“Where your friend?”
That’s what the waiter asks when I sit down for dinner in a thatched-roofed beach hut on stilts. The hut has floor cushions and a low table, and there four or five similar huts scattered around, all facing the same stretch of turquoise ocean, over which a magnificent sun is setting. The other hut occupants, however, are couples, and are more enchanted with each other than with the view. The waiter and I watch for a second as they take selfies, gaze into each other’s eyes and grope each other with abandon.
“No friend,” I say. “Just me.”
He smiles apologetically and hands me a menu.
I am on Gili Meno, the smallest of the three Gili islands off the east coast of Bali. You could walk Meno’s entire circumference in two hours, or you could take a horse and buggy… because there are no motorized vehicles here. There are also no nightclubs, no giant hotels, and no crowds. Instead, there are crystal clear waters, white sand beaches, and the friendliest bunch of locals you could hope to meet. I’m trying to think of another significant thing to add to that list, but I can’t. A few restaurants? A bunch of guesthouses? Some really friendly cats? Everything moves so slowly here it makes Bali seem like Times Square.
It is also not exactly a mecca for solo travelers – I can count the ones I spot on one hand. There are a few families, and the odd group of friends, but everyone else must either be on their honeymoon, recently engaged, or out to win the Madly-in-Love Olympics.
I, however, am on the longest relationship-free stretch of my adult life.
My decision to be alone is a conscious one. At first, it was like learning a new language, in a place where no one speaks English (or French,) and where there are different laws of gravity. It was disconcerting. It was humbling. And it hurt. It was also necessary. I had realized, over the course of the previous months, that I’d spent almost all of my twenties and thirties in relationships, and had spent much of those relationships hoping the other person would love me enough for both of us. It was time for that to change.
Ours is not a culture that encourages such admissions. I can’t believe I’m stating it publicly, but the more I pay attention to it, the more I feel like it’s something we need to be talking about. How many of our songs point to happily-ever-after, you-complete-me-soulmates, or at least agonize about said soulmate fucking up/fucking someone who’s not us? How many of our stories and movies encourage getting over someone by getting under someone else? Women, especially, are encouraged from the get-go to rely on partners for validation, reassurance, and self-esteem. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for love. But doing it the healthy way, without giving up giant swaths of my internal real estate, was not a skill I possessed. Learning to be alone has been one of the toughest rides of my life.
And it is by no means over. But being on Gili Meno, surrounded by lovey dovey couples and yet totally at peace, I know the worst has passed. I have stumbled upon the delicious freedom of not having to run a single decision, plan or change of plan past anyone else. I am – after much practice – treating myself the way I wanted to be treated.
Also, I can take up the whole damn bed.
Now, my only regret is that I didn’t give myself more time on Meno. There is such stillness here, such beauty, such a sense of safety. As I walk back to my guesthouse at night, every local I pass says hello, or offers directions if I’m looking lost. If anything were to happen in such a small place, everyone would know. There is community. There is trust. And there are sea turtles.
I spend my last full day on the island snorkelling with them, suspended in delight as they rise to the surface, paddling past with their great, turtley fins. I float through schools of electric blue fish, fish with black bowties, tiny yellow fish the size of thumbnail clippings. I glide over bright blue coral, and moving sponge finger things so magical I keep having to remind myself they’re not CGI. That night, I settle happily onto a beanbag chair at another beach restaurant. Some locals are piled around a table the bar, playing guitars and singing.
The waiter ambles over, and I order dinner.
“You have friend?” he asks.
“No friend,” I say, happily. “Just me.”
“Oh.” He frowns and looks down at his notepad. “I am sorry. It’s just… you order so much food.”
The next morning, I wake up with insane vertigo.
I turn over in bed, and the room spins like a theme park ride. I have to get back to Bali today, which means two boat trips and a very long, twisting bus ride, in the suffocating heat, without anyone to carry my backpack or, for that matter, me.
If there is a karmic law about single traveler smugness, it is now biting me very painfully in the ass.
I force myself out of bed, but within three seconds, the world tilts on its axis and I am horizontal again. I swallow my pride and text Morris, the lovely man who owns the guesthouse I’m staying in. He ferries me to the medical clinic down the road, and translates my situation to the doctor, who gives me god knows what kind of pills. A few hours later, Morris carries my backpack to the boat, and firmly instructs me to ask someone for help if I need it.
The first boat trip passes without incident. By the end of it, I am feeling somewhat more human, but also exhausted, cranky, and very jealous. As I wait for the second, I spy on couples from behind my book. Some wear rings, some don’t. Some hold hands as they chat away, clearly fascinated by each other. I watch enviously as guys carry backpacks, haul rolling suitcases, bring food and cups of coffee to grateful partners. I wonder what their secret is, and how some people can so effortlessly pull off what I could not.
As we board the next boat, a French couple takes the two seats next to mine. We make small talk, but in my grouchy state, I don’t let on that I speak French. I read for a while, until the waves pick up.
Then, the waves really pick up.
Water is sloshing into the open window next to me, so the French husband and I wriggle it shut. This works for a minute, until spray bursts through the cracks in the pane. The boat rises and drops, lower and higher. Some of the waves totally obliterate the horizon. The French wife starts to turn pale. I start to turn pale. And I realize, with bone-chilling certainty, that I am going to be sick.
That might not sound like a big deal to you, but I have a lifelong phobia about puking. Even typing the word is hard.
If I were stationary in a 5-star hotel room, I would be almost as panicked as I am now. But I am at the front of a boat, with toilets that are at the rear of the boat, past some 200 people, some of whom, certainly, are feeling the way I do. There is another rise, another wave, another thud. I clutch my water bottle and stare at a cloud in the sky. I cannot be sick. I cannot. Not on this boat. Not alone. Not now.
People have started shrieking. I can hear the rustle of plastic bags, and the idea of others being sick makes me even more nauseous. The swell is getting bigger, and French wife is starting to freak out. Her husband rubs her back and tells her there’s nothing to be scared of, but he also seems to find her fear amusing, and makes snide remarks about the shrieks of the other passengers. I want to smack him, but this, too, will probably make me hurl.
More waves. An enormous one crashes over us, water gushing into every orifice of the boat. There is actual shouting from the back. Seized with panic, I try to remember every trick I know – and some I’ve made up – about seasickness. Stare at a point on the horizon! Fuck, there is no horizon! Stare at your feet! Take deep breaths! Think about cold icewater! Think about your friends! Think about your dog! PRAY! French wife and I grab each other’s hands. She is hyperventilating now. I notice she looks a lot like a dear friend of mine at home, and have the urge to put my arm around her, but that would be weird and also probably make me sick. So I squeeze her fingers, and think about rainbows and puppies and gingerale. In a brief lull between wave bursts, French husband drops a comment about how hilarious it is that everyone’s faces are yellow and terrified. He laughs like a bad guy in a superhero film. His wife tells him he’s not nice and I really want to chime in and agree with her except I still supposedly don’t speak French. She starts sobbing. I feel the tears come.
French husband kisses French wife, which is I guess is sweet except that I can’t stand being touched when I’m nauseous, and even their by-proxy touching is pushing me towards the edge. I also desperately need to pee, but that would be impossible, and I’m so soaked that it probably wouldn’t matter either way. The waves carry on, I have no idea for how much longer. But minutes or days or hours later, the impossible happens: the swell starts to let up. There is more space between dips, and the drops are less drop-like. We all share a sigh of relief as the engine slows and we approach solid ground.
There are echoed murmurs of “never again” as people wobble off the boat, wide-eyed, some of them so drenched they look as if they’ve been swimming. I am directed to the squat toilet at the taxi stand, and my legs are shaking so hard I almost fall in. On my way to my shuttle bus, I pass French wife. She’s sitting on the curb, drinking a bottle of Coke, looking pale but grateful. My instinct is to walk past and leave her alone.
Instead I lean down, drop my hand in front of her line of vision and wriggle my fingers. She looks up at me and smiles.
“Goodbye,” I say, quietly. “And thank you.”
Her smile widens. “You are welcome. Goodbye.”
The shuttle bus is packed to bursting – me, a German/Spanish couple, and a group of Finnish girls. But we’ve all literally been on the same boat, so there is immediate camaraderie. We share our respective snacks and drinks, and trade travel stories and tips. I help the couple figure out where they’re staying. Eventually, we lapse into a comfortable silence.
During the boat ride, my room back on Bali had felt like it existed in another dimension – like I would never get there, like the world would never stop moving, like I was doomed to stay in nautical purgatory forever. But it is, shockingly, exactly where I left it. I collapse onto the bed, shoveling half a serving of fried rice and chicken into my mouth with my fingers because I am too tired to get a fork and there is no one to see me anyway. Cars and motorbikes hum past on the street, beeping and accelerating. Dogs bark in the distance. Mosquitos buzz through the crack in the doorway. Life on Bali carries on, as if there were no tragedies in the world, no victories, no tears. Or maybe because there are.
I stretch out right in the middle of the bed, say a prayer of gratitude, and fall asleep.