Falling bowling pins clash with the 90s neo soul pumping through the speakers. This is my first time at Brooklyn Bowl Philly, a nightclub located in the Northern Liberties section of the city. Artfully arranged vintage carnival paraphernalia makes the space cheerful. I smile at the upright Skee-Ball games stuck to the wall behind me.
As I wait for the opening act to take the stage, I sip a cocktail of cranberry and vodka. Years ago, I would have felt the need to look busy. Or I would’ve acted as if I were expecting someone. Today, I neither hide nor advertise that I’m here alone. The kiddos are spending Thanksgiving with their dad and as I toiled over whether or not to hop a plane to South Beach, Miami, I stumbled across concert tickets for rap icon Talib Kweli.
South Beach could wait.
I smiled through the entire show. I mean, I cheesed like I was the Cheshire Cat in a Colgate commercial. I must have looked like a maniac, but I didn’t care. To my right, a couple of girlfriends cheered louder than me and the woman to my left, the photographer’s girlfriend, pumped her fist in the air. We partied like no one was watching. Because no one was. If there were people staring at us, we didn’t notice. I clapped off beat. I danced to my own rhythm, and I even forgot the lyrics to some songs. Hell, the woman beside me barked at the mere mention of a DMX tribute. We laughed it off. With crossed arms raised high, we paid homage to a legend.
It’s only dawning on me now, as I type this, that I’d never gone to a concert by myself. As if the other people singing along with Kweli and rocking to the bass guitarist cared that I came without a plus-one. As I purchased my twenty-five-dollar ticket (yes, twenty-five dollars) the only thing on my mind was what outfit I was going to wear. Not even the thirty minutes it took to find free parking within walking distance of the venue ruined my mood. I felt an adrenaline rush, the likes of which I hadn’t felt in a long time. Before I married, I traveled as often as my bank account would permit. I took college courses that allowed me to visit Paris, France and Cuba. Then, after graduation, I volunteered in Lima, Peru. I had just finished my first year with Teach For America. I was twenty-three. I made the trek from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Lima, Peru loaded down with one duffel bag and a backpack. I worked with school-age youth at an orphanage for a month. Also, I saw the lines at Nazca and visited the ruins of Machu Picchu.
My next solo vacation would not take place for over a decade. I was thirty-five. By then I was divorced and a single mom of two kids under ten. There seemed to be no time for self-care, let alone adventure. Life had gotten in the way. I had recently enrolled in a graduate program. Schoolwork along with my day job, and spending time with my children took up all of my energy. I closed on a new house in November, approximately six weeks after the divorce finalized. The kids and I spent Christmas in our new home, and we all got used to our new normal. I worked tirelessly to make sure the transition from a two-parent household to a mom-centered living arrangement went as smoothly as possible. By the time June rolled around I couldn’t wait for a break. The kids were already pre-registered for multiple day camps. I looked forward to four hours of alone time each day and I didn’t mind being their chauffer. As I plotted out schedules on the oversized whiteboard calendar in our kitchen, I spied an opportunity. The kids would spend two weeks with their dad in late July.
What the hell was I going to do in Delaware by myself?
Every friend I asked to go somewhere, anywhere, with me, said no. My wanderlust spirit, however, refused to be denied. Being a teacher has its perks, one of which is not working during the summer. A downside to this, most of my girlfriends aren’t teachers. They can’t leave town on a random Wednesday. When I stumbled upon roundtrip airfare to San Juan, Puerto Rico for under one hundred fifty dollars and a three-night stay at a boutique vegan hotel for around two hundred, I promptly packed a bag and sped to the airport. I’m not a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. The deal was just too good to pass up. As I told my mom, “If I waited on my friends to do things, I’d never go anywhere.”
Was I nervous? Yes.
Did anything unexpected happen? Of course. Who thinks to check CNN.com before going on vacation? On my flight to the capital, I learned civil unrest and days of protests had erupted in San Juan. The reporter seated beside me strategized with her cameraman on the best way to get close to the action. People had taken to the streets to protest the governor and his administration. Major highways were shut down. Demonstrators were tear gassed.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m cautious when I travel; my head stays on a swivel. As a solo female vacationer who is also a woman of color, I stick out like a sore thumb. Apparently for some people in some spaces, it’s rare to see African American tourists. Wherever I go, I make a point to chat up the coat check lady, or the bartender, or one of the people working security. Y’know, key personnel. These people are good to have in your corner. They’ll know before anyone else if something sketchy is about to pop off.
As soon as the pilot announced it was safe to turn on cell phones, I alerted my dad, telling him I would stay at the airport if I was unable to find transportation to the hotel. I would change my return flight and be home ASAP. I’d seen one too many episodes of Locked Up Abroad and knew I wasn’t built for imprisonment no matter how much I sided with the protesters. Thankfully, when the plane arrived at San Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport there were no signs of trouble. The hotel concierge assured me the hotel and surrounding area were safe. Still nervous, and because of the ongoing protests over the governor’s refusal to resign, I chose not to venture too far from Ocean Park. I postponed going to Old San Juan and the Bacardi Rum Distillery across the bay in Cataño.
Although disappointed, the change in itinerary didn’t spoil my vacation. The beach was less than two blocks away. I had a hammock and I’d made a lizard friend whom I named Lizzie. I splurged on an in-suite massage. I also signed up for a walking tour of Santruce, a neighborhood decorated with colorful graffiti. Most importantly, I made it back to Delaware in one piece with plans already in the works to return soon. Over the years, I had forgotten how much I liked to explore. Whether a solo-traveler, or booed up, or with the kids in tow, it’s something I won’t let go of so easily again. On the drive home from the Talib Kweli concert, basking from a post-concert high, I thought of where I might go next. I’ve always wanted to visit Las Vegas or travel across the pond to London. I am already plotting out the summer camp schedule, looking ahead to when I might have a few days to myself.