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“All great and precious things are lonely.” – John Steinbeck

Odd choice, India, if I wanted to be alone. But being alone is an important part of my journeys. Alone time. A lonely time. Alone with all of India. I feel more alone when I’m jostled by a billion strangers than somewhere wild and empty. But what is alone?

Alone might be out in the hot scrub, watched by nervous deer. The only sound inside my head is my heart thumping. Everything is motionless except for the crunch of a family of wild elephants walking slowly past. I stare, awestruck, as small as a world and as large as alone.

Or alone might be on the roof of a cheap guesthouse at sunset, having walked for hours through the crowds and chaos -like a murmuration of starlings- to reach the centre of the city and this brief moment of sanctuary. I watch the busy streets as parakeets dash madly for home, whooshing past in clusters. The call to prayer drifts lyrically across the city on the hot breeze. I feel a sense of exhilaration swelling inside me that howls,

“woohoo! I can’t believe I am here, in India, doing this. This is special. I am lucky.”

I love this kick, the rush and buzz of joy and freedom. Just being in motion for the sheer heck of it. This is the unbeatable intensity of solitude that keeps me hooked on travelling alone.

I love the continual exposure to new people, new faces and new ideas. And I appreciate being forced to make my own decisions and accept their consequences. I have to trust myself, encourage myself and boss myself all at the same time. The effort, the responsibility and the opportunity are all mine.

Being alone forces me to be resilient and flexible. There can be no coasting, letting somebody else make the decisions, work out the route and find somewhere safe to sleep. And there are no ties, constraints or compromises. I can do what I want, go where I want, be who I want. It is an undeniably selfish pleasure.

I miss those I left behind. Being alone adds a lick of lonely melancholy to the lovely moments. I can never share these memories with anybody. But being alone also adds a sheen of silence to each sunset and moonrise; the greedy pleasure of having it all to myself. Nobody within thousands of miles knows who I am. Nobody knows my name. I can be intimidated by that or relish the freedom it offers.

This is an extract from my book There Are Other Rivers. I’ll post the next chapter here at the same time tomorrow evening. 

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  1. Being alone is something I find really challenging in my adventures. I like being around people, so deliberately taking myself away is hard. This is one of the ways I am pushing my comfort zone for #projecticeland. It will be the biggest solo expedition I have ever attempted. I keep coming back to the Chris McCandless quote “happiness is only real when shared”. But maybe this is an excuse to stay comfortable? I guess I will find out next week …

    Thanks for making this available Alastair.

  2. “All great and precious things are lonely.” – John Steinbeck



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