Friday, October 26, 2012

The Life of a Solo Traveler

"You're traveling the world, alone?!?!"

Well, technically, I guess you could say that.
Monkey Beach, Penang National Park, Malaysia
But, as I try to explain to hesitant friends and family, I'm never actually alone (unless of course I want to be - another great perk of solo travel). Traveling alone is not only one of the best things I've ever done, but also one of the easiest and least scary ways to travel - despite what it may seem to the unfamiliar.

Two weeks ago, I crossed the Thailand-Malaysian border by land and rolled up to my quaint colonial-style guesthouse in Georgetown, Penang - a city that has earned the rightful title of a UNESCO World Heritage site - ready to fine tune my rusty ol' social skills.

Not even an hour after checking into my 12-bed mixed dorm, my dinner plans were set with a range of European travelers. While two girls were traveling together, the typical mix of a dormitory hostel consists of solo travelers just like myself, each with their own tale to tell.

I spent five nights in Penang, enough time to witness a subtle turnover of guests as new faces came and left. While my first days featured Jasmine & Dani from Austria, Natalie from England who is working in Singapore, and native Pakistanian Essa based in Kuala Lumpur, the final few days included Christin and Eric from Switzerland and Owen from Australia.
By day, I explored the fascinating cultural diversity that is Malaysia with my new friends, constantly surrounded by languages and faces both from the East and West.

My only solo venture in Penang was a private cooking lesson where I learned the secret behind some of Malaysia's mind-blowing dishes. Upon arrival back to the hostel, stuffed to the brim, a new dorm mate offered me a ride on his rented motorbike for the afternoon before either of us even thought to exchange names. In other circumstances this might seem odd, but amongst travelers, names often are secondary to nationalities and travel tales.
I made this! Orta Orta in the back (seafood tart steamed in banana leaves) and Chicken Curry Kapitan in the front (the perfect blend of Indian and Malay)
As we cruised around the island, I couldn't help thinking how good life is and how lucky I am, a thought that comes to my mind so often when traveling that I didn't know it was possible (apologies if you're tired about hearing of my bliss) We stopped for a cup of kopi, Malaysian coffee in which the beans are traditionally roasted in sugar and butter, where I learned about Owen who makes enough money mining three months of the year in Austrailia to spend the other nine months traveling the world.

For my next destination, the incredible Perhentian Islands were on my radar in a big way, but rumors were circulating among travelers that they were shutting down for the monsoon season. I wasn't brave enough to chance getting stuck on my own, but fate introduced native Swiss but half Thai Eric just in time to take on the adventure with me. While I've already made and learned so much from friends all over the world in only my first couple weeks of travel, Eric is definitely an individual that will always stand out in my mind. With the type of meaningful conversation that I seek, I was sorry to see him move on to catch his Bali-bound flight.

But as island life went on, it wasn't long before I found myself enrolled in scuba diving training and my new social circle for the week became the kind people at Quiver Diving who took me in as one of their own.  As slow season was a brewing and my dive instructor knew I was budget conscious, he offered me a free mattress in the shop, accompanied with the not-so-luxurious public toilet and cold shower that I happily accepted. I spent the week getting my open water and advanced scuba certification, where I could be found befriending the incredible creatures in the South China Sea. On land, no mirrors or personal space meant no fussing over make-up or appearances - it was a refreshing week of being al natural. Timing worked out just so that I even hitched a ride with my diving instructor six hours southwest to my next destination, Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur (referred to as "KL").
Right to left: Mark (my patient and experienced dive instructor), myself and Wong (dive master).
Both are Chinese Malays who I spent the week learning about all things diving to Malaysia from.
In KL, I coordinated with Essa (the Pakistan native who works in KL) who showed me around the bustling Malaysian capital, full of malls galore and food worthy of writing home about. After a meal in Petaling Street in Chinatown, we went to a hipster-esque art gallery/bar where he performs for the open mic night every Thursday. There, I enjoyed original beats from talented aspiring musicians and conversation with expats, travelers and locals from every end of the Earth. Amar from Sudan joined us for dinner, but I spent the evening chatting with Americans, Europeans, Indians and Asians alike, but I was particularly engrossed in conversation with two Malay brothers who were quick to become new friends.
Hoikken Mee - it's as delicious as it looks!
Towards the end of the night when all the musicians were compiling efforts and people were happily dancing their shoes off, I noticed the range of skin colors, listened to the blend of languages mixed with English and witnessed an eclectic gathering of cultures and religions all brought together by music and this wonderfully diverse country. The cultural diversity in Malaysia is one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen - I hope to write a blog more about this when I have a chance.

With a group new pals we got some post-bar "diner" food in Malaysia. While I personally would have rather had Malay food, they were eager to see how a "diner" style restaurant compared to the real deal in America (it didn't). Another fellow American traveler hailing from Virginia and now venturing around Asia searching for programming work joined our table. The expats and Malays commended our solo traveling efforts, but we mutually shrugged off the compliment as only solo travelers know it's really not that impressive- it actually takes more effort to travel with someone else for an extended period. To those that aren't familiar with solo travel, it may seem daunting and scary, but believe me when I say I'm joined by millions of other solo travelers who too have discovered one of life's greatest experiences.
Today, I am off to Jakarta, Indonesia to visit a couple friends from Ithaca. We will also take a few day trip to Yogyakarta, also on the island of Java. After my quick trip to Indonesia, I'll pop back to KL for a few more days, where I plan to meet up with the new Malay friends I made before I'm off to travel with some other familiar faces in Cambodia.

No comments: