The first time I travelled solo, I went by a fake name.
For the very first time I wasn’t anyone’s friend, daughter, student, sister, girlfriend, acquaintance. I was just me, and coming from our city-state village-country of Singapore, this would be a completely new experience. Gone was the fear of a parent’s friend spotting you having a sneaky after-school cigarette, forgotten was the possibility that whatever you did, wherever you went, there would always be someone you knew – or who knew you, or who knew someone you knew – there to observe. What freedom: To be able to create a whole new identity for yourself, to be rid of the ties I now hold onto so dearly!
And so I set off into the wild under the name of Alex, chosen partially as a tribute to Alexander Supertramp, the adopted name of Into The Wild’s tragic wanderer, real name Chris McCandless. Bear with me – I was barely 20.
Almost ten years later, I have a small group of friends in various parts of the world who still only know me by my travel name – which of course causes some confusion if they ever find themselves in the company of people who know the legit version of me.
But even as young Alex (and I speak of her in the third person, for I left her somewhere on a bus, on the way home from Thailand) wandered through the dusty streets of Saigon before moving into a hostel in Phnom Penh indefinitely, where her first instant community would begin to grow, the truth repeatedly presented itself: you are more than your name, and the role you play runs deeper than the story you choose to tell.
Rather than the brand new self many seek to show, or to find, it might just be the most natural and instinctive part of yourself that you effortlessly fall into.
FINDING YOUR PEOPLE
Not all hostels are the same, but their common rooms often bear a striking resemblance to each other: Books, board games, beer, sitcom reruns, and of course, people. Nestled into comfy sofas or seasoned beanbags, there more often than not are a similar group of travellers, the usual suspects and the expected characters you’ll find in any city, anywhere where travellers and backpackers congregate.
Some of us are born leaders. The organisers, the movers, the charismatic ones who draw people to them, and guide the course of the journey. The best organisers know how to get people feeling involved and included – they’ve been doing this their whole lives. Even as people gravitate to this natural planner, it has been decided – this is where the cool kids hang out. Here’s the life of the party.
You can spot the organiser at any hostel, usually surrounded by an ever-changing team of people. The organiser usually has a plan, and the rest of us are usually glad there’s someone around to do the gathering and herding. Your average organiser enjoys being the designated decision maker. A leader is no one without his or her crew, though, and once the key orchestrator has been (self) appointed, the rest of us are free to fall into our instinctive roles.
THE PARTY PEOPLE (THE CREW)
Along the Nam Song River in Vang Vieng, Laos I found a group of people who spray-painted themselves with the number of days they’d been partying non-stop. 831 was the champion, and evidently everyone’s favourite guy. I used to think that a passion for beer pong died with age, but as I’ve grown older, so have these timeless habits of group activities and endless games.
The main crew isn’t here to make deep connections or engage in stimulating conversation. They’re here to have fun, and there is fun to be had every single night. These party people seek shots and sex, and there are plenty of both to be found on the backpacker circuit. Travel is an escape and even within these escapes we seek further distractions still.
Those two or three individuals in the corner chatting and casting dubious looks at the beer pongers? Those are your truth-seeking intellectuals, your post-beat generation wanderers. You want to be social without being too social. You crave connection without wanting to be front and centre. There is safety in the quiet spaces, conversations to be had in the corners of the room. You’re after local beer and whiskey instead of tequila and drinking games. Observers find each other immediately; they gravitate to each other and are happy to be the outliers.
For some of us, it’s enough just to be part of the group. You don’t care where you’re going, or what you’re doing. You just care that you’re with people, and you’ve been accepted. Maybe you haven’t very much to say, or maybe you’re just happy to listen. The Joiners, perhaps, thrive in not having to make decisions or create clever conversation. They’re happy just to come along for the ride.
THE FIRST TIMERS
First timers find out that everything people say about a country is wrong and everything people tell you about serial travellers is right. More than anything else, first timers present a great opportunity for seasoned travellers to demonstrate their experience with sage advice on how things work.
My most recent first timer was a 50 year old who had never travelled backpacker style before. For men like him, young travellers are a mid-life sports car.
When we remove the usual roles we play in our home cities, we become the bare essence of what we are. Our sex. Our ethnicity. Our nationality. Our sexual orientation.
But beyond that, there’s always one or two things that stand out clearer than others, the one takeaway you have to show the world. Maybe you’re a planner, who works well assembling people. A joiner, who just wants to be involved. An observer, who thrives on watching interactions from within.
Finding yourself might be an overused cliché, but perhaps the real joy of travel is the self-discovery that comes with having just a day or two to demonstrate the essence of what you are, and the knowledge that over the years, your role – like your self – changes.