I think it’s very healthy to spend time alone. You need to know how to be alone and not be defined by another person.
Just me, myself and I. Time to brave the world, Rishon. Ok, by “world”, I mean New York. Still, it’s no walk in Central Park.
Before this, I had never travelled solo. I had been in foreign cities by myself for little pockets of time, you know. But not like this.
I’m not sure why I hadn’t done it until now. But I don’t know why I would intentionally do it either. I can’t say it’s fear. It’s not. But it also wasn’t something that I was particularly excited to embark on. Know what I mean? Maybe the “opportunity” just never came up — until my friend, who was on the trip with me met someone and decided to hang out with him instead.
Ok, so it wasn’t a voluntary solo trip. But there I was, abandoned, left all alone — all 1.58m of little me in The Big Apple — to my own devices.
To be honest, I didn’t really think much of it.
Except, I was about to have my first taste of solo travel, which turned out to be a pretty rewarding experience. Armed with a simple to-do list and no expectations, I was pleasantly surprised how different the actual experience felt from what the concept — or mere sound — of solo travelling might have one imagine. In hindsight, I suspect the trick is to keep things simple. Which I did. And I permitted room for a little exploration and some… whatever. Oh, but I did have a few “rules” in mind:
• Keep my spending to a minimum
• One mode of transport: By foot
• I would only have my earphones and music on intermittently (scroll down for my playlist). Otherwise, I’d be cheating — since, you know, music makes such great company.
• Plan the route so I would come back full circle to my apartment. It’s all about travelling smart.
I’m not an early riser. By the time I was up, made brunch and got ready, it was about
2pm. In hindsight, it was the perfect timing for my adventure. Some people like to seize the day and every minute of it when they’re travelling. For me, being out for too long in a foreign city can be really draining (is it just me? Maybe it’s an introvert thing.)
When I left my apartment, I felt a sudden rush of adrenaline. First-time high? Whatever it was, it boded well for an adrenaline junkie. Lorde’s Perfect Places started playing — as if someone cued it for the moment. Looking back, I realised it’s exactly the kind of song to be enjoyed alone; when you blast it out loud to share with others, it almost loses all of its intimacy. It’s the kind of song that gives you chills all the way to your fingertips, and makes you want to lip-sync to it without a care what strangers might think of you. It was the perfect prelude with which to begin a solo adventure.
And so, I began.
TOPOS BOOKSTORE CAFE
Reading. Accidental reflection.
If there’s anything better than a bookstore, it’s a bookstore café. That day, I brought two books with me — Kaddish For An Unborn Child and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I had almost completed the former, and there was definitely time to embark on the next one. I also had my trusty notebook with me. Here, I pen down anything and everything from poems and observations to all manners of lists — countries I have visited, concerts I have attended — as well as random diary entries. Dramatic as this may sound, I don’t know what I’d do or what I’d be without this notebook.
I took a seat that looks the bookstore entrance square in the face. I would look up sometimes as people came in and out to grab a coffee or a book. Sometimes, I stared for a bit, other times, a little longer than I should — not for any other reason (and there are so many) than the still-surreal fact that I was in New York. If someone had told me a few years ago that I would be here, at 23 (and solo), I would laugh and bet a million bucks I don’t have that no such thing would happen.
Yet, here I was. Sitting at a café on 788 Woodward Ave, reading, reflecting, looking out at an assortment of New Yorkers, wondering what kind of lives they lead. I soaked it all in, because no one was there to “steal” this moment from me.
WHAT A LOVELY SURPRISE TO FINALLY DISCOVER HOW UNLONELY BEING ALONE CAN BE.
NEXT STOP: STRANGE FLAVOUR
And random streets on my way over...
Naturally, after all that reading and intense brain-whirring activity, I was hungry. My stomach had spoken — it was time to go. My next destination was a place known for its sophisticated burgers. Along the way, I stumbled across some cool graffiti and I was thrilled — sometimes, the best way to see things is through others’ eyes. My brain started whirring again with questions: Who did this? What did these people (now immortalised as wall art) mean to the creator? How long did that take? Questions to which I will probably never have answers. But it was important to me: To question anyway.
At Strange Flavour, I had a fried chicken sandwich (which I ordered), and a few strange looks (which I didn’t). Occupying a table all by myself, pangs of loneliness came over me. Somehow, deep down, I understood it was not because I was. Rather, it came from the looks people were giving me. Was it pity? Curiosity? Whatever, I thought. Don’t know and don’t care.
Behind me, other patrons were having hearty burgers and conversations. Their collective voices soon felt like a cocoon of like white noise engulfing me. I could hear them, but I blocked out the content of whatever they were saying. Almost instantly, I felt like I could breathe again. In that moment, not only did I not feel lonely, I was relieved I was alone. I imagined how draining it would have been for me to be there. I was happy to be here — with me, getting quality me time.
Some days are for falling in love with people, some days for cities, and some for your time in solitude.
STOP #3: URBAN JUNGLE
Another kind of adventure.
It was only 6pm, but it was already dark outside. Time, for me at least, becomes an elusive concept in winter. It was quiet. There was no one around me. I’ll admit, it felt a little unsafe as I walked to the thrift store. But I took comfort in the fact that were no crowds — that’s how I knew I was nowhere touristy (unlike Times Square where there’s a mayhem of people everywhere).
Slowly (I’m not too sure how), a realisation dawned upon me – there’s something about being in a foreign place, where everything feels unfamiliar yet oddly comforting, as if you have nothing to prove, nothing to lose. I felt parts of me surrendering to the environment. My fears slowly transformed into freedom.
Urban Jungle is my kind of paradise. Well, thrift shopping is, after all, my idea of the perfect pleasure. Mysterious, fun and affordable. That the store was putting on good old vintage tunes, too, like Bryan Adams, was a total score. (Bryan Adams over Justin Bieber any day, amirite?). Oh, there were so many things in the store! I’ve always loved treasure hunting — this, in itself, is an adventure. I walked out of Urban Jungle with a black floral skirt in hand. Treasure found. Mission accomplished.
(IMPROMPTU) STOP #4: THE SUPERMARKET
My inner aunty came out to play.
Grocery shopping. Another guilty pleasure of mine. Since it’s just me, my
inner aunty came out to play and derived joy from comparing prices at different supermarkets. Yes, I did that. I confess I got a little distracted by ice cream (Haagen Dazs cost only US$10 for three here!), but I wound up discovering some fancy tea, which I bought as souvenirs for my friends back home.
GETTING HOME IN ONE PIECE
Alone, I was pretty good at achieving goals.
Alone, I had time and head space to think. For instance: What does it mean to be happy? What are my real goals in life? What should I experience next?, just to name a few thoughts. I did not have all the answers, but I truly believe that if I began to ask them often enough, I will find them. Or they will come to me. It’s only a matter of time. The more you spend time alone, the more you learn about yourself. We make the time and effort to get to know about others, but why not ourselves? OK, I get the appeal of travelling solo now. This whole journey of discovery and self discovery — it’s not too bad.
On that note, I put my earphones back on and headed home. Music in, world out. It wasn’t until I got home that the introvert in me let out a sigh of relief — relieved and unbelievably comforted to be back in my own space, actual, physical space.
P.S. My 24 hours in New York cost a grand total of US$33*, but it turned out to be one heck of a memorable one. I hope I don’t get too old and forget about this.
*Breakdown of my expenditure (including tips): US$4 (coffee) + US$11 (dinner) + US$8 (thrift skirt) + US$10 (tea for friends).
🎧 My New York Playlist 🎧