Monday, December 19, 2011
Monday, September 26, 2011
Friday, September 23, 2011
For many, solo travel is the only way to go. I was not one of those people, until my travel companion left me terrified and alone in Paris. Why I am now a solo travel convert--and why you should think seriously about going it alone too.
I don't know why I was stunned. I knew by the time we entered French airspace that something wasn't right--that Alyson wasn't going to stay. We had been planning our grand voyage through Europe for two years, but by the time we landed in Paris, Alyson didn't want to be there. Her baggage was delayed in Chicago, giving her the perfect excuse. Plus, she said, the food was bad (?!?), there were too many birds, everybody smoked, and no one spoke English. In short, it was just too different.
Wasn't that the point?
On our second day in Paris, we returned to Charles de Gaulle airport to pick up Alyson's bag. I thought that as soon as she had her bag, our trip could begin.
Instead, she went back to Canada.
She wrote and sent some postcards (not mentioning that she was on her way home; she would have arrived in Kelowna before they did), hugged me, and whispered in my ear, "Just think. Now we can use the line 'We'll always have Paris.'"
Somehow, this provided no comfort. I was nineteen years old, on my first trip outside North America, facing six weeks in Europe--alone.
The Travel Industry Association reports that solo travellers account for 21.8% of all American travellers.
"I was shocked at how many people--while I was away and here in Canada--were shocked that I travelled by myself," says Keri Froese, 22, who travelled alone in Greece and Turkey. "Some of them said they'd never want to travel by themselves, but most of them said that they didn't think they ever could."
I was one of those people.
I managed to find my way back to Paris on the metro--no small feat for a girl who had never taken public transit by herself--and returned to my hotel, where I checked out.
"Et votre amie?" the hotelier asked curiously.
"Elle est partie," I replied, in what I thought was impeccable French.
He looked confused.
I tried again. "Elle est retournee au Canada." And then I began to weep.
The man gave me a look of disdain that no one has mastered quite like the Parisians.
I sat on the curb outside the hotel and cried for over an hour, the reality of the situation setting in. I knew that I couldn't go back to Canada--I had invested too much to be here--but I knew that I could not find my way around Europe by myself. Or even if I could, I didn't want to. I would be lonely, bored, sad. And, I was convinced, my life would be in danger.
I was more or less right. Over the next six weeks, I experienced loneliness, boredom, sadness, and fear, sometimes to the point of desperately wanting to go home. Often when I got on a train, plane or ferry bound for a new city, I experienced nearly crippling anxiety. On two occasions, I got myself into compromising situations that, in retrospect, I recognize as truly stupid and potentially very dangerous. One night, as I walked down a dark street in Athens, I had the chilling realization that if I were attacked, no one would even know that I had disappeared.
Why, then, would I write an article recommending that others subject themselves to the perils of solo travel? Because the perils are not as bad as many believe they are. And more than that, because I--who thought she would never travel alone--had one of the best experiences of my life.
Lea Lane, author of Solo Traveler: Tales and Tips for Great Trips, says, "Travelling alone isn't only a different travel experience. It can be the ultimate travel experience."
"Most negatives about solo travel are misperceptions," Lane says.
The biggest misperception she names is that solo travellers are lonely, which is rarely the case.
"What people don't understand is that travelling alone is not really travelling alone--you never have to be by yourself unless you want to be," says Froese.
I was rarely alone. I met fantastic people in nearly every city I went, some whom I spent several days with. I'm certain that I would not have met many of them if I had been with Alyson because she was unenthusiastic about meeting new people--a point of contention between us. At one of the lowest points in my trip, in the Greek islands, I met two American men who turned a cold rainy spell in a deserted island village into one of the highlights of my trip. My memories of the Greek islands are not of Mediterranean swims but of card games in hotel rooms and Greek-dubbed American movies with two hilarious guys from the Midwest, and I would not have had it any other way.
"Some of the most interesting people I have ever met were when I was backpacking," says Laura Marshall, 22.
Solo travellers seem to agree that the biggest benefit to travelling alone is the option of being entirely selfish, guilt-free--never having to compromise and risk missing something you want to see or do. Lane says that solo travellers also often have more culturally immersed experiences, since locals are more likely to approach singles than pairs or groups. When I was in Rome, the Italian owner of my hostel took me out for an authentic four-course Italian meal--an experience that I know I wouldn't have had had I not been alone. I found the best thing about solo travel was the option to choose when to be by myself and when to be with others. I spent a week and a half with two girls from St. Louis; on the third day, when they wanted to go shopping (again) and I wanted to check out the Uffizi Gallery, I took off on my own. Of course, people travelling with friends have the same option, but are less likely to use it.
Of course, there are safety concerns for solo travellers, particularly women, to keep in mind. However, these concerns are essentially the same as they are in Canada. I have felt more genuinely threatened on a late-night Vancouver street than I felt in any city in Europe.
Lane advises that the singular most important safety advice for solo travellers is to use your instinct. "Yes, I once traipsed alone to the Syrian border, just to see some incredible Roman-era mosaic floors in Antioch, Turkey--but my choices are calculated. I do what feels right," Lane writes.
Many travel websites and guidebooks warn against choosing a travel companion by default--going with with anyone who is ready and willing, out of fear of going alone. Alyson was one of those travel companions--she was unstable on a good day, but she had the money, time and inclination to go when and where I wanted to. Look how that turned out. But far worse than her leaving would have been her staying and being miserable for the duration of the trip, ruining my experience as well as her own. Even if you genuinely enjoy your potential travel mate's company, keep in mind that travel can kill even close friendships. If you find a long weekend with your friend can be taxing, there is potential for a turbulent travel relationship.
Marshall says that she discovered how trying an incompatible travel companion could be on her 2005 trip to Southeast Asia with her friend Kyle. "I just found my patience was short with him--we would bicker about stupid things. He would get jealous if I made 'friends' with other guys. I got sick of hearing the same stories over and over. Some of his comments would make me want to scream. Everything he did just annoyed the hell out of me."
After a particularly heated argument, Marshall decided to leave Kyle in Vietnam and continued travelling by herself--a decision she says changed her life. "I absolutely loved it," she says.
"One of the things I discovered about travelling alone is that you are your true self--there's no one from home to impose their expectations of who you usually are. I felt like I was more truly myself than I've ever been."
"If you can find the perfect travel mate, I think travelling with someone else may be overall a better time," says Marshall, who has also travelled extensively with her brother and friends. "But how many times in your life are you going to happen to have the perfect travel mate, who has the time and the money at the same time as you?"
The risk in waiting for such a companion is that you may end up waiting forever--trips that are continually put off tend not to happen. The opportunity to travel will not last forever; there is truly no time like the present.
"If I had waited for someone to go with me, I would have waited forever," says Froese. "When I think about the experience I would have missed out on, there's no question that I made the right decision. It took some getting used to, being by myself, but I would not want it any other way."
Unfortunately, solo travel may not be for everyone; the only way to know one way or the other is to try.
Lauren McNeilly, 28, thought that solo travel would be the perfect option for her, since she was proudly independent. On a backpacking trip in Central America, she discovered that she was wrong.
"I absolutely hated it," says McNeilly, who cut her three-month trip short and returned to Canada after three weeks. "I was lonely and depressed. I got really sick and there was no one to look after me. It was one of the most miserable experiences of my life."
So for those who still aren't convinced: why should you go travelling by yourself?
Because, as Marshall says, "you can't travel alone without it changing you in a fundamental way. It's not always fun, but you come home with this sense of personal competence and independence that changes your life at home too."
When I returned to Canada after six emotionally turbulent weeks, I was a different person. I had a sense of confidence and accomplishment that I had never felt before. I--the public transit neophyte--had navigated the transit systems in nine cities in three different languages; had found my way from France to Italy to Greece and back again; had conquered shyness and made new friends that saw the best version of myself I've ever been. No, Alyson, we won't always have Paris, but I always will. Paris is and will always be the place where I decided to carry on--a decision that changed my life. If anything, I should thank her for leaving.
In September, I head back to Europe for a 14-week backpacking adventure. Yes, I'm going alone--this time, by choice.***
***Okay, those of you who have read about my 2006 Europe trip know that I went with a friend. But I was looking for a good conclusion that made my point. (And to be fair, I did spend 3-4 weeks of that trip on my own!)
So that's it. It's interesting to look back at this article five years, three trips, and one international relocation later. More on that next time...
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
EF - Live The Language - Paris from Albin Holmqvist on Vimeo.
Naturally, I started thinking that I should probably study in Paris rather than Melbourne, but given that my grad school offer was accepted and my ticket was purchased, I reminded myself that Australia has its redeeming qualities too, even if there wasn't a lovely little video showing me what they were...but now there is! Anne made my day yet again today by posting this:
EF - Live The Language - Sydney from Gustav Johansson on Vimeo.
Okay, it's true that I live in Melbourne and my life looks nothing like this at the moment. I have yet to set bare foot on a beach and my time is generally spent on a computer writing papers and marketing plans. I think it's funny that when I pictured my life in Australia, it never involved actually doing school work. Luckily summer break is coming (4 assignments/3.5 weeks!) and with any luck I'll be experiencing Australia like the girls in this video are.
P.S. For my Canadian friends who won't be moving overseas any time soon but who want to feel really good about being British Columbian, check out this one:
EF - Live The Language - Vancouver from Albin Holmqvist on Vimeo.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
So here we are again. It took me a lot longer to start blogging than I had intended. I was excited to have a ‘blogworthy’ life again and thought that I would begin as soon as I arrived in Australia—or before, even. But I couldn’t bring myself to write about what’s been going on my head—not publicly, at least. Truthfully, I didn’t anticipate how difficult it was going to be to move to (Australian) Victoria—or more specifically, how difficult it was going to be to separate myself from my life in (Canadian) Victoria.
Of course I had some idea—I spent June doing the rounds, saying good-bye and throwing around words like “the end of an era”. I knew enough to cry on the ferry immediately after saying good-bye to Kristin, trying to do so discretely behind sunglasses and failing, apparently, because an old Scottish woman named Aileen joined me and asked me what was wrong. After I told her, she (a mother of three grown daughters) offered me some pearls of wisdom: Of course it’s difficult. If it weren’t difficult, it wouldn’t be brave.
Her words comforted me then and have on many occasions since. The truth is, I left Canada and My People behind 11 weeks ago today, and I still have tough days. This is largely why I haven’t written until now—because until recently I couldn’t seem to summon up anything positive enough for anyone to want to read. No one wants to hear the girl who talked everyone’s ears off about moving to Australia wax sentimental about how much she misses Canada.
In the last few weeks, I’ve turned a corner and for the first time have been able to tell myself that I am really, really happy to be here (and actually believe it). Melbourne is fantastic, and I have a lot to look forward to in the next year.
So, I’m back. This is going to be a very different blog than it was in my backpacking days, because there are not likely to be any crazy late nights resulting in mad dashes to catch (cancelled) flights, any strange detours through the Former Yugoslavia, or any similarly debauched adventures. I am not travelling. I live here now. So this blog is going to be about what it’s like for a girl who loves and values her people to move 11,000+ kilometres away from them to create a new life.
And for those of you who have been reading since the beginning and are noticing a distinct shift in tone, I promise I won’t be so heavy-hearted from here on in.
It’s good to be back!
Sunday, December 14, 2008
a) you have to say "no thank-you" to about three thousand people within a walking distance of 1km?
b) people generally like to stare at you, laugh at you (plunking your big Amazon self onto one of the little itty-bitty makeshift restaurant chairs) and grope your freakishly white arms/face/thights?
c) people are always looking for a way to extract more money out of you and generally rip you off?
d) your tour guides whom you paid a substantial amount of money steal two iPods from the group and turn particularly venomous when the victims of the theft demand them back?
e) drivers of buses, cars and motorbikes lay on their horns all the time?
f) you get robbed walking down the street?
Let me be honest. If I had written this blog about two hours ago, it would have been a pretty negative one. I should mention that I was fresh off yet another overnight bus of which the driver honked his horn consistently and stopped for four "dinner" breaks between the hours of 11:00pm and 4:00am. This is not the first bus I've been on like this. Then at 6:00am when we were pulling into what was supposed to be Saigon, for those who hadn't been awoken by the horns blaring, he blasted Vietnamese love ballads. Like loud. Anyway, I was told that I would arrive in Saigon this morning, but it was Nha Trang. The tour guide said, "No, no, Saigon another 10 hours away." So I've been bumming around Nha Trang all day waiting for another overnighter tonight (cause I paid for a sleeper bus...may as well save myself a night's accommodation, yeah?), exhausted and with no place to go but the beach. The beach would be nice if Vietnamese dudes didn't come and plunk down next to me and start touching this alabaster skin (and by the way, I have a tan right now....by my standards...) that they can't get enough of. And asking me questions. And asking me to buy stuff. And when I say no, asking me for kisses. If any of this rings familiar, it's because this is just like Italy/Greece/Turkey. Only this time I'm really trying not to get defensive right off the bat, and there's a lot more touching. Anyway, it felt like there was no escape, so up until about a couple hours ago, I was fed up with Vietnam and feeling so ready to be home that I was working myself up quite the Pity Party.
And then I went back to the beach, for lack of anything better to do. And I was harassed by another Vietnamese dude who squeezed my thigh muscles and said, "Yes, athlete" and wanted to give me a massage that worked its way from 100,000 dong to FREE. Of course, I still declined, and he eventually left. And then someone else dropped herself into the sand next to me, and saved this blog from being a particularly negative one (OK, I admit that this blog hasn't been all sunshine and rainbows...). I won't even try to spell her name here, but she was a 21-year-old Vietnamese girl and after about 20 minutes I realized that she legitimately didn't want to sell me anything. She was just (from what I gather) a marine biology (???) student who is also studying English and goes to the beach each evening to find a "foreign girl" to practice her English with. So we chatted for over an hour, and she was such a sweetheart, asking me about Canada, telling me about Vietnam, etc. And she reminded me that aside from the ones with dollar signs in their eyes (and there are billions of them), Vietnamese people are by and large quite lovely. I've given a few impromptu English lessons while I've been here, including with the girl who runs the shop in Hoi An where I had my boots made. She was one of the people who loves to grope me, and it wasn't quite as irritating with her, because I really don't believe she was hitting on me or trying to pickpocket me. I was wearing short shorts and a tank top and I think she legitimately was fascinated by the length of my legs and the paleness of my skin. Kate, my partner in crime for much of Vietnam, thought it was pretty hilarious cause this girl literally couldn't keep her hands off me. She sat in my lap, rubbed my thighs, hugged me, held my hand, the whole nine...It was a little strange at times (the hands on my bare thighs felt a little wrong) but she was a sweetheart. And there have generally been a lot of really friendly (well, not so friendly) people around. Unfortunately, it's just those few bad seeds...
Par example, on our Halong Bay tour...I don't think I can really get into the whole story except to say first and foremost that I was on a boat with a baker's dozen Irishmen, a few Brits, and a couple of Aussies, all of whom history has shown even the most venerable of Canadian livers has difficulty keeping up with. And this group was definitely no exception. I don't know where they get the energy or the tolerance, but they put me to shame. Anyway, our first night on the boat, three iPods were left on the deck next to the crew's iPod speakers. The music (randomly, Whitney Houston...) was shut off at 4:00am, and everything was fine. Then the next morning, the rather sour barmaid accused the crew of breaking the speakers and demanded a rather outlandish sum to replace them. The people who'd left their iPods were instantly suspicious and demanded their iPods back. The barmaid kept insisting that she had no iPods, she had no iPods until things got increasingly heated and she miraculously produced one iPod from her pocket. Everything escalated until everyone was shouting (actually, I wasn't. I was nursing a hangover and staying out of it...but it definitely killed the mood for everyone). One iPod was found, but the other never was and it all resulted in all our bags getting searched and then the personal baggage and private cabins of the entire crew getting searched when the boat reached the shore. The tour guide, who'd previously been really funny and likeable, at first was trying to mediate between the crew and the passengers, but got pretty nasty in the end when the accusations started flying. It just left a bad taste in everyone's mouth, you know? I'm not going to get into the details of the rest of the weekend, but it was a really fun group and good times and after three nights with them, I am still recovering...I met up with some of them, in particular Kate, again in Hoi An, which was great. It was back to that Lao feeling of knowing people everywhere you go...
So after what one of the Irish dudes labelled iPodGate '08, I already had a bad taste in my mouth...and then I got my bag stolen. I will give details of that later on, but will say that my passport and wallet were thankfully not in the bag in question. It's funny, cause since that happened, my stamina has just been gone. I don't feel that upset, but since it happened, I've just been positively exhausted and feel really vulnerable to all the touts and their entreaties to give me their money in one way shape or form. I'm a bit done, is all.
Which is good, I suppose, since I have only a few days to go. Every time I start feeling okay with leaving, I remind myself that in one week's time, I will be in the dead of winter on the Prairies. And the fact that I'm still somewhat cool with that makes me think that I really am spent.
One more blog to come!