14 January 2010

Flying Solo

For those of you who follow the "Buku-Buku" section of this blog, you'll have noticed that the book I most recently read was called "A Woman Alone: Travel Tales from Around the Globe." The book, which was a gift from my aunt, was a collection of essays by women telling the stories of their solo travels. I read the whole thing cover-to-cover in just a few days, and was so inspired by some of these women's stories that I just couldn't wait to get out on the road, and face my fears about traveling alone.

And as it turns out, I've gotten my chance. I left Yogya last Friday, and spent the next four and a half days with my friends Aggi and Alex, who are teaching on PiA fellowships in Penang, Malaysia. After gorging myself on Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Thai food in Malaysia's veritable food capital, kicking it around Georgetown (the main city on the island of Penang), visiting some sweet temples (see a picture of Kek Lok Si to your right), hiking through a national park to go swimming on a deserted beach, and helping Aggi ring in year number twenty-three, I decided it was time to head out on my own. Aggi and Alex had gone back to work and I had seen (and eaten) the best of Penang, so it was time to move along.

With three open days before my scheduled reunion with Luna in Kuala Lumpur on the 15th, I hopped a bus to the Cameron Highlands (which lie roughly between Penang and the capital) to see what the mountainous tea plantantion towns had in store for me. I've traveled alone before, including in countries that are not my own, but this trip was different -- in the past, I've always had the phone number of at least one person with whom I could get in touch at my destination. When I took a solo weekend trip to Granada while I was studying abroad in Spain, for instance, I was able to meet up with the friends-of-a-friend, who took me out and showed me around town. But this time, I was completely on my own -- a woman alone, as it were. Oh goody.

When my bus pulled into the bus station in Tanah Rata, the main town in the Highlands, I disembarked without really knowing where I was going. I had called ahead to reserve a dorm bed in a guesthouse mentioned in the Lonely Planet, but I didn't really want to sleep in a dorm, so I was considering that my back-up plan. All the couples who had been on the bus quickly dispersed (obviously THEY knew where they were going), which left me and the only other lone traveler on that bus, a British girl who looked uncannily like a blonde Minne Driver. (I have since entertained the possibility that she actually IS Minnie Driver with a dye-job -- the resemblance is that uncanny.) Minne clearly didn't know where she was going either, so when a man approached us offering a free ride to a guesthouse called "Twin Pines" where we could check out the rooms, we both accepted. At Twin Pines, upon discovering that they were offering single rooms for 12 ringgit (which is about US $4) per night, I was sold. The rooms were basically closets in the attic, but I wasn't planning on spending too much time there -- and besides, it's cold in the Highlands. Like, actually cold. Is this still Southeast Asia? Will somebody please wake me up?

After parting ways with Minnie in the attic hallway and dropping my bag in my closet, I went back downstairs to head out for a walk, enjoy the cool air of the afternoon, and check out the town. While I was standing on the patio examining my map, someone with an American accent said, "So, what are you up to this afternoon?" I looked up to see a bald dude of ambiguous age, sitting at a table and smoking a cigarette. "I don't know," I said. "I just got here." Forty-five minutes later, I had learned that Ernie (not his real name -- gotta protect people's privacy dontchaknow), age 43 and hailing originally from Wisconsin, had already traveled around much of the world and was basically kicking it in Asia, waiting out the economic crisis in the States. Ernie is an ex-drug addict who first went to jail when he was 15, never got married or had kids, has bungee jumped in New Zealand, has touched a great white shark while scuba diving off the coast of South Africa, has taught English in China and has never had a beer in his life. If I had been heading out for my walk with someone else, we probably would have passed Ernie right by. Instead, I made a friend. Score one for Team Woman Alone.

I think that most people who have traveled alone agree that it can be by turns (and sometimes simultaneously) invigorating and exhausting. For example, when I had to use the bathroom in the bus station, I didn't have anyone with whom I could take turns watching the bags and going to pee, and when it came time to make decisions about accommodation, I only had Minnie for solidarity. On the other hand, no one complained when I chose to eat Indian food for all three of my meals today, and I didn't have to weigh the pros and cons with my travel companion of paying for a tour of the tea plantations -- I just decided to book the tour, and I booked it. (Which, by the way, was totally worth it -- not only did I get to tour a tea plantation, watch the tea being processed, sample some tea and buy oleh-oleh for my housemates back in Yogya, but I also got to visit a butterfly aviary, hold a scorpion the size of a bottle-opener, and eat fresh strawberries from a strawberry farm. Word.) I've taken a few walks, written 5 postcards, had coffee with Ernie twice, made friends with a Pakistani girl from Australia who has promised to add me as a friend on Facebook, and eaten every meal alone. It is sometimes lonely, but mostly fantastic.

That being said, I am more than looking forward to seeing Luna tomorrow. My few gorgeous days in the Cameron Highlands have been a super solo experience, but I'm ready to morph back into A Woman With Friend -- after all, it's nice to have someone to crack a beer with, say goodnight to, and ask to watch your stuff while you go to the bathroom in the bus station. Trying to maneuver into those tiny stalls and squat with a backpack on -- trust me, it just doesn't work.

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