As those of you who have been following Dreams Abroad may know, I recently finished my first-ever cycle tour across Europe. I cycled approximately 6,000 km (that’s nearly 3,730 miles!) over 103 days. My journey took me through Italy, France, Spain, Vatican City, Monaco, and Andorra. It was hard to figure out what the most […]
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Simply put, I’m going on my first cycling tour in Europe, traveling around Italy, France, and Spain for four months. Does that sound wild to you? It does to me too! But that’s my plan.
I’ve never done anything like this before. I’ve cycled a few long days near where I live, but I’ve never ridden a fully-laden bike (except a tandem, where someone else helps!). I wouldn’t really count myself as a cyclist.
My hope is to stay with friends, and friends of friends, as much as possible. Then there is a website called Warm Showers. It is similar to Couchsurfing, except that it is just for long-distance cyclists. I am excited to explore this. And for the nights when neither of these options is possible, I will find a campsite. Or wild camp, which is camping in nature and not at an organized campsite—another thing I have never done!
At this point, you might be asking yourself, why on earth am I doing this? Well, I guess the seed was planted when my cousin cycled from Bristol to Beijing to show what is possible with cancer. He cycled on a tandem, and I joined him for three days just before COVID-19 hit. I hadn’t ridden more than 20 kilometers before that trip if that. But he was able to do lots of the hard pedalling!
We stayed one night with a Warm Showers host, one night camping, and one night at a last-minute cheap hotel due to rain. That gave us the opportunity to wash things. And I loved it! This led to me borrowing my friend’s bike. Once Spain’s strict lockdown eased, I started cycling around the local area. I loved the freedom the bike gave me to go anywhere and not have to rely on public transport.
Thus the seed of embarking on my first cycling tour in Europe was planted. I originally planned to do it in spring 2022. But I was enjoying waitressing and learning flamenco in Seville so much that I postponed it. But now it’s time. I was very happy with my life in Seville, and I’m looking forward to starting my studies to be a teacher in September. But both of those lifestyles were and will be intense, without much free time. And I’m ready for some adventure. A complete change. I’m not sure how I will adapt to a kind of lifestyle I have never experienced before, but I’m looking forward to finding out! I’m also looking forward to building up my fitness through my daily cycling. Since I’m not in a long-term job or relationship, now is the time to do it.
Lots of people have told me that I’m so brave to be planning this wild adventure. But I don’t really see it as brave. A challenge, yes. But not really brave. I know the country and I speak the language. I won’t be going anywhere really remote. And, I have enough leeway with my budget to cope if something goes a bit wrong. Also, I’m going by myself, so I can go at my own pace and don’t need to worry about training or keeping up with other people.
There are, however, a few things I’m nervous about—but they’re not the things that other people assume. For starters, I’m quite scared of the dark! So cycling, and especially pitching my tent and cooking in twilight or darkness, is going to be a challenge. Once I’m in my tent no monsters can come and get me(!) so it will just be a question of using my headtorch to provide enough light to get everything done before I get scared and retreat to my tent! Hopefully, this experience can help me start to overcome this fear.
Two other things I’m scared of are spiders and dogs. Both of which may well make an appearance during the trip. Spiders I reckon I’ll be able to deal with if necessary, but I’m quite scared of what I’ll do if I encounter an angry dog. I just hope I’m lucky enough to avoid the most aggressive ones.
Wild camping in itself is also a new challenge I will face on my cycling tour in Europe. One that makes me not exactly scared, but certainly nervous. Learning how to find the right spot without being disturbed, sleeping by myself in a place far from nearby settlements, and coping with all the camping and cooking stuff when I’m tired after a long, rainy day are the aspects of the ride that will bring the most challenges. But it’s also something that I think once I learn to do it, will actually be exhilarating and rewarding.
I go through stages of feeling excited, then overwhelmed. There is so much to organise! And it’s extremely difficult to plan something you’ve never done before. Luckily Google exists and Facebook groups, and a couple of people I know in person have done cycle touring trips before. But it’s still quite overwhelming to work out how I am going to do it and to get everything sorted in the limited time I’ve got.
One thing I have struggled to work out is how much gear to take. Most people say that their main mistake on their first trip was packing too much stuff. But I don’t want to forget anything important! I’m also not a strong cyclist, so the less weight I have to heave around, the better. However, there are still so many decisions to make. Are neoprene socks worth it? Will a rearview mirror be useful to be aware of stereotypically bad Italian drivers?! Comfier or lighter-weight sleeping mat?
Another difficulty is route planning. I still only have a vague idea of where I want to go (start in Sicily and go north!). It would be nice to be on marked cycle routes some of the way. But I don’t want to stick to any pre-planned route because I want to have the flexibility to see where the journey takes me. I want to cycle to a delicious restaurant someone recommended, divert to an available Warm Showers host, or add an extra section to my trip that I hear is worthwhile. But not having any idea of the route each day can paradoxically be logistically hard work and freeing! Also, a few people have expressed interest in joining me, and they are keen to know exactly where I’ll be.
But when I leave my concerns about logistics to one side, the excitement kicks back in. I’ve been reading blogs and a book about people who have cycle toured—everything from a week in Europe to spending years cycling all over the world. One thing they have in common is the feeling of Living, with a capital L. This complete change in routine leads to a change in perspective. Suddenly different things are important. You feel a closer connection to nature. You’re not hurried. You live in the moment. I can’t describe it in words, but I hope to experience it.
I’m also excited to wild camp. As mentioned before, it is certainly a nervous excitement, but the excitement is there. I’m looking forward to the freedom it will bring, as I will be able to travel anywhere with less reliance on money and material things. Hopefully, there will be a couple of stunning, Instagram-worthy wild camping spots. Although, I know the reality is that most will be utilitarian and not pretty.
Another thing I’m looking forward to during my cycling tour in Europe is meeting people. Travelling by myself will mean plenty of time alone with my thoughts, but that will also make it easier to talk to people I meet along the way. Likewise, I can’t wait to get to know all the lovely people who may end up hosting me and to hear their stories. And while I meet all these people, I will be exploring Italy. I haven’t been back since Erasmus, so I have a few places on my list of “must-visits.” And I’m sure I will stumble upon many beautiful, unexpected spots too. Of course, being in Italy (mainly), I will also be exploring their food! Italian cuisine is my favourite, and I’ll be needing all the energy I can get.
Follow My Journey
Phew! There’s a lot to think about here. Maybe it will even sow the seed of a future cycling tour in Europe (or elsewhere) in you! If you’d like to hear more about this biking adventure, keep your eyes peeled as I’m sure I’ll be writing another article or two about it. Maybe we’ll even be able to have some sort of live catch-up or Q&A later in the ride.Stay tuned to Dreams Abroad to find out.
For now, I aim to post updates over on my Instagram: @kirabrowne95. Feel free to follow if you’re interested! Following a friend’s suggestion, I have also created a Spotify playlist for all those hours by myself on the bike. But it’s not just any playlist. It has been created by friends and people I know who are adding songs they think I’d like and that will keep me motivated on my ride. I’d love it if any of you wanted to add some songs as well! There’s a link here. And of course, if any of you live in Italy or know people who do, and you might be able to offer accommodation (just a sofa or even a space for my sleeping mat on the floor, and a shower), a cup of coffee, or other assistance, then do get in touch. Let’s see where this ride takes me!
For the most part of my adult life, I have travelled. Sometimes for long periods, other times, just for a few days. However, whatever the duration, each trip was nothing less than a spiritual journey of deep self-discovery, greater connection, and wider expansion. In this article, I will share my tips for making your trip into a spiritual journey and walking your own pilgrimage path, whoever you are and wherever you are in the world.
1. Honouring the Call
It all begins with an inner call. Like a distant beat of the drum, you instinctively recognise that something is calling your name. How will you respond? Will you accept the invitation and go forth to discover the origins of that steady and persistent drumbeat? Or will you close the windows and turn up the TV to drown out the noise?
Many people choose the latter, preferring instead to stick to the warmth and familiarity of their comfort zone. Honouring the call is to do the opposite. It means you have to let go of all you have known before and bravely step into an unknown world. This is the path of initiation, one that marks a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in your life.
It could be that you are not aware that you are making this choice in the moment, as was my case. Maybe the pull to travel and go in search of something is so strong that it is obvious what you need to do, and there is no doubt about it. In this case, the choice has already been made. Time to put everything in motion and follow the drumbeat wherever it may take you.
2. Right Intention
Once the decision is made and you have set forth on your path, you need to do so with the right intention. Do you want to travel just to tick off places on a map and brag to strangers at parties about how many countries you have visited? What about looking cool on social media and having an Instagram page full of drool-worthy photos of you in exotic locations?
Neither of these intentions are conducive to making your trip into a spiritual journey. Of course, by all means, take pictures and share them with friends and family now and again. You will be thankful for them later on. But don’t put your energy into curating an online image of yourself as an adventurous globe-trotter. If you are serious about making your trip into a spiritual journey, it would be better to put your phone away. Breathe in the air of the new land you are temporarily inhabiting. Pay close attention to every detail of your experience. You will find that you have a much richer and transformative experience as a consequence.
Beware, the temptation may be strong. However, making your trip into a spiritual journey means you have to be strict about where you put your attention. In today’s age of social media and hyper connection, the earnest seeker is challenged with more distractions than ever before. It may prove difficult to unplug from it all, but it is important to have the discipline to put your phone away. That in itself can be a true spiritual practice!
3. Leave your Friends and Family Behind
This is probably the most important piece of advice I can offer you. No great journey can be commenced whilst we are still carrying the baggage of our home life and our old friends and family. It is time to put it all down and set out into this world alone, albeit temporarily. After all, how can you make new friends, meet new people, and have new experiences if you are too busy being a caretaker to your life at home? You need to make some space for the new to enter, and that isn’t possible whilst our lives are still full to the brim with the past.
Of course, be sure to explain your intentions to your loved ones and keep them updated on your travels plans, so they know you are safe. Just because you are on a spiritual journey, it doesn’t mean you need to disappear and be out of contact completely. But forget about speaking to your mum on the phone every day. (Even every other day!) The same applies to your significant other.
The spiritual journey requires space. Space to be, space to think, space to breath, and disconnect from all you have known so far. You can’t get this if you are glued to your mobile, making calls, and worrying about what’s happening at home. Everyone will still be there upon return, and reunion will be so much sweeter after having some distance to appreciate one another more.
Remember: this is your trip. There will be no other like it. You owe it to yourself to give it your all and dedicate this time to your own growth and evolution.
4. Get Off the Beaten Path
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the only way you can make your trip into a spiritual journey is by doing the famous ancient pilgrimage routes of the world. By all means, go ahead and do them if you feel the call to do so. But in my experience, any trip to any destination can be made into a spiritual journey.
There is no need to follow the well-trodden path of other seekers. In fact, I would say that the further away from all well-beaten paths, the better. Keep far away from the crowd. That is where you are more likely to meet more interesting people who will be more supportive of your inner quest than those who seek the company of the tourist hordes.
Sure, it can be fun now again to join forces with others from time to time and to share fun moments and spectacular locations. A spiritual journey should also fill you with joy and celebration. But just be careful that fellow travellers don’t become a hindrance. Fulfill your original intention of elevating your trip into a spiritual experience.
5. Forget the Itinerary
If you are 100% committed to making your trip into a spiritual journey, then ditch the fixed travel itinerary and concrete plans. Whilst the prospect of travelling without a plan may sound extreme to some, I ask you, how can a spiritual journey be planned for? What if you suddenly hear the call to travel to a different city or you meet someone who you’d like to travel with, and they are heading in a different direction to the one you planned?
Do yourself a favour and be flexible about your plans. The truest and most powerful spiritual journey can only be made when you let go of control of the outcome. That means you have to let the drum call lead the way; you are nothing more than its humble servant. Don’t think you can micro-manage your own spiritual journey by organising all the details. Leave space for grace to enter and prepare to have your trip elevated to another level of magic and synchronicity completely.
Caution! On return to your home country, no amount of photos, amazing stories, or hippy beachwear will be able to convey the changes that have taken root in you on the inside. Therefore, take my advice and let the light in your eyes do the talking for you.
Everything you have learnt and discovered is for you and you alone; don’t waste your energy trying to get everyone to understand what you have been through. Unless they have been through the same initiation process, they won’t understand. Naturally, we can only relate to experiences that we have had ourselves. So save yourself (and them) the discomfort, and keep these treasures to yourself until an appropriate moment presents itself. You will know when it does since there will be no frustration on your part and no awkwardness on theirs.
Everyone goes through their own ‘before’ and ‘after’ initiations that are unique to them and occur at different times. There is no one-size-fits-all model. Everyone’s journey is different. Respect everyone’s choice and everyone’s path and you will have completed your initiation gracefully and elegantly.
Continue the Spiritual Journey
Often, we don’t realise at the time the gravity of our choices until much later on down the line. Quite possibly, it will only be in hindsight, when you return from your trip and realise that there is no going back to how life was before (or better said, how you were before), that the penny drops. This can be a tough realisation and one that causes feelings of sadness for what no longer is.
If this is the case, don’t worry. The spiritual path is continuous growth, evolution, and the shedding of skins. When the old skin comes off, it can feel like you have lost your favourite warm, comfy sweater. It can be disorienting and strange getting used to the new, bigger sweater that you now find yourself in. This is the sign that you did indeed make your trip into a spiritual journey.
Congratulations! It’s time to expand into your new self and explore the fruits of your labour.
“Ma’am, would you mind switching seats with my wife?” ‘Wait, what? I am a window- seat traveler through and through — was he talking to me?’ “Sir, I’m so sorry. No. I really enjoy the window seat.”
As I boarded a long flight to Hawaii from St. Paul, Minnesota, my second flight of the day, I had my first encounter with a fellow traveler. It wasn’t particularly a positive one. Yet it reminded me how fortunate I felt to be traveling solo during the holidays. I took a deep breath, put my earbuds in, and took a long glare out the window.
Solo travel is a meaningful experience. It can be something different and more meaningful to those who do it. For those who travel more often, it becomes more natural. As of late, COVID variants, holidays, and other societal protocols have created some not so “normal” feelings for many travelers. During my recent trip to Hawaii, I noticed some solo travel peculiarities that left me feeling borderline awkward at times. This piece is written for those who travel solo and are single, married, straight, LGBTQ+, white, black, green, blue, and you get my point. Here is what I know now about solo travel during the holidays.
Tips for Those Who Solo Travel During the Holidays
1. Speak Up
If you decided to solo travel during the holidays and have begun to feel uncomfortable, ask yourself why? Is this a situation that could be mitigated or made to be less awkward if the other party or company involved did better? Ask questions. Once you have your answer, then speak up. If this means waiting a few days to think it over, wait. If it means saying no to “Can I get a window seat?”, say no.
In my situation, the airline moved my seat a few times and reticketed me. The airline staff who gave me a different ticket as I boarded told me she moved me to accommodate someone else. I asked her if it was a window because that was all I cared about. She said yes. Then I boarded and received the seat of someone who really wanted the seat, too, AND it was a married couple. If it had been a two-hour flight, I would have switched.
Since this flight was about six hours, I wanted my window seat and should not have felt bad about saying no. But, in the end, it did feel mildly awkward during the flight as the husband was texting Delta (from what I could see and hear). His wife was sitting across the aisle instead of next to him at the window. They were talking about Delta for the first couple of hours. It didn’t feel good to be moved in the first place, and then fly and feel like a “solo traveler.” Do I regret saying no? No. Did I speak up and call Delta when I got home from the trip? Yes. Solo travel is personal, and these points can be modified if needed. This is based on my experience.
2. Be Comfortable
Seize the journey and all that comes with it. If you’ve decided to solo travel during a holiday outside of peak season, then it might not be the rush we all know and loathe. If the panic and chaos come crashing in on you at the airport as it did for me, remain calm. There are some things that are out of your control. Canceled and delayed flights are two of them. Remember that you are in control of yourself and what you say or don’t say. This is your chance to speak up and take control of YOU. Solo travel is easy because you control yourself. So, remember that, and don’t let naysayers get you down.
Here are a few things I encountered after my arrival to Hawaii that made me feel slightly awkward. Looking back, hey, it’s about the journey and learning how to be more comfortable with yourself. It’s not about others — it’s about your experience. Sometimes eating as a party of one can get interesting — and awkward — if you let a naysayer make it that way.
Do your research and look up the place ahead of time. Book the table ahead through OpenTable or whatever reservation provider they have so you don’t have to wait. Make sure the restaurant knows you are a party of ONE (say it with confidence and pride). Booking in advance will guarantee you have a spot even if they are behind. You might have to wait just a bit but you will get a meal and a seat in a reasonable amount of time. Remember if it’s peak season, reservations are important. . Be prepared — be comfortable!
Since it’s the holidays and families and couples are out everywhere, remain calm and stay centered. You are there for you and at the very least, remember your table conversation won’t be about any topic that you don’t want it to be. HIGH FIVE to YOU.
3. Talk to the Locals
Solo travel during the holidays can be great, but there are some caveats. When it comes to touring the town and going out during holiday and COVID-times, it’s important to remain safe. Locals know which areas are the best and quite frankly, solo travel means you have the day or night to do what you want when you want. Ask around about the safety guidelines and be sure to follow them. For example, before I realized how important reservations were for a party of ONE, my Uber driver Bradner gave me some local hangouts to try since I was striking out with some of the more popular places.
Bradner, if you ever read this, thank you for the conversation and for mentioning LuLu’s Waikiki. It’s got such a great view and he was right — I didn’t have to wait. The food was casual, quick, and convenient for a solo traveler. Plus, the evening that I went online to look for LuLu’s I rediscovered OpenTable, and my dining experience quickly changed. I had used OpenTable before but didn’t realize how necessary this was over the holidays and for a party of one. In the US, OpenTable was a good option to book reservations.
Uber drivers, tour operators, concierges, and restaurant staff are gems. Talk to them!
4. Accomplish Your Goals
Who doesn’t like taking a walk on Waikiki Beach or going for a stroll in Waimea Valley to see the botanical gardens? Before you head to a location, you might hear lists and lists of things to do and see before you go. Since you are a solo traveler, some things will take a bit more time to do and some won’t. It depends on who you are and what you are doing. For example, I enjoy road trips and driving. Plus, I like seeing places from the sea and from the land. I made these my two top priorities and went from there. I went whale watching and toured Pearl Harbor which were both really important to me.
Naysayers might get in your way while this is happening. Just let them say what they say and you do you. At the end of the day, a robust list of goals that is half accomplished is better than no list at all. If your plan is to lay out all day and become a golden Cleopatra, then do it. If you are staying at a place with a pool and/or are close to the beach make sure you get to that towel vendor early and get your spot, Cleo. The line starts super early over the holiday season and families of five or more are there super early. YOU have got this!
5. Be Confident
The holidays are special to everyone for different reasons. Christmas Eve was the last time I saw Tata so for me, the holiday means more to me than it ever did. Solo travel means more too. It’s not a sign of being alone but rather a symbol of strength.
This year I decided to solo travel during the holidays. I had arrived in Honolulu the evening before. Many places were closed on Christmas Eve, so I went to the Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian Resort to have a meal. It wasn’t preplanned, and I did not have a reservation. It was on this evening where the very core of what I was celebrating was challenged (at first). I circled the bar and saw no seats available. Then, I went to the host and said “party of one.” I’m not sure if it’s the pandemic, the holiday, or if they were in the weeds (in over their heads), but I sat at the table without any interaction for about 10 minutes.
I know I was on Hawaii time but… when you are a party of one on Christmas Eve and everyone else is either 1) with a group of kids, 2) holding up a pair of glasses to cheers, or 3) need I say more? My point is that confidence goes a long way even if you begin to feel lonely due to the nature of the day, moment, or all of the above times fifty (squared).
How did this evening progress? I walked over to the bartender (a local) and asked him if he could find me a seat at the bar. As luck would have it, one became free and I ordered my Kir Royal and dinner at the bar with the locals.
Solo travel is rewarding, and not everyone does it. If you are a brave soul that ventures out over the holidays (any holiday) to celebrate — be confident. I had to write about this experience because I know the holidays can be hard on many of us and I sat there that evening thinking about how many other solo travelers or those who were at home felt like they didn’t belong. For those long 10 minutes that I waited, I felt that way too.
I lived abroad, traveled while doing so, and have solo traveled since moving home. People can have opinions but you must make the experience yours. It’s about the journey, not the final destination. The world might be adjusting to new norms as far as the pandemic is concerned. This will be ever-changing for the travel industry. However, it’s a great opportunity for solo travelers during the holidays and all the time. There is less mental and physical baggage and more time for YOU! Bon Voyage!
We are halfway through 2020! A couple of years ago, we started publishing a mid-year review to see which articles were read the most. This has been an interesting year so far and thanks to you, our Dreams Abroad community, we are proud to release our mid-year review. Here are your favorite articles of the first half of 2020 to remind you which topics were at the top six months ago.
So far, 2020 has been a year filled with backpacking, travel tales, teaching in Cambodia, and the impact of COVID-19 on our team in different countries. We are pleased to share our most popular travel articles with you.
How I Traveled to Cambodia and Stayed to Teach
In this illuminating interview, Ed Gagnon caught up with Michael Carter, a fellow Canadian he met while Michael was working in the restaurant industry. Ed explains Michael’s affliction for wanderlust coupled with his move to southeast Asia in 2000. Michael has been living, teaching, and traveling abroad for 20 years.
If you would like to know more about how to stay and teach in Cambodia, this is undoubtedly a great travel article to read. Since this interview, Michael Carter has joined our team. Be sure to check out Michael’s second interview as well as his own articles.
Why Everyone Should Try Backpacking Southeast Asia
Emma Higgins taught in Phuket, Thailand for a year before deciding to backpack around southeast Asia for three months before heading home to the United States. In this article, she gives 10 reasons why you should backpack around southeast Asia. Emma discusses some of the cultural complexities that transform you into an especially strong traveler. In addition, she points out how you’ll learn new languages, the many different foods you’ll encounter, and how to get out of your comfort zone and discover a new one.
The Multifaceted Effects of Coronavirus in Our Education System
Bebe Bakhtiar is a teacher who has been working during the COVID-19 pandemic. She takes a moment to shed some light and share her concerns about the impact of the virus in addition to what its impact will have on our international education system. This article covers the positive and negative effects of the Coronavirus on students and teachers. In this powerful piece, Bebe urges all community leaders to fight harder for our education system and its teachers.
Arriving in Mexico City
Tyler Black read about Leesa Truesdell’s trip to Mexico City and decided he wanted to also visit, too. Upon arrival, he talks about the view from the plane and how large the city is. He arrives in Mexico City and discusses the first day of his itinerary. Tyler certainly enjoys tasting the local food, touring the downtown city center, and seeing the nightlife. He provides recommendations for a taco and churrería in the city — be sure not to miss this article. Anthony Bourdain ate at the same street taco vendor!
My Tour of Paris by Night
Leesa Truesdell shares her tour of Paris by night. She talks about the rippling effects of her canceled flight through a series of articles. In this last piece of the series, she spends a very special birthday touring Paris, living a dream she had had for years. This article talks about the different places she explored with her tour guide and the different ways to approach Paris at night (if you are a beginner). If you enjoy reading about Leesa’s solo travel adventures, then this one is a must-read. It has been one of her most popular travel articles.
Mid-Year 2020 Best Travel Articles
Be on the lookout for our annual review coming in December 2020. You (our readers) decide who makes the top five by reading our content. Each time you read or click on a post, we appreciate it. Thank you so much for reading and being part of our community. If there are other things you would like to know from any of our writers, please send us an e-mail or leave a comment. We will share your feedback with them.
Over Christmas break, I made the spontaneous decision to take a solo backpacking trip. I literally booked a flight to Costa Rica twelve hours before leaving the country. I had considered leaving the day before but thought I had misplaced my passport. As soon as I located my passport, I booked my ticket. The plan was to explore Costa Rica for a day or two (I’ve been before) and then hike the Incan Trail to Machu Picchu. Perhaps the hardest year of my life was 2019. Backpacking solo usually helps me to find peace. I often feel God’s presence the strongest in nature, so it seemed like a good idea. Who would have thought that I’d be hospitalized abroad?
The trip started out great. Upon arriving at the Fort Lauderdale International Airport, an agent offered me a $225 travel voucher to switch from my overbooked Spirit Airlines flight (which, as I mentioned, I booked the day before) to a JetBlue flight that left a mere hour later (a major upgrade). I quickly made friends with the fellow travelers that were rebooked with me when we all laughed when the Spirit agent asked if any of us had checked bags. Those that travel with just the backpacks on their backs are my kind of travelers. Detachment from material goods allows travelers to be less burdened so it’s easier to explore.
Hiking the Aerial Volcano
Upon arriving in Costa Rica, I rented a car with a few other solo travelers that I had just met and set out to drive to the Aerial Volcano. However, the fog thickened and we only made it halfway, so we purchased a night at a hotel. The next day, we made it to and out of the Volcano and hiked a bit. After the Volcano, I made my way back to the San Jose airport, with intentions of traveling to Peru to hike the Incan Trail. This didn’t go as planned…
My first day in Peru was lovely. I explored the capital city of Lima to its fullest. I learned a lot about Peruvian history on a walking trail, visited the mountainous coast, enjoyed Christmas markets, and went to a Peruvian advent mass. Until I arrived in Cuzco the following day with plans to hike to Machu Pichu, I didn’t begin to experience serious problems.
Hospitalized Abroad with Altitude Sickness
I had heard of altitude sickness before but had never thought much about it. I have been hiking and skiing countless times before and had never gotten sick. However, Cuzco, Peru is about 12,000 feet above sea level. For reference, Miami is basically at sea level. I became extremely sick almost immediately when I landed in Cuzco. At first, I thought I felt simply really tired. But after sleeping fifteen hours in the hostel and only feeling worse, I knew something was definitely off. I could hardly breathe and felt extremely faint. I knew I couldn’t hesitate any longer to go to a doctor.
By the time I got to the hospital, my oxygen levels and blood pressure fell so low that they immediately hooked me up to oxygen and an IV for fluids and medicine. They hospitalized me overnight. I had never been hospitalized overnight before. Nonetheless, I felt greatly comforted by the support and care that I received at the hospital in Cuzco.
The doctors and nurses assured me that although I seemed in bad shape, they see countless cases of the same thing every day and that I would be okay. I felt especially touched by a Peruvian nurse who had done her high school and undergraduate studies in the States. Upon learning that I taught ESOL, she made it a point to share with me how strong of an impact her English teachers in Boston had had on her and how important she viewed my role. These encounters often make the world feel “smaller.”
Heading Home After Being Hospitalized Abroad
When I was finally discharged from being hospitalized abroad, I knew that the best option was to cut my losses and immediately return to Miami. The most effective cure for altitude sickness is declining in elevation. Although there are treatments to adjust to the altitude, it would take more time and money. I made the judgment call that although I was stabilized and starting to feel better, there was no way that I was going to be up for hiking the Incan trail that week. I bought a new ticket (not cheap when booking the day of with limited options) from Cuzco to Miami.
Although this trip obviously didn’t pan out the way that I had hoped, I still gleaned a lot from the experience. People often ask me why I’m not afraid to travel alone. The reality is that I’m not naïve enough to think that nothing bad can happen. It can and sometimes does! However, I trust my judgment to respond appropriately when it does and know when to cut my losses. You cannot live your life on the sidelines in fear. Although I definitely wouldn’t have gotten altitude sickness in Miami, I could’ve just as easily gotten into an accident or came down with some other sickness. To live life to the fullest, you must be willing to step outside your comfort zone. Adventure awaits.
Looking back, I definitely learned some lessons. Suggestions to ensure that you feel prepared include:
Have your health insurance information handy. Since it was Christmas Eve, the hospital in Perú was unable to get ahold of United Healthcare back in the states. I am still trying to receive reimbursement for some of those expenses.
Have a contingency plan. I’m known to be a budget backpacker. However, it’s also important to know when to cut your losses and ensure that safety takes precedence. It’s not cheap to buy a new ticket the day of or seek medical treatment abroad.
Take reasonable precautions. Anything can happen at any time at anyplace (including your hometown, so this isn’t a reason not to travel). Don’t let this scare you, but also take reasonable precautions. Always register with the embassy of your home country, know emergency numbers to call, and have proper identification and documentation. Also, research common risks and illnesses where you’re going. For example, don’t cancel a trip somewhere with common mosquito-spread illnesses out of fear, but take reasonable precautions such as using adequate bug spray (or tea tree oil) and use a sleeping net.
After dragging poor Ali Pelczar to Starbucks for one of our last drinks together (Yes, I know I’m an irresponsible expat and a bad influence), I finally got a chance to sit down and pick her brain again. I remembered one of our first outings when we went swimming during the peak of one of Madrid’s unbearable summer days and thought about all that happened between then and now. It’s unbelievable that we’re about to say goodbye when we’ve finally found some shared hobbies and connections. Catch up on Ali’s first interview about her journeys of teaching abroad in Spain and how we met.
Ultimately, that seems to be the bittersweet part of making friends as an expat in a place that acts as a crossroads for many people. The friendships made are undoubtedly more genuine. This is because you don’t have time to develop relationships slowly or for years at a time. Though they fly by faster, they mark us for life. They’re like twilight, there one minute and gone the next. Ali is about to depart from Madrid and forge a new path into the future. Keep reading to get a glance at her parting thoughts as she finishes up this chapter in her life.
What was the most important thing you learned while living abroad?
“It sounds cliché, but I really learned how true it is that life begins at the edge of your comfort zone. While living abroad, I’ve done a lot of things that made me uncomfortable or nervous. My time here would have been very boring (and short) if I had let that stop me. Of course, it’s scary to do new things, especially to do them alone. Nonetheless, I’ve learned not to let that be a reason for why I don’t do something, especially when traveling alone.”
How have you done with accomplishing your goals while living in Madrid?
“I didn’t have many specific goals before coming here, but I feel that I have accomplished quite a bit. My Spanish has improved drastically and I feel much more ready to move on with other goals in my life. I’ve also learned a lot about teaching and working in education. This is great, because I want to work in policy in the future. Another major goal was to travel a lot, and I have definitely done that.”
What has been the biggest challenge about living abroad and what advice would you give on how to deal with that challenge?
“The biggest challenge for me was doing it all solo. When I first landed at Madrid Barajas International Airport, I didn’t know a single other person in the entire country. That made everything else seem a bit more daunting. I didn’t have anyone else to help me or be equally as lost. My advice for dealing with traveling alone is to be as social as possible. Use social media to connect with other people or attend events like intercambios. Make sure to be proactive in reaching out to others to meet up to solidify relationships.”
Do you have any advice for other Language and Culture Assistants interested in traveling while teaching abroad?
“Don’t be afraid to go traveling alone! I was nervous to do this at first, but now I really enjoy it. Sometimes I enjoy it more than traveling with others. Hostels and free walking tours can be great opportunities to meet people, and I also enjoy just spending a day doing whatever I want to do. I’d also advise going off the beaten path. Some of my favorite trips were to less-popular destinations like Poland, which was gorgeous.”
How has teaching abroad helped with your overall professional goals?
“As I mentioned before, I want to work in policy. Having classroom experience will be monumentally helpful if I’m working in education policy. I’ve also lost almost all my fear of speaking in public, and I’m a lot better at improvising and reacting to the unexpected.”
What was your most memorable moment in class? How do you feel now that school is ending?
“My most memorable moment in class wasn’t particularly special – I was working with a group of 1st ESO students on some review exercises. They were all working at their own pace and I was circling around helping each individually. I was able to see some of them have that “lightbulb moment” when they understood what to do. I love seeing that, and I’ve most enjoyed when I’m able to work one-on-one with students. I’ll admit that I don’t think I’ll miss being in a classroom. Teaching isn’t my passion. But I know that I’ll miss my students, especially those that I’ve had the opportunity to have for two years and watch their progress.”
What will you miss most about Spain?
“I think that I’ll miss the social culture. Going to grab a caña on a terraza is a normal, daily thing here, and people are always walking around, visiting the parks, or are generally just outside. There are always concerts, exhibitions, or some other sort of event to visit. I feel like that isn’t as prevalent in the U.S., and it’s something I’ll miss quite a bit.”
What will you be doing next when you move back to the United States?
“I’m going back to school to get my master’s in data science for public policy. After gaining such a great experience, it’s time for me to be back on the other side of a classroom.”
What is the most important tip you can give someone wanting to teach abroad?
“To come with an open mind. I’ve heard expectations described as a rubber band – the more of them you have, the harder they’ll snap back at you. Your time abroad might be completely different than how you imagine it to be, not necessarily better or worse, just different. And being open to that possibility will help you accept however it shapes out to be. Also, enjoy your time abroad, whether that’s a few weeks or a few years (or more). It’s an incredible experience. I wouldn’t change my time here in Spain for anything.”
Traveling Alone while Teaching Abroad
I couldn’t agree more with Ali. Before I came to Spain, I had never really gone traveling alone. I went on a vacation to Tenerife while I was abroad and while I was there, I discovered a new part of myself that will never be hidden from me ever again. Some of us have to make sacrifices to do what amounts to a complete lifestyle change, but I’ve never regretted making any of those sacrifices. Even during dark and scary times, this has been the best decision of my life. I know that Ali agrees with me.
Ali and I aren’t ready to part ways quite yet — we still have to go find a pupusa place she told me about near Atocha. Not to mention we’re also going to Iceland before we both go home to the U.S. — me for the summer, her probably for life. Yep, even when you’ve just met someone, if you’re abroad, roughin’ it in the outback with a Jeep and a little camper sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I’m ready to check this one off my bucket list and I’m the luckiest gal in the world to be able to do it with one of the coolest people I know. Ali, we’ll miss ya.
I had been to Paris one time before my solo birthday trip but had never toured the city to the extent I wanted… I had seen the Champs-Élysée area and some of the tourist traps that surrounded the Louvre and the river Seine. My previous trip didn’t allow me to reach the next layer of traveling beyond the initial tourist exploratory phase.
This solo trip was a trip where I would do what I call ‘a second-layer’ exploration. I could visit some of the neighborhoods that I saw on the initial trip but didn’t get a chance to explore. Plus, I could spend more time in the places that I liked rather than waste time in touristy areas that I didn’t particularly care for. On my initial visit, I was only able to spend a little less than 48 hours in Paris. It was time to peel back another layer of the city on this visit. I wanted to dive deeper into the Parisian culture and history that had me at hello!
A Solo Journey to the Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower at night was something I had been waiting to do – a bucket list item! This was probably the only touristy thing I did on this trip with a group but as a solo traveler. I wanted to see Paris at night and from way up high. As I get older, I realize that some things are worth experiencing independently and some are better with friends. You can’t go wrong when traveling – however, this trip was one I wanted to do solo. In part, so that I could experience Paris at night and remember all she had to offer with an open mind. I wanted to later reflect upon this uninterrupted experience.
When planning my trip to Paris, I came across a couple of Eiffel Tower at night tour options and went with City Wonders tour. I chose this company because I did not see any bad reviews and it seemed like a legitimate price to get to the top of the tower. I am not endorsing this company by any means; I’m sure there were plenty of other options. We were instructed to meet in front of the Architecture Museum at the Palais de Chaillot promptly at 8:30pm. Luckily, the tour was not very crowded at all.
On Top of the World
It was the end of September in Paris, so, naturally, the weather was unpredictable. In my case, it was foggy and misty, but it made for some cool photos. The tour was a pretty basic tour – nothing too special. The cost paid for the entrance up to the tower and the tour guide provided a history of the tower through our earphone audio system. They talked about the history from where we met, at the museum, until we were up on the tower.
It was really chilly while on that upper level that evening, so I don’t remember everything about what was explained by our tour guide. One can only take in so much history when their fingers are going cold! One thing that I do remember is that Parisians really do not like the skyscraper Montparnasse that was built recently(ish). They didn’t like its modern look because it does not blend with the charm of the rest of the city.
After Touring the Eiffel Tower at Night
After the tour finished, we were directed where to find the nearest exit. Our guide showed us the safest place to find transportation. It was a good tour for tourists who are looking to see what the view looks like at night with a touch of Parisian history included. For a more personalized tour that includes more historical references, I am sure there are private guides available. However, they probably cost more. Overall, the trip to the top was just as I expected. Touring the Eiffel Tower at night is a memory that I will never forget.
Be sure to check out our travel resources section to see what some of our other travelers are saying about Paris.
It was 3:00 PM, and I was waiting at the Madrid airport. As a European traveler, I was not the average flier – I was the anomaly. I was used to carrying my big, red suitcase everywhere I went. I was used to waiting in long check-in lines. “Big Red” and I had bonded throughout my travels over the last couple of years. However, we didn’t know what would unravel in just a few moments.
I rolled Big Red up to the counter and slung her onto the scale to get weighed, hoping I had finally packed light. Phew, I thought Red was under this time. My packing skills had gotten so much better that year. A trip to Paris would have had my bag popping at the seams. The fashionista in me wanted to pack every shoe I owned. However, a voice went off in my head as I was packing. I reminded myself that each pair of shoes I took out could be replaced with a new memento I could bring back. Win-wins are always the way to go!
A Canceled Flight
As I stood at the counter, the woman stared at Big Red. Then, after a glance at her computer, she stared at me and said, “Pardon, your flight has been canceled.” My first thought was that she spoke English. It took me a moment to realize what she had said. I knew then that my plans were off to a soggy start.
“Well, what now?” I asked as I looked at her incredulously.
She told me that the airline only flew families and preferred guests out, so I had to stay the night in a hotel. Thinking more about my fate and the already booked (and bought) tour and hotel room that I had waiting for me that evening, I gave her a mumbled “ok.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, an annoyed sigh building up. “How will I get reimbursed for the events I paid for this evening?”
“Call our helpline!” she said, trying to cheer me up while glancing at Big Red again.
The Nonexistent Shuttle
I walked away from the front desk like a middle schooler who was denied access to an R-rated movie. Big Red and I headed toward the outside traffic lanes to find the supposed airport hotel shuttle. She told me my new flight was at 0800 the next morning. I walked around for about 45 minutes, looking at every shuttle stop twice.
I could not find the shuttle for the life of me. Maybe it was the fact that this had never happened to me before. Or, it could be the fact that I was wearing a Eurosock that kept riding toward the end tip of my toes, impairing my ability to walk. I had been abroad for a year, and yes, my footwear and euro socks (peds) always became an issue in the most dire situation. Regardless, I wanted to find the shuttle, and get this hiccup over and done with.
As I was looking around for the nearest cab, I saw another lost soul searching for what could have been a shuttle that didn’t exist. She turned around and asked, “Are you looking for the shuttle too? Was your flight to Paris canceled?”
I nodded my head and told her yes. “I’m about to take a cab. You wanna split one?” I asked, offering her a smile.
Making a solo journey abroad requires a fair amount of planning. You should also think about how you will approach the trip, logistics aside. Here’s what I know now about taking a solo journey abroad.
1) Leave Your Comfort Zone
The most important lesson I learned from traveling solo was that even though it was terrifying, leaving my comfort zone was worth it. For days before I left, I was consumed about whether it would be worth it
I couldn’t stop thinking about my flights working out, being so far away from my family and friends, and whether I had packed absolutely everything I would need for the month. Preparing for the trip was almost more exhausting than it was exciting. It was something I had never done on my own before. I felt sure that I was going to mess something up or forget something and ruin the trip entirely.
My heart was racing the entire ride to the airport. The whole time I was waiting to get onto my flights (and even on the flight over), I felt I would never stop sweating as long as I lived. However, looking back now, I know that all that anxiety was down to stepping in to “the unknown.” I was going to do things and go places and be with people I had never met before. And I soon discovered how worthwhile it would be to step out of my comfort zone!
2) Learn to Roll With the Punches
I was so stressed in the lead-up to my trip and only learned when I was there the vital lesson that whatever happens, happens because almost nothing ever goes according to plan. And that’s completely okay. I think this is in fact a lesson that everyone learns sooner or later in life.
It’s much easier to just roll with the punches than spend a ton of time worrying about what the plan is “supposed” to be, or how things are “supposed” to go. That’s what makes traveling so exciting. When you don’t know every turn on the road, it creates a true adventure.
3) Get Insight Before Your Solo Journey Abroad
Something that will really destress you is asking people who’ve been there before. Seeking their advice can really put things in perspective. There’s never going to be a better resource than someone who has experienced it themselves.
Sourcing information from someone who has an inside scoop can make it easier to do almost anything. They can make it easier to decide what activities to do or places to visit. They can also give you some great advice about transportation or activities that you might not otherwise know about.
4) Trust That There Are Good People Everywhere You Go
There is nothing to fear when touring when touring Europe. Fear of the unknown stops you from fulfilling your dreams. Playing it safe always seems easier than going out on a limb.
And yes, there’s almost always someone who will tell you not to go, or that “it isn’t safe.” However, in my experience, there are kind people everywhere you go. Many also share our passion for traveling. They’re more than willing to help out if you need it.
Traveling with an open mind and an open heart is important. Every person who ventures into new territory and partakes in new adventures helps to bring us all that little bit closer together. And that all makes the world feel just a little bit smaller.
5) Plan For Your Solo Journey Abroad Future
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, always save for your next trip. Always keep an ear open to suggestions for places to visit. I know from experience that once the travel bug bites, it’s very difficult to shift! If you come across anyone who is an experienced traveler, ask them where their favorite destinations are. There’s no better person to ask for suggestions and advice than a passionate, experienced traveler with plenty of stories to tell.