One of the first questions I’m always asked by Chileans or other travelers is, “Sola?”
Yes, I’m traveling alone. I’ve met travelers and spent a few days with them, crashed on ex-pat friends’ floors, and worked in a hostel. Nevertheless, when I explore a new place, when I make plans for the future, and at the end of every day, I’m alone.
This was a very intentional decision.
See, I’ve spent most of my adult life in relationships. When I’m not in a relationship, I’m going on lots of dates, doing too much swiping right or left, or getting back in touch with my old hook-ups.
Like so many others, I’m a relationship addict. For far too long, because it’s basically been forever, I’ve sought validation and self confidence through my relationship status. In my head, where all sorts of illogical things present themselves as rational, I’ve thought that if someone else thinks enough of me to choose to be my partner then that must make me a worthwhile human, right?
But the year prior to my current adventures was a year of break-ups: my partner of nearly two years, my best friend of four years, my lover who just wanted to be my best friend, and at the beginning of this trip, my vacation girlfriend who was an elongated, cross country Tinder fling that more than ran its course.
During and after all of these really fucking sad, but ultimately-for-the-best events, I knew that I wanted to change some things about the way I do relationships and to figure out how to be alone.
Even when I’m single, I’m never alone. In New Orleans, I’ve surrounded myself with a large, loving community. I have very close friendships with other poly queers, teachers, my soccer team, and my neighbors. Even these relationships are an extension of my need for validation, because having lots of friends means that you’re well liked, you’re a valued part of other people’s worlds, and you mean something. At least to me it always has.
Besides, being alone can be scary. It’s hard to avoid your insecurities when there’s no one to distract you from them. Fear of missing out, the obnoxious FOMO, is rampant in our lives because you can see the fantastic, though curated, existence of everyone else on the Internet.
I am a person who lives and learns by extremes, and what greater extreme could there be than to go backpacking in South America by myself for four and a half months? This was obviously the most practical solution I could find for my aloneness problem — and it was the one that made my mother the happiest.
It really freaked me out at first. No one would be there to help me when I got lost or felt sad and homesick. My friends weren’t all just a text message away or a short drive down the street. There wasn’t a lover or girlfriend along for all the fun, or even one waiting back home to hear about my adventures, my struggles, or my triumphs.
It’s just me.
I’ve spent hours wandering the streets of small coastal towns where the sea crashes against towers of rocks and felt so insignificant in the universe by myself.
I’ve ridden the metro in Santiago crushed up against the work weary souls of the city by myself.
I’ve wondered into the hills of Valparaiso to find gorgeous graffiti by myself.
I’ve sat in so many plazas and watched the hilarious antics of pigeons by myself.
I’ve gotten lost in a village on an island in Lake Titicaca in the middle of the night by myself.
I’ve drank so much tea and eaten so many pieces of lemon pie while writing more than I have since college in cafes by myself.
I’ve ridden a ridiculous number of buses for an absurd amount of hours by myself.
I just walked 60 kilometers in five days through a Chilean national park in Patagonia by myself.
After three months of crazy adventures, I’ve realized that just because I’ve done all this doesn’t mean that now I’m magically going to stop repeating the same relationship patterns I’ve had my whole life. There aren’t switches inside that turn off negative behavior, no matter what extremes we go to try to force ourselves to change.
Because I’m as addicted to extremes as I am to relationships, I thought that I had to be able to be entirely alone in order to learn how to be okay not in a relationship. But it doesn’t work that way.
It’s that infuriating gray area; that in-between where the whole world falls despite all attempts to render it in black and white. All of those girlfriends and all of my friendships are important and worthwhile, but they can’t determine my relationship with myself; only I can. There is a way that I can have those relationships and be comfortable being by myself. I’m not going to figure out that balance just because I’m sort of doing it right now in this surreal, quasi-reality of constant travel, but it’s a start.
For the record, I am much better at being alone than I was three months ago. I enjoy solitude and seek it out much more than I ever did before. I’m looking forward to being able to do it in New Orleans and not needing to constantly schedule dates and other social interactions every minute of every day. (Someone remind of this when I roll into town right before Mardi Gras this year.)
For me, this time being alone has been a way to develop a compassionate, loving relationship with myself so that I can be alone and be okay with me. Hopefully in the long run, through this relationship, which is admittedly kind of new to me, I can learn to value myself for the life I’ve chosen to lead and the positive interactions I try to have with everyone. And at the end of this trip, and the end of the each day, I know now that it is really okay to be alone. Sometimes it’s even kind of great.
Laura Burns writes, teaches, and travels. She is a queer woman who is based New Orleans, but she’s also on the road quite a bit because there are so many interesting people to meet and beautiful things to see. She’s interested in queer politics, feminism, education, polyamory, and any and all discussions about race, class, and privilege.