Solo Traveler in Strangerland

How I learnt the real meaning of longevity.

Tonia and I talked about a ladies trip ever since our first pregnancies in 2005. Out of our bucket list we narrowed down to Malta or Mexico. We settled for Malta. It was going to be a group of 7 ladies camped in Corinthia Hotel in Saint Julian Island of Malta. We would see the Blue Lagoon, visit iconic locations of Game of thrones series like the Red Keep and the walled city of Mdina location for scenes of King’s Landing. Suddenly, the ladies trip was called off when five ladies cancelled due to family responsibilities or other reason.

I didn’t give up. My mind was made up to go on a trip. Without the ladies and a preplanned itinerary, I packed my suitcase, visa, tickets, travel insurance and cash. Off I went!

In African residences that inhabit foreigners, the expats are often depicted as part of the privileged class. As a child, when it came to socializing with foreigners, we were taught not to talk to strangers. An Ethiopian proverb describes the uneasy cohabitation with strangers in the neighbourhood, dine with strangers but save your love for family. On this trip to Strangerland, my goal was to defy the rules, especially that one.

This wasn’t my first solitary travel, but it was my first time doing it intentionally. That made a world of difference. Solo travel doesn’t have to be a soul-searching hike like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat pray love. I didn’t know so much about the Netherlands, but it gave me a sense of safety to know that it’s the world’s flower capital, I could find goat cheese, and every variety of cheese I wanted. Truth is, I went on this trip, just because!

As a heavyweight champion of beating myself up, I was conscious of planning my itinerary, so I don’t screw up the entire trip. I printed out maps to all my destinations and never did I take off my eyeglasses because I read all the signs at the airport.

Finally arrived. I’ll admit, Schiphol Airport felt intimidating at first with all these strangers who could switch to English from the weird sounds of forcefully spitting out their words. One of the early phrases I picked us was toch? which means isn’t it? . It’s said at the end of a sentence. Toch? Unlike the British, the Dutch are direct and straight to the point. By the time I made my way to catch a train to the countryside, I was mentally prepared for a life or strangerhood in a town where every single person was a stranger. Sassenheim, a town is South Holland was Strangerland.

My AirBnB host was Nicolette. She was a tall, soft spoken life coach who lived alone with her black dog, Tommy. The first two days in Nicolette’s house I worried about my children. I called once but fought the urge to call again and again. But I didn’t care about phone calls or emails from anyone else in the world.

After two days of looking around the neighbourhood, I knew I had to get out to meet other residents. Historically, Sassenheim had a large tulip industry but only few fields remain now. Besides the castles and mansions, I saw it was a typical European village atmosphere with everyone strapping something, a handbag, groceries or children on their bike.

The city centre was a 40-minute walk away. I had to walk to the city if I wanted to interact with locals. I had questions. Why was the village church built on a dune? Were there any recent events holding in the castles? What exactly happened to the bulb flower fields that disappeared? This is how I interacted with the locals while also soaking up all the attention an inquisitive Black African solo tourist could get.

So what was so remarkable about this solo travel and living with strangers?

Coping with Loneliness

Travelling without a companion can be many undesirable things. It is uncomfortable and it can be lonely. But is lonely a bad thing? Not necessarily. Remember the quote, don’t be afraid to stand for what you believe in, even it means to stand alone. Alone can be scary but staying positive when you’re alone helps you cope with loneliness. For me being alone was like having a private tour with me and my angels everywhere I went.

Living Spontaneous

Most of my life I’ve been guided by convictions. What is right or wrong and few grey areas. I was averse to risk when it came to financial matters and faith. But this solo travel was shaking off that rigidness. The spontaneity of it all made me curious. Even though I had hoped the trip coincided with Michelle Obama’s becoming book tour in Amsterdam (which I eventually missed) , I wasn’t going to miss out on life’s spontaneity.

If you struggle to overcome fears or feel bored of going through same patterns every day, I’ll encourage you to step out of that familiar zone. Splash some spontaneity into your life!

Strangers that make unforgettable memories

On a beautiful turquoise blue skied day, I sat on the bench opposite the Presbyterian church building just to observe the frequency of the bus to Leiden. An elderly lady using four wheeled walking frames stopped to take a break, joining me under the shade. Goedemorgen I greeted, making my best effort to mimic that phlegmy sound of the Dutch accent. Good morning! she responded with a chuckle; she could tell I was a tourist.

Rosamond was her name. After the pleasantries we talked about the weather then she mentioned her son would be home in two weeks for her eighty-eight birthday. I couldn’t resist prodding her on that topic. You’re going to be eighty-eight? How nice!. With a wave of her hand, she dismissed my surprise. Then I asked her if she didn’t mind if I asked her opinion of what made people live long.

Her face lit up and she immediately offered a short response. Just what you’re doing! She must have seen a big question mark on me, then she offered to explain. Everyone should go through life making experiences. If you can go to a strange place, alone and not go crazy, then you are living a full life.

She was right. We all are not entitled to three score and ten years. A long life is measured not by the achievements, fame or wealth we’ve amassed. A full life is a long life.

Back in my crib that afternoon, Nicolette had stepped out and I wasn’t in the mood for chit-chat, so I just went upstairs. As I undressed my mind went to Rosamond. I thought about how many working family women like me could make a spontaneous decision such as travelling solo to a place they’ve never been. She’s got to plan the family’s meals, ensure the children’s education is not interrupted. Tend to her husband while managing extended family expectations. An African woman had to make it all work!

On this trip I learned the greatest value of money was not material things bought but memories it brought. Days I would just stroll off the apartment with no phone or camera in hand, cares of the world tucked away neatly somewhere. I didn’t have to stay locked in the toilet to catch up on mails or keep my room door locked even after I finished prayers. My AirBnB room door didn’t even have a lock.

This journey happened exactly one year ago to prepare me not just for the covid-19 lockdown we now experience. It was the soloness of the trip and the strangers that showed what longevity meant.

Whether or not you do solo travel to some Strangerland, remember to make the most of every human contact. Be kind. Let those you love know it because the sad thing about solo travel is that strangers you meet, you may never meet them again just like the family you left at home. All that matters will be the spontaneous, solitary memories that defined your time on earth.

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