“So tell me, are you travelling solo?”
Inside a cheap, red-painted walls of a traveller’s hostel in Osaka, this man, who was most likely in his mid 30s, asked me once.
It didn’t take me long to answer that.
“No,” I replied. “Not yet, at least. But I will be in a few days.”
I had been abroad several times. My mother took me to Hong Kong and Singapore during my childhood, but that’s about the limits of my horizons for a very long time. Add the fact that I was only a kid at that time—the only travelling I remembered had always been looking across the pavements from my father’s shoulder, as he always carried me around for as long as I can remember.
In 2012, 2013, and 2015, I also had the opportunity to fly to Singapore for some business trips. The purpose of each travels were different, but I ended up spending more time attending seminars, massaging my feet in the hotel room, or carrying a 20 kilograms luggage around the country because I was supposed to deliver it to someone I couldn’t reach via phone.
So yes, I had been travelling quite a bit. But maybe because I’ve never had the chance to travel just for the sake of travelling itself, I had begun to crave for… more. Going to a different country only to get stuck in an office building for a whole day was not fun, after all.
I wanted something more. I wanted to watch the sunrise from a hot air balloon overseeing the majestic landscape of Cappadocia, eat breakfast in a luxury hotel room in Venice, or watch a broadway show in New York city.
So maybe that’s why when my office colleague and I found a good deal on some flight tickets to Japan, we took it without hesitation. I had always been interested in Japan anyway, as everyone might notice from the overall theme of my debut novel, 3 (Tiga). But there is something in that decision I took that transcended my love for the country.
It was as if there was something else within me that would buy the ticket anyway even if I knew nothing about Japan.
And I did. Or, we did.
There were three of us. Me, T—my office colleague, and M—her friend from the previous office she worked at. I remember T brought me and her friend to this small proprietary office coffee shop in Central Jakarta to discuss our itinerary together several months before the trip.
M, as it turned out, was very sweet. As we skipped the icebreaking completely and started talking about the itinerary, however, things were getting somewhat difficult. Not because T and M were difficult to talk with, but rather because they were so similar that I found myself being the single one out of the bunch.
They talked about going to Takayama, visiting the world’s heritage at Shirakawa-go, and spending three days in a luxury forest cabin near the tourist spot for a relaxing weekend. And while I’d love to spend some time relaxing in a very peaceful place like that myself, I also wanted to visit more of Tokyo, immerse myself in the anime culture that I love, and basically experience mainstream Japan, at least for my very first visit.
It was then, perhaps, that the thought of solo travelling first came to my mind. The idea was simple, really. The three of us would be arriving in Osaka together, and we had so many thing to see in the area. We quickly planned to go to Nara park, the lush green bamboo grove in Arashiyama, and climb the endless stairs of Fushimi Inari Taisha. Then, after spending three days together in Osaka, I would be catching a night bus by myself to Tokyo, while the two of them would go in an opposite direction—towards the mountain ranges of Takayama.
Even when I clicked the purchase button for my night bus, I was haunted with some scary questions.
What if I couldn’t understand what they were saying, or worse, what if I was asleep when the bus stops? Would I be missing the stop?
What if I need to go to the restroom in the middle of the night? I knew they would be stopping by several rest areas, but how can I be confident that they wouldn’t just leave me if I didn’t show up on time? Japanese people were known for being punctual, after all!
…Or God bless this stupid child, what if I couldn’t find the bus station? I tried looking up the place with Google Maps, and even asked some of my Japanese friends who live in Osaka to investigate it for me, but all I could find is just some empty parking space. Would that mean the busses are going to just… park there for our convenience?
(Turned out my bus was bound for Ikebukuro, which is the last stop it was going to make in Tokyo. This means I never had the risk of missing the stop, since the worst case scenario would only be the bus driver waking me up curtly.)
(And they always ended up waiting for everyone listed on their passengers list to return to the bus before leaving the rest area, so all my worries were for naught.)
(And yes, the busses DID just park in that open space.)
Looking back, I feel like the only thing that convinced me to click that purchase button anyway was curiosity.
I wanted to know if I could survive the trip.
And so I clicked the purchase button, entered my credit card information, and let out a long sigh. Whatever this journey is going to give me, I thought back then, it’s going to be good. Damn it’d better be good!
And you know what?
It really was good.
So this brings me back to that one night, with the guy who asked me that very peculiar question about travelling alone.
I stayed in a quite nice budget hostel in the Namba area of Osaka. It was only several minutes walk towards Dotonbori, the heart of Osaka’s kitchen and food courts. The hostel was surrounded with dozens of other hostels with varying sizes, but the one I stayed in had a bright red paint all over its front door, two English speaking staffs who were very helpful during my stay…
…and a complimentary Gyoza Making Party, to let its residence get to know each other better.
The invitation for the event was written on a piece of paper with crayons and probably a Japanese brand equivalent to some kind of a Sharpie marker. Somebody must have run to the nearest convenience store to make several dozen copies of the original design so they can distribute it to the residents.
I’ll be honest and say that judging from the designs alone, it wasn’t very inviting. Borderline sketchy, even.
But as it was several nights before I set out to Tokyo alone, with two of my friends already asleep in their bunk beds after twenty thousand ft of walking during the day, I let out a whisper of why the heck not, put on my sweater, and went downstairs.
The common area was poorly lit with some yellow lamps, and as I had expected, the place was almost full. In fact, I don’t think I would get a seat if it weren’t for a kind hostel staff who gave me her seat. She was smiling ear-to-ear when she offered it, telling me not to mind her at all—which made me mull over it even more than I should.
But eventually I took a seat, and began doing what everyone else was doing.
Essentially, this gyoza party involves the activity of making gyoza together. The idea is that we could bond over small talks on the table while our deft fingers would skilfully (I hope) mould batches of gyoza packets. The hostel staffs would then take our creations to the kitchen, where magic happened and our doughy gyoza turned into a perfectly seared, aromatic, and juicy gyoza, ready to eat.
I took over a small table in the corner. There were only two other guys beside me. One was a young man named Adam from Brazil. He said he was a computer programmer. If you’ve been to parties and could distinguish types of people in it, then Adam is the kind of guy who’d ramble on and on about his interests, without the capability, or will, to stop.
He started modestly, with how he thought Steve Jobs was so overrated, and that everyone should stop looking at “expensively designed” tech items like they were worth worshipping. Then he proceeded to tell stories about how he studied the PHP programming language for web development, and what kind of software bugs / errors he found during his day job. I completely lost him when he voraciously criticized a certain programming language’s approach to handling class objects and array pointers, whatever those things are.
I was almost thankful when he stopped talking to me. The other guy, whose name I had conveniently forgotten, told Adam that the hostel staffs were giving away free sake and umeshu / plum wine to everyone. Although he let out a small disgruntled groan, he took the cue and went to the growing line in front of the mini bar, promising me that he would snatch a glass of umeshu for me.
When I couldn’t spot Adam among the other people lining up for free alcohol, I heard the man in front of me let out a small laughter. “Very funny, wasn’t he? He talked too much about himself. I bet 500 yen you almost fell asleep earlier.”
It was then when I noticed who the source of this voice was. Previously, Adam had been demanding so much attention from me that I hadn’t had the time to look at the other guy clearly. But when I did, I realized that aside from having a thick Canadian accent—from the way he voiced “about”; it sounded more like he was saying “a boat”, this man was also impressively tall. He was wearing a dark-grey t-shirt with a black sweatpants, I remember. I don’t know why I seem to remember the strangest details about him, but I did anyway.
He looked at me for a good second or two, his gyoza untouched, and smiled.
Let’s be real, here. He wasn’t handsome by conventional standards. His face was to rugged, his beard ungroomed, and his hair was a mess. But I could clearly remember how my heart fluttered for a moment when he smiled to me like that. All of a sudden, I didn’t mind Adam presenting his autobiography several minutes before, if it could serve as a conversation starter with this guy.
This guy—let’s just call him C, because I forgot his name.
C was from Canada, as I had surmised. As we chatted over a sad plate of soggy gyoza, our mouths reeking of garlic and spring onions, we exchanged some stories about ourselves. I told him I came from Indonesia, and that I had been in love with Japanese culture for as long as I could remember. He showed me his pedometer count from his iPhone that day, which easily doubled mine. I told him about my writing projects and my desire to capture feelings with my writings, and he told me about his lifelong journey.
There was something very special that night for me. It wasn’t anything romantic at all, but listening to C talk about his job, his dreams, and what he’s doing in Japan was so interesting to me at the time.
I mean, how could I not? Unlike me who travelled far to Japan only to immerse myself in the culture, he travels for the adventure. He enjoyed seeing his pedometer count growing every day. He made sure to explore every nooks and corners of every city he’s been. “Knowing every corners of the city might not be much, but it certainly makes you think you’re getting closer to living like the locals, right?” I remember him said.
And perhaps this was what astounded me most: C’s dream is to climb every skyscraper in the world.
If you’ve seen those those daredevils’ videos on youtube, where this youtuber would climb a skyscraper with their action camera strapped on their forehead, and record how thrilling it was to have nothing but some fence and railings beneath them. Every single time the camera shoots what’s below them, I always shrieked in fear. I couldn’t see the enjoyment of seeking danger—risking their lives for mere seconds or minutes where the only thing that separates them from death is whatever their hands are holding on, or their feet are stepping on.
C asked me if I would like to accompany him to his next climb, to which I declined politely. I wasn’t really fond of dangers, and I was certainly not fond of the heights. I would most prefer having both of my feet on the ground, and not several hundred meters above it.
“What a shame,” he said. And for several moments, I thought that maybe he was right. Maybe it was a shame to have a fear of something—for me it’s height, and not doing anything to face it head on. Maybe it was really a shame to admit my dislike of heights, and hence preventing myself from opening the doors of possibilities that I could take if only I was more courageous.
I knew I had to face my fear of heights sometime. I mean, if I wanted to see the sunrise in Cappadocia, as I had always dreamed of, I would need a certain level of courage to face this fear of heights; this acrophobia.
And of course it wasn’t like a guy like C who had no acrophobia doesn’t get scared shitless whenever he’s climbing those skyscrapers. Of course he’s scared of dying. One false move and he would fall into his demise, after all. Nobody should be that fearless, I thought to myself. Perhaps climbing was one thing C does to face his fears head on.
Who knows? I never had the chance to verify my theory, as we never met again after that encounter at a gyoza party in a hostel in Osaka.
However, that night, listening to how C talked about this dream of his… it made me wonder. If climbing skyscrapers were how a non-acrophobic guy like C does to face his fears, perhaps deciding to buy my own bus ticket solo to Tokyo from Osaka was my version of becoming the most courageous version of myself. Granted, it was hardly a fair comparison, but I’ve always had this inherent fear of doing something new. And travelling solo was certainly something new.
Murphy’s law states that if something could go wrong, then it will go wrong eventually.
For the longest time, I had been a devout believer of this law. And for good reason, too. There were a lot of things that could go wrong by going alone. My mind had the capability of producing 1,000 anxiety-inducing questions to myself that I had no answers for. Peculiarly, it only had the power to answer one question at a time.
So as all the 1,000 questions flooded the chambers of my thoughts:
What if nobody understands me? What if I didn’t bring enough money? What if I lost my passport in one of the rest area? What if somebody mugged me? What if I couldn’t find my hostel in Tokyo once I get there? What if the bus doesn’t recognize my ticket? And so on… and so on… and so on….
My mind only chose one question to answer:
Do I really want to travel solo?
And guess what? For reasons I cannot fully explain, the answer had always been a massive yes.
That night, right after the gyoza party ends, we met up with Adam for one last time before heading back to sleep. He brought me the umeshu he promised, and he didn’t even try to hide his disappointment seeing how friendly I had gotten with C during the time he was getting me a drink. I still remember the way his shoulders fell limply to his sides when he walked away after giving me my umeshu.
C, however, walked me right to the elevator. He pressed the button, and waited for the elevator to let out a loud “ding” sound before letting myself in, and then himself. He pressed the third floor—I pressed the fourth floor.
“I doubt we’ll meet again, huh?” he said. I just smiled without giving him an answer. In fact, I wouldn’t mind at all if we did meet again somewhere. Only, I’d rather have a steady ground beneath my feet when we do meet up. And judging from the enthusiasm C showed me during our short conversation, I could never picture him going to a local coffee shop. The only way I could picture him is by thinking about the clouds, the chilly winds, steel railings, and a safety helmet that we all know isn’t going to save him from a careless accident.
By the time the elevator reached the third floor, C went out, held the door open for awhile, but said nothing. It was as if he was waiting for me to start another conversation. And we stayed like that for several awkward seconds, so I started to worry that the other residents might not be able to use the elevator.
I finally relented.
“Thank you,” I said. My throat being slightly sore because I was clearly exhausted. “I really enjoyed talking to you. And no, I’m not going to go with you to your stupid skyscraper. I’ll just do my kind of adventure safely here.”
He chuckled. “What kind of adventure?”
“Travelling by myself.”
“Travelling by yourself?”
“Yes. Travelling by myself.”
For a split second, he looked bewildered. It was as if he thought I was solo travelling al along, and by saying that sentence, I just debunked his belief somewhat. It was almost comical. And I thought he would want to continue talking somewhere in the third floor, just to get more stories from me, but he didn’t.
Instead, after a short pause, he asked me that question.
“So tell me, are you travelling solo?”
And this acrophobic traveller replied accordingly.
“No,” I replied. “Not yet, at least. But I will be in a few days.”
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