Women traveling alone have the burden of fending off both criminals as well as those simple perverts who are too stupid to understand what unwanted attention looks like. There was the guy in St. Augustine who followed me down the beach: “I have 4 miles to walk, so any direction is fine. Which way are you going?” I listened to stories about his daughter, recently locked up in a mental institution, while he followed me down the beach for about 2 and a half miles. I had to lie to him about where my hotel was, just to make a break.
On the way to L.A. I woke up mid-air, wrapped in a sweater and dazed in the land of incoherence and blurry eyes, when the guy sitting next to me says, “You have the most peaceful look on your face while you sleep.” The only thing I said was, “Really?” I pause, and then, “Weird.” And what I meant was, “Really? You’re weird.”
Then there was the guy at the hostel last night. You know the type, the shy, nerdy New Zealander who acts respectfully all day and then has a few drinks and thinks he is invincible so he tries to climb in your bunk. With a blunt kick and a, “WTF?” he goes back to playing innocent as if the whole thing was just an unfortunate misunderstanding. Awkward glances are exchanged at breakfast.
Despite the evidence that lone women travelers need to be on the defense, there is always the desire to trust your company.
Arriving in Melbourne, I was offered a place to stay with a guy I met only once in NYC. This is one of those situations that had the serious potential to go awry. Looking back there was some writing on the wall:
1) This guy is Australian, men known for being a bit brutish and misogynistic. They also come from line of criminal descendants.
2) He still talks about “scoring” with chicks like he is in some frat boy roofie contest.
3) Short man complex is alive and well in Aussieland.
4) He is a guy. I am a girl. We are both single. The math should have informed my expectations.
5) This one is my fault. We have nothing in common.
Arriving in a foreign country sounded better when meeting up with a familiar face, even if that face was merely Facebook familiar. Also, I am not one to calculate risks or options; so of course, I pass on my flight information and feel grateful when I recognize him at baggage claim.
The Ozzie takes me to his house, which, to be fair, was uniquely amazing: a 5 million dollar house on the beach that was abandoned by the owner (the father of one of the roommates) sometime in the late eighties. The decorations, curtains, furniture and family portraits reminded me of a set for some 80’s sitcom depicting affluence (Silver Spoons, Mr. Belvedere… something like that). Floor to ceiling windows were darkened with thick blinds that seemed to cough dust. The windows were never open. It was too large to heat and many of the rooms were used for storage, full of trash or boxes. I entered the sauna room to find stacks of old newspapers and garbage bags filled with old clothes. The pool has a floor of dirt and is covered with algae. There are 7 bathrooms and only one of the toilets works. There are cigarette butts brimming over in the Greek goddess fountains. They tell me to lock up my things because it was not uncommon for a squatter to stumble in through one of the back doors.
With a sprawling mansion, too many rooms to count, and a ridiculous number of couches, you would think that The Ozzie would have offered me some privacy. Instead, he says, casually, “You can just sleep in my bed.” I am having this flashback to college when men would offer this as a practical alternative. We all knew what it meant. I spend the first night folded in the crack between the bed and the wall, eyes open, kind of wondering how these little mistakes might add up at the end of my travels. When I know he is asleep, I crawl out of the bed and wander through the mansion in the dark trying to find a spare blanket and a pillow. In a corner room next to the terrace, I wrap myself in a long sweater and curl up on leopard print fainting couch, sleeping restively until the sun breaks through the dirty window panes.
The guys who live here all have money and look forward to following their fathers’ footsteps. The son has a new girlfriend, barely 20 years old. They had only been together 4 months when he decided to pay $20,000 for her cosmetic dental work. He bought her a car. One afternoon he tells me that he is considering buying her a $10,000 diamond Tiffany bracelet for Christmas.
“Are you guys getting married or something?” I ask him.
He scoffs and says, “No. I like buying her nice things; it’s better than gambling it away.” He explains that he is a gambling addict, probably a common problem for bored people with too much money. In the next breath he says to me, “I feel really bad for you.”
“I would never travel alone.”
He was right. I was alone. I found the mansion one of the loneliest places I have ever been. Father’s footsteps, indeed: too much money, too little care. It wasn’t just the symbolism of the dilapidated house or the lives that seemed to dangle meaninglessly, but the constant feeling that I was the outsider in a house with men who didn’t care to know anything about me. Collectively, I sensed pity in the way that they saw me: I was poor, I was a woman, and I was alone.
I spent a few days sleeping on the couch, working and weighing my options as the situation became more tense and my escape more dire. Since I had planned on staying at the mansion for a couple weeks, it was sort of jarring to figure out alternatives. Sometimes it is good to be uncomfortable, other times, it is just not worth it. This was the latter situation. One morning, I waited until The Ozzie left for work, packed up my bags and whipped out my pen.
I have become an expert at writing “Dear John” letters. When I was younger, they were long and explanatory, giving too many details, leaving too much room for question and analysis. The best are the ones that can fit on a postcard—a few short sentences and a very distinct, “Goodbye.” This one unapologetically implied, “You will never see me again.”
Within an hour, I had booked a room at a hostel a few miles closer to the city. I spent the next few weeks “alone.” And by “alone” I mean, with hundreds of other travelers who had left their friends and families behind. We become close. In some cases, too close.
But we all have something in common—the understanding that feeling lonely has nothing to do with being alone. One of the bartenders here in Bali is a decent English speaker, but when we were talking about being single, he says, “I like my lonely.” I laughed and said, “I like my lonely too.”
Familiarity is overrated, usually underwhelming. And, when traveling alone, sometimes it is best to just, be alone.