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Plenty of Thrills and Spills for the Solo Traveler

April 05, 1987|BONNIE BASKIN | Baskin is a Berkeley free-lance writer.

Granted that solo travel is not everyone's choice. And it won't bring you cheers and a hearty bon voyage from your friends. In fact, the response is more like, "Dear God, you're not going there alone!"

But while Marco Polo traveled with thousands, Lewis and Clark with scores, and most other people in pairs since Noah cruise-directed the Ark, some of us still prefer to go on our own.

Our motives are, to say the least, suspect. "Doing research, huh?" asked colleagues about my trip to New Guinea. "You're not part of some cult, now?" said my glaring aunt when I took off for India.

Yet what compels us is neither the occult nor the cargo cult, but the sheer adventure. Solo travel is pure glory road, a direct encounter of you and the world.

You meet situations head-on. You live any part of yourself you please. You act on inclination. You control your decisions. And off on your own, cut off from your past, you feel immersed in the phenomena around you.

Heady stuff, but not a headache. Just have a plan of action at each stop and handle the rest as it comes along. Then relax, and enjoy the special hilarities that only solo travel brings on.

Sales Pitches

Solo travelers are, in the eyes of salesmen, less moneyed than couples but far more gullible. So whether it's clothing in Calcutta, masks in Mombasa, jewelry in Jakarta or tours of Tours, we're destined to hear plenty of Eighth-Wonder claims.

Yet I'm spared the top-price offers reserved for couples and groups ("I take you everywhere in my country, five days, my car"). Instead, I'm targeted for audacious scams that work best without a second opinion. Like the argument that I look muy bonita in an alpaca sweater whose sleeves graze my knees. Or that I'll need a guide to find the looming cathedral lying a hundred yards away. Or that the wooden statue leaving shoe-polish stains on my hands is an ancient tribal icon.

How to beat these guys at their own sly game? Here's where the solo advantage comes in. Alone, you're as free as the sellers are to make any ludicrous claim you please. So just outwit them with the kinds of fake-out schemes that you haven't pulled since the eighth grade.

I elude persistent street vendors by pretending to understand no known language. Decline nagging motorcycle guides with grisly fictions about my brother's last crackup. Bargain down sellers by terming items gifts for my mother or child--or saying that my husband set my buying limit at whatever amount it is I'm willing to pay.

Result: Even the most deceitful merchants, like the Fijian whose "pure cotton, madam!" socks were stamped 100% nylon, will somehow unquestioningly swallow my story. But why not? When you're alone, they're forced to take you at face value. Step out solo, and the stage is yours.

Want to see a lot of eyebrows rise? Just walk into a tourist-area restaurant alone. Sometimes I'll get the premier table and service befitting a novelty. Or I may end up tucked away in a dim recess, behind the local equivalent of a potted palm. In Bangkok I once ended up in a restaurant back room all alone, all because a woman bereft of even a mealtime companion is a tragic social embarrassment. But that's rare.

More often restaurateurs play matchmaker, seating me near any male solo traveler. Cooks play Jewish mother, loading extra food on my plate. And waiters play True Confessions, sliding into an empty seat at my table to check out my bio and tell me their troubles.

Exchanging Table Talk

In fact, many meals turn into an all-room talkfest, in which case I forget my book and join the exchange. We talk world politics, we talk cost of living. Invariably I ask for travel advice, and these guys deliver the inside track. They know the sights and shortcuts. They know the officials.

They'll also tell me the real cost of taxis and the real price of those shirts all the tourists are buying. So a word to the wise: Eat, eat, eat!

Travel solo, and people will take pity on you. Couples. Families. Hotel staff. Tour groups. People on the street. With luck, their ranks will also include train officials in charge of that overbooked express or theater managers with an ostensibly sold-out house.

It's not unusual for Poor Things to get invited home for dinner. As a PT I've dined the last 20 years with the families of a chief in Samoa, a policeman in Granada and a teen-age gigolo in Sri Lanka, plus the mayor of Marseille--and turned down a good 400 invitations more. PTs have similar success getting meals in hotels and restaurants whose kitchens are officially closed.

Home-stay invitations are also forthcoming. I've never had the boldness to accept. But one PT I met had spent a cozy night in a village on the island of Celebes (Sulawesi) after missing his bus from the hills back to town.

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