December 08, 2014
The Lone Traveler

Why does traveling in groups come so naturally for some, and so difficult for others? This writer agonizes.

by Mario Rustan
Lifestyle // Travel and Leisure
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It started in school, where I explored corners of the colonial-era building by myself, and was shooed by a nun or a school staff if I got spotted. Even on family holidays, I detached from Mom and Dad so I could have more times to browse toys, books, and CDs by myself.

In December 2001, I did my first lone travel – Australia has its summer holiday in December and January and it was better to spend it in rainy Bandung than in scorching Melbourne. For the next five years I  always got picked for “random checkup”, being a lone non-white man. I passed the stringent checks in Melbourne, Sydney, and Singapore, and only relaxed once I reached Jakarta. Only then I realized my terrible mistake – I forgot to remove from my pencil case the utility knife. Had a security in Australia or Singapore spotted it, I would have been in big trouble.

Many people who know me from childhood can’t see me traveling alone. I’m clumsy, neurotic, and look vulnerable. Many Indonesians, of course, travel in group and this is especially true for the Chinese. “Group” here does not refer to 2-3 people, but more than four. The main principal is supposedly “the more the merrier” but I suspect it’s about “safety in numbers”.

In university I did plenty of group travels, usually one-day tours to mountains or beaches. But I went home every summer holiday alone. I wished I could travel together with my best friends, but many of them did not come from Java, or picked a different week or airline.

I always booked my Singapore Airlines flights from a very Chinese travel agent, and my Indonesian agent, a no-nonsense woman, picked me as her favorite customer. I didn’t change date, always paid on time, and was clear with my requirements. She said too many Indonesian students called to change their flights even after they had paid, as they wanted to match their schedule with their friends’. Many were not sure about what they wanted and tried to call their relatives or friends for advices. If their calls were not answered, they remained clueless.

Once I did have a chance to travel together with two friends, and like many Indonesians, they arrived at the gate close to boarding time. So I browsed the shops and the Net and read alone for two hours.

I am not sure if I am a smart traveler, but I have trained myself to keep my documents and belongings safe, to keep away from injury and illness, and to make the best of my trip. Even when I dropped my passport (thanks to my panicky trait), I got a get-out-of-jail free card as another passenger handed it back.

The last time I traveled with friends, I experienced the best and worst of group traveling. I arrived in Singapore one day earlier so I experienced the joy of picking them from the airport and riding the train to city together. My smile disappeared once we were in the hotel. I did not realize that my friends booked only two rooms and there were ten of us (!). Five people in a twin single room! No extra bed. And just then I realized that this arrangement is pretty common among Indonesian group travelers (that’s why we had to stay far away from the lobby desk).

The fun part: I got to dine, play, and shop with friends. The bad part: I could not sleep well for about three nights. The awkward part: I was eating a 7-Eleven sandwich for breakfast while watching NBA, when a female friend went in, grabbed a magazine, and went into the bathroom. That was the only time when turning up the volume is a sign of courtesy.

Eventually I went on my own way again. Everyone wanted to go to IKEA while I wanted to spend the day shopping nerdy stuff. After dinner everyone got bored with the show, while I enjoyed it, so I stayed while others went to Marina Bay Sands. I got my bed revenge since I returned early, packed my bag, and slept properly. No one had the audacity to wake me up, although actually I had no problem of sharing my single bed with anyone, male or female (just on that occasion, to be clear).

On the next day, everyone did their last minute shopping on Orchard Road while a Singaporean friend wanted to have lunch with me at Changi Airport. By noon no one returned yet so I left the hotel alone, worried that at the last step a hotel staff would stop me and asked which room I stayed in.

These two stories, of course, were about traveling with friends but not BFFs. Maybe like me, my BFFs are pretty private persons. My successive trips to Singapore have been always by myself, but I’ve always caught up with my Singaporean BFF, even after she’s married. I used to stay at my BFF’s apartment in Jakarta before he got posted overseas. Spending the day or evening with them (often they brought along their partners) was more fulfilling than with a dozen of people, although I think the number should not matter.

Every time I look at pictures of friends’ group trips, I long to be like them. Nothing complicated, just to be able to talk with someone during the flight, eating together, and walking together with our shopping bags. I still don’t understand why traveling together can come naturally for others and why it’s more difficult for me.

I still want to return to Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan, and Australia. I want to see New Zealand, Taiwan, and South Korea. And of course, there’s always Singapore. I would like to stop being a lone traveler – I hope the retirement can come sooner than expected.

Mario Rustan has so many things to think about his next trip to Ubud. Being an urban nerd, how will he spend two nights in a villa? He’s come up with weird ideas like running a private religious retreat, movie marathon, having spa treatment, or talking to fellow guests.