Being a traveler can be isolating.
Sure, you’re out there on the road, interacting with local people in fascinating places around the world, seeing the stuff of a Barcalounger’s travel dreams. You smile at each stranger you encounter, seeking connection. If you are lucky, or pushy maybe, you might even get invited to dinner at a new friend’s home, have a little wine or beer, or perhaps some kava, coffee, or tea, depending on where you have landed. Sharing a meal with people bonds you to them, mostly for the better but occasionally not so much.
Russian sailors invited us to dinner on their boat one night when we were working in Sochi. Dinner started around midnight and was a mess of greasy sausage, pickled vegetables and a bottle of vodka with the cap thrown ceremoniously overboard. Why toss the cap? No cap means no way to leave any vodka remaining in the bottle. It’s like a yard sale for vodka-lovers: Everything must go.
After that bottle became a dead soldier, another one took its place. Then another. Drinking in Russia was an Olympian sport. Not for amateurs. Fortunately we didn’t have to take the boss out on the boat the next day, because a hangover on a floating thing is exponentially worse than a hangover on land. Regrettably, we bonded so well with our new Russian pals that they invited us over the next evening for a repeat. A couple of days later, when the competitive nature of the dinners became clear, we lied to our beloved pals and told them our boat’s owner had now forbidden us to drink alcohol. There was weeping and toasts to our health and curses on our employer and so we bonded anew, this time over horrible no-good bosses.
But there are times when you are in the midst of slow travel—the unhurried, long-term style we enjoy most—when the foreignness of it: the currency, the music, the language barrier that makes you sound like a 4-year-old, the sheer weight of cultural differences, makes you feel alone. Not always lonely, but just alone. And you might feel weird about that because immersing yourself in all of the foreignness is why you went traveling in the first place. It happens though, and you take a day or maybe two to regroup until you feel that you are a culture-soaking sponge again.
Being a writer can be isolating, too.
Sure, you have loads of creative ideas erupting from every brain cell. Your table is a mound of writing pads and sticky notes, partially edited manuscripts, photographs, and the bills you forgot to pay because you were following a sneaking suspicion that you’re about to break through and finish a project.
Hours after a normal person would have eaten dinner and walked the dogs you look up to find it’s the next day, you smell like fear, and your dogs hate you. So when your neighbor comes by to borrow a book, tells you he has an idea for a novel he plans to write someday and then asks, “But what do you do all day?” you realize there is a deep need to connect with the wider world.
And then you spend the next 12 hours surfing the internet. Alone.
That sounds bad, right?
I thought so too, until I followed the advice of folks who are smarter than me and are teaching me loads about having a website and doing cool stuff with it. They recommended that I use my internet connection for good not evil. Use it to connect with other people. The catch? Connect with people I don’t know, and comment on a post they have written.
Well, who doesn’t love a challenge? I browsed around sites of other people who are learning about having a website and how to do cool stuff with it. I looked at travel sites naturally, because those are my people. But I branched out too, and checked out some folks who don’t have anything to do with travel.
I found an Irish gardener and told them their lovely photos reminded me of Oregon’s green landscape. A 60-year-old French Canadian woman has made a list of 60 things she hopes to accomplish this year, and inspired me to look around and make a list too. One guy I came upon has a few different monkeys on his back, a big dose of humanity, and the courage to write about it honestly.
And finally, I met Kathy, an artist who started adulthood as a chemistry major until she chucked her laboratory job at the age of 29 to follow her heart. It led her back to art. I zeroed in on Kathy’s post about herself because she sees a connection between her old life in chemistry and her new one as a painter. She identified that both careers allow for creativity. I have felt that my entire life. From poetry to building a log cabin, scuba dive master to scientific research, cooking to map reading, everything I have done to make a living has an element of artistry and inventiveness. Thanks, Kathy, for reminding me of that.
Kathy struck a chord with me for a second reason: I jettisoned my laboratory job and my house at 29 to follow my heart too: I wanted to travel and I wanted to write.
Luck played a part in what happened but I am not giving good fortune all the credit. In the American culture where I grew up, you aren’t given the things that are most meaningful. You go get them. You make the effort. So I did. I got by on very little money on that first extended trip by myself to make both my travel budget and my time out on the road last. I made some friends while traveling that I will keep close forever, I hope. Those connections are strong.
But we could all use more friends, right? I will continue to travel and open myself up to new friendships while I am out there, so the inevitable isolation that arises won’t last too long. Reaching out to other writers along the virtual highway online is helping to lessen the isolation at home and lets me travel from my writing table.
When my neighbor comes over to bring my book back, I think I will open a bottle or two and toss the cap away for old times’ sake. I’ll make it beer, instead of vodka, so we can bond yet both feel human in the morning.