Five years ago I lost my virginity underneath the stars and ever since then, stars have held a special place in my heart. No matter where I go or who I am with, when I look up at a blanket of small, bright lights shining down upon my brow, I remember the cool nights of the New York Catskills and wish for a second to have that old memory come back to life.
When I think of that moment, it is not the excitement of the deed or the experience of losing one’s innocence that I hope to relive. It is that brief moment during my lifetime when two lonely travelers came together, underneath a bed of wishes, and loved each other as only travelers know how to love.
A major struggle that I face every single day while in Vietnam is the realization that most of what I do here will be a memory shared with no one else other than myself. Sure, I can take a thousand photographs of my existence in Vietnam, but the snapshots will be cropped, sanitized, cherry picked, and at one angle. There will be no one with whom to share the three hundred and sixty degrees of memories that I will bring home to America, and that at times creates a great deal of sorrow in my heart.
I told a group of Vietnamese students last week that I will be touring Singapore very soon. They asked me with whom will I be traveling, and I said no one. Almost immediately their faces turned dark. One girl in particular questioned me for several minutes about why on earth I would voluntarily choose to travel alone. Travel, she said, was meant to be shared with loved ones. To the Vietnamese mind, it would seem, any other reason for traveling is not a valid reason to travel at all.
Independence is a staple in the American diet. Go to your nearest coffee shop and you will see solo diners reading their favorite books, businessmen cranking out their latest proposals, and students of all stripes sitting alone, digging into their text books. In Vietnam, coffee shops are primarily designed for socializing, and in only the most upscale offerings will you chance upon a solo traveler in search of rest and relaxation.
The same applies to travel throughout Vietnam and neighboring countries. It is unheard of for locals to visit popular tourist destinations alone, and those who do end up leaving Vietnam on their own have a clear purpose, like study. So it makes little sense then to go anywhere alone simply for the sake of seeing something new. I replied to the Vietnamese student that my reason for traveling is to see the world, even if it means that I will likely have to go it alone. That answer didn’t please her.
It is said by locals in Vietnam that a good friend is one who stays home with one’s loved ones even when the opportunity to travel alone to a remarkable place arises. It is not the emergence of new sights and sounds into our lives that should bring us joy, but rather the experience of sharing those sights and sounds with the people who we love most.
Herein lies the dilemma of my relationships in Vietnam. Few of my friends have the means to travel and those who do are too busy to arrange their time around my whims. Some are conservative Vietnamese females who find it ungodly to travel alone with foreign men and others have no interest in seeing some of the places that I would like to see.
I feel as though I am trapped between my burning desire to experience the beautiful world with those who I love and the reality that people do not have time to travel, money to drop everything at home and support this sort of mobility, or a desire to see the places on the map where I would like to go.
My only choice, then, is to go through each day as connected to the world as possible without becoming so attached to those around me that leaving is impossible. And until I find my perfect traveling companion, I will continue to stare up into the dead of night and hope that one day the feeling of connectedness that the stars once gave to me is resurrected.