My villa sat in the middle of rice paddies. It attracted dragonflies, butterflies and the occasional bats at night. I went to sleep to the hum of insects and awoke to the cock’s crow at the crack of dawn.
Ducks waddled in a row through the rice paddies. The local farmers passing by never failed to smile. Sometimes they waved from afar or even attempted conversations in Bahasa and English with me.
And yet in my first week in Bali, my overriding emotion was one of intense loneliness.
Loneliness is natural and normal in travel
We don’t talk about the loneliness enough, but it can be a fundamental part of travel – especially if you’re a solo traveller.
Many times, when you’re in the right headspace, the solitude is welcome. Many more times, the friendships click easily into place, built on like-minded interests and a mutual need for company.
Indeed, the last time I’d visited that same Balinese villa, I’d found myself in deep conversations and making plans with my housemates from the moment I arrived.
But other times, especially when solitude is the last thing you want, it’s often the only thing you get. The universe likes to play games like that.
My second stay at that Balinese villa was different. My housemates were elusive and caught up in their own social webs. After what happened in Japan, I was scared to be left in my own company, vulnerable to my own thoughts. Yet there I was, alone in a house of ghost memories, without a clear way into building friendships.
That loneliness was a passing phase, but I was stunned by its intensity. There were tears aplenty. I called home a lot and chatted endlessly with friends – anything to not feel anonymous. Yet every time I was awoken by the boisterous chatter and laughter of my housemates returning home after a late night out together, I felt a deep sense of isolation.
Granted, these were unique circumstances. I had returned to a place I had felt love and acceptance. And I had returned while my mind was still in a deep state of unrest.
But loneliness is a common companion for the traveller (irony indeed!). And it can strike at any moment.
In solo travel, everything is transient
Fast forward 6 weeks and I was back on hometown turf. Literally, on turf. At an outdoor concert, listening to a famous singer describe how her next song was written in – and about – her deepest, loneliest moment.
In that moment, as I struggled not to cry (it would have been acceptable – half the crowd were at it), I realised loneliness can be a deep-seated issue for many of us.
Because here’s the deal. Solo travel consistently reminds you that everything you do in life, you essentially do alone. It highlights how much your surroundings and relationships are transient.
You create travel families and lose them again in the blink of an eye. You meet incredible people, race to deep friendships or deep love within days or hours, and before you know it, you’re saying goodbye to board another train/bus/plane away from them.
As soon as you land in your next destination, it feels as if the last experience were a mere figment of your imagination, and those people you came to love simply phantoms in your mind.
Every moment is precious. Fleeting. Irrecoverable. Irreplaceable. Unrepeatable. It’s beautiful. And it’s heartbreaking.
You return home – your haven, right? But suddenly your community is no longer limited to a tight geographical area. You have people you love all around the world. Your heart has fragmented into dozens of tiny pieces scattered across the globe.
You can fit in anywhere in the world. AND at the same time, you can feel like you belong nowhere. Even at home, you can be a stranger. Nobody will truly understand the journey you’ve undertaken, the transformation you’ve undergone.
In all this madness, there is only one constant: YOU.
The one essential skill you need to combat loneliness
And that is why the one absolutely essential skill you need as a nomad of any sort is the ability to be content within yourself. You will be spending a lot of time in your own company. You may as well learn to enjoy it.
You could be staying in motel rooms, Airbnbs, or guesthouses, without sighting another person. You could be sharing accommodation, in a hostel perhaps, surrounded by people who have no intention of striking up a rapport.
You could even have a slew of newly minted friends around you and feel a sense of isolation. After all, socialising doesn’t banish loneliness.
In solo travel, it pays to know yourself. You’ll definitely fare better if you’re comfortable in your own skin. And you’ll avoid a lot of stress if you learn not to care what others think about you.
Paradoxically, travel teaches you all these things.
The easiest way to find inner happiness? By being alone. Funny, the way things work.
Loneliness isn’t a bad thing. It can be a powerful tool to teach you to love yourself and your own company. But of course, there are plenty of ways to find company on the road too.
So would I throw myself into that situation again? Absolutely. Sometimes I need that reminder not to rely on anyone but myself for happiness. I guess that’s what the universe was telling me that first, lonely week in Bali.
If you’ve got stories of loneliness, or strategies to deal with it, I’d love to hear from you – please share your experience in the Comments section below!
Otherwise, check out some of my other musings on travel and the soul on the ARoamerTherapy blog today.
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