1 is the Loneliest Number

Ever since I was old enough to hold my own passport I’ve been of the mind that the best way to travel was solo. No compromising, no catering to the desires of someone else. Travel was a rare, treasured use of time and resources so it was best enjoyed greedily, selfishly. This particular form of self indulgence was deep in my blood by the time I was 18, having already driven solo to and across Death Valley, backpacked solo across Rannoch Moor, and many more places few people have ever heard of.

Ten years later I tried travelling with a significant other and it proved to be the beginning of the end of that relationship. A kind of pattern developed around this. I convinced myself that I was destined to be a solo traveller. But there was one experience that fell outside of the pattern. I was in Egypt, travelling alone as you would expect. I had hitched a ride in an ancient Rusian jeep with some locals in Farafra, to traverse the Qattara Depression to Siwa oasis near the Libyan border. I believe I had some poetic notion of consulting the oracle of Ammon myself, just as Alexander had done 1,700 years before. 

Hitching a ride across the Qattara depression is no mean feat. Locals say someone tries it about once every month or two and about half fail and most of those are never seen again. It is a saline desert bereft of humans and known for its salt deposits and minefields left from the second world war. 

The night before departure I spent at a kind of guest house on the edge of Farafra, a place infamous for scoundrels. I shared a meal of lentils and rice fried in rancid oil with a Japanese solo traveler. I don’t remember his name but I do remember he was a hairdresser from Tokyo. It was his practise to work nine months of the year and travel the remainder. I told him of my intention to go to Siwa the next day via the Quattara depression. He voiced a strong interest in joining the expedition. The next morning the two local chaps who were to take me arrived in their well-worn Vaz 2121. I asked if there would be room for another passenger. They eagerly said yes and tried to charge him as much as me. I said it would be fairer to split the cost I was paying between the two of us. We agreed on something between the two positions — they seemed to enjoy the haggle.

We threw our rucksacks into the back of the Vaz and then joined them there, along with a large selection of tools, tyres, tins of oil, cans of petrol. Other cans of petrol, a tyre, and water jugs were haphazardly lashed to the front of the jeep. We drove north along the paved road to Bawiti and then turned off to the left, onto an unpaved, single-tracked road. Ten minutes into our journey we got our first puncture. 

My fellow traveller and I then witnessed a ritual we would get to know very well throughout that day — the removal of almost everything lashed to the vehicle, jacking it up, removing the wheel with the flat, removing the tyre from the wheel, replacing it and the inner tube with another, remounting the wheel and then inflating it with a contraption they screwed into one of the cylinders of the engine after having removed the spark plug. The compression of the cylinder drove a pump that re-inflated the tyre. Then we packed everything back on the jeep and got back underway. The chap who was not driving took the flat tube and  tyre onto his lap and patched/plugged the hole with scraps of old tyre he had in a bag at his feet and glued them into place. They repeated this ritual at least five times on that trip.

The trip was relatively uneventful except for the haunting landscape, the remote guard post where we were held at gunpoint by a soldier until we gave him some food and some money, oh, and when the driver, who had picked up an armful of rocks at the roadside during one of the six puncture rituals, began throwing them off into the seemingly empty terrain off his side of the road. We asked him why he was throwing the stones and he said in very broken english that he wanted to ‘clear the way’ of landmines. That got our attention. Thankfully, there were no explosions.

Over the course of a very long day spent smashed into a very hot, crowded, and smelly old jeep, my travel companion and I compared experiences as solo travellers. By the time we arrived in Siwa and got settled at the only available guest house in the village, we had become familiar with many of each other’s stories. We found numerous ways in which our lives differed and just as many ways they were similar. But what was most interesting was how often we shared perspectives on similar experiences that were quite different. This made me rethink many of my past experiences over the coming days, and try to see those memories through a different set of eyes. Over the next few days we explored the area together and continued to swap stories and asked each other how we were perceiving the things we were experiencing at that very moment.

And then, just as quickly as our adventure together started, it ended. I continued to the north and he returned with our jeep guides to Bawiti where he would catch a bus to Cairo. It was a long and dusty trip on the bus to Marsa Matruh. This was most likely due to fact that most of the aft floor of the bus was missing, allowing both exhaust from the engine below to enter the cabin along with the dust from the wheels beneath the engine. To say it was unpleasant would be an understatement.

But that journey to Marsa Matruh, and for the rest of the journey to Alexandria and then Cairo, was completely different from what had preceded it. I couldn’t help but wonder what my Japanese friend might have thought of the things I witnessed. I could and did imagine his reactions and found I was beginning to see things through both my default perspective, and his. This was the first time I experienced how travelling with someone else could significantly enhance the experience. I stopped seeing things around me through just my own eyes — I began to imagine other ways of seeing.

Years later when I began to study the link between cognition and emotion, and then emotion and behaviour, the light bulb ignited as I thought back to that trip to Siwa. For the first time whilst travelling I had experienced something through a different set of eyes, creating a new sense of meaning — cognition. Subsequently I could then understand why I felt differently about things when seeing them through this different perspective, this different cognition. And, it made so much sense that my emotions and following behaviours also changed when I saw things in this different way. I am still wrestling with this chain of cognition every day and enjoying how wonderful this is.

So here is the rub. It’s my desire to take you on a little journey with me. I don’t want to take this journey alone. I want you with me not to just read my words or watch me tell stories that might connect some dots for us both. Like that journey to Siwa, let’s share our stories, let’s show each other how we see things and how that shapes our emotional and behavioural responses. I can’t do this alone. I shall need your companionship. 

So let’s start this now. I am thinking of moments where I managed to step outside my own perspective, and see things from a different one. I’m particularly interested in how this changed my emotional and behavioural response and what other ripples flowed from that experience. I’ll be writing one or two of my own in the coming days and I would love you to add your own here or tag to that next piece I shall post in the coming days. I’m not asking for a tome here, just a sense of what you saw differently and how that changed the way you felt. After all, no one has a monopoly on the ‘right’ way of seeing things.

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