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All the others were asleep on the crammed barge when the Guarani woman, whom I had been next to for three days, finally spoke. She didn’t make eye contact, but her broken Spanish and the absence of any other people who were awake indicated that it was indeed me to whom she was speaking.
“Aren’t you lonely? Why aren’t you afraid?” was what she said.
Solitude is undesirable in most cultures. But America prides itself on its independent types. Muhammed, Jesus and the Buddha spent time alone in the wilderness contemplating the big questions, but then they returned to transmit the fruits of their solitude, saving us from having to leave our own comfort zones and figure things out on our own. Nonetheless, the drive to wander infects many of us anyway, and we go it alone.
Northern Europeans, Australians and Kiwis encourage their youth to take a 'gap year' between college graduation and joining the work force. But there is an understanding that the travelers will return after a year of exploration, overflowing with adventures to share around the office water cooler during breaks and relieved to be back within the folds of society again.
For young Americans, the gap year is condensed further into a single, wild three-month train ride through Europe or a summer long visit to the cities and beaches of Southeast Asia. However, prospective employers raise their eyebrows if you’ve been gone longer than that. Longer absences mean increased exposure to the travel bug, a persistent parasite which has been known to cause permanent damage to the long term careers of the afflicted as a result of their tendency to leave their companies in the lurch whenever a rock bottom airfare lands in their inbox. In a country which stays ahead by pumping out microchips, corn syrup and knowledge services 24/7, unpredictable employee attendance is grounds for firing. Although American society shows scant compassion for the culture-shocked returning traveler, no one puts The Loner on a pedestal like the U.S. Only America could have produced the gloriously rebellious James Dean, the misunderstood Marilyn Monroe, and a wild, wild west full of cowboys riding off into the sunset to be alone with their thoughts over a campfire.
In America, you are considered a failure if you still live with your family at the age of 30. You really should be moving towards occupying as many thousands of square feet as you can afford with as little interaction or awareness of other people around you as possible. Success is measured by levels of autonomy. No one covets space quite like the American. In most other cultures, you’re just being silly and stubborn if you are single and don’t still live with your family. What a waste of resources, to insist on your own place as long as there’s a spare bed at Mom’s house and meals to share.
When I boarded the boat in Concepcion, Paraguay, I thought it would be a five day trip up the Rio Paraguay to Corumba, a border town in Brazil. The few cabins onboard were sold out, and as they were squalid, stuffy little boxes anyway, I wasn’t too bummed out at the prospect of hanging my hammock out in the open alongside the 250 other people onboard. I had tried to arrive three hours before the scheduled launch, thinking that would be enough time to assure me a good spot from which to hang my hammock. The best place on a boat like this was far from the toilet, which would probably block up and overflow, and also far from the engine, which would be loud. It would not be in an aisle, where I would be bumped all night, and would be away from crying babies and groups of rowdy young men. Unfortunately, everyone else had somehow, psychically, known that the boat would appear out of thin air six hours earlier, at 1 AM, and were settled in as if they had been living there for days by the time I arrived.
It is a complete mystery to me how people in third world countries seem to magically know when the boat is going to show up, since the person who sells the tickets almost never does. There is rarely a phone, radio, or other dependable communication system available to provide a heads up. Some ticket salespeople, who have had experience dealing with schedule-obsessed Westerners, will tell us with great finality that the boat is due to arrive at 7:15 PM next Tuesday. They are lying. They just say this because they like to feel helpful and they know we won’t leave them alone until they give us a time and date. In reality, 7:15 PM on Tuesday will come and go, there will be no boat. Days will pass and no one will seem to have any idea when a boat is coming when suddenly, there it is. Five minutes later, it is pulling back out of the harbor, and half of the little jungle village will have managed to catch the boat with all of their belongings in tow to go upriver to see relatives or pay a visit to the big city for a spell. There would have been no clues an hour earlier to suggest that a big boat was about to show up and carry half of the village away. And there you are, a sweaty gringo, hoofing it down the dock at dawn, dragging all of your earthly possessions behind you bundled up hurriedly in a stolen hotel sheet to catch the boat as it pulls away, the last of its kind to be seen for an undetermined number of days. Boat schedules in South America are as dependable a way of predicting boat arrivals as the rhythm method is a way of preventing new baby arrivals.
The boat was a floating mini village, laden with countless crates of food, dry goods, mattresses, stacks of corrugated tin, loose mountains of eggs, watermelons, miles of garlic strands, wandering chickens, pigs, dogs, miscellaneous musical instruments and enormous piles of luggage. Everyone was bustling around making little nests out of their stuff and jockeying for the remaining space. By the time I got my bearings, I ended up between the bathroom and the engine with crying children on either side of me, and someone lying below my hammock on the floor. Still, my lousy hammock spot beat lying on the floor, inches below someone else’s swinging hammock, as the floor was soon to become covered with dinner scraps, toilet overflow and worse.
When you are traveling alone, you must constantly make alliances. Pre-existing travel partners are good for watching your pack while you pee or diving into the crowded midst of a public market to buy enough food for both of you. Travel partners also make handy seat savers. On a crowded boat, where seats are limited, it is important to have allies.
After hanging my hammock, I scanned the boat’s perimeter and found a bench space between an old man with his grandson and two Guarani women. Perfect. No gropers. The child wasn’t so young that he would be likely to cry the whole time, and women always feel safer than men.
Now, it was time to make allies.
I tried with the women first, but they wouldn’t make eye contact with me, much less friends. I turned to the old man and asked him for hammock tying advice. He inspected my knot job and insisted on redoing it. After we re-tied it tightly to what turned out to be part of the engine, we sat back down and I offered him some cookies.
I had brought two big bottles of water for five days of travel and some non-perishable snack foods. Sometimes boat food can be too disgusting even for my cast iron stomach. I doubted there would be clean water onboard. Locals usually dip into the murky river for their water.
All travelers are their country’s ambassadors, whether they want to be or not. If you travel enough, even if you come from a country that generates many travelers, you will sooner or later be the first of your nationality that someone has met. And then, you will be in the hot seat.
I am a relatively tall woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. I blend in in California and Sweden. I did not blend in on this boat. There was no scheduled entertainment except for each other for the duration of the trip. I was the exotic novelty. The old man got status for being my ally. Most of the people were too shy at first to ask me questions directly, so he took charge, extracting demographics: American, 31, single, no kids, no, I don’t make that much money, no, I’m not in the military, no, I’m not a missionary, because Paraguay seemed like an interesting place to visit. The rest of the passengers leaned in to hear my answers. I kept my eyes averted from men and smiled from under my eyelids at the women and children as I responded. I heard my replies being echoed in murmurs down to the back of the boat along with, “Listen, she speaks Spanish.”
Travelling solo is the best way to complete your thoughts. In fact, if you stay away long enough, you will eventually rehash every conversation you have ever had. In the midst of this nostalgia, you may realize that you haven’t actually talked with anyone in days. If you don’t speak the local language and you are on your own, you will probably learn it fairly fast. We humans do need to gab.
Big talks happen during long rides after all small talk has been worn out. When you are sitting face to face with a stranger for several days, your conversation is bound to eventually transcend the superficial. If you have a travel partner, deep conversations with strangers are less likely to happen because you will be focused on your travel partner, and strangers will feel shyer about approaching the two of you than they would if you were on your own. Long rides are not as exhausting when you have a good traveling partner, because you can take turns – one of you fields questions, makes a good impression, and keeps an eye on the gear while the other person lies in the hammock drifting in and out of sleep for a few. If you are alone on a long ride, you will be bombarded with opportunities to have long, meaningful conversations with strangers and will probably wish that you had a partner to hand those opportunities off to at times. It can be exhausting work to be an open-minded, diplomatic ambassador.
The most common preliminary conversations with local people when you are on the road are:
1) Where are you from.
2) Am you alone? If so, why. Or, if you are with a man who is within 25 years of your age and shares your native tongue, are you their girlfriend/spouse. If not, why not.
3) Why do you know how to speak their language, if you do.
4) If you are from the US, why won’t your country leave the other countries alone?
5) How much money do you earn? How much money do other people earn in the your country?
6) Do you like their country? Why. Where have you been in their country. Which country do you like best that you have visited.
The above conversational themes differ from what you can expect to discuss when you meet another traveler:
1) Where are you from?
2) Are you alone?
3) Do you speak the local language?
4) How long have you been on the road? How long are you planning to travel?
5) Where have you been on this trip? Was it dangerous? What is your route?
6) Have you gotten sick? How sick?
7) How is the consistency of your poop?
All privacy is lost on a ship like this. You sleep where you can sleep when you can sleep. Night after night the engine roared, babies cried and moaned all around me, people bumped up and down the hall knocking me and my hammock around, and the person sleeping on the floor directly underneath me would shift every few minutes and knee me in the back. I shoved my earplugs in deeper and glared into the darkness in a sulk. Everyone was up at first light drinking terere, talking, laughing and hanging out.
I became extremely possessive of my two bottles of purified water. The old man liked my water a lot, too, and gulped it down freely and smacking his lips, figuring once we polished it off, there would always be plenty of river water to drink. I let him have one bottle and didn't tell him about the other one, hidden away in my backpack. People frequently offered sips of their terere (cold yerba mate, which is what everyone drinks constantly in Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, and less frequently in Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil) and I declined the offer, explaining that I had a cold. I knew this was bad manners because refusing a sip of terere is like refusing to shake someone’s hand. Terere creates community. Despite my dripping nose and husky voice, I think they all thought I was just another paranoid gringo who was afraid of the local water. Having seen the ship bathroom, I was afraid of spending two days on the toilet after drinking dirty river water. I guess they were right. That bathroom was the nastiest, stinkiest squathole that I had seen in a long time.
There were a disproportionate number of rowdy men without families on board. I noticed that most of them sported anchor tattoos. They turned out to be Paraguayan Marines. When they told me that they were Marineros, I burst out laughing at the irony of it because we were in landlocked Paraguay and said, "Well, where's the Mar?" They said proudly, "We're Rioneros!" meaning Riverines. I challenged them to breath holding and thumb wrestling contests. They told me about the Navy Seals, who frequent these parts, and how they are not afraid of anything but local drinking water. They couldn’t tell me why the Seals have a presence there.
One of the marines had a harp. As the harp is the national instrument of Paraguay, I appealed to his national pride and cajoled a concert out of the him.
We stopped at Puerto Casado and I got off the boat to look at it from land and try to find a clean water source. By this point, we had become a floating city of dirty hammocks, old bicycles, vegetables and funk. I realized we had crossed the Tropic of Capricorn that day. We were 20 hours behind schedule. We picked up a floating barge piled high with heavy building materials and a backhoe as big as our boat and began pushing it in front of us, slowing our progress further. I was ready to split.
The old man and his grandson got off in Puerto Casado. I helped a Guarani family from the boat fill up their water containers for the next leg of the trip. It seemed a smart investment of my time to support the project of getting as much non-river water onto the boat as possible. As I trudged up the hill with them, one of them turned to me and looked me in the eye for the first time. She said, “I’m an Indian, you know.” I supposed she meant that maybe I hadn’t realized that and otherwise wouldn’t think to consort with the likes of her. I said, “Yes. I know.” And filled up another jug.
We leave our homes to be alone and figure things out. We are never really alone, though. We just end up in new configurations with different people.
When traveling alone conversation comes as feast or famine. Sometimes, you find yourself giving the same diplomatic ambassador’s speech over and over. Other times, days go by and you realize you haven’t spoken to anyone. Shopkeepers and waiters see the hunger for conversation in your eyes and oblige you with some small talk for the price of a cup of coffee.
That’s when it’s time to go to a hostel. Hang out in the lobby until someone who has a nice feeling about them passes by. Most people in hostels are open to making new friends. The beauty of picking up a friend on the road is that you are under no obligation to continue traveling with them when you tire of their company. Every new location presents the option of splitting up and going solo once again. Sometimes people meet on the road and don’t separate until they go home. When you meet someone really great, your itinerary may shift to accommodate theirs in order to be in each other‘s company for a while longer. However, most people who meet on the road, share a few meals and a few nights together (just enough to get past the small talk), add each other’s e-mail addresses to their little address books full of global invitations, and carry on with their respective rough itineraries.
It is nice to pick up a fellow traveler when you want company. It is best if they have been on the road for a few months, because they will have calmed down. They won’t need to talk about their lives back home so much. Find someone who has been out for more than three months, especially if they are a first timer. Three months marks the turning point when you either go home or the road becomes your home. After three months, your friends and family will have grown accustomed to your absence. You won’t miss them as much by then either, unless it is a meaningful holiday or you are sick and have no one to be with. The perishable evidence of your existence will have been put into a box in the basement or a garbage can by the time you have been gone for three months. People will have stopped calling for you and your input won’t be missed at meetings by then. If you go back before the three month mark, you can still fall back into the rhythm of your old life with relative ease. If you don’t go back before then, it will be like starting all over again when you return.
By the time I boarded the boat in Concepcion, I had been gone for six months and no one back home had a clear idea of where I was. I only got e-mails from friends and family when I clamoured for them. I had settled into the tectonic pace of South American river life. I was comfortable knowing the boat might get there that day, or the next or perhaps the following, but not to count on it. I knew that unless I stopped moving and stayed somewhere for a while, or picked up another traveler, I would be alone most of the time. But I wasn’t lonely and I wasn’t afraid.
“Aren’t you lonely? Why aren’t you afraid?” the Guarani woman next to me asked. I hadn’t even known she spoke Spanish until then.
I caught her gaze, held onto it, and smiled. “No. I am not lonely. The people on this boat are good. I am okay,” I replied, and accepted a sip of her terere.