This post first appeared in Tell-a-Tale short story contest. Find the link here.

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There are two things that I have learnt from my travels. First, you can be pretty miserable almost anywhere. Second, being your own porter of a luggage weighing twenty-something kilos can suddenly transform you from a beautiful Diva to a sweating club fighter.

Here I was, 3000 miles from home, dusty, tired and sweating like a pig under a June Sun, congratulating myself on the amazing discovery I just made. The car had dropped me in a busy downtown area, in front of a shabby hotel. I rang the bell in the empty reception counter. Somehow it all seemed ominous.

I entered my room and for a moment, stood at the door, undecided whether I should turn back and look for another place to stay.

A Precambrian era TV sat atop a rickety wooden discoloured table, the wires all hanging in an entangled mesh; the couch in tatters, the side table stacked up with a bunch of old newspapers and writing sheets. The furnishings had that strained look, as if they had suddenly been exposed to vigorous cleaning. To top it all, the air conditioner was not working, and when I rang room-service, no one answered the call.

But one look at my heavy suitcase and I changed my mind. There’s no way in hell I was going to drag that thing out again. The next morning I was in the midst of messing up my carefully packed clothes for the umpteenth time, searching for my toothbrush, when suddenly I realized the futility of the exercise and sat down on the bed with a “hump”.

That’s it. I have proved it beyond a doubt that I am a dysfunctional adult who can’t take care of herself or be on her own. Travelling the world, solo! It was my dream-come-true. But in reality everything was going horribly wrong from the moment I had stepped out of my house. The trip was a last minute thingy. My marriage with Mike was over and all I could think of was going away for a while, somewhere – anywhere! So I booked myself on a 15 days trip to the West. Why does it always have to be the toothbrush, though?

The room service was prompt this time, and luckily they got a new toothbrush for me. Brushing my teeth always makes me hungry, so without further ado, I got dressed and headed towards the Tourist Information Centre. Armed with a town map and my shades, I was ready to explore the place.

The coffee shop mentioned in the map was unassuming and dingy and my first feeling was to turn back towards the narrow alley from where I came, but then something caught my eye; the culprit – a purple sign that read: The Solo Cafe: Redefining the company you keep.

I was hungry and slightly irritated. Most of all, it was all those lovebirds, their omnipresence wherever I went, holding hands, smiling and taking pictures of themselves; and here was I, stuck with stupid selfies. But now that I am here, I thought, there is no shoving the cat back in the bag. Determined, I pushed through the glass doors. Surprisingly, the place was packed. I took a seat by the corner table and looked at the menu.

As I waited for my order to come in, a voice broke in: “Have you tried the Strawberries?”

I looked around, a wrinkled face winked at me and handed me a box of strawberries.

“Try them. They are not poisoned.” The wizened face said with a kind smile. Out of courtesy, I picked one and smiled.

“This place is famous for its strawberries. You should probably try the strawberry cheese cake sometime”.

“Strange name, isn’t it, for a café?” I asked.

He smiled, and suddenly I felt he was on to a secret that I was unaware of. I glanced at the book lying on his table and caught a line –

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods

Byron. Well, at least there would be interesting company, even if the food turns out to be bad, I thought.

His raspy voice cut through my thoughts once again, “You are restless and alone. If you don’t like being alone, why are you travelling solo?”

I was startled by the directness of the question. But then looking at his face I realized he meant no disrespect; people tend to get a bit more direct at his time of life. Hell, he was just a stranger, what’s the harm in telling him my story?

“Well, I have tried to blend in but people have always been a big disappointment for me. Or maybe I was a disappointment for them. Either ways, here I am. Why are you alone?”

He shrugged, “I prefer my own company.” Registering the blank look on my face, he continued,

“Most people mistake solitude for loneliness. Let’s face it; we need to be comfortable with ourselves before we expect others to be comfortable with us. I learnt it the hard way.”

And then he proceeded to tell me his love story. Later on I learnt he was the owner of the place. “After fifty years of marriage, my wife went on a permanent vacation in a pine box, and I had to start from scratch. It was difficult at first, doing your own chores, eating by yourself and with no one to talk to except yourself. That was when I decided to build this place, for fellow travellers who sometimes needed a hug and a kind word to feel everything was alright in their lonely world.”

“And then, when you pass on the box of strawberries to a lonely stranger, you feel the journey is complete” he was saying. But for me, the journey had just begun.

The next day as I sat in the train, rushing towards my next destination, I realized even if I’m alone, I am all that I actually own; and I can’t run away from that, ever.