A friend and I were talking recently about the whole purpose-of-life thing, and how we were created to be relational. Part of being made in the image of God includes not only having the capacity to enjoy being in relationship with God and others, but actually needing to. My friend, a trained counselor who worked with residents of the State penitentiary in South Dakota for 20 years, said, “That’s why solitary confinement is one of the worst punishments we can inflict on people. It runs contrary to our very raison d’etre.”
I thought about that last Monday. I was en route to Papua New Guinea and – to get the cheapest tickets – had to overnight in Cairns, Australia, for two nights. (yeah, right….oh darn!) I found a “hotel deal” online and booked it, proud of myself for keeping the entire cost of the trip at more than $500 savings over what the travel agent had quoted.
Such a deal.
The booking agent for the hotel sent me an email saying I should call him when I land at the airport, before grabbing a taxi. Taxi? What about the airport shuttle service advertised on the website? Oh, that is no longer operative. Just take a taxi. It shouldn’t cost much – no more than $25.
The taxi driver pulled up to the hotel entrance — right there next to Jucy Rentals. In one smooth move I got out of the car, glanced inside the hotel, turned back to the cab and almost asked the driver to stay for a minute… just in case I needed a quick escape. I chided myself for being jumpy. Instead I paid him and watched him drive away.
The entrance to the hotel was secured with a formidable double lock on the door handles. The lobby, visible through the glass doors was abandoned; the front desk cleared of typical travel aids – brochures, pens, flower arrangements….people. The coffee shop to the right – or what was once a coffee shop, was stripped of all appliances and furniture. It now seemed to serve as a storage unit for unwanted kitchen trolleys.
I waited. In a few minutes Michael appeared, breathless and sweaty. He apologized for being late, opened the door and ushered me in, all the while talking about how this hotel had gone out of business but “his business” still rented rooms in the building (not sure how that happens, but there we were…) He apologized for the condition of the elevator, which needed a holistic facelift. He promised me that my room would be better. And it was. In fact, the room was lovely – clean and bright.
Michael turned on the air conditioner, pointed to a few food establishments on a tourist map, and showed me where I could find the Asian night market if I wanted some cheap souvenirs (I didn’t tell him I live in Asia and go to Thai markets regularly.) Then he said, “So there you go. If you need anything just call me on my cell phone.” And with that he was gone. Gone, I say. And I realized suddenly that I was all alone. There was no desk clerk downstairs to call with questions or requests. No concierge. No doorman to monitor the people who come or go. There was no phone in my room. No food. No room service or wake up calls. No internet. Nothing. I was totally on my own. (Okay, there was internet available – three blocks away and you had to sit on the curb outside a travel office to log on. I went there but felt funny sitting on the street trying to download 122 emails while tourists in beachwear walked around me.)
I felt strangely uncomfortable. I usually enjoy being alone. I like having down time. But I realized on Monday that I only enjoy being alone when I know there are people about. Funny, eh? This aloneness was more like voluntary solitary confinement. And I didn’t like it. Not one little bit.
I gave myself a pep talk about how I didn’t really need anything or anyone, so it shouldn’t bother me that no one was around. I went through a mental checklist of fears and desires. Nope, I was perfectly alright. So why did I feel restless? Because no one was around. But really, Dawn, why is that such a big deal? I don’t know… it just is.
That evening I was sitting on the little balcony having a cup of tea when suddenly a young woman entered the courtyard below my room yelling obscenities at the moon and overturning picnic tables. When she saw me she decided I was a better target for her verbal abuse than the faceless moon – another indication of how we need people, even if only to vent on them. I asked her if I could be of any help (hoping she’d say ‘no’ and mentally trying to calculate exactly how much help I was willing to give considering I had no back-up.) She didn’t answer my question with a direct “yes” or “no” but her word choices clearly communicated her desire that I leave her alone, which I was only too happy to do.
After a restless night, I decided the next day to check into a different hotel, even if I had to pay double. I told the new hotel desk clerk my story and he was graciously sympathetic. He said he couldn’t discount a room below the hotel standard rates, but he could give me a free upgrade with wifi. I wanted to cry. I don’t know why, but my emotions by that time were very close to the surface and I truly wanted to cry. I went to my room and you know what? I stayed there – alone, mind you – the rest of the day. I didn’t go out or talk to anyone, but I was at peace. Why? Because I knew there were people around if I needed them and that was good enough. Funny what a difference people make.
There’s no real point to this story. Just telling you what happened to me while traveling this week….and solemnly warning you to avoid solitary confinement at all costs.