Traveling totally alone. Plus one.

With an air of mock bluster, a studied wink, arms comically akimbo, I often sniff that I walk the earth alone. I mean that this avid globe-trotter travels the world solo, sans companionship, just me and the open road, sky and sea, cultivating fun, adventure and experience without the burden of a fellow traveler who so often becomes one big people-y crimp in my one-man style. 

That style is all about space, quietude, being beholden to no one, operating at my own pace and serving my own proclivities. In a word: freedom. It’s traveling with baggage — a carry-on and a small backpack — without baggage. I’ve of course traveled many times with others, from lovers to family to folks I’ve met on the road. Solo is better, and that’s how I’ve been doing it for years, blissfully à la carte.

I don’t get lonely, that’s what everyone wants to know. I have a busy mind, a busy schedule, I make acquaintances, I get lost in the environment, devouring the culture, the cuisine and travel’s crazy curveballs. I wander backstreets and byways just hoping to get sucked into the local labyrinth, to stumble upon the next astonishment. 

With my usual meticulous care, I just booked a nine-day trip to Rome and Naples for late March. Solo, of course. Flight set, tours and meals reserved, a full itinerary. I have plans, firm and unflustered.

And they have just been crashed.

My older brother, hands down one of my best friends, approached me the other day, meekly, and suggested, asked, wondered if he might just maybe, perhaps, possibly join me for a few days on my Italy excursion. 

Normally on hearing those words, my heart would have sunk to the ground, burned through the Earth’s crust and dropped into Hell itself and turned into molten ash. 

But this is my brother, a proven fellow traveler on several journeys. And so I did not flinch. At least not enough that he could see. I have amazing control of my facial muscles.

Really, he’s a fine travel companion. Besides our family trips growing up, he visited me numerous times in Austin, Texas, where we would pal around at a major film festival for several days. 

When he had business in London once while I was traveling there, I welcomed him to join me for a few days and, except for one rather farcical Underground mishap, we got along with impressive synchronicity. We also took a week-long road trip through the American South — Monticello to Montgomery — with scant friction and abundant laughs. 

So it’s not like he’s some monstrous style-cramping interloper upending my delicate plans in Italy. In fact, I predict he’ll be an asset, great company. For one, he’s a whiz, far smarter than I am, with a cooler temperament, possessing a surgically logical mind.

For all my strategizing, he’ll probably be the one assuming the role of tour guide. He was in Rome a few years ago and he knows, for instance, the lay of the land and where to see the greatest Berninis and Caravaggios. I’d likely figure all that out on my own, but not without the furious crumpling of maps and some spicy language that would turn nettled Roman heads.

And yet I’m not wholly abandoning my need for space. Separate hotel rooms are the rule, costs be damned, and I’m taking at least one tour on my own. Whether I “accidentally” lose my travel mate has yet to be seen. One goal is that I’ll never have to huff the rueful words: “This, brother, is why I travel alone.”

This intractable introvert would be lying if I said I didn’t prefer to voyage solo, untethered, with no one to report to or share every moment with. The claustrophobia of enforced camaraderie is something to be wary of.

Yet there’s much to be said for having a co-pilot in uncharted terrain (neither of us has been to Naples). It creates a handy support system and allows experiences to acquire more weight when shared. (He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother, as The Hollies sang. Although I have no intention of trying to lift my brother.)

I just re-read those last lines and wonder if I’m being too optimistic and ingratiating, slathering a shine on things to conceal shuddering apprehensions.

I don’t think so. Travel is too exciting, exhilarating and gratifying to be so easily sullied, especially when one’s unexpected companion will be as pleasant and profitable as my brother. Am I my brother’s keeper? I am not. Vice versa? Maybe.

So this party crasher might be my safety net, an insurance policy. But better yet, he’s a sidekick for the joys of worldly jaunts, and for, we hope, shared ecstasy.

Off to Italy. Shark not included.

Even for the most solo traveler, the human touch matters

Early on my vacation to Beirut, Lebanon, in 2008, I scribbled this in my faithful moleskin journal: “Depressed tonight, like the trip’s a mistake.”

Those are ugly, gooey words for an insatiable, solo world traveler like me, someone who practically levitates just smelling the inky pages of a new travel guide. Recently I hauled out a dusty box of journals from many journeys, randomly cracking open the Beirut book for the first time in 12 years. I was surprised at what I found, how dark it all read. 

It wasn’t exactly a revelation, but it’s a bit different from memories I shared in a long-ago blog post that described the city as “beautiful but battered, regal but raw … a lovely, melancholy place, at once desolate and disarming, friendly and not a little forlorn.”

What stands out in the journal is how damn down I am, on the city and on travel in general, and that’s the real shocker. Yet I think it all signifies those inevitable pockets of mild dejection, loneliness, confusion and fatigue experienced during any trip, even my best ones.

“I am so precariously manic as I travel,” I wrote in Beirut after a day of jumbled emotions. “Life’s complexion switches kaleidoscopically as I journey — up, down, sideways, loops and spirals.”

Yet this was different, so much intensely bleaker than the emotional yo-yos of my usual one-man voyages, be it China, Portugal, Morocco, Japan, France, etc. 

Much of it was certainly that the war-torn capital — once regarded the Paris of the Middle East for its beachside beauty and lush cosmopolitanism — felt like a tumbledown tomb, hushed and sealed off, choked in a martial pall. This despite hip bars and cafes, delicious restaurants, the prestigious American University and all the shiny men’s hair products.

I knew what I was getting into. I did my homework and sought out a place rocked by enthralling if troubled history, yet still knew how to party. (And how: the narrow, bar-lined Gemmayzeh district absolutely spills with stylish, rambunctious — and not a few douchey — revelers every night.)

Still, once there, my initial assessment was harsh: “Most of the city is a rundown wreck. Even the ‘nice parts’ are dilapidated — the Hamra district is gimcrack, mostly crumbling and derelict and spray-painted and bullet-pocked. … Beirut is an ugly city.” (I think I just lost my gig writing the Lonely Planet guide to Beirut.) 

I was slipping, hard, right into the old emotional vortex, and I was confused.

“I don’t know what is happening,” I wrote. “I suppose it’s the listlessness of the place that has robbed my zest. Something big is missing. A sucking, sinking void, parts depression, loneliness (one feeds the other), dislocation, depleted expectations.” 

Then I really laid it on: “This happens, and it’s fatal because it corrodes my desire to ever travel again, a crazy but not unfamiliar notion. ‘I’m through’ — that’s what I feel.”

The isolation I was experiencing in a cold city, despite interesting chats with taxi drivers and random conversations with locals in bars, was wearing. I’m far from extroverted or people-needy. But something dawned on me. I journaled, “I just need someone to talk to. My blood has frozen.” I was crying out, pitifully and most uncharacteristically.

Enter Lina, brilliant, warm, charitable Lina! The young local and I were forced to share a tiny table at popular loo-sized bar Torino Express on Gemmayzeh one night, and we naturally started talking. I learned she’s Christian, a teetotaler and speaks Arabic, French and English. She likes the heavy metal band Savatage.

Lina
Lina’s useful Arabic cheat-sheet

Not only did she write in my journal helpful Arabic phrases, she later drove me up Lebanon’s northern coast to lovely Byblos, showed me around and introduced me to some friends. She even invited me to her small birthday gathering at a bar the next night (I still don’t know how old she is). It wasn’t a romantic thing, it was plain, extraordinary hospitality. She was a mensch, a blast of sunlight in a dark stretch.

After even more encounters with friendly travelers and locals over 19 days — I spent a week in Beirut and 12 days in heavenly Istanbul — animated with laughs and living, I finally admitted in the journal: “Meeting people is groovy.”

On one of my last nights during the trip, I met a trio of travelers in Istanbul, an hour or so during which I may have finally figured something out about travel, and life. 

“I made people laugh tonight, honest extemporaneous guffaws, eye-squinching laughter,” I wrote in the moleskin. “That’s worth something. Real human connection. Meeting of minds, tickling of souls. What else is there?”