A few nights ago, I was in Spain, enjoying a nice rooftop dinner in Granada. At the next table was a boisterous Spanish family, including a little boy who looked about five or six.
I was alone, and it was my birthday, but I didn’t mind. I had a glass each of white wine and sparkling water, and I was busy digging into my first course, a delicious salmon and tomato salad.
But then out of nowhere, the little boy noticed my existence. He pointed at me and yelled in Spanish, “Look, Dad! This girl is Chinese!”
I looked up and made eye contact with his father, who looked embarrassed. I gave him what I hoped was a look of annoyance. Please tell your kid to stop talking about me.
All I was trying to do was enjoy a nice dinner at a nice restaurant, and not feel self-conscious about it. No one’s staring at you, I would tell myself when I got too anxious on past trips to dine alone. No one is going to notice you. No one is looking and judging.
After this, I wasn’t so sure about that anymore.
This experience tinged the rest of my long weekend in Spain. I felt uncomfortable and out of place everywhere I went. I couldn’t help but keep noticing that I was the only Asian person, or sometimes even the only person of color, at many of the places I visited. Several times, I would walk by a group of teen boys, one of them would say in a comically suggestive voice, “Hola,” and the rest of them would titter.
In an empty alleyway, a man on a moped passed me and meowed. Weird, I thought. A few steps later, he had stopped, and this time it was my turn to pass him. He turned his head towards me and meowed again, loudly and clearly. Apparently, the meow was intended for me. The fuck? I immediately took the next turn.
The one day I spent in Sevilla was the day I really sat down and thought, Wow, this day really did not go my way at all. My period had come a week earlier than expected, and I was totally unprepared. My pants were ruined. I hand-washed them in the hotel bathroom sink and hung them up to dry, while trying to ignore the painful cramps.
And then, because I hadn’t done the proper research beforehand, I had booked my timed visits to the Sevilla Cathedral and the Real Alcázar for during the hottest time of day, between 2 and 5pm. Despite that, the sites were packed with tourists; the Alcázar in particular seemed to be overrun by screaming toddlers. I moved mechanically through the stunning royal gardens, taking beautiful photos on my camera, but felt no joy or sense of wonder. All I could think was oh my God, it’s so hot, I might pass out. I wish these kids would shut up. My stomach hurts. Oh no, I think I’m bleeding through my pants again.
I had booked dinner at a local restaurant, but when I arrived at the time of the reservation, it was empty except for a guy wiping stuff behind the bar. “Excuse me, are you open?” I called out to him. “Not yet,” he called back, “Come back in a couple of minutes.”
That moment was when the misery became really acute inside my head. It was almost 8:30pm, early by Spanish dinner standards, but I was starving. I didn’t want to wait anymore. I didn’t want to walk around the block and come back and be the sole diner in an empty restaurant. I walked back to the hotel and to the nearest takeaway joint, where I ordered a kebab while the owner stared at my chest — apparently I’d made the mistake of wearing a dress that showed a quarter-inch of cleavage.
I ate the takeaway kebab in my hotel room, with the curtains drawn, and it was the safest I had felt since this whole trip began. I watched some Netflix on my phone, popped an ibuprofen, took a shower. I felt annoyed with myself, that I had let my anxiety take over. I could have been using this time to explore Sevilla at night, trying tapas bars, finding more museums to visit. But at the same time, I was glad that I’d recognized I wasn’t doing well and needed to be alone and away from stimulants that triggered further anxiety.
From the hotel room, I posted pictures from my travels to Instagram Stories, beautiful snapshots of lush gardens and Moorish architecture. I thought about friends who had messaged in the past to tell me that they thought I was brave for travelling solo. Well, I didn’t feel brave that day, that’s for sure. Sometimes solo travel just sucks, and that’s the truth.