What Travelling Alone Taught Me About Loneliness

Travelling alone made a troubling loneliness tolerable for ELLA GRIFFIN. She recalls how she spent her 30s avoiding the CRACKS IN HER LIFE and relationships by escaping to FAR-FLUNG DESTINATIONS

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was the original Gone Girl. When everyone else was leaving their wild 20s behind and pairing off and settling down, I started taking off on my own. My friends were horrified when I booked a week alone on the Greek island of Skiathos. “I’ll be fine,” I told them. But when the airport closed an hour after my flight landed, I was wondering if that was true. A fleet of coaches had turned up for my fellow passengers but I hadn’t booked any accommodation and there weren’t any taxis. I spent six hours sitting in the pitch dark alone, except for an increasingly drunk stag party who had decided that I was their new best friend. It was one of the longest nights of my life.

In the morning, I managed to give the stag the slip, caught the first bus to town, haggled for a room, unpacked, killed a couple of dozen mosquitoes with my shoe and went to bed. When I woke up, I felt like Amelia Earhart after that first solo Atlantic crossing. I took myself to a bar in the port for a celebratory drink.  But before I’d even picked up a cocktail menu, I heard a familiar voice. “You’re alive!” My best friend flopped into the seat opposite me. “Nobody thought you’d survive twelve hours on your own.” She had been so worried about me that she’d jumped on the next flight. Half of me – the half that was dreading having dinner in a taverna on my own – was relieved to see her. But the other half was already planning my next escape. Somewhere so remote that nobody could follow me.

While I waited, I wondered whether the goat was going to attack me, whether the wrong man was going to abduct me or whether I might just die of dehydration before either of these things happened. 

You’re supposed to be self-reliant by the time you get to 30 but I was scared of pretty much everything. Strangers. Spiders. The dark. You’d have thought that the more I travelled, the easier it would get. But no matter how small my suitcase was, I always found room for my neuroses and anxieties. I have a very vivid imagination and I managed to scare the living daylights out myself in some spectacularly beautiful places. On my first morning in the Seychelles, the airport taxi dropped me on a remote road by a stretch of aquamarine lagoon. There was a mean-looking goat tied to a tree and there was a whistle hanging from a branch but there was no sign of the eco-resort I’d booked. “Don’t leave me here on my own!” I pleaded as the taxi driver dragged my case under the tree. “Blow the whistle and wait,” he grinned. “The right man will come.” While I waited, I wondered whether the goat was going to attack me, whether the wrong man was going to abduct me or whether I might just die of dehydration before either of these things happened. 

It was the 1990s and I wondered why I hadn’t brought one of those newfangled mobile phones. But mostly, I wondered what a scaredy cat like me was doing there in the first place. I wondered that a lot over the next ten years as I took off on trip after trip. And I wasn’t the only one. I had a great job and a lovely boyfriend. I had plenty of friends. So why did I keep pressing the eject button on my life? “Are you running away from something or towards something?” a therapist asked me once. It was a smart question that I couldn’t answer. I fobbed her and myself off with the old hippy line. I said that I was trying to find some missing bit of myself.

And I told myself and other people I was having fun but that wasn’t really true. There were funny moments but they were usually only funny in hindsight. In Mauritius, my bathroom, along with complimentary toiletries, contained a trio of large lizards and a spider the size of a Philip Treacy fascinator.

I searched for it all through my 30s. In beach huts and five-star resorts. On Buddhist retreats and writing holidays and yoga workshops. I started writing travel articles partly because it made it easier to justify yet another solo trip. And I told myself and other people I was having fun but that wasn’t really true. There were funny moments but they were usually only funny in hindsight. In Barcelona, my personal attack device went off in my pocket and gave me a Freon burn. In Mauritius, my bathroom, along with complimentary toiletries, contained a trio of large lizards and a spider the size of a Philip Treacy fascinator. In the Seychelles, I was the only guest on a tiny, palm-fringed speck of desert island who was not on honeymoon (unless you counted the goat). It’s funny how quickly “alone” turns into “lonesome” when you are surrounded by dozens of loved-up couples. I spent that whole trip wishing that my boyfriend was with me. But it was my fault that he wasn’t there. I hadn’t asked him.

There were consolation prizes to travelling alone. The things I experienced were undiluted by other eyes or opinions so that even now, years later, I have perfect recall of my first morning in the tropics. The orange and black crab with a wonky claw that scuttled across my path on the way to breakfast. The taste of the passion fruit I squeezed onto a slice of toast. The flock of tiny scarlet cardinal birds that flew down to peck up my crumbs. But there were downsides too. To some men, a woman on her own has a sign over her head that says “available”. I had unwanted drinks sent to my table and unpleasant notes pushed under my door. In Mauritius, a waiter who was half my age kept telling me that he was “the best kisser in Grande Baie”. In Lanzarote, the man in the room next to mine used to wait until his wife and toddler went down to the pool to come out onto his balcony to hit on me.

I lay, face down with my cheek pressed against the cracked paint on the deck, listening to the hammer of my heart and the hollow pop of live ammunition and I made a pact with God. If I lived, I would never, ever go away on my own again.

And there were times when it got downright dangerous. In my late 30s, in a remote corner of Crete, the tourist boat I was on got caught up in a Greek SAS mission. I lay, face down with my cheek pressed against the cracked paint on the deck, listening to the hammer of my heart and the hollow pop of live ammunition and I made a pact with God. If I lived, I would never, ever go away on my own again. The shoot-out finally stopped and a police boat ferried me and a dozen other traumatised tourists back to the village where we were staying. I had a mobile phone by then but it was three hours before I called anyone back in Ireland to tell them what had just happened. Three. Whole. Hours. And, by the time I did call someone, I finally had the answer to the therapist’s question. I’d had it all the time, I just didn’t want to admit it.

The truth was that, back then, I kept everyone at a distance. I was too scared to really let anybody get close to me. I had plenty of lovely people in my life but I was lonely. When I went away on my own, when I made the distance between me and other people concrete, the loneliness felt, if not normal, than at least legitimate. I mean, who wouldn’t be lonely hundreds of miles from home? I didn’t keep the pact I made with God but I only made one more solo trip afterwards to a writing course on another Greek island. There, ten years after I’d blown the whistle in the Seychelles, the right man did come along.  And I came home with a part of myself I didn’t even know that I had been missing. My soulmate. It may not work for everyone, but allowing one person to get close to me was all it took to let down the barriers with everyone else in my life. I’m still not sure that the people I love would say that I’m easy to get close to. But it has to help that that I’ve stopped running away. 

Ella Griffin

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our May issue, out Thursday May 5.

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