It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’m not exactly a people person. I live on my own when the finances allow it, I find afternoons spent with animals to be sufficient social interaction and I’m usually the one on nights out with girlfriends that some douchebag – having picked up on my disinterest in engaging in bullshit banter – feels the need to point at and sarcastically address with “whoa girl, pipe down over there!” My friends have come to affectionately use the term ‘Tara time’ for the solitude I require after social outings, to regain my energy from the personal-space-breaching, aurally-pungent privacy thieves otherwise known as strangers.
So when I took off for the United States on a characteristically solo adventure, I’d never have guessed that as I sit here in my final Los Angeles hostel reflecting on what has made my journey so far, my answer would unquestionably be ‘the people’. The revolving door cast of characters that entered my life for a few hours, a few days or a few weeks and made me feel like I was watching my own personal Coen brothers character drama unfold from the inside.
Like the little Asian guy who left his affluent family to bike across America, including a three-day stint in federal prison when he forgot he was carrying four grams of weed across the Minnesota border. The firefighter who’d just returned from a two year tour of duty in Iraq. The Vancouver Canucks. The Las Vegas strip club promoter who kindly drove me around in his beat-up car at daybreak to search for my wallet after losing it in said strip club. The girl I met in a clothing store in sleepy Stonington Connecticut, who took me out for a night on the town and later to a family dinner on the Upper East Side, where her Uncle introduced us to a quaint piano bar and I actually cried at a particularly moving rendition of a show tune. Not to mention the many hostel nights when I walked into a room not knowing a soul at 6pm, only to wind up crashing at sunrise after too much wine, a bunch of new friends and some more crazy stories later. It would take pages to list them all and in fact, I began to. Rather than keeping a journal of my travels, I’d reflect occasionally on the people who had punctuated them and scribble down as many as I could remember, knowing that a quick read of that list later would stir a big smile and possibly a little wanderlust.
And on the flipside, when I found myself in the periods of solitude I’d deliberately peppered throughout my time in New York – thinking they’d be my saving grace across an otherwise socially exhausting few months – I found myself longing for my new friend; people.
I’d had such romantic ideals about days on end of Tara time; taking in sprawling city skylines and studying New Yorkers in their native environment from behind the safety of my coffee cup and latest novel, a’ la Sir David Attenborough. But it was the complete lack of interaction on those days that moved me more than the sights themselves. Sights which felt a little – well, hollow – without someone to throw a knowing smile at and acknowledge what had just been witnessed. I found myself turning over in my head that clichéd expression I’d always detested; that life is only meaningful – or in the words of the great Alexander Supertramp, that happiness is only real – when shared. Oh how I’d hated that notion! What an insult to my independence and my ability to create my own happiness! I’d thought it was a weak position, if not an entirely dangerous one, to allow our experience to be defined by the company we kept.
But I’m so glad for even the low days in New York, because in contrast to the bustling month that preceded them they provided a surprising new perspective. Strangers didn’t feel like energy-drainers all of a sudden; they were opportunities for connection, giving energy to situations by elevating them through a moment of shared experience. I guess that’s why I began taking myself to East Village karaoke bars and asking nice U.S. naval officers to grab a bite to eat in Koreatown. There is a difference, it turns out, between finding meaning in interaction for interaction’s sake and allowing other people to validate you. Maybe that’s Homo sapiens 101 for the more socially apt – maybe an extrovert would have had the reverse experience on this trip, of finding unexpected satisfaction in moments of quiet solitude and learning to enjoy their own company. But with those things coming rather naturally to me, I guess it’s not surprising that the things that pushed me out of my comfort zone and made me question my beliefs were the things that delivered the real soul food.
It’s a nice little reminder to embrace that which we find daunting – it’s usually where the gems are…