The first time I saw Eat, Pray, Love was on 28-hour door-to-door trip from Nepal to New York City. I’ve never related less to a film.
I should have liked it. I saw it after a five-week trip I’d embarked on alone. Just me and the sort of loneliness that comes with being with strangers, or the sort of solitude that goes with being actually alone.
Julia Roberts’ version of alone was all fun and freedom: licking sauce from her fingertips and yum-ing to herself with pleasure, or praying smugly atop a pillow. Real international alone is more asking strangers to help you learn how to use the machine that sells bus tickets because the instructions don’t make any sense and pouring way too much hot sauce on a dish but eating all of it anyway because you don’t want to be rude.
The movie version of solo travel felt like an affirmation of everything that had been wrong with the world around the main character. My version of alone was affirmation of everything I felt was wrong with myself. It was like having the sort of therapist whose appointments I’d spend all week dreading.
Before I left for my big trip, people back home teased me—rightfully so—that I was going to pull an Eat, Pray, Love. I’d laugh gamely so as not to betray my cultural Eat, Pray, Love blind spot, since I hadn’t seen or read it. I am, after all, a white woman. White women love Eat, Pray, Love or they love to shit on Eat, Pray, Love. There’s no in-between. If I’d known how much I’d fucking hate the movie, I would have been offended.
The other question I always got asked was “Are you going to find yourself?” I don’t know what that means. It always seemed like a silly expression to me—find yourself.
As though there’s some form of “you” hiding in Paris or Cape Town or Shanghai waiting for you to find them. As though you could walk into a cafe and suddenly, there you are, reading the newspaper. The other you, the skinnier, prettier, the more popular, more relaxed version of you, walks over and tells you that you were perfect all along and the only reason you’re not perfect is that literally everything except you was interfering with your inherent perfection. You’re not the problem; everything else and everybody else is.
Seems pretty unlikely.
The real reason I went was that I hadn’t had much time or money to travel after I studied abroad in college. And I’d never traveled alone.
When I was 22, I’d gone to London to visit a young man who wasn’t very nice to me and spent most of my time there feeling sorry for myself.
When I was 27, I’d gone to Mexico City with another, slightly older young man and spent most of my time there trying to employ my high school Spanish to understand what his relatives were saying to each other, and participate with child-sentences like “Me gusta la lluvia” (I like the rain.) Which, of course, would bring whole dinner conversations to a screeching halt as his nice family tried to speak slowly enough for me to understand.
At 30, I’d traveled to Peru on the urging of another man I dated, and I got frustrated with his inability to hike as fast as I was, and he got frustrated with me over my inability to not treat everything like a contest.
“You know the only thing that all your problems have in common is you,” my shitty imaginary therapist said on a day I was feeling proud of myself for making it all the way through a city called Patan armed with only a guidebook.
The bustle of the Kathmandu Valley kept my brain occupied. But after I went into the wilderness, it was harder to stop myself from touching every emotional hot stove my brain could conjure. The longer I was out of the city, the more profoundly unpleasant my mental state.
The initial purpose of the trip was to hike to Mt. Everest base camp. Note that I wasn’t planning on climbing the mountain. It’s too expensive and too needlessly risky. But as I planned the trip, I realized that because it takes 28 hours to get from New York City to Kathmandu, I might as well get all of the Nepal out of my system. So I added an extra hike around part of the Annapurna massif, a couple of days in a relaxed lake town called Pokhara, and a few days to cap it off in Kathmandu. The first hike was as part of a hiking group. The second hike was just me and a couple of local guys I’d hired through an agency in Thamel.
On each of the trip I’d gone on with boyfriends, I’d had an external entity on which to focus my negativity. But alone in Nepal, all I had was me. I’d wake up at 5 a.m. most mornings in a sleeping bag freezing after a night of totally fucked up altitude-related dreams. On the mornings I had a roommate I’d make small talk with her. I’d lie there in the meager pool of my gathered body heat psyching myself up to get out of bed and put on an ice cold bra, all the while considering my relationships with my siblings, and how I wish I were more present in their lives. I would go down and sit in the tea house’s common room and order nontraditional breakfast food such as “fried noodles” while pondering whether or not I ever will be unselfish enough to want children. I’d watch sherpas and other guides burst into and out of the room wearing shower slides like the cold didn’t even affect them.
By 6 or 7, we’d start walking. We’d walk for several hours, up and down hills (the down is much harder than the up, I found) through landscape that never stops reminding its inhabitants of their insignificance. We’d finish by 2 or 3, eat lunch, and then I’d sit around writing or reading for three hours and go to bed at 6, because I’d run out of things to do, or my Kindle was out of batteries and the tea house didn’t have electrical outlets. I’d sometimes use my headlamp to write, but my writing was all overearnest examinations of how I’ve failed everybody who has loved me. A real bum-out.
I’d downloaded about 90 Spotify songs, but could only listen to them so many times before they became tauntingly stuck in my head, and I was kept awake freezing in my sleeping bag with the chorus of Kate Bush’s “The Big Sky” playing obsessively.
My brain would dredge up negative experiences and play them over and over again, in highlight reel form. A friendship that ended abruptly for reasons I never understood until, somewhere between Tilicho Lake and Yak Kharka, I realized that I’d been a real asshole. I thought about the time I returned home to an apartment I shared with a man after Christmas and his belongings had been moved out and how the thing I was angriest about at the time was that he hadn’t bothered to sweep the floor.
After about 200 miles of walking, I started to feel my body break down. I’ve run three marathons and I never felt as haggard as I did the night before the last big push up and through Thorong La Pass, at the tail end of the second hike. That night, I kept myself awake worried that the hole in my boot, the one I’d patched with a gob of super glue I found in a village the day before, would open up. I was also considering the fact that perhaps my judgmental attitude toward many people is a reflection of my own self-loathing, and I wondered if anybody would ever truly love me (I had a really nice boyfriend at the time, so at this point my brain was just making shit up to taunt me).
The next morning I hit my limit. It was a patch of ice—maybe four feet long, slick like liquid glass, lounging from one edge of the path to the other—that finally broke me. It was too long to step over. The path was up against a steep, slick, snowy mountainside. Below the path, the ground fell away about 50 feet. There was no way but through.
I heard my own voice squeak “I can’t!” at my guide. It sounded panicked in the bratty way a spoiled stepmom in a PG-rated family comedy sounds bratty. Like Indiana Jones’ girlfriend from Temple of Doom, the worst of the Indiana Jones girlfriends, the kind of female voice that would make me yell “Grow up, baby” at the television from the comfort of my couch.
I’d been so game for everything until then; my guide and porter who traveled with us had called me “didi” for much of the trip. “Didi” means “sister.” Now, they were laughing at me, because I was being ridiculous. I felt the animal panic of a horse being urged to jump off a cliff.
One of the men climbed up onto the snowy hillside, angling his feet into the snow. He reached down and pulled me up behind him. I followed him step for step, being careful not to reach out and grab him in a panic, and then hopped down on the other side.
“You’re not brave enough, didi,” said my guide. Tough but fair.
Nothing for the rest of the trip bothered me. Not the miles of downhill after the pass. Not the hike down a narrow valley toward Jomsom where after about 10 am straight line winds whip dust into your eyes, or the fact that Jomsom looks like it’s about a mile away for about ten miles. I wasn’t even that upset when my flight back to Pokhara was canceled due to “clouds” and I rode in a Jeep with no suspension over mountain roads for seven hours with two very crabby Czech girls. When I arrived in Pokhara, I sat on a restaurant terrace and ordered a salad, and ate every leaf individually as it got dark.
When I came back to the states, I had a hard time describing the experience. Some people would ask if I had “fun.” Other people would ask if I’d learned something about myself. Both questions seem wrong. It wasn’t fun, but it was good. And expecting to learn things from travel for pleasure is almost as silly as asking somebody if they learned something from a trip to an amusement park.
Going away for over a month of wandering around some mountains to which I have no ancestral connection did help dispel the popular travel fantasy that it’s possible to escape oneself. Leaving everything behind is simply impossible. Almost a year on, I still think about the people I met, the places I got to see, the food I got to eat, the crazy plywood lean-to hotels I got to sleep in, and I’m grateful for all of them. But I don’t feel guilty about the things I’d been putting off confronting anymore. I think I left the voice in the mountains. I probably could have left it behind long ago, if I’d just let it speak.
Maybe I didn’t have to fly halfway around the world to figure that out, but I’m glad I did.