Last month I went to Hong Kong. Alone. It was not scary, not exciting, not boring, not fun. I explored a new place and I learnt a bit more about myself. That was all. And that was a lot.
I have traveled alone for work before. I have traveled with strangers. I have traveled with distant acquaintances. I would never let go of an opportunity to travel and explore a new place. I would always find company or learn to get along with anybody willing to travel. I had never before planned and visited a new country alone with the explicit purpose of vacation. It almost happened by mistake this time. As always, I grabbed the chance to see a new place, even if it meant spending 4 days with myself alone, lost in a city of people who spoke a different language. I loved the experience.
I liked the vibrancy and colors of Hong Kong… even the crowd. I was a no one in a sea of people… no one significant enough to be judged or even looked at. No one cared. I was a local from day one. I was clearly an odd one out with my very Indian looks and different skin colour, features and clothing style. But no one turned around to look or question ‘who is this stranger amongst us’… a look I got quite often in other countries and even different regions of my own country. Since it’s a big city with good infrastructure and public transport system, it was easy for me to find my way and survive with minimum interaction with people.
There is a certain comfort in anonymity. No one bothers me or considers me a threat basis stereotypes… No one tries to take advantage of the innocent newcomer unfamiliar with the ways of their habitation… No one looks down upon me to mistreat me. I am a no one. I am just another face in the crowd.
In that anonymity, I found surprisingly pleasant moments of being a tiny something in the web of humanity and life. Being a nobody with no past, no name, no achievements, no dreams and no identity is liberating. It is not a blow to the ego. It’s a realization of the insignificance of ego. And in those moments, nothing matters. No failure or success, no pain of a love lost or joy of family and friends, no insults, no honours… No part of one’s social existence has a meaning.
I have traveled alone often in my country. I used to love the process of discovery and being with myself. Sometimes I would stride the streets of an unknown town with a purpose of the task at hand and sometimes just walk around aimlessly. The curiosity of being in a new place and meeting new people kept me excited and gave me joy. Somewhere over the years, I lost it with more trips including pre-planning given the visa requirements or the widespread availability of information through Internet or wrong travel partners.
After a short spell of despondency in my life, I found myself presented with an opportunity to be in Hong Kong alone. I took it up. Once I was in the city, it reminded me of my earlier days of liberation when I had just started traveling often and far. I remembered why I love travel and what I missed in life.
After I came back to India, I made my second solo trip within a week to a small town in Kerala. I confined myself to a 2km area for exploration and relaxation. I realized by evening that everyone in town could remember my face, where I stayed and which shops I visited. I was this tourist who looked unfamiliar and could be helped or scammed into paying more money for worthless touristy products.
There were awkward smiles and hellos. People laughed when I did something ridiculous like expected restaurant to be open half an hour before lunchtime. Some went out of their way to direct me to the right path when I was lost.
I was aware of the concepts of embarrassment, sympathy, respect and suspicion. I was identified, observed and therefore made aware of my presence.
It was a pleasant trip as well but there was a certain discomfort in being aware of my identity. Somehow I liked the feeling of being a nobody where no one questioned me where I am from or what I do… where I could be anything and nothing.
Small towns are warm and beautiful. Big cities are cold and often enough filthy. Small towns hold lessons in love. And big cities teach humility. Small towns make you assert your social identity. Big cities let you melt away in the web of humanity.