I’m comfortable being an introvert by this point, partly because of the confidence bestowed by my advancing age (34!) and partly because of reading innumerable introvert articles on the Internet. My extroverted mother told me that when I was little, I’d shut myself inside the bathroom and lie alone in the empty bathtub for a while each day when we stayed together in our rented lake cabin for a week every summer. They let me stay in that dim, sandy room for as long as I needed. I have no memory of this, but it shows me that my body knew what I needed well before I could put words to it, and also that my mom was wise enough about our differences to know instinctively that I was doing right for myself before there was much reading on the subject. I love this about her, a fitness instructor with sublime outfit-matching prowess and an interpersonal mastermind at that time, the 80s, which I think of as the coke- and bootstrap-fueled Age of the Extrovert.
Of course I don’t subscribe to binaries, and really fall somewhere around 65-70% introverted on a pop psychology scale. Introversion is considered so natural among my friends and coworkers that I don’t think about it often when I’m not reading about it on the Internet. True fact: No one has mocked me for quietly reading a book since 2005!
Typically, the only time I really find myself confronting pitfalls of introversion is when I’m traveling. The primary thing I’ve learned from introvert travel is how much I value my friends. When you connect brilliantly with like 1 in every 50 travelers you meet, you come to realize how completely blessed you are to have found a few people that you love so fiercely as friends, and that they love you back. The other thing is that you can be sitting on top of a green mountain with 400 Khamu speakers, and not even standard Khamu, but a variation synthesized over time from geographical isolation, and you will wonder what holds us together at all when all cultural context is stripped away. Food, companionship, nature, laughter. As this particular sort of mammal, we all need those things in some measure.
Eating alone in Lao. This was at fancy L’Elephant in Luang Prabang, where I ate dinner my last night of traveling. A sign taped to the window proclaims this the “Best Restaurant in Asia,” which…why not? It’s great. The waitstaff attempted to achieve an American level of service, which was awkward but well-intentioned. Occasionally, cats slipped underneath the wall, reminding me that I was still in Lao. One of my favorite and most memorable meals.
For me, one of the points of traveling is to talk with local people and see how they live and think. This is often made difficult by my inability to learn tonal languages or to be conversant in anything besides my native English or belabored, present-tense French, though I’m extremely fortunate that so many people have English as a second language. I also like meeting other travelers, and still hold a few in my heart. I still struggle with the feeling that I should be more when I travel: that I should be better at small talk, that I should prefer hanging out at a bar with strangers instead of by myself on my little porch with a book and street food, that I really should want to listen to some guy play his guitar. I still sometimes feel that my social discomfort holds me back from a fuller experience when I travel, but one can glean a lot from watching and listening, and I work to not be too hard on myself, to take risks and push past my edges (as we say in yoga) without losing myself.
And sometimes, I’ll be somewhere, at a nice confluence of luck and social norms, and just feel completely nurtured as an introvert. I’ll meet someone who values conversation in my register, and no one will look askance when I’m eating alone, ask where my husband is, or tell me to smile more. Because people shouldn’t talk to women that way, and also, I am already smiling.
My 5 favorite introvert-friendly places:
I’m just going to put it out there and say that Lao PDR is the loveliest, most accepting of introverts place I’ve traveled to. At the Luang Prabang night market, most vendors stare at the ground or talk with each other, paying you no attention until you’re ready to buy something. It’s bliss. I’d give Vang Vieng a miss, though (I did!).
Another favorite meal, once again eaten alone, at Souphalins Restaurant in Oudomxay, Lao PDR. I guess it looks like I ate this cat. I did not. She kept me company while I waited an hour for the best fried rice ever.
I had a really nice time eating alone in restaurants here, both in the touristy areas, where I often coasted on the pure delight of not being part of the group of bossy falang adjacent to my table and had good conversations with café waitstaff, and in more remote areas in the north, where the restaurants were often populated with Chinese and Vietnamese business folks.
2. Oregon, USA
Me, resident cat Shelley, and roses that are roses that are roses in the Gertrude Stein room at Sylvia Beach Hotel.
When I paid off my student loans in 2010, I rewarded myself with a stay alone in an American hotel. For this I chose the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, OR, an introverted literature lover’s dream. It’s a gigantic, rickety, old teal house with a couple resident cats, and each room is themed around an author. The water rushing through the pipes in the Robert Louis Stevenson room was positively seafarer-like. The top floor contains a library where guests can quietly read and look out at the ocean. You can pay $22 (price c. Aug. 2010) for a glorious multi-course dinner, where you are seated with strangers and compelled to play a game, but the volume of solitude I’d cultivated throughout the day made this feel okay.
If you go to coastal Oregon in the late summer, the fog gets so heavy that, walking on the beach, you feel like the only person left on earth. It’s just the pulse of the ocean, the occasional outline of a sea bird, and the feel of your footsteps, mostly muted by the wet sand. Wearers of glasses will especially fall into this once the fog and airborne salt clouds their lenses.
Dune grass on the Oregon coast. There are also great stretches of nothing but wind-patterned sand, which I didn’t visit but know are there.
Portland is bikeable, and full of bookstores, green spaces, and good food. I love to visit my friends in the cities, then go off by myself for a few days to the coast (or the arid east, which I hope to visit in the next couple years). Oregon contains a desert in the east, plus mountains, forests, and great swaths of sand dunes. The U.S. National Parks system affords us the possibility to travel for days, weeks, or months through wild places without encountering another person, should that be your desire.
3. The Peruvian Andes
The magnitude and altitude of the Andes bespeaks quiet. Besides our gregarious guides, the people Anna and I met in Peru’s Sacred Valley were, like me, not wild about eye contact. They practice subsistence farming and converge once or a few times a week at a market, and they do a lot of knitting and weaving.
Stark and quiet Andes. Somewhere around Peru’s Sacred Valley. Photo by my comradita Anna Wik.
Kayak to your own damn beach and take your own damn picture! By a Hin Wong Bay coral garden, Koh Tao, Thailand.
4. Hin Wong Bay, Koh Tao, Thailand
There’s a lot going on aboard the ferry to Koh Tao, which moves precipitously fast. Mae Haad pier is crowded with backpackers and the bars, tee-shirt vendors, medical clinics, and 7-Elevens that cater to them. Negotiate a taxi, which will cost too much, and will be full of people chatting excitedly. They will all be dropped off before you, to places where excitable, chatty people meet each other and, at night, attend a fabled bar crawl featuring buckets of alcohol. I did not go to those places. Instead, I went to Hin Wong Bay, which attracted me with Internet reviews of its accommodations, which some reviewers found to be boring and far from the action.
A rickety pier and clear, cool water: siren song of the introvert.
I got up at 7, descended the pier’s ladder, and swam among the sleeping boats. I was gently stung by jellyfish, which soon made for other waters. I put my head back in the water. I liked Hin Wong for its peace and quiet, these lonesome morning swims, the good snorkeling, and, most of all, for the few other people who come to Hin Wong. They are people comfortable being alone or in small groups, and are good, thoughtful talkers. They have an encyclopedic knowledge of hydraulic fracturing. Somehow, reading Hin Wong Internet reviews, I instinctively knew it would be this way.
Koh Tao’s east coast is like this generally, and there are sites more remote than Hin Wong that I didn’t visit. A good balance is Ao Tanote, which has a pretty beach to lie on (Hin Wong has only enormous boulders for a beach) and a somewhat more active scene, though it’s still really laid back.
5. Paris, France
Paris is perhaps the most obvious choice for introverts. Spend 8 hours alone in a museum after recovering from a nuit blanche with friends! Drink a glass of wine and read or write at a cafe like every protagonist in a Paris movie ever! Walk, and walk, and walk.
St-Martin. Winter. And I think it was my birthday. Swoon!