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A Table for One, Please: Solo Travel and Serendipity

All my life I’ve been a traveler, and many of my journeys have been made alone. I spent years wandering by myself through Latin America. I traveled from Beijing to Berlin by rail, floated down the Mississippi River in a houseboat, and searched for tigers on safari in India. I find a certain freedom in traveling solo. I don’t have to account for my whereabouts, and I often can’t. I don’t follow itineraries, so I rarely have a fixed idea of where my travels may take me. Alone, I don’t have to succumb to friends’ desires to sightsee. Alone, I can wend my way from spice market to mosque, from a bustling commercial street into the dreary maze of a nearby slum. I’ll pause in a café in Mumbai or Tangier and sip sweet tea, with no pressure to carry on a conversation. Alone, I can just follow my whims. That is, until dark.

When dusk falls, my world shrinks. My spirit wavers. The museums are closed; families have gone home. The parks seem dicey. In many parts of the world it’s only men who head to the tea lounges or bars at night. I’m not sure what to do with myself. Hit the tourists traps like the Ballet Folkorique? Go see a movie in Hindi? Darkness, I’ve found, can be my undoing. I’ll wander the streets and peer longingly into windows of homes where meals are being served. I want to ring the doorbell and be invited in. It’s that time of day when the most obvious option is to sit down for dinner. But I find myself daunted by the prospect of eating alone.

050715eatingalone2I’m fine at other meals. The breakfast buffet moves with a bustle. I can grab a sandwich at noon on the run. I relish an espresso or glass of wine in the late afternoon as I write in my journal or read a book. At that time of day lots of other solo people are doing just that. When I sit down to a table for one, I feel that my aloneness is on display for all to judge. When I walk into a restaurant and hold up a single digit, the host inevitably has a look of pity in his eyes. “Just one?” he asks, as if this is the saddest thing he’s ever heard. He then whisks that other place setting away and pulls back a chair.

I sit down, trying to ignore the looks of others. I pretend to be busy, studying the menu (which may be in Czech or Chinese). I scribble a few things down in my journal as if I have some hidden purpose, as my waiter brings me a glass of wine or an Orangina. I used to write postcards, but I rarely do that now. My iPhone (which may not even work in the country where I find myself) becomes a substitute for a good dinner companion. I flash my wedding ring as if to say that this is only temporary. Or check my watch as if I’m expecting someone who is late. I hide behind newspapers in languages I don’t read. I appear engrossed in a book when, in fact, I am usually too distracted to concentrate. I order whatever can be prepared quickly: never the chicken that takes half an hour.

My memories of places are often tied to meals. A lasagna on an Italian hillside I enjoyed with my family. A kaiseki lunch with a translator in the countryside in Japan, or that lamb stew served from a boiling caldron on Lake Titicaca that I shared with my best friend. But I’m not sure if any dish I’ve ever eaten solo can be associated with a place in my mind. I don’t think back to India and remember a delicious biryani. I recall the waiter with a pitcher of water who stood staring at me, ready to refill my glass with every sip.

Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, can you truly savor a meal when there is no one to share it with?

I’ve tried various survival tactics. At tapas bars it is easy to blend in with a crowd. Places that specialize in quick mezze plates are easy, too. One night in Beijing I signed up for a banquet in order to be with other travelers, but instead I managed to get stuck inside my dress, which zipped up the back. Alone in my hotel room I couldn’t get it on or off. I phoned the front desk, but no one could make sense of what I was saying. In the end I had to rip the dress off, but missed I the van to the banquet hall. In the former Soviet Union, it seemed as though tables for one didn’t exist. Soviets would ask me, “Where is your group?” and then simply refuse to seat me. I retreated to my hotel room with a can of sardines.

050715eatingalone3But there have been times when being a solo traveler at dinnertime was a blessing. In Varanasi I stayed at the Ganges View Hotel, which has communal dining. At first I was a little shy. Most of the travelers were in groups, but soon I realized that there were other loner travelers like me, and we bonded the way my hound dog does other randomly encountered hounds that like to bay.

Before long we were swapping stories. One woman had seen an elephant dance in Kerala, not because the animal was ordered to, but because he just wanted to dance. The woman briefly rose and imitated its plodding steps and we all laughed. Then a woman from South Africa told me that she’d met a girl in a village who’d been brought back from the dead.  “What do you mean?” I asked, amazed. The girl had been swept away in a flash flood. They found her a day later, still in the water, and when they pulled her out, she breathed. “Now,” the woman told me, “her village worships her like a god.” Before I knew it the curried soup was eaten and the plate of rice and dahl and lentils appeared. It was not long before dinner was devoured amid the chatter of other travelers, and soon we were sipping our tea.

Paul Theroux once said that if you aren’t traveling alone, you aren’t really traveling. I understand what he means. Going it alone means that there is no buffer between you and the world. And while this may mean enduring pitying looks from waiters and the occasional can of sardines, it also leaves you open to serendipity—to magical stories of dancing elephants and women who rise from the dead.

Mary Morris is author of The Jazz Palace. She lives in New York and teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Photographs by Jim Pennuci/Flickr