Best thing about traveling: Being alone in a bar
The problem with being in your home town is that it is hard to spend time alone in a bar. Always when I try to do it, some friend or acquaintance pops into the same bar. As being alone in a bar is considered somewhat weird – as if you would not have any friends – I always have to come up with some inventive excuses to get out of the situation. Usually I claim that I-was-supposed-to-meet-my-friend-in-this-bar-but-now-he-called-that-he-is-in-another-bar-but-I-already-bought-my-drink-so-I-thought-I-might-as-well-drink-it-before-going. Then I finish my beer as quickly as I can and head towards another bar hoping to find some solitude there.
Why then to go to a bar alone? Because this enables one to feel a certain hovering form of connectedness with the human kind. It is hard to express this feeling but it resembles the melancholic form of mellowness you get when watching the stars alone at night. You feel yourself so small and merged with this vast universe. But in a bar instead of a sky full of stars there is a room full of people. Watching them happily interact, smile, laugh, dance and have a good time with each other one feels to be so far removed from their reality in one’s loneliness. At the same time watching their unique lives unfolding in front of oneself and being able to observe them while remaining anonymous fills oneself with a warm feeling. One has a somewhat paradoxical feeling of belonging to this crowd at the same time as one is far removed from it. One is an outsider at the same time as one feels to be connected.
On a Saturday night in San Juan del Sur, the surf capital of Nicaragua, I was engaged in this favorite past-time of mine. The music played high (isn’t it sad that nowadays you can travel to whatever country in the world but you can’t escape the same hits you here at your local nightclub?), the laid-back beach-side bar was packed, and the crowd was cheerful. All of a sudden a blackout stopped the music and shut the lights leaving us in darkness. The crowd reacted by cheering loudly. Suddenly the sense of community was intensified; we no longer were a random group of individuals happening to enjoy the music in the same bar but this surpising incident united us – we were experiencing something together. Soon the lights came back, the crowd cheered again and everything continued as normal. The same event happened a few more times during the evening – after all we were in Nicaragua – and the reaction was always the same.
The intensification of the sense of community in the face of a sudden interruption of the normal course of events reminded me of anthropologist Victor Turner’s concept of communitas. Starting with some observations of a few African tribes Turner argues that in every culture the forces of structure and communitas are in a constant juxtaposition against each other. During times of structure our interaction with the others takes place within a structured, differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal-economic positions. We are bound by certain roles, norms and expectations and thus are unable to reach to the other spontaneously and with the wholeness of our being. Some form of structure is necessary for the functioning of any society but luckily it leaves room for moments of communitas in which people are stripped off of all status differences and other norms that separate them from each other and are thus able to attend to the others unique and particular being and meet the other through a living mutual relation. These moments are especially prone to happen during liminal in-between situations characterized by the dislocation of established structures. What we experienced together in the bar during the black-out was clearly a tiny moment of liminality.
The waves of the dark ocean hitting the abandoned beach in the background, the relaxed bar with its light-hearted crowd in the foreground, me alone on the bar-desk with a cold beer in my hand and the lights out – I was truly enjoying my time and truly feeling connected with the world beyond myself!
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