What Quarantining In a Foreign Country While Living In a Van Taught Me About Being Alone

At the beginning of 2020, I forced myself to "settle down" in Australia—and then the pandemic hit.

Photo: AnnaMarie Houlis

It's not uncommon for people to ask why I'm not traveling with anyone else or why I didn't wait for a partner with whom to travel. I think some people are simply stupefied by a woman traversing the big, scary, unsafe world all alone because society says we're supposed to play the part of passive damsels in distress. I think many people succumb to the toxic fairytale that, without partnered love, you can't build a life (or that white picket fence). And then there are many others who just doubt their own capabilities. Finally, there are those who say they'd be lonely. Regardless, they all tend to push their own anxieties and apprehensions on me.

We'll skip the first two groups (those waiting for a partner to live their life and those who don't think they can adventure solo)—because that's a them problem, not a me problem. Let's focus on those lonesome folks. It's fair to feel that some (not all) experiences are best shared with the people you love. But, sometimes, the people you love don't share your insatiable thirst for such experiences. And waiting for friends' PTO or for some elusive love to find me to only then start my life feels like waiting for a rushing waterfall to dry up. If I'm totally honest, watching the Victoria Falls from Zimbabwe with newfound friends was far more exhilarating than sitting around waiting for someone to do it with me. It was epic.

I've traveled 70-something countries in the last few years with me, myself, and I. Wild camping in the national parks of Africa and riding camels through Arabian deserts. Hiking the heights of the Himalayas and diving the depths of the Caribbean. Hitchhiking across uninhabited Southeast Asian islands and meditating in the mountains of Latin America.

If I'd waited for someone else to come along for the ride, the gear shifter would still be in park.

Sure, someone to share these stories with would be wonderful. But, hell, I relish in my independence. It's taught me that being "alone" and being "lonely" are far from synonymous. All that said, for the first time along my journey, it's tough to admit: I'm a leeetle lonely.

But I blame (and, in a way, also thank) COVID-19.

I consider myself one of the lucky ones because, for one, my friends, family and I are all healthy, at least somewhat still employed (some of us more than others) and have sustained some semblance of sanity (also some of us more than others) throughout these inexplicably trying times. Second, I've found myself "stuck" overseas in Australia, which, not to negate the very valid realities of COVID-19 here, wasn't hit quite as badly by the pandemic as much of the rest of the planet. Barring a month-long stint hiding from humans in the Aussie bush—instead, battling pythons most afternoons—I've largely lived out what's arguably the most calamitous global crisis of recent history while barefoot and bikini-clad. While most of the world is locked up inside their homes, my home is on wheels: a 1991 converted van in which I've been camping across remote beaches in one of the least densely populated corners of the globe. This lifestyle makes isolation pretty damn (as the Aussies would say) "cruisy," comparatively.

But despite just how fortunate I feel, I'd be lying if I said that quarantine hasn't, nevertheless, been a lonesome experience.

Ironically, I traveled to Australia on the first of the new year to force myself to face the loneliness I feared would inevitably surface once I slowed down. I'd never spent much more than a month in one place in the last few years (as a "digital nomad," freelance writing means I can have a career and hop around from place to place), and I worried that I was actually addicted to traveling—or, rather, the daily distractions that keep me from confronting my own complicated emotions and untapped anxieties. Constantly meeting new people, grappling with the excitement of culture shock, and contemplating what's next and where to go means you never really have to sit with who you are, where you are, what you have or don't have (like, you know, a partner).

Don't get me wrong: While many people may assume I'm running away from something (i.e. reality) venturing off all the time, I know in my heart that I'm running toward something (i.e. an alternative reality that's neither right nor wrong but, rather, successful on my own terms). So, no, I'm not traveling to intentionally evade my emotions, but I wouldn't be telling the whole truth if I didn't admit that sometimes I subconsciously evade my emotions by diverting my attention to all the newness around me. I'm human.

And so I told myself that, in 2020, I'd spend some dedicated time staying put someplace spiritual to me to get to know myself on a deeper, more connected level—and finally give myself the opportunity to build sustainable connections with others, too. That said, I knew staying in one place would mean mundane moments, and I knew that meant I might start to feel lonely—especially because I opted to live in a van, in remote corners of a country I've never been, as far away from home as physically possible and on a conflicting time zone from everyone that I love. (It's funny how so many people worry they'd feel lonely while solo traveling, while I fear loneliness hitting when I slow down or stop traveling on my own.)

And here I am. I set my intentions; the universe manifested them. It's just that, at the start of the year, the decision to stop traveling the world to instead unpack my inner world was just that: a decision. Suddenly, with the COVID-19 quarantine, it's not a decision. It's my only option.

Life as a single woman in government-mandated quarantine is a lot lonelier than life as a single woman in a self-induced soul search.

Not to toot my own horn (but to toot my own horn), I was crushing it before coronavirus. I had a cult of other #vanlifers with whom to surf every sunrise and camp every sunset. Because they all lived in their own four wheels, they had clothes as wrinkly and standards of personal hygiene as low as mine. (And, for some reason unbeknownst to me, this old van was a dude magnet. I'm not quite sure I understand the appeal of a woman who smells of some amalgamation of a fuel leak, musk, and body odor from waking up in a pool of her own sweat every morning. But I'm pleasantly surprised that this whole "'sup, I sleep in my car," thing kind of works for me.)

When the COVID-19 pandemic made waves in Australia, the writer in me said: If it's not a good time, it's a good story. I figured that, someday, I'll write a book about the one-day laughable ridiculousness of surviving a global pandemic in a 30-year-old rust-bucket on the other side of the world all alone. But then my friends fled to find refuge, I had to say R.I.P. to my roster of sun-kissed surfer babes, and I lost most of my major contracts. Suddenly, I had no one and nothing—no friends, no partner, no plans, and nowhere I could go. Campgrounds closed, and the government demanded displaced backpackers to leave, but no flights meant no way out.

So, as one does, I ventured north to quarantine in the bush (the backwoods, if you will) for the unforeseeable future. I ultimately had the most memorable experience of my lifetime—but I had far too much time on my hands to sit in my own thoughts.

That's when the loneliness I'd been forestalling struck me like a blue-bottle jellyfish in the surf. It was a long-time coming. Necessary. Even probably healthy for me. It's almost like the anticipation of loneliness was the worst part. Now, it's here. I'm feeling it. It sucks. But painful introspection can be pretty damn enlightening, too. I've made a lot of raw revelations and have admitted to myself a lot of tough truths in the last few months.

The reality is that I miss my family an unbearable amount, but flights are a gamble and the current state of home (New York City, and the U.S. in general) scares the hell out of me. I miss my freedom to go wherever I want, whenever I want. And sometimes I miss a partner who I don't even know. My friends are stressed out about postponing their weddings, and I'm stressed out that love feels evermore elusive because I'll never meet my one-day husband from the quarantined confines of my own four van walls. Other friends are constantly complaining about their partners driving them crazy in isolation, and I'm downright jealous that they have partners to drive them crazy. Meanwhile, all of social media's "couple's first pic" challenges and live workouts to do with the exercise buddy I don't have are incessant reminders that I am so, so single. Like, not in an Amy-Schumer-hiking-the-Grand-Canyon-at-dawn kind of way (yes, I've watched How to Be Single a time or two in quarantine). More of an I'm-going-to-be-alone-forever-at-this-rate kind of way. And I don't even have a damn cat.

I know that mindlessly swiping on dating apps or messaging with my exes are not exactly healthy ways to cope with loneliness right now. Nor is binge-eating the junk I don't need to refrigerate in my van. But, alas, here I am.

Some days are lonelier than others, but I've read enough articles about making the most of being single during quarantine (hell, I even wrote one!): Practice self-care! Masturbate more! Treat yourself to dinner and a movie night! Learn a new skill! Get into a favorite hobby! Be your silly self and have a crazy dance party and shake your booty like no one is watching because no one is because LOL you're alone!

Listen, I've accomplished a lot during the quarantine. I've been digital nomading (working and writing remotely), surfing, wire-wrapping jewelry, writing a book, plucking a ukulele, and living out virtually every other cliché of #vanlife. I even dyed my hair pink because I'm kind-of-sort-of living my best damn life in many ways. Lest you think that my at-times crippling woe-is-me mentality has left me blind to the advantages of being alone, make no mistake: I know that spending the COVID-19 pandemic partner-less means I never have to bear witness to someone else's cringe-worthy TikTok takes or go halfsies on my Thai takeout. Because secondhand embarrassment and sharing curry (and—god forbid—fighting with the only person you're physically stuck with indoors) suck more than sleeping alone.

But I'm also readily aware that, some days, it just plain feels better to sulk in my singledom and face the loneliness that I knew was coming but that was only compounded by COVID-19 restrictions. If there's one thing I'm learning in this process of coming face-to-face with myself, it's that it's necessary to acknowledge and accept whatever I'm feeling as raw and real without judgment. Because pretending that all is peachy keen so long as I slap on a face mask and flick on a rom-com feels just as evasive as plotting my next adventure.

Now, I'm learning not to attach to those feelings of loneliness and energies that don't serve me. From a rusty old van on an empty beach all alone. (Okay, that part is pretty great.)

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