September 19, 2006

One



I love eating out. Even alone. When I do, I do the book crutch – I bring the book, but don’t necessarily read it. Or I read it. Whatever. I might spend the whole time just watching other people eating together, alone, or alone together.

(I’m a notorious eavesdropper. Why do people talk about the stuff they talk about in a restaurant? How can’t I listen to why they’re breaking up/having an affair/going bankrupt/or talking about others who are? And I mean, it’s just so rude of me…my nearest and dearest can do an impression of me at a table, leaning like I’m being slightly pushed by the wind toward the conversation, my ears pink with curiosity and swelling to the size of satellite dishes. I know…it’s bad.)

Steve and I went out one night last spring to a swishy restaurant and watched a couple spend the first half hour of their coming together, each in separate communion with a Blackberry.

We giggled, but in that we’re-all-going-to-die, hysterical kind of way.

Anyway, a few people I’ve met fear eating alone more than almost anything – although they fear just being alone even more.

I’m not one of them.

I remember a friend wondering at it – after his marriage broke up under him, while he swirled in that endless sea of emotional muck, almost drowning, just treading water, begging for solid ground – “But what do you do when you’re alone? How can you stand it?”

I think part of what he was asking was how do I fill my time? And more profoundly, why doesn’t it fill me with dread?

I don’t understand. Is the fear of being alone the fear of stuff you don’t want to hear/see/taste/feel inside? Is loneliness a vacuum that fills life with all its toxic waste? I don’t know. I’ve never felt that way. I mean I think you can tell that roiling about in the muck is part of who some of us food bloggers are.

I grew up as an “only” child, spent lots of time alone, and don’t remember loneliness at all.

And then I went traveling. I was single for the first time in years and I exulted in it. I was taking off alone. I was free.

I had put a high price on wonder and got my money’s worth. There were mountains and seas and deserts and jungles. And that was just the logistics and bureaucracy. Mastering the train schedule in India and buying a ticket should fulfill requirements for graduate degrees. And then, there really were mountains and seas and deserts and jungles.

I was going to say that I pushed my boundaries in Nepal and India. But the truth is, Nepal and India pushed me, well shoved me really. I had little choice. Life and death were entwined there – right in front of you.

For example, on just one day I saw Buddhist monks chanting and praying in the biggest temple outside of Tibet - I watched Hindu attendants prepare 5 funeral pyres - I walked through the temple grounds built to honour Shiva – I walked past sadhus, holy men who live with nothing, their faces painted, their hair and eyes wild, their trident spears at their sides – I watched monkeys hunt and tease each other in the trees - and happened on a courtyard where a few families had just sacrificed a young calf– its head severed, dogs licking at the spilled blood, men dipping their fingers in it, daubing the blood carefully on their foreheads and pouring the remainder over the shrine where they’d killed the animal, two children crouched and staring in fascination at the open neck until the adults dragged the carcass off across the cobblestones – it was so real. Surreal. It pushed every boundary I knew.

I returned to the river and sat and watched the cremations start. The buildings nearby were all hospices. People died there, cremated openly, mourned openly. A shin bone rolled off a funeral pyre, the attendant picked it up with two sticks, and put it back in the flames. The breeze turned and blew smoke, ash and grief over us. A skull burst with a loud, sudden popping sound – which they said released the soul. And it was done.

I went back to Kathmandu late in the afternoon - heavy, quiet, different.

Somewhere along the road, about three months into my trip, I was carrying more baggage than I thought. The time had given me space – the distance from home had given me time to re-skin myself – I mean, to find out that I was actually me, not a confluence of me with partners.
And life and death had been in my face. Everything I took for granted came into relief.
I found myself in my hammock, overlooking the sea, on the balcony of my hut in Thailand that was costing me $8 per night (Cdn) – with a bathroom…and occasional electricity. And I was sobbing. I was more alone than I’d ever been.

And I was surprised by the feeling. Kind of bitter, kind of sweet – maybe umami…

It was official. I was lonely.

I was homesick. I needed people more than I thought. I needed my people.
Loneliness is in everyone – somewhere.
Touching it was revealing and it felt kind of good, in a strange kind of way.

You know what I did. I sent emails home to everyone telling them I loved them, then I grabbed my book and headed for the restaurant nearby that knew a thing or two about pad thai and green curry – and if they’d caught any red snapper, I’d have to hurry…and I went and read and looked at the sea as the sun set, and I started gabbing with people - all of them looking for something, even if they didn’t know it.

You know one of these days I’m going to lighten up in this blog and you’re going to be shocked.

Top: A picture of me on Bapu, somewhere outside of Jaisalmer, India, 2001.

1 comment:

Julie said...

First of all, let me just say, you've had some interesting and exciting times.

I don't mind eating alone, and I've never traveled alone except for work which almost doesn't count. But I really admire the type and length of traveling you've done alone. It sounds as if you had some fascinating experiences.