Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
For the past decade, I've mostly travelled alone. Never to the most exotic places, such as Peru or Vietnam or Kenya, but always to the pebbled streets of Europe.
To my friends, I stressed the glory in the challenge, excitement and value of this lone-wolf lifestyle, but under my trumpeting voice, I really envied those unbreakable lovers who travelled the world together. Their fairy-tale adventures played on my newsfeed while I wrote poems out of foreign faces in faraway places, always alone. These days, I'm writing from cozy Prague cafés, where I live and work as an English teacher.
In January, I took a spontaneous trip with some new friends; one amorous companion and her humorous sidekick. We went to Vrane nad Vltavou, a small village south of Prague, where most of the residents work at the dam on the river. There wasn't much to do, but we filled a day with new jokes, games and challenges. We encouraged each other to try new adventures, exploring in a way we might not have if we were alone.
Some weeks later, alone on a two-hour train ride to Pilsen, I realized I had no one to signal to a point of interest, no one to help me sing goofy songs or laugh at my observations. Suddenly, I was reflecting on my past decade of lonely travels on a lonely planet. I was tired of that longing for company, tired of turning to my vacant left and my empty right, with nowhere to bounce my laughter. Tired of dining alone like a mad poet.
Some days, the only interactions I had are when I denied homeless people my cigarettes or pocket change because, though you may be stopping to take a photo with your smart phone, you're a budget traveller and scrimping. Travellers note: Impressive European train stations are almost impossible to stop and photograph without you becoming a target to scammers and beggars. As soon as they see you with your head in the sky, you can count on at least one person sauntering in your direction. Skip the photo and keep the memory of it in your mind: With no one to watch your six o'clock, you have to do it for yourself.
And while looking out for myself was not a problem, was I missing something else? Who would be there to remind me of beautiful days in Italy and Holland once I had long forgotten them? My solitary travels had hardened me, but did they dually entomb me as an impenetrable loner? Was I living in a sarcophagus of singular experiences, with whom no one could relate?
In Pilsen, as I wrote down these thoughts in a café, a moment stranger than fiction occurred. One of the hosts approached me, pre-empting my advance for conversation. Her name was Tereza and she operated a vocal training school in the city. That night, her students were to perform their favourite karaoke songs, and she invited me to sit on the judging panel.
At the karaoke contest, I was handed a mic to introduce myself and heard my voice echo through the hall. I felt the warmth of the crowd, so I didn't feel nervous. People in Pilsen are kind, and overwhelmingly more accommodating to foreigners, in a way that the locals of Prague, with their snobbish hatred for tourists (which is understandable) are not. I made friends with the judge beside me, his name is Tomas, which is funny because it's the same name as the main character in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I read on the train ride here. Cosmic coincidences like this are all too common when you're on the road.
I remember being the kind judge, giving As for effort. My token line was, "Great energy, but you're a little flat." By the third time I repeated this, everyone was in on the joke.
Regrettably, I had to leave early, so as not to miss my train back to Prague.
At the station, feeling good, I finally decided to donate to a homeless beggar. I gave him everything I could, a cigarette, my lighter, a 20-crown coin. His girlfriend came along, and for 15 minutes, we tried to speak to each other. We didn't share a language, but I have a vague idea of what she was saying.
I said goodbye and turned to the train station, and an epiphany occurred: So long as one stays open-minded and friendly and available for interaction, you never truly have to be alone. So maybe I never am.
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