One need not be a Guantanamo Bay detainee to understand that having minimal social interaction can wreck havoc on one’s mental health. There is a very good reason why the use of solitary confinement is still widespread the world over (in the US prison system, especially) even though the UN has deemed it a tool of psychological and inhumane torture. If the aim is to break someone’s spirit and render them submissive….then isolation is extremely effective indeed.
If long-term travelling has taught me anything, in the last decade, it’s that human beings are, without a doubt, inherent pack animals. As individualistic and independent as we think we may be, leave us alone for longer than a few weeks and we’ll soon discover just how unnatural aloneness really is, for us, as a species.
I don’t mean to trivialize this very serious issue by comparing solitary confinement to what happens to some of us travellers, some of the time. Not only is our isolation self-induced, it also does not reach the kind of extreme levels outlined by the UN, naturally. But it is still a very real concern on the road and the detrimental effects of prolonged social-withdrawal on the wrong kind of traveller can actually be quite serious. There’s nothing trivial about becoming so detached from fellow human beings as to find it exceedingly difficult to reconnect.
I recently read a very interesting BBC article on the way extreme isolation can warp the human mind, and although I’ve yet to meet an overlander who has claimed to have had hallucinations of backpack-wearing squirrels…I’m willing to wager a bet that some have come quite close.
The fervent need for social interaction and close human contact is almost palpable among travellers, although this is mostly true of those who have been on the road for months on end, rather than weeks, for obvious reasons. We are out there at any time of year (especially in winter when short-termers stay away) and we can reach far-out destinations generally discounted by those with only a few weeks’ vacation at their disposal.
Moreover, the actual need for socialization increases with time spent vagabonding, so if you normally only travel abroad for short stints, you may have absolutely no idea of what on earth I’m talking about. Usually, you’d be much more likely to avoid fellow tourists (especially those from your own country) and go to great lengths to immerse yourself in the local culture and be as removed from your own as physically, emotionally and intellectually as possible. After all…this is why one travels, no?
Well not necessarily. Not always.
I’ve written at length about the emotional drawbacks of long-term travelling, and emphasized that isolation and loneliness are two of the most common ailments perpetual vagabonds suffer from. You don’t need to travel to the most remote corners of the planet or make solo-expeditions to the ends of the world to suffer from social-withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes, all you need to do is travel through a country which attracts very few tourists. You see, social interaction is not just about being with people, in general, but it’s about conversing and spending time with others who speak your language and with whom you have something in common. Even in a country like Uzbekistan, with a healthy population of 30 million, Chris and I found our own isolation quite harrowing at times. The local culture was too far removed from our own to make meaningful connections possible, the language gap was immense, the location remote, its appeal still somewhat limited and the time of year we visited totally off the tourist season. We basically got it all wrong, in that respect.
Why are fellow travellers so important?
By the time we reached the city of Khiva towards the end of April, we had not seen a single fellow overlander in over four months. We’d seen plenty of people, just none with whom we could socialize. When Franziska and Tobias showed up at our guesthouse with Manny, their kick-ass Land Cruiser camper, the poor things didn’t know what hit ‘em. We greeted them as if they were family members. I admit that the firm hugs and cheek-kisses were a tad too-Italianish for a first meeting, but they didn’t seem to mind. Luckily for us, they were in the same boat; they had also been travelling non-stop for a month without coming across a single fellow tourist. We spent a couple of gorgeous days with our Swiss companions. We shared laughs, chats, meals and quite a few beers. This, more than anything else, is what we’d been missing for weeks. Not as much as showers and good food, granted, but you get the point. Our desire…no, our craving for social interaction took Chris and I by surprise. We both needed desperately to catch up on work, emails and to sort out our bike problems, yet all we really wanted to do was sit by the front veranda with our new friends and have a good old fashioned gas-bag. So that’s what we did.
Travel to remote countries and you’ll soon discover that an individual’s nationality only really matters during the Football World Cup. What really matters, on the road, is that we share a common language. It also helps if you are from a Western country and somewhat share my views on life. The further east we travel the more difficult it is to have serious conversations with locals we meet along the way, and this is even in those rare cases when they speak English. The last time I tried to strike up a conversation with a local at the guesthouse we were staying in, was a few weeks ago. After just five minutes of polite introductions, said gentleman told me that women shouldn’t really travel by motorbike because it’s not good for their reproductive organs. ‘nuff said.
I hope you don’t misunderstand me: I love Central Asia and its people; yet the kind of social interaction I need, after weeks spent traversing deserts and mountain ranges on a bike, is quite specific. I don’t want to waffle about the weather or food. I don’t need small talk. What I need is to have a stimulating conversation and share a joke or philosophical thought with someone who understands me.
As much as I cherish contact and interactions with locals, wherever I may be, what I need, at some very specific times, is to socialize with fellow foreign overlanders instead.
What happens when you go without for too long?
When we reached Samarkand in the last few days of April, we’d enjoyed almost 10 days of social interactions. As we walked into our guesthouse, right around the corner from the stunning Registan, we noticed a healthy crowd of foreigners gathered in the garden drinking and chatting. On one corner, I spotted a lone female traveller, deeply concentrated on the screen of her laptop. At the time, I didn’t give it much thought, yet it a few hours later, when she was now nose-deep in a book, I started to get the inkling there could be an issue.
Rosie is a super sweet Spanish girl who has been pack-packing around the world for almost two full years. She travels alone. She had no qualms telling me that she was going through a bit of a downer, within a few minutes of meeting, yet never once did she utter the word ‘lonely’ during our brief conversation. She said she was tired, disappointed, depressed and undecided about where to go next. She blamed the bad weather for her woes as well as the lack-lustre appeal of Uzbekistan’s major cities, for her general unhappiness. From where I stood, her downturned mouth and non-beaming eyes simply screamed ‘I’m lonely!’ My initial hunch was that she was suffering from lack of proper social interaction, but after two days I realised that her isolation was so intense (and by now VERY self-induced) that coaxing her out of it would be a colossal challenge. She had trouble keeping eye contact when we spoke and refused every invitation aimed her way: want to join us for dinner? A walk? An ice-cream? Root-canal therapy? Nah. She didn’t want any part of it at all.
She’d been travelling alone for so long that she was seriously suffering, but because she had literally forgotten how to be sociable (hopefully only momentarily) she was shunning the very activity she needed most. It was easier to stay in her lonely cave rather than try forcing her way out into the sun. I pride myself in my ability to engage others, but in this particular case I failed miserably.
We’ve run into Rosie twice more since Samarkand at approximately two-week intervals. She was much more extroverted during our last meeting, but she still kept to herself even though there were at least 10 other overlanders staying at the same place. I had thought perhaps she was just uninterested in talking to me…yet considering there were so many fellow tourists around I figured she would have found a suitable person with whom to have a conversation if that were the case. She obviously didn’t.
Finding that precious balance
There’s no denying that we all need time to ourselves every now and then. In moderation, aloneness can have some seriously beneficial effects on our minds. Whenever I have an important decision to make, my first tactic is to seek solitude. I find it difficult to hear my inner voice unless I enjoy complete quietness for a while. Yet finding a balance between a therapeutic time-out and a mind-bending isolation is rather vital. If you ever start hearing more than one ‘inner voice’, it may be time to crawl out of your shell…and reconnect.
Connecting with fellow humans may be an innate skill we all possess, yet it seems to me that no matter how long you have been ‘at it’ you can always run the risk of forgetting how to do it when you stop practising.
Recharging those social batteries, and nurturing your social beast within, is a must for those who spend a lot of time on the road, irrespective of whether or not they travel with a partner. At some stage, you will need to have conversations with all sorts of different people, and realizing just how important this is, is paramount to ensuring you have a very happy and balanced travel-soul.