey has begun, and it’s not half bad.

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The Himalayas, out the window, above Nepal.