“No.” I’m halfway to telling him that I do have family Stateside, in the Quays, in Seattle, in distant California, to establish some bona fides; but I resist. He won’t care, and babbling is bad.
“Staying with friends.”
A pause. “You’re traveling on your own?”
“Yes.” The American’s hand twitches towards – a panic button? Handcuffs? His gun? My passport. He leafs through its littered pages, looking for clues to undetected crimes.
“Business or pleasure ?”
“I’ve come to see an exhibition.” His raised eyebrow levers detail out of me. “At the New Museum. In the Bowery.”
I don’t tell him the show’s about nostalgia for life under the Soviets in the former Eastern bloc. The Cold War may be over, but Japanese soldier lived for forty years in the jungle without knowing hostilities had ceased.
He scans the passport again, with a reluctant finality. An obsessive interest in modern art, while peculiar, is not actual grounds for refusal of entry, even in a female solo traveller.
“You’ll be lonely,” he pronounces. Threat? Judgement? Commiseration?
“Oh, no,” I say. “I make friends wherever I go.”
It’s late. There’s a long, cranky queue behind me. He shuts the document and hands it to me grimly. “Be careful who you make friends with,” he says. Finally, I’m home and dry in the Land of the Free.
How weird do you have to be to attract this kind of attention in New York City? I wonder. Not weird at all. Just a woman, traveling solo, and unapologetic about it.
Going solo is a choice, not an affliction. Demographics are changing all over the western world. More and more of us are living alone. Which often means, traveling alone. And even the most devoted couples needn’t be joined at the hip. Solo is not a hair shirt option.
The big question is: What do you do when you get there ?
In New York, my exhibition, thrilling as it was, took up only one day and no evening. So I did a little research, and discovered a flourishing yoga culture full of gorgeously painted lofts, friendly beautiful people, and a high, physically challenging standard.
It was wonderful; I loved every minute. But these were established groups, for New Yorkers turning up for morning practice before getting on with their busy schedules. I was grateful for the human contact, but still lunching alone.
Next time I traveled I joined a group, practicing yoga twice a day in a stunning riad in Morocco. It was a revelation. None of us had met before. We could eat together, walk together, share a bottle of wine in the evening, explore. Or we could swim, read, follow the course of our own thoughts, dipping in and out of the group at will.
I made friends on that holiday that I still see regularly today. Six months later, I went with a group on a learning holiday to Sinai. it was even better.
The secret was: Nothing brings a disparate group of people together like a common cause; and then you’ll discover that you’ve probably got far more in common than simply an interest in yoga, or painting, or learning Spanish.
I am very careful who I make friends with. Think of the qualities an adult must have to go learn something new with a bunch of strangers. First of all, a basic willingness to learn, to take risks, to maybe look a bit of a fool. So, humility, curiosity, alertness, not taking themselves too seriously.
I’m looking for those with self-confidence without ego, who can fling themselves into an unknown group in unfamiliar surroundings. They have courage, a desire to share, a liking for humanity, adventurousness and an open spirit. Those are the people I want as my friends.
This isn’t the army; you won’t have to scrub out latrines if you fail. It’s a chance to pick up old abandoned loves, to flesh out dreams that have been dreams for long enough, to surprise yourself and others with unexpected abilities, the endless investigation of human creativity and ingenuity. And frankly, to fall about laughing over sillinesses as I haven’t done since college.
I remember the exact moment one particular yoga group bonded, sitting in half-lotus around our instructor, who was encouraging us to sit straight up on our sitting bones. “Take hold of the flesh on each buttock,” she said, “and just scoop it out the side.” Every single person, from whatever country, of every size and shape knew exactly what she meant.
You can do it the hard way. Go to New York, see your exhibition, eat your lunch alone. But even stubborn individualists like me, who fiercely prize their independence, also value good companionship. We look after ourselves, but we know it’s also nice to be looked after. To relax, smile, let our guard down. Let the sun, the good food and good will, the beauty of the world, work its magic.
My yoga teacher comes over to me as I push hard, hard, hard, in downward dog, determined to get those heels on the floor, straighten those legs, work those muscles. She places her hands on my shoulders and gently strokes out of them the strain, the tension to succeed. “Jude” she says, “you don’t always have to work so hard.”
If You Go
There are many travel companies specializing in yoga retreats in Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Italy, the South of Spain. Styles vary according to teacher; most organisers offer a range from gentle hatha to dynamic vinyasa and ‘hot’ bikram. Classes are usually suitable for all levels, unless otherwise indicated. Accommodation ranges from budget to luxe. Try yogaonashoestring.com for dedicated yoga only courses. www.golearnto.com combine yoga with other options, as well as other fun learning and wellness packages.
Author Bio: Elayne Jude is a writer and photographer, specializing in portraying the UK military. She has published many articles on foreign affairs and women in war. She is a research associate of the think tank UK Defence Forum, and worked in information services for the House of Commons. She has written and photographed for the Scottish Daily Record, Great North News Service, Lothian Life, Total Politics and GoLearnTo travel company. She is a contributor to the Brighton Photobiennial 2012 Photobook show. She has turned lately to travel, from the ancient cities of Europe to the vivid life of North Africa. Jude is the founder of www.17dragons photography.com.