It was almost midnight, body-clock time. I was en route to Lima via London and Toronto. And New York. And Miami. I was also cursing my laissez-faire attitude to booking flights on the cheap, a trait I would curse further (and more colourfully) four currencies and several time zones later. But for now, I was two flights in and sitting beside a very restless Canadian called Perry. After a few hours of near-constant fidgeting, he turned to me and explained that he had been travelling in Europe with his wife; they had broken up previously and reunited for their trip, and had since decided to try again. But right now, she was flirting outrageously (at least in his mind) with someone a few seats ahead, and driving him out of his mind with jealousy. Within five minutes, I had their relationship history, with some love-life advice thrown in for good measure. This is what happens when you travel solo; you side-step formalities and go straight to the intimate details.
Two months later, as I returned from Lima, I spoke with the woman beside me in a queue (this time in freshly-acquired Spanish); she was travelling from Trujillo in Northern Peru to Wisconsin, where she now lived. She had been home to visit her mother, who was very old, and would probably not live much longer. I could see how close to tears she was, and hugged her instinctively – travelling alone puts us in these situations constantly. Emotions we usually guard are put on display for all to see. During my travels, I cried in front of a burly security guard in Miami Airport, a very sweet elderly couple in a B&B in Huancayo, a chain-smoking English proprietor of a hostel in Lima, a man called Chris, and several others.
It seems that crying alone in front of strangers is more acceptable than laughing alone. For example, one evening in Lima I treated myself to some swanky sushi; on my plate was a small soft white object, which I immediately assumed with culinary gusto to be some kind of wasabi-flavoured marshmallow. It wasn’t. It was a cloth, rolled up elegantly and now squeaking between my teeth. The natural reaction to this is obviously laughter. Of course, to a stranger, the only thing more unusual than watching a gringita try to eat a cloth is watching her then laugh to herself in an empty restaurant.
I am still vaguely in travel mode; I wrote this blog on two paper bags, and then typed it up in an internet café, because my laptop is still in storage. But more importantly, I maintain a sense of strength and calmness after my journey. I won’t attempt to recreate any emotional moments, but one memory sticks out as being a mini-epiphany along the way. I was travelling on a bus through the Andes and saw a bird rising higher and higher in the sky. It was travelling with no wing movement, just riding the air current and allowing itself to be carried. This, I thought, is the ultimate mode of solo travel, the ability to stay still for long enough to find direction, and to trust the big safety net of human kindness that exists in all forms and in all places.
Brenda Kearney works in The Fumbally along with working as an artist and training as an actor.