You get used to seeing strange things in airport departure halls. You see people curled up in the most awkward positions, trying to sleep. You see travellers with ridiculous amounts of luggage, suitcases and cardboard boxes piled high in leaning towers in front of them. You see teary goodbyes; friends on adventures.
And every now and then, as you're scanning yet another hall, yet another travelling crowd, you see something so bizarre that you do a double take and have to look again. Is that really …?
I'm in Kunming Airport, in eastern China. I'm waiting in a check-in queue, bored, my gaze wandering, people-watching without shame. It's then that I spot the woman with her child, a kid who must be about two or three years old. She has grabbed him under the armpits and has lifted him into the air, poised in front of a rubbish bin, which I quickly realise he's urinating into. Right in the middle of the departures hall.
I start swivelling around to look at all the other people in the line with me, making eyes at them, like, "Did you guys see that?" No one acknowledges me, or this craziness playing out before us.
After a minute or so the woman puts the kid back down on the floor, pulls his pants up, grabs him by the hand, and off they go. No one around me has even reacted. I'm wondering if I really did just see what I think I saw.
And this, I have to tell you, is about the only problem with travelling by yourself. There's no one to share the insanity. No one to reassure you that yes, that thing you just saw was super-weird, and I can't believe it just happened either.
That's the only thing I miss when I'm travelling solo, which, due to my job, is often. It's nice to have someone around to share in the constant craziness that the world throws at you. You need someone to lock eyes with and laugh. You need someone to say, "I can't believe we're eating this." Or, "I can't believe we're sleeping here." It helps you justify the fact that you're thinking exactly the same thing.
Having someone else around makes the bizarre things you see so much more enjoyable. I witness so many things that are completely baffling to me when I travel, and there's no one around to share in the amusement.
That trip to China threw up plenty more moments of complete bewilderment – as any trip to China does.
I was driving from the city of Lijiang to the Yulong Snow Mountain, on a pleasant if unspectacular section of road (particularly on that day, when clouds had shrouded the surrounding hills, and a light drizzle was falling). However, all along the side of that road, out in the middle of nowhere, were Chinese couples, and girls on their own, dressed to the nines, having glamour photos taken.
There was one girl, decked out in a huge, frilly red dress, sitting on the road, with photographers and assistants crowded around as she pouted for the camera. We had to swerve onto the other side to avoid running her over.
What. The. Heck? What was that? Why there? Why are you having glamour shots taken on a drizzly day in the middle of nowhere? And why are you not the only one doing it?
Of course all the people in the car with me were Chinese, and they didn't seem surprised in the slightest, so I had to keep quiet and wonder if it was just me.
A few days later I was taken on a hike up in the mountains near Shangri-La, an adventure that began in dense fog, and resulted in wandering around at 4500 metres above sea level while sleet poured down and my guide tried to navigate along high mountain pathways that had been partially destroyed by landslides, forcing us to teeter on the brink of who knows what as we tried to find ways around.
This, I was thinking to myself, is completely mental. It's seriously dangerous. And yet it was just me and the Chinese guide, and he seemed pretty chill about the whole thing. Maybe I was just being a wimp. Maybe it wasn't so crazy after all.
Of course it really was, but I had no one there to confirm it. And that's what you miss when you're travelling solo: someone to nod their head and confirm that yes, that mountain hike is insane, the girls having their photos taken in the rain are crazy, and that kid peeing into the bin really is bonkers.
I think that's a valuable thing.
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