A woman walks into a restaurant, sits at a table by herself and eats quietly. To many, picturing this scene brings about a feeling of sadness. Why doesn’t this woman have someone to share a meal with? Where is her family? Does she have a loved one?[quote]My time alone in Cusco was anything but easy, and many times I questioned myself and wished I could just quit and turn back.[/quote]
As a lone traveler in Cusco, Peru, I became the lone diner, the lone stroller, the lone hiker — I was alone. Sitting at a vegan restaurant, I could feel the eyes on my back. I was the one the others felt sorry for. Little did they know, my five day experience of going it alone in the Sacred Valley was the best thing to ever happen to me.
Ever since my sophomore year Spanish professor told our class about Machu Picchu, an ancient Incan city in the mountains of Peru, I knew I would go there. I could already picture the hiking boots on my feet and a backpack slumped over my shoulders. A year later I decided to travel abroad in Chile for the semester, and assumed I would finally get my chance to visit this sacred place, located in the neighboring country. However, as my semester in Chile was coming to a close, I realized the rest of my group had either run out of money, or had no interest in Peru. It was at that moment I realized the grim truth — I would either miss out on a once in a lifetime opportunity, or embark on the scariest journeyof my life. Needles to say, I chose the latter.
I am a people person. I thrive on the support and company of friends and family and am restless when I have time to myself. However, when stripped of the comfort of company, I became empowered, introspective and open to the world around me. In today’s bustling iPad, blackberry, internet society, we are never left alone. Now I have realized that the experience of being truly alone is a gift that few can encounter, but once encountered, can awaken a whole new part of you.
Convincing myself, and my parents to let me go to Peru alone was difficult. I secretly hoped they would outright refuse my request, but instead, I had to convince them why going to Peru alone was a safe and good idea. While making my plea, thoughts of myself ending up lost, hurt and stranded flashed through my head. “Of course I will be fine mom,” I said over shaky breath. Once I knew my journey to Peru would become a reality, I booked the plane tickets, hostel and tour group. The ten pages on Cusco and Machu Picchu In my Lonely Planet travel guide, South America on a Shoestring, were worn marked up and wrinkled. The trip was planned and I was ready — or so I hoped.
My time alone in Cusco was anything but easy, and many times I questioned myself and wished I could just quit and turn back. One of these moments of anxiety happened on a bus ride to the start of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. While winding up through the mountains, the old bus got a flat tire. A small, indigenous man ordered us all to get off the bus. So, there I was, alone, stranded on the side of a highway, in a town which had a name I couldn’t pronounce and that was a million miles away from anyone I knew. But of course we moved on, I took a deep breath, blinked away the water in my eyes, and we made it to the start of the trail. Now, all I had left was a four day hike through the mountains.
The transformation I went through in those four days may be just outright impossible to explain in words. For hours and hours I walked on a never-ending trail. I couldn’t see or hear anyone around me and was left alone with nature and the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen to this day. There were moments when I cried, smiled and even laughed in disbelief. How did Alex Gordon work up the courage to do this on her own? I walked up steep mountain passes, through dense forests and 600 year old ruins resting on mountain tops, only stopping at night when it was time for dinner. My exhausted mind and body would finally let itself sleep when the rest of my group arrived at the campsite where we slept in tents on a hard uneven rocky ground.
On the fourth day, I arrived at Machu Picchu. Seeing the ancient Incan civilization resting in the mountains, beneath a jutting green peak was amazing. However, I wasn’t as moved as I thought I would be. I realized then that the lone journey and transformation I went through on my way to Machu Picchu was far more valuable and life changing than the ruins themselves.
The bus ride back from Machu Picchu was infinitely different than the one to Machu Picchu. I sat relaxed in my seat, self assured and confident. Once the bus arrived back in Cusco, I entered the vegan restaurant before returning home to my hostel. To the left of me sat a couple, gazing lovingly into each others eyes, and ahead of me were two friends laughing over the events of their day. I noticed the inquisitive looks from fellow diners, but half smiled to myself. If only they knew.
Now, whenever I see the lone diner in a restaurant, I do not pity them but admire them. Maybe they have found their inner confidence and are at peace with who they are. Maybe they are just taking an hour out of their day to reflect and maybe, like I have, they are discovering that being alone may be the most comforting and rewarding feeling in the world.