If you travel solo, they will ask you. Elbows perched and eyes hungry, they will lean in, as though towards some kind of truth, some answer, a hint at a riddle only the very lucky even get to ask: "But don't you get lonely?"
And I don't know about you, but I will answer honestly. Which is to say, with an answer I don't entirely understand: "I don't feel lonely when I travel."
This is not notable because I travel alone. It is not notable because I like to traipse off into foreign countries where I don't speak the language and am not familiar with the customs, where I stand out like the 5'10" tattooed white girl I am. No, this feeling of okayness is notable because most of my life has been marked by a desperate, gnawing loneliness.
It doesn't have much to do with friends, with how often I go out dancing or how many responses I get to status updates. This loneliness, this sense of being on the outside looking in, comes from a hollow place inside, near the center: a thirsty vessel. It's a little piece of luggage I carry with me, always. Except, that is, when I'm actually carrying luggage.
So why would I feel the least alone, the least like an outsider, when I am in fact the most on the outside?
Nothing may better prepare us to travel than a feeling of otherness. And travel writers are perhaps the ultimate outsiders -- as one Tom Swick recently said, outsiders "times two." From living legends like Pico Iyer to newcomers like Suzanne Roberts, travel writers often cite a feeling of outsiderness as having readied them for their professions. I once heard someone claim that a disproportionate number of travel writers have been gay. Whether or not the assertion is true, the reasoning follows suit: people that perpetually feel like outsiders are more comfortable in that role. They're more adaptable, not turned off by lack of familiarity and cultural anchor points, but enlivened by it.
But it's more than that. When we travel alone, we strip away all familiarities. Everything is new and nothing -- not the street signs or smells or sounds people make -- makes sense. We have nothing to cling to, no one to help us find the hotel or discern the menu or listen to our worries. Like a meditation, we are forced out of the clatter and into the here and now, the exactitude of the present.
Travel takes away everydayness of life, all the meat and skin and muscle of it, and leaves us with something closer to the bone, to the pure, uncut truth of it: that, as HuffPost blogger Zachary Stockill recently remarked: "The more of the world one experiences the more it is made abundantly clear that no matter where in the world ones travels, the human experience is one of remarkable uniformity." And when we travel alone, we have nothing do but sit and observe and be still with the burning red fact of it.
If travel does, as Pico Iyer asserted in his seminal essay "Why We Travel" return us to a simpler, more innocent version of ourselves, it also returns us to a simpler, more innocent version of the world. And while we realize just how provincial our lives and beliefs and assumptions are, we simultaneously have revealed to us the beautiful simplicity of the human experience.
Because most often, most everywhere you go in the world, you will be an outsider. And so will everyone else. You will be alone with everybody, on the outside with everybody, leaning in, peering in, palms cupped and breath clouds forming, towards some truth at the center of it all, held behind glass like some glowing gem -- that no one, no one, ever gets inside of. And in that way, you won't ever be alone.
At least that how it feels to me.