Puzzled in Poland: Tales of Coping with a Language Barrier

Ask someone why they would not like to travel alone in a foreign-speaking country. The answer will most likely be because they are scared, or because they do not want to feel lonely. Ask them what they’re scared of and they’ll probably say being kidnapped or getting lost. They will probably not mention the more immediate, everyday emotions and situations that people tend to be afraid of: the confusion when you’re on a bus and aren’t completely sure when you should get off; the daunting feeling of entering a room with an awareness that you are not proficient in the local language; the alarm when a stranger starts speaking to you and you have no comprehension of what they’re saying; the potential loneliness when everyone around you is laughing or debating about something in another language and you can’t participate.

Before visiting a foreign-speaking country, I always ensure I know a few key words and phrases, such as “Yes”, “No”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me/Sorry”, “‘I don’t understand”, “I don’t speak…do you speak English?” Even if the recipient speaks your language, this gesture of making an effort in their language can help foster good relations. But of course, these are not conversational terms and you will still be left clueless as to what people are talking about most of the time. However during a visit to Poland in autumn 2016, I began to see the funny and advantageous side of having a language barrier in a foreign country.

Sightseeing

On the Sunday morning of a weekend in Kraków with my co-sister-in-law, we visited Wawel Cathedral. The queue was extremely long and snatches of conversation apparently suggested ticket sales were about to end for the Royal State Rooms. My sister went to inquire inside and came back grinning. In a moment of jamminess, two South American ladies with spare tickets had overheard her asking about the probability of getting tickets within the next hour and offered her their spares. One of the ladies was an architect working in Warsaw and proficiently explained in Polish the origins behind the royal tapestries and regal pieces of furniture. It’s quite rare for someone from Latin America to speak Polish, and it was refreshing that this was the language of choice over English. I would stand with little idea of what they were saying, smiling and nodding at what seemed like the right times.

The funniest point is when people suddenly start laughing. Laughter is contagious and it’s an instinct to join in…except when the laughter is about something you can’t understand, people will look at you with a puzzled expression and you’ll feel like a Ben Stiller character.

At the same time, and, rude as it may sound, having a language barrier can bring a sense of liberty. There is no obligation to pay attention and contribute, but instead the freedom to wander around in your own world.

Yoga Classes

A few days after my Kraków trip, my sister-in-law invited me along to a yoga class. It would be my first experience of yoga but with traffic congested, we were running late. I suddenly felt a slight build-up of butterflies, flashbacks to when I was a child  turning up late to my first session with a swimming club not knowing anyone, or feeling self-conscious as a teenager walking into a party already in full swing.  But I was older now and more used to new situations.

We entered the studio with four other participants already making shapes (so much for going to the back!) and were thrown straight in to abnormal stretches. Oblivious to what was going on, I would glance around the room and attempt to mimic the poses, with my sister-in-law whispering occasional instructions. Sometimes I would close my eyes to help me maintain a pose while the instructor kept talking, only to look up and notice that everyone now had their legs over their head and so forth.

The instructor had trained in California and could speak English. She would approach me with calm whispers of “Focus on your breathing – in and out through the nose.” ‘But I might collapse!’ I thought as I attempted to stick one leg straight out behind me while putting my hands in the praying position to my chest and twisting my head up towards the ceiling.

I then found myself in what I can only describe as the ‘Giving Birth’ position. Lying on my back with my legs spread far open, the instructor slowly attempted to ease them further apart. With eyes wide like a baby rabbit staring into the open mouth of a fox, I smiled up at her pathetically, hoping she wouldn’t snap my legs off…and be too disgusted by the condition of my feet. (Manicures and pedicures appear to be a big thing in Poland.)

By the end of the class, my brain and body was destroyed. However I went again a week later and saw a definite improvement in my ability to hold some stretches. I even started recognising the Polish words the instructor was using to count and say “hold” etc.

Dog Shows

I also had my first experience of a dog show in Poland, when my brother and his wife took their two dogs to two competitions in one weekend. Over two days, I got a glimpse into the snobby, two-faced world that is dog shows. Imagine a row of poodles, Old English Sheepdogs, and Chihuahuas on tables having their fur blow-dried, curled or straightened. Imagine big men in tracksuits blowing whistles and shouting commands at their Alsatian as it gallops recklessly around a ring with the handler hanging on for dear life. Imagine smarmy judges reducing owners to tears with their arrogant, disapproving comments about a dog’s features. Imagine owners casting you filthy looks if your dog so much as glances at theirs. (Any slight scuff of contact can stimulate verbal wars.)

I was put on dog-and-baby-holding-duty, the latter inviting some curious looks which I was relieved didn’t lead to anything more. (My brother later joked that, based on typical Polish culture, most people were probably thinking I was too old, rather than too young, to have a baby.) When holding the dogs however, people would sometimes approach wanting to stroke them, occasionally asking questions. I could only smile and nod. On the second day I noticed one of the dogs trying to smell the bag of another owner sat near us. The owner later turned and said something to me with a facial expression that I found hard to interpret. I later found out he had been complaining about the dog’s alleged salivation on his bag. Being oblivious, I wasn’t able to feel bothered by anything he said.

This is where a language barrier can be beneficial, because of the desensitisation it brings to verbal interactions that might otherwise upset you. Another example of when I’ve appreciated language ignorance for this reason comes from Portugal, when I would walk down the street and males would make what seemed like, based on their body language and facial expressions, sexual comments towards me.

There are of course disadvantages to this specific scenario of a language barrier though, in that you can’t apologise for any bad actions you’ve committed unaware. This dog owner probably didn’t appreciate me smiling as he grumbled about my dog…but hey, I didn’t see any saliva anywhere.

Great Grandparents

My sister-in-law’s grandma speaks very little English. We stayed at hers over the weekend we went to the dog show, and as she showed me my room, she would mutter away in Polish as if not realising the extent of  just how unproficient I am at the language. I would make enthusiastic “mmm” noises and say “piękny” (pretty) whenever she pointed at something and looked at me. Then there was the time when I was holding my nephew after he’d started crying. I finally managed to soothe him with some cheerful singing (Motown genre, to be precise) and looked out into the garden as his head flopped onto my shoulder. Then I sensed a new presence in the room, heard the approaching steps of the grandma sneaking up behind. I glanced around and saw her with her arms reached out expectantly, looking at her great-grandson with calculating glee, like a sugar-addict entering an empty candy shop. I had no choice but to relinquish him, watching her walk away with the despondent feeling of someone on a TV show who just had the prize they won stolen off them by another contestant.

Birthday Parties

One evening, my brother’s neighbour invited us over for a birthday dinner, which involved eating roasted pumpkin with honey for dessert (very tasty). While guests would talk to me in English now and then, naturally the conversation would soon revert back to Polish. Again I faced the challenge of smiling at the right time, but there was also the added challenge of refusing food offerings resolutely. Polish people are extremely hospitable and enjoy feeding others…a lot. I felt my stomach ballooning to the point of discomfort but felt rude saying no when someone mentioned in English that they’d made the cake themselves. Even if I said no, minutes later they would only hold the plate under my nose with encouraging nods.  “Pyszne,” (delicious) I would say with a thumbs up as I forced the food down my throat.

Then there came the biggest challenge: the singing of “Happy Birthday”. My solution to this seemed to be standing with my mouth half open, nodding my head from side to side in time with the tune, trying to guess when the person’s name was about to be mentioned so I could jump in and contribute at least one word.

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There will always be times when not knowing the local language leads to stressful situations. But having a language barrier can also be highly entertaining and create fond memories. It also reinforces the value of patience, good manners, initiative, and observation – attributes useful in any environment, no matter what languages you speak.

 

Please share your hilarious language barrier stories below!

Return to Reyjavík: Tourism & the Changing Face of Iceland

Everyone is talking about Iceland. That island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean with Björk, an unassumingly victorious football team and those hard-to-pronounce volcanoes. Its convenient location between Europe and North America has been taken advantage of on a higher scale in the past few years, and with Icelandair offering up to seven days of stopover time for free, why wouldn’t you go and see what all the fuss is about?

I first visited Iceland in August 2013. It was becoming more popular at that time but still had a minimalist feel to it that made me warm to it. I sensed that things would be different when I returned for a quick stop in December 2016 en route to Canada.

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Some things remained the same. The FlyBus from Keflavík airport to Reykjavík still played the same man’s slow, soothing voice to welcome passengers. As we passed the same barren lands and swathes of lava fields, I still got flashbacks to medieval times, imagining Viking soldiers in battle. But as we entered the surrounding towns and suburbs of the city, I noticed more apartment buildings than before. Had they always been here and I simply hadn’t noticed? Maybe the sparkling Christmas lights just made them stand out more? No, there were definitely more. The place looked more developed and modern.

My friend picked me up from the BSÍ terminal and confirmed the development that had been taking place in and around the city. She asked if I had any plans for my two and a half days in Iceland. I realised I hadn’t given it too much thought; my main goal was to see the Northern Lights. But I also thought it would be nice to go to a geothermal pool, since I had chickened out of going to one on my last visit due to shyness about the nudity element of pre-bathing showering. I had always regretted what had later seemed like a pathetic reason not to go. My friend suggested we go inland to a place called the Secret Lagoon, which was a geothermal pool smaller, less commercial and more natural than the popular Blue Lagoon, a place I briefly stopped by at on my last visit and didn’t enjoy. She had also never been and so it seemed like a great idea.

After waiting for snow storms to pass the next morning, we set off to a town called Flúðir. The Secret Lagoon is definitely secret in that there are no signs indicating where it is. Once we arrived however, we were surprised by the number of cars parked up. I was expecting a very rustic set up with mostly native customers, but reception was bustling with a variety of nationalities. I paid 2500ISK for the ticket and followed my host to the changing rooms.

“So, we have to shower completely naked here, don’t we?” I asked, feeling the butterflies from three years ago begin to flutter back into my stomach. My friend nodded with a smile. I took a deep breath and undressed, looking straight ahead as I walked towards the shower. It was as if I thought this would stop people looking at me, but I soon realised that nobody was going to look at me anyway. Showering naked in public was so much less of an issue than I had previously let myself believe. ‘Good on Icelanders,’ I began thinking in support of their fearlessness and the motive behind it to protect their natural pools. Later on, I would even find myself shooting disapproving glares at the back of a bunch of Brits who I noticed proceed towards the pool having showered in their swimsuits. We are definitely a prude nation when it comes to public nudity (which seems ironic given that we have a fame-obsessed culture that promotes sex appeal in the form of body exposure through mediums such as sexting, glamour modelling and risque TV entertainment as a tool of socio-economic advancement.)

The Lagoon was very relaxing. There was even something refreshing about having your face pelted with hail stones from above whilst your body remained submerged in warm water. However it wasn’t as quiet as I’d hoped. Perhaps selfishly, I’d expected fewer people. As more loud groups entered the water and the drinking increased, the experience became more distracting than relaxing and we got out. Before arriving, I had already decided that I wouldn’t write a blog post about the place, in order to preserve its secrecy. I now realised that the Lagoon’s name had become an appealing marketing tool, and there was actually no secret to hide anymore.

The next morning over breakfast, my friend read a newspaper article which highlighted the growing problem of tourists feeding horses in the wild. These animals are not used to eating sugar or bread, and the treats were actually causing more harm than good, with more horses suffering from digestive problems without access to medical help. If you are reading this and planning to road trip through Iceland, please do not feed the horses or try to bribe them with food to come closer. They are self-sufficient animals and will not starve without your treats, nor suffer without your petting.

Another article discussed the rising number of car accidents on roundabouts as foreign visitors do not adopt Iceland’s road rules. On a roundabout, those in the inner lane have right of way to exit. I know – seems bonkers – but we should respect another country’s rules nonetheless. Another article reported that Keflavík airport had seen a record 6 million people enter its doors in 2016, a 25% increase from 2015. There are 323,000 inhabitants of Iceland.

That day, my friend took me on a rainy tour of the Reykjanes Peninsula in the southwest of the country. Lava fields smother the land  where you can find the Bridge Between Continents – a fissure in the ground where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and diverge. The gap grows by 2 cm every year. Further on is Gunnuhver, the steam vents and mud pools of which are named after a female ghost whose shouting is supposedly symbolised by the eruption of the geyser. Reading her story reminded me of the mythologies I learned on my last visit – cultural traditions that helped make Iceland unique in more ways than its geology and landscape. Ferocious waves battered the cliffs as we drove further on. I read about a bird called the Great Auk, the last colony of which lived on a small island called Eldey off the coast of Iceland, before becoming extinct in 1844. Similarly looking to the penguin, it was flightless and stood no chance against human hunters.

In the town of Grindevík, we ate lobster soup in a small cafe decorated with ship memorabilia and an old piano. A group of Americans got up to leave shortly after we arrived, thanking the owner. The ditsy 20-something daughter then said to her mother, “How do you say ‘thank you’?” The mother had no answer. My friend grinned at me and I felt like dunking my face in my soup. A perfect example of one of the bad travel habits I wish I could see less of. Maybe I think too much, but I find that there’s something so rude about coming to a foreign country and not even bothering to learn one simple word (“takk”). You could argue that paying money for a travel experience represents enough ‘giving’ and justifies the ‘taking’, but I think this outlook promotes an imperial-esque sense of self-entitlement and disrespect for local culture.

On my final morning we took my friend’s dog for a quiet walk around a frozen lake. The only others we saw were a runner, another walker, and a party of horse riders.  I got the impression this was one of a decreasing number of places locals could come to where they wouldn’t find many tourists…at least in the early hours of the morning. In downtown Reykjavík later on, my friend pointed out the construction of new hotels. It’s a contentious issue, the threat that hotels and other tourist accommodation options like Airbnb pose to long-term rental space for locals. You get the sense that some natives feel they are prioritised below tourists when it comes to urban planning.

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Overall, my short return to Reykjavík was enough to illustrate the increased popularity of Iceland as a tourist destination since I last visited.  (Me ahead of a trend? Wow.) I’m not saying it’s bad that Iceland has become more popular. Afterall, as my friend acknowledged, tourism is good for the country’s economy. But my brief visit also illustrated the potential problems Iceland faces from its popularity growth. Its authenticity makes it popular and yet I worry that this is under threat from pressure to meet the expectations of tourists who come from more consumerist, materialistic and technologically advanced countries. I fear it’s in danger of becoming exploited at the expense of its culture, citizens and landscape.

I think of the slowly widening rift between the tectonic plates and relate it to what seems like a gradual tourist-takeover of Iceland. I think of the geographical mythologies and wonder if they’ll ever become regarded as archaic and unmarketable. I think of the Great Auk being hunted to extinction because of human greed. You’ll find ignorant and inconsiderate behaviour from tourists in any country, but for some reason I get defensive when Iceland is the victim. It’s perhaps because I have experienced the country from the perspective of both a tourist and local. I know how hard living in Iceland can be for Icelanders, and am able to see how large volumes of tourism can contribute to this. Are there any “secret” places anymore?  Apart from their homes, where can native Icelanders go where they are free from tourist-oriented advertisements, expensive cuisine, English-speaking “banter” and complaints about WiFi?

I grew up in the North York Moors National Park in England, a place that attracted tourists but never felt overrun by them. I was glad about this, because whilst I was happy for visitors to come and experience the beauty of the area, I didn’t like the idea of sharing my tranquil home with a mass of others. I don’t think there is anything rude or prejudiced about this. It seems a little too late for this concern in Iceland though; the main question is how a big a slice of the pie they will get.

I didn’t see the Northern Lights as hoped during my brief stay, as skies were too cloudy. Although it was a shame not to witness something I’d been hoping for, I took comfort knowing that there remains something in Iceland that can never be influenced and caused by tourist demands and actions. A natural phenomenon that doesn’t give a hoot about how much people want to see it and how much money they have to offer.

Please visit Iceland, just don’t plunder it. Support the economy, just don’t govern it. Embrace the culture, just don’t squash it. Take many a photo of the nature, just don’t leave a mark on it.

Travel & Trepidation: How My Solo Adventures Began

People often remark how interesting/brave/crazy it is that I go travelling by myself. In a world where we often hear stories about kidnap and homicide abroad, it can seem risky, especially if you’re a young female. I sense that people don’t really understand why I’m happy to do it, or how I go about doing it. As I mark five years since I first travelled solo, I’ve been remembering how this seasonal hobby of mine came about.

The funny thing is that I too used to feel the same way as those aforementioned people. If a psychic had told me in the summer of 2010 that a year later I would be travelling through Canada by myself, I would have laughed in their face. I’d been lucky to travel to some great places on opposite ends of the world as a child with my family, and I had loved those experiences, but I couldn’t imagine going off somewhere myself. The world seemed so big and I didn’t think I’d be able to cope on my own.

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After finishing my A levels I opted to take a gap year, with my main aims being to apply to university and earn some money. The first half of that year was spent filling out UCAS forms and getting up at 5.15 a.m. to start a morning shift at the sports centre where I worked. Then in March 2011, after craving a break from the bleak spring weather, I flew to Australia to spend a month with some family friends. The only thing I had to do on my own was the flying, and then I would be in the care of people I knew. I would be meeting up with my sister at one point to visit our cousin for a few days, but hadn’t made any specific plans to go and see somewhere by myself. It wasn’t going to be a true travelling experience as such; I simply wanted to chill out in the sun for a while.

I turned up at the house only to find out that the family were hosting a Scottish man, who was working for them in return for food and accommodation. He’d set off nearly a year ago by himself to do a round-the-world trip, and hearing his stories got me thinking. Even if he was a few years older than me (and male), he made travelling alone sound fun and, most importantly, doable.

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I returned to England with the travel bug, revitalised by my month away. I’d received an offer to study at university in London before I left, and I now accepted it. I would be moving from life in the isolated countryside to the bustling capital – a complete paradox. London had previously seemed too daunting a place to live for a girl who was used to travelling 10 miles to the nearest village. But following my time in Australia, my curiosity about the world had increased and London seemed like the right choice.

In early May I started researching Canada, a couple of weeks after I returned from Oz. Hiking in the Rockies attracted me, and yet the prospect of travelling alone still made me feel nervous. Ideally I still wanted to travel with someone, but was unable to find anyone with the time, money or interest. In response, I looked up help-exchange schemes similar to the one my friend in Australia had been part of, thinking that I would just live with different families the whole time. That way I wouldn’t have to worry about turning up at a hostel with nobody to talk to. I found a few families in British Columbia who were happy to host me for a week each. However all the families I wrote to in the Rockies were fully booked, or demanded a minimum length of stay that I couldn’t commit to.

The plan seemed to be crumbling and I began regretting telling my friends so definitively that I was going to Canada.  Questions of rationality filled my head – had I really thought about this, or was I just trying to impress someone? And yet I couldn’t just give up so easily. To me that would be a failure. Slowly it sunk in that for the first week of my five-week trip, I would have to stay in hostels and risk having nobody to hang out with.

But gradually I got more into the idea of travelling alone. It was exciting – I could plan my own adventures without having to think about what anyone else wanted. I was totally free. I realised that I did want to do this for myself. It was my own challenge – I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Travelling alone formed a category in this new and improved ‘me’ that I wanted to create. I saw it as a way of reinventing myself before starting this new chapter in my life of university and life in the  big city. I wanted to be able to tell stories like my friend had – unique and interesting stories that were my own.

From that point onwards I became determined that this trip would happen. I was bored of my daily routine and craved an adventure. In early June I gave in my notice at work. My spare time when I wasn’t lifeguarding or serving customers was spent poring over my ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook and typing websites into Google, papers covered in scruffy notes soon beginning to pile up on my desk. I’d decided to start in Toronto and then spend a few days exploring the Rockies, and on June 25th I booked my flights. It was really happening – I was going to a new country by myself…and I had no idea what to expect. Of course I was excited to see a new country, but I still felt unsure of my capability to cope alone. 19 still seemed very young to have so much responsibility.

At the beginning of July I sorted out my travel insurance (with my dad’s help) and booked my hostel for two nights in Toronto and a flight to Calgary. It was really beginning to feel like an adventure now. July 1st may mark Canada Day and the increasing unification of territories into one nation, but for me too it marked a growing sense of autonomy and completeness. My friends and work colleagues remarked how brave I was going on my own, and it made me feel good. They assured me that I’d have no trouble making friends. I’d learned in this year that kindness can get you far, and it would now be time to use it. About ten days before my trip I went to attend my sister’s graduation ceremony in Sheffield, and afterwards joined her and her friends for drinks to celebrate. One of them told her that I was “confident without being arrogant.” It surprised me. I hadn’t realised I portrayed such traits. ‘Maybe I am braver than I thought?’ I wondered to myself. While I was still more nervous than I appeared, these comments helped boost my incentive. I liked the idea of being regarded by my peers as an inspiration.

I was volunteering at an international competition in Kent a few days before I left for Canada, so had to organise and pack everything before and bring it down in the car with me. I started feeling stressed, remembering how easy Australia had been in comparison. My backpack was stuffed with horse-riding gear, trainers and outdoor clothes and I couldn’t decide whether it was too much. “How am I going to carry all this?” I asked my mum incredulously, only half-joking. I checked and re-checked I had my passport and then said goodbye to my dad, who seemed very relaxed. He’d travelled alone when he was 17 and obviously thought there was little to it. With one last look back from the car at my home with the rose bushes taking over the front of the house, it was weird to think that I wouldn’t be back for another six weeks.

In Kent I was asked whether I was scared about going travelling on my own. My brave face re-appeared as I replied with a “Nahhh”. But I seemed to lose my voice over those few days, surrounded by adults who made me feel really young. I felt embarrassed as I struggled to make myself heard in conversation. Was this what it would be like in Canada?  My friend asked my mum if she was worried about me going away on my own. She said “Not at all” confidently, and I believed she meant it. But I wasn’t so sure of myself.

On the evening before my flight I took some clothes out of my backpack, still unable to decide exactly how much to bring. It was difficult to estimate – I had to consider how often I’d be able to find a washing machine and so on. At midnight I had finally finished, and collapsed on my bed exhausted. Mum asked how I was feeling. “Fine, just wary of getting lost,” I said with a nervous laugh. She reminded me to check everything twice, whether it be my luggage, or a map, or a bus schedule. It seemed simple, yet the butterflies were beginning to kick in. It suddenly hit me that I was going to be on my own, without her help. I lay on my bed in the hotel room and felt like crying. But I couldn’t pull out now.

We left the hotel early on the morning of August 2nd to avoid the busy traffic. I saw the signs for Gatwick airport and almost longed for a traffic jam so that I would miss my flight. But we soon pulled up at the drop off gate and it was time to say goodbye. Mum hugged me tight, saying “Love you, squeeze you, miss you already” as she always does, only her voice was starting to break. I pulled away and saw tears forming in her eyes. I hadn’t expected that from her because she’d seemed so calm about me going off by myself.  I felt my own eyes start to water and had to make myself turn around and not look back. Her fifth and final baby was going off into the big world and I guess I should have expected her to get quite emotional about it.

I had a window seat on the plane and looked down absent-mindedly at the men below scurrying around on the luggage buggies. To distract from thinking about my mum, I started talking to the mother and daughter next to me, asking if they were from Canada or visiting. The daughter said, “You’ll enjoy Toronto, it’s a great city.” I told myself she would be right, but when it came into view six hours later the butterflies returned. This was it. I waited for my backpack to emerge on the conveyer belt and sighed with relief when it did. As I checked it over and re-arranged the straps, I suddenly felt really glad of its company, as if it was some kind of friend. A girl with blonde hair similar to mine was doing the same about 10 metres away. ‘Maybe she’s staying at my hostel,’ I thought hopefully. But she soon walked off with a purposeful gait that suggested she had been here before, and my spontaneous hopes of immediately finding a travel companion were dashed.

As I walked through the arrival lounge I felt like a lost puppy. Then a young guy approached me, asking if I was heading downtown. “Er, yeah,” I said hazily. He told me where to get the bus from and where to get off in the city. I thanked him, my confidence soaring. My trip had started off well without me having to do anything. But naturally as soon as I got off at my stop the hustle and bustle of the city hit me and I felt confused again. I fumbled in my pocket for the map of the city that I’d picked up from the guy at the airport, only to find that it had fallen out and was now being trampled by people’s feet. I had no option but to ask someone, but people looked like they were in a rush to get somewhere and my voice came out faint and pathetic. Then I spotted a girl in a summery dress walking in my direction who looked a similar age, so I cleared my throat and asked her if she knew where my hostel was. “Sure, it’s…oh actually, I’ll just walk you there.” I followed her gratefully for a couple of blocks and she wished me a nice stay.

An Irish woman checked me in, giving me quizzical looks as if questioning whether I was about to vomit. I walked into my dorm only to see two girls sat on the floor studying a map. I greeted them with a prolonged “Heeeey” that sounded more confident than I expected. They nodded a greeting in return then got back to their map, mumbling in French. I turned away awkwardly and began making my bed in silence. They obviously had their own agenda and weren’t interested in making conversation. It was around 5 p.m. now. ‘I can’t just stay in here like this’ I thought to myself, so I padlocked my backpack and went for a walk around. The road system was confusing. I went to cross the road at a pedestrian crossing only to jump backwards in shock as a car shot round the corner. I cautiously watched other people to find out what the road rules were, feeling completely out of my comfort zone. Soon I stumbled upon a food store and bought some ham and bagels – breakfast and dinner for the next two days. The store was busy and I sensed the fellow customer’s impatience as I took my time to make sure I used the right coins. I hadn’t realised that tax wasn’t included in the item’s displayed price, and fumbled around clumsily in my purse for more change, wishing I’d remembered to remove my British currency.

I had no sense of where I was and soon realised I was lost again. Feeling like an idiot, I asked a couple for help. The girl got her iPhone out to find the hostel. She then gave me her number when I told her about the reserved girls in my dorm, in case I wanted to hang out. I felt surprised but relieved at the same time. But when I did get back to the hostel and turned on my phone, I realised I’d forgotten the pin to activate my new Sim card. I rummaged through my bag for the piece of paper, cursing myself silently when it became obvious I didn’t have it. Pessimistic thoughts flooded my mind. I went to email home from the computers in the hostel, to let mum and dad know I’d arrived safe. Trying to sound upbeat was difficult. I was completely useless at finding my way around, had nearly been run-over, had nobody to talk to, and didn’t have a working phone to contact my hosts later on with. All the worries I had carried beforehand about my ability to cope alone seemed to make sense. ‘What am I doing?’ I thought to myself, head in hands.

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I went down to the kitchen to make my boring bagel, feeling disheartened. Then I suddenly heard an Australian accent and my shoulders lifted as the familiarity of it gave me a sense of comfort. A guy was making some pasta with a German girl. I realised I had to speak up. It was now or never. So I made a joke about something he said. We got chatting and they asked if I wanted to join them outside.  I was offered a beer and crisps were shared out as everyone spoke about their individual travel plans. Most of them planned to stay in Toronto for a while and work here. I began to relax and enjoy myself, relieved that I’d made the effort to join in. The afternoon had started badly but now I was beginning to feel more positive.

The next morning I’d booked to go on a tour to Niagara Falls, but nobody from that group was going. I hoped I wouldn’t be on my own all day. A few minutes later two smiley girls got on my bus, chatting in Italian. They seemed friendly enough, but how did I know they’d want me to join them? I spotted another guy sat on the other side of the bus, and sensed he was English. Sure enough, I heard the accent when the tour guide asked him something. One voice in my head said ‘Perfect! You can hang out with him’, but another was reluctant. I knew English people. If I wanted to hang out with them I could have just stayed at home. This was my opportunity to meet people of different nationalities.

Grey clouds filled the sky as we walked down to the falls and got handed our blue waterproofs ready for our ‘Maid of the Mist’ boat trip. I purposefully stood myself fairly close to the girls. One of them caught my eye and we laughed at how funny we looked, with introductions following. They were the first Italians I’d ever spoken to. We hung out on the boat together, getting drenched by the spray from the magnificent falls. I went on to spend the rest of the day with them. I almost felt bad, as if I was intruding, but they didn’t mind at all.

Niagara Falls

We were driven on to a quaint little town called Niagara-on-the-Lake with amazing chocolate shops and a store dedicated to Christmas. On the way there we passed a building with the name ‘School of Horticulture’ crafted in flowers on the front lawn. Its name rang a bell. I looked at my watch and smiled when I read ‘Niagara Parks Commission School of Horticulture’. I’d found it in a hostel in Australia with my sister and had (naughtily) taken it. It wasn’t flashy at all, but there was something about it that I’d liked. Now I was randomly and completely unassumingly passing its original home. It was as if I’d been destined to come here.

The tour ended with a trip to a winery where we got to sample some sickly sweet Ice Wine. The girls were staying at a different hostel to me. I wrote my name and email on a piece of paper, ready to offer it should they wish to keep in touch but anxious that they wouldn’t. But sure enough, they turned around as we approached their stop and the question “Do you have Facebook?” went on to become a key motto of my trip.

Before I got back to my hostel I went to the shop from the day before again to stock up on water, and felt slightly smug as I returned without getting lost. I was beginning to feel more like I could cope and I was walking around feeling less self-conscious. This time when I approached my hostel reception  to collect my key, the Irish lady flashed me a smile, as if my increased confidence showed. As I sat in the living area reading my guidebook, a German girl walked in and asked “Where do I go?” with a laugh. I told her where the dorms were and she later joined me. We sat with an Austrian boy and two Irish people. One of them was 30 and said she wasn’t sure she’d have been able to travel alone at 19. But then she added how great it is to do so because it makes you more open. I totally understood what she meant. Suddenly I felt really glad that I was on my own. Thinking back to the French girls in my dorm, I felt sorry for them. Their trip was going to be limited by the fact that they weren’t allowing themselves to hang out with other people who might enrich their experience.

I asked the German girl and Austrian guy if they wanted to go up the CN Tower with me in the morning. They said yes and we set off the next day with the sun now shining over the city, as if reflecting how much brighter my trip was becoming with every new day. From the tower one could see for miles. It couldn’t quite match the views in New York, but was still impressive. I stood on the thick pane of glass staring down 1500 feet at the ground below. Some people even dared jump up and down on it. We then spent the rest of the morning wondering around the city. On the way to Kensington Market in Chinatown with its abundance of fruit stalls, the Austrian guy pointed out a road sign with ‘King’s College’ on it. “Isn’t that where you’re going to study?” he asked. I laughed at the irony of it. But London was nowhere near here, and university still felt like ages away. I was starting to really enjoy myself and didn’t want to think about studying.

My bus to the airport was at 1 p.m. I gave the other two my contact details and checked out of the hostel, excited for the Rockies. I had a map of the city, but soon got confused and when I asked someone for help they sent me in the wrong direction. My back soon began to ache from lugging my huge backpack around in the midday heat. When I did find the stop, the driver told me its schedule meant I wouldn’t get to the airport in time. My confidence that had been improving so much began to falter as I envisaged missing my plane to Calgary. I had no idea what to do and stood helplessly on the pavement as passers-by looked at me inquisitively. Then another man showed up with a travel bag, only to hear the same information. He looked at me running my hands through my hair anxiously and asked if I wanted to split the fare for a cab to the next station where our bus would be. Without thinking twice I said yes. He was going to visit his mother in Ottawa for the weekend. I ran to make sure the bus didn’t leave without us as he gave the money, and sank into a seat, relieved that this man had been in the same boat. Some people might be funny about sharing taxis with strangers, but I had no regrets. It had been the most sensible option and was nice to know that we’d done each other a favour. I suddenly felt like a real traveller – spontaneous and practical.

We arrived at the airport and the guy called “Have a good trip” with a wave. I was sat next to a good-looking man on the plane, probably around 30 years old, and I didn’t expect him to want to talk. Then he asked casually, “You heading home or away?” I smiled to myself, remembering how I had asked the family on my flight over the same thing. We flew with the Great Lakes below us, and I asked him more about the geography of the country, surprising myself with how chatty I was. ‘Why sit in silence when you can learn something?’ I thought.

We landed in Calgary four hours later. I found my bus to Banff with no problems and as the glacier mountains came into view my excitement kicked in. This was the part of the trip I’d been most looking forward to. I got off on Banff Avenue and went to find a bank, remembering Dad’s advice about getting lots of money out at a time because of commission prices. The streets were filled with tourists on the way to dinner. A group of older ladies in peep-toe sandals gave me funny looks as I roamed around in my scruffy flannel shirt and trainers, hoisting my huge backpack higher up. This time I had no trouble finding my hostel. It was situated in a quiet area over the bridge. I was sharing a dorm with two girls from Montreal, who invited me to join them at a bonfire. The offer contrasted so much to the reception I received in the Toronto hostel, but I politely said I was going to do my own thing. It was different now. I’m a country girl. When I got to the city I felt miniscule and needed someone. But now I was in a rural area I felt more at home and less apprehensive about being on my own.

I set off walking along the Bow River, appreciating the peace and quiet. The air smelt of pine cones and midges hummed near the water. When I checked my emails later Mum had replied, saying she hoped I was okay – I’d sounded quite downbeat in the first email. That seemed like a long time ago now. I updated her of my whereabouts, telling her my plans for the next day. The girls were still asleep as I got up to get dressed and go explore in the early morning. I felt completely in my element. I didn’t even have a real map but just followed my feet and unlike in the city, they always led me to the right place. Reaching a main road which headed up towards Sulphur Mountain, I knew there was a bus I could get and went to read the signs, hearing mum’s advice of “check twice” in my head. Unlike in that store on my first day, I didn’t have to rush. With the rural environment comes so much more freedom.

I didn’t have time to hike the 5.6km route up to the mountain’s summit, so I got the gondola instead. A boy who looked about my age was sat in the ticket office looking bored. He gave me a look when I asked for my ticket that seemed to say ‘Why are you on your own?’ It made me blush and I got into my carriage feeling a little silly. As I rode up to the top I noticed that the carriages above and below me contained couples or groups. I was reminded of my Scottish friend recalling how some people had thought he was weird for travelling on his own. “I guess I’m weird too then,” I said aloud to myself, gazing at my watch pensively.

But if I was weird, it was worth it. After admiring the mountain squirrels for a few minutes, I walked along to a viewing point that overlooked the town below. It was breathtaking. I could just make out the glistening of a lake in the distance, surrounded by snow-capped mountains on either side. The turquoise river wound its way through the town with its patchwork of tiny houses, situated amongst layers of lush fir trees. I’d seen this very view in a photo on a website, and read about it in my guidebook. Now I was here myself, all through my own doing. A great sense of fulfillment hit me and I felt really proud of myself. This was my own personal achievement. All the stress and worries and embarrassing moments from before seemed like nothing now. It didn’t matter anymore if I got funny looks from people for wondering around on my own with this huge backpack. How many of them could say they had done something similar at the same age? I felt like I was on top of the world and nobody could take this feeling away from me.

Views from Sulphur Mountain

So in conclusion, I suppose that’s why I like to travel alone, because of that unbeatable feeling of individual accomplishment that it brings. I’ve always liked exploring the outdoors and in a sense it was something I soon fell into easily after the first few days. But it was by no means something I’d planned to do from a young age. There were butterflies, there were cynical questions, and there were tears. But with that comes so much more confidence afterwards. Since that trip, I’ve never looked back. Going off somewhere by myself just seems natural now and if anything, travelling with someone else feels ore stressful to me. Travelling alone gave me an extra spark, and I really don’t think I’d be who I am today without having done it.

Views of the Afternoon in Szeged, Hungary

Most people who visit Hungary are bound for the bars and bridges of Budapest. I however began my trip from Liszt Ferenc airport not towards the capital city, but south towards Szeged where I would be reunited with a girl I met on a bus from Porto to Lisbon in July 2015. I left behind the Brits on their stag-dos and girly weekends for the quieter side of Hungary, encountering views of a modest country life that exists away from busy beaming tourism, and views that exist behind closed doors and closed borders.

I decided to purchase First Class tickets for my journey from Ferihegy to Szeged, simply because they translated into £14 and I’ve never experienced a train journey in this class before. I boarded a quiet carriage occupied by only a few people, businessmen and smartly dressed ladies. The two men sitting near my seat reservation looked up at me in surprise, as in unused to seeing people of my age and casual dress in this carriage. I quickly realised that First Class in Hungary offers the equivalent to standard class in England i.e. no complimentary drinks and meals. Dang. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the peace and quiet of my two hour journey to Szeged as country life began to unfold outside the window after we pulled out of the rusty train station where a white cat wandered warily along a wall covered in graffiti.

It looked like winter had been harsh on the land. In the distance a tractor stood abandoned in a bland field, waiting for summer to awake it from its slumber. An old man ambled among his dreary crops as around him crows pecked around like looters looking for the last valuables from a battleground. A pile of logs and mouldy hay bales lay forgotten near a muddy marsh. Dilapidated shacks were dotted randomly in areas of wasteland covered in blankets of felled trees. In their small pastures, families shovelled manure from a wheel barrow onto the hungry ground. Thick-fleeced sheep huddled together whilst a shaggy coated horse sniffed for signs of grass and chickens scratched at the sandy earth. A scarecrow stood lonely in a deserted orchard that was too bare for even the most desperate of crows. But as the train approached Szeged, the views seemed to get brighter. Three deer cantered elegantly through a field where the grass was greener. The Hungarian flag blew gently in the breeze as it hung off a canary-yellow house with a pool in the back garden. A local white bus cruised along a road in the distance until the traffic increased on a large road heading into the city. Szeged is known as the “city of sunshine” and sure enough, the sun came out from behind its cover as my train pulled in.

My friend and her boyfriend met me at the station and we walked on towards Dóm Square. For a small entrance fee, visitors can walk up to the top of the twin-spired Votive Church for 360-degree views of the city. It was pleasing to see a lack of skyscrapers for a change.  Home to a very distinguished university, Szeged is a nice area for students. The trees on the other side of the river Tisza lacked colour at this time of year, but it is easy to imagine pretty postcard views in the summer. In warmer seasons, crowds will lap up the sun by sitting on the banks of the river, and there is an Open Air festival held every summer.

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Following the great flood of 1879, the Emperor promised to make Szeged “more beautiful than it used to be.” Within this there was a pledge to build a Church as a thank you to God if he would help the city recover from its immense damage. Inside, it was possibly the most beautiful Church I’ve ever seen. Even someone who is not religious, like myself, couldn’t help but be silenced in awe and respect by its grandeur. The intricate detail of the interior decor was incredible, with regal furnishings catching my eyes and rich colours catching the afternoon light that shone through the glass painted windows.

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We moved on to drink mulled wine and eat cake in a cafe called A Cappella. Ordered desserts were delivered upstairs via an elevator. I sampled Hungary’s “cake of 2015” which contained peach pálinka (brandy) syrup, and dobos cake which is layered with buttercream and topped with hard caramel. We talked about our lives in England and Hungary. My friend’s boyfriend is training to become a doctor and remarked how he’d hoped to study in England because of its reputation for having good medical schools. His high view of the British medical scene seemed ironic when taking into account the strained resources of the NHS and the current strikes by junior doctors.

I then asked my companions about Hungarian views of the refugee crisis in the Middle East. They were aware of their country’s reputation for taking a hard-line stance on immigration, although they were not aware of the infamous video which surfaced in 2015 showing a Hungarian journalist pushing and kicking arriving migrants. I asked why they thought their government had decided to close the border. I was told that the government had chosen this approach itself, but it followed consultation with some members of the public through a survey. Questions they were asked included what they thought the cause of the refugee crisis was, and what they thought the results of taking in migrants would be. It quickly emerged that a fear of terrorism was the key cause of public reluctance to accept them, along with an assumption that those from Arab nations would not assimilate into Hungarian and European culture.

To me this was an interesting view. Hungary was briefly involved in the coalition force that invaded Iraq in 2003. Around 360 Hungarian troops were also sent to fight in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. However, Hungary is not a country one would associate with attracting terrorists. Its involvement in foreign military conflicts is minimal compared to the likes of Britain, France and the United States, i.e. countries who are key targets of terrorist activity.

“I have heard that there are areas of London controlled by Muslim communities,” the boyfriend said. It wasn’t his fault for having this exaggerated view; clearly the right-wing journalists in Hungarian media have been fabricating reports and creating scapegoats. I tried to explain that there is a large presence of Muslims in London, and indeed extremism is probably being secretly bred in some of these areas, but a distinction must be made between moderate followers of the Koran who are proud British citizens, and jihadists who aim to destroy western society from within it.

Later we went to a cool bar and restaurant called Maláta for burgers and home-brewed beer. A silent black-and-white film played on a big screen next to a book shelf and umbrellas hung off the ceiling. At one point I was distracted by the arrival of four boys asking the waiter in English for a table. They had British accents and I assumed they were exchange students doing a semester abroad at the University of Szeged. They were of either Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage, possibly Muslims themselves. I thought back to the Muslim boys of their age fleeing Iraq and Syria, perhaps jumping onto jam-packed boats at that very moment to begin a treacherous journey across the ocean. Is the evident fear of migrant-led terrorism present in Hungary based on the migrant’s religion or their citizenship? Would these young male migrants be viewed differently if they hadn’t come from the Middle East and instead had British accents and birth certificates? Or were the British boys enjoying a meal in the bar also being viewed with concern because of their potential association with Islam? The vast majority of Muslim men are fleeing areas controlled by Islamic State due to fear that they will be forced to fight for a group they do not support, and not because they want to spread its violent ideology westwards.

Lying in bed that night and going over the events of my first afternoon in Hungary, I recalled the splendour of the Votive Church. The power of religion is both fascinating and frightening. Some people believe so strongly in the existence and goodness of an unseen higher power that they will invest all their time, effort and money in building a magnificent Church with their two hands to demonstrate their respect and create a place of community for their fellow worshippers. But some of these people cannot respect the peaceful presence of another faith and recognise the clearly visible desperation of its civilian followers fleeing war, oppression and persecution. They refuse to open their arms to at least sympathise with these vulnerable people if they are unable to help them practically. They are so open to the existence of a God, yet so closed to the reality of  human events.

This afternoon in Szeged had revealed many views, some pretty, some unpleasant. I should clarify that, as the Archbishop of Canterbury recently argued, being reluctant to take in thousands of refugees doesn’t make a nation and its citizens racist. By increasing the population, mass immigration poses a problem for a country’s resources in terms of finance, infrastructure, jobs and welfare. But some of the expressed rationale behind such decisions can reveal the presence of unjust, bigoted views within society. They are views that seem to contradict the instruction in the Bible given to Christians to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.

Around the time I was in Hungary, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia closed their borders to migrants, and deals have now been agreed for Turkey to accommodate arrivals form Greece in return for economic support. I hope that those innocent refugees turned away from Europe can understand that there are many people on this continent who pity their situation, and do not view them with fear and suspicion.

 

 

Appreciating the Simple Life in Tofino and Ucluelet

It would be easy to say “Is this it?” after arriving in Tofino. Located on Vancouver Island about a five hour drive upland from Victoria (depending on the number of tourist stops taken on the way), you arrive in a small town and it may not be immediately obvious what the appeal is to the mass of tourists that come here. There is no symbolic institution or landmark as such and the view of the ocean offered can be found at many other areas around the island. So what is it that people love so much about Tofino?

The obvious answer is the beaches. There are lots of opportunities to give surfing a go, with Surf Sister being a particularly popular company for girls to learn with. Experienced surfers are tempted by the waves on Long Beach. Those less keen to take a dip can sunbathe amongst the driftwood on quiet Florencia beach, or admire the lovely sunsets on Tonquin beach.

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There’s also plenty of hiking on offer, with various boardwalk  and trail routes available including the Lighthouse Trail, Rainforest Walk and others within the Pacific Rim National Park. These will take you on a journey that features Western Cedar and Hemlock trees, colourful fungi and possibly the odd bear or two.

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But the beaches and these hikes aren’t the main features that set Tofino apart from other coastal towns.

My sister and I stayed in the Tofino Traveller’s Guesthouse on Main Street. It’s a lovely place with a cosy, relaxing ambiance. There was no reception desk which made the atmosphere more welcoming, with the main rule being to take shoes off upon entry. The soft sounds of Bon Iver and Matt Corby played in the kitchen and in the morning, the host would make waffles for everyone. Guests were very chatty with each other. Particularly memorable was seeing a couple in their sixties talking about life aims and societal pressures to a young punky girl who was wearing only a flannel shirt and her underwear. I couldn’t imagine them talking in other, more urban contexts.

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The hostel featured lots of mottos conveying deep meanings. Reading ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story’ made me feel restless and I had a sudden urge to stop thinking too much and just get on with personal projects. A poignant one referred to how people waste time devoting so much of it to something they don’t enjoy under the assumption that this will eventually allow them to do what they do enjoy…but this doesn’t happen. Reading this made me think of city life – how people in high-paying jobs tell themselves they’ll live the mundane office life with the 50 hour weeks just for a few years until they’ve saved enough money to escape to the country and live a restful life of part-time work. But as this lifestyle becomes routine and the income becomes comfortable, many abandon their vision for fear of losing security.

With its sleepy town-feel, Tofino definitely evokes a sense of the simple life. This is the kind of town where you can imagine the owner of the pub is best friends with the guy who runs the hardware store two blocks away, who happens to be related to the doctor at the hospital who is married to the lady who works at the cafe, who herself is sister to the owner of the pub. Friday night bonfires will always be favoured and new faces are welcome. The corporate world is completely alien and nobody is in a hurry. Routine is not regarded as boring but rather a guaranteed source of happiness, even if it doesn’t allow for ‘climbing the career ladder’ as such. Life just flows along at a nice gentle pace and people are content with it being this way.

This is why the fatal capsize of a whale-watching boat in October 2015 was such a momentous event. The sleepy town had to wake up to run an intense rescue operation that strained its resources and relied significantly on the personal initiative of boat-owning residents. It was a huge shock for the town psychologically and practically.

 

Located about 30km away, Ucluelet is even sleepier, with the main attraction on offer being the beginning of the Wild Pacific Trail. Once this had been completed, there was much twiddling of thumbs as my sister and I looked around for something else to fill our time with. We didn’t fancy paying $14 to go inside the small aquarium so went to Zoe’s Bakery and had some tasty carrot cake and frothy hot chocolate. The only other options after this seemed to involve eating more food, which wasn’t necessary.

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Instead we decided to turn up early to our rustic hostel. A wooden path led down to the water where boats dozed on the still surface. Here was a place of tranquility and creativity, and under this influence I found myself pouring out words onto paper.

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In the evening, the hostel manager invited the guests and some locals round for a bonfire. My sister and I got ourselves into a slightly awkward moment when we asked one of the local girls what she did for a living. Mistaking ‘server’ for ‘surfer’, we piped up with remarks of “Oh, cool!” only to unintentionally evoke less enthusiasm when she corrected us. She was from Toronto and I asked what she liked best about living in Ucluelet. She answered me with a frown and a tone that suggested she was puzzled by the question – “Because it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.” I agree that it’s lovely, but I wasn’t convinced of the credit of this statement. I believe there are many more stunning and unique places in the world that have more character to them.

The guy running the hostel first came here on a vacation from Vancouver and ended up staying for five years. Then he followed a girl to Europe for a year or so, only to return here to remedy his symptoms of withdrawal.

As they sat smoking weed and talking about the funny guy eating fries in the cafe today, I found it hard to relate to these people and understand the appeal of their lifestyle. Sure these small quiet towns were nice detoxes from the busier, more populated world, but did they not get boring after a few months of seeing the same faces and places every day? And if these people did interact with the tourists that come and went, did they not feel a burning sense of curiosity to follow in their footsteps and see more of the world?

However, what is interesting is that these two people in question came from the city to the countryside. They came from urban density to rural seclusion, from an area of domineering social norms to one allowing greater freedom and acceptance of individuality. In some sense one could say they had regressed from life in a fast-moving, technologically advanced setting to a slower, less developed pace. But they were happier in this way of life.

Perhaps that is the appeal of Tofino and Ucluelet; it’s not so much to do with their looks but their humble, quiet characters that welcome anyone and let them be themselves, rather than imposing an identity on them. To entertain oneself in these areas, more emphasis is placed on the environment than on consumer goods, on personal communication over technological sources. Residents might not have as many responsibilities nor make a tonne of money but they’ll likely be happier, healthier and have more time for themselves and others. As snobby as city-based people may want to be about such lifestyles, deep down they are probably a little jealous.

Tofino made me envision a quieter, simpler life – one in which I would have fewer professional accolades but a more care-free routine that gave me time to appreciate the small things in life. I day-dreamed of running a guesthouse for income, writing stories for pleasure and going for daily runs on the beach for leisure. It’s maybe the case that people spend too much time looking for the next big thing to do and not enough time enjoying the present. And so I’ve decided that this is what makes these towns so attractive to those they welcome; they offer an alternative lifestyle that requires so little to achieve.

 

Escape to Portugal: Opening Eyes and Ears in Sintra

Few times have I experienced walking around a city in the early hours of the morning with a relaxed sense of security. No need to look over my shoulder with suspicion, to shiver into a jacket with a sudden cold rush, or feel like I was trespassing the silent empty streets at an unsaintly hour. The sun rises sleepily into the soft sky as one ambles down St. Lucia in the Alfama district of Lisbon towards the Rua de Augusta. Here waiters set up tables on the street to get ready to serve breakfast to the many tourists that will swarm this street later on. I walked into Patisserie Brasilieras to buy a cinnamon pastry and ate it on the steps of King Juan I in the Praça de Comércio. It suddenly hit me that it was the 1st of August and I pinch-punched myself to commemorate.

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Today I would be heading west towards the town of Sintra with Virág, the Hungarian girl I met on the bus down from Porto. This plan of travelling with someone else had arisen only the late evening before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What advantages and disadvantages would having company bring?

The statues in the water fountains in Rossio were still dozing in the dawn as I walked towards the train station, which I had heard could be pretty sketchy. A return ticket cost 4.80Euros and as I headed towards the barriers, a man suddenly called for us to hurry – the train was about to depart. Assuming he was correct, I hurried through the barriers with him straight behind, only to realise soon after that he had been using us to get on the train without a ticket…

A 40 minute journey away by train, Sintra is famed for its fairy-tale castles and palaces, many of which are classed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. First however we planned to visit Cabo da Roca which is the westernmost point of continental Europe. Bus 403 will take you the 18km from Sintra station to the cape, with a hop-on-hop-off ticket costing 12Euros.  Prepare for an entertaining journey. The bus driver would navigate up steep roads and around countless hairpin bends whilst occasionally holding his phone to his ear. Every time we ascended a narrow street and an approaching car suddenly came into view, I would suck in my tummy tightly. We wound our way past lush green rainforests and through towns with large fruit markets and elderly residents chatting on café corners before arriving at the windy coast. Here the ‘land ends and the sea begins’,* the vast ocean of blue sending rippling waves crashing against the rocks. (*Luís de Camões – one of Portugal’s most highly-regarded poets)

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I quickly noticed differences between myself and Virág. I descended the sandy, rocky terrain downwards at a quick pace without giving too much thought to where I was putting my feet; she walked with more caution. She was keen to see as many palaces as possible; I was wary of spending too much money on admission fees. I was happy to walk to most places for exercise, but Virág preferred to take the bus. Virág seemed to want us to agree on the tiniest things, such as whether to go left or right, whereas this constant confirmation made things a little too rigid for my liking. She wanted to have a hot meal for lunch; I said I normally snack on cold eats when travelling.

Back in Sintra, we walked towards the town centre, passing a display of crafts laid out on top of the pavement wall with the pillars of the National Palace poking up in the background. There are various bus stops in the centre from where the 12Euro ticket can be used for most routes.

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The Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) was built by Muslims in the 8th Century as a base from which to check the Atlantic ocean for incoming invaders, before coming under Christian control in the 12th Century. Hold on tight (especially to your stomach) as the 434 bus zig-zags around more hairpin bends for 3km to reach it. Costing 8Euros to get in, the castle has been reconstructed in the 20th Century, but as you squeeze up narrow stairways before dropping down into little dens, you can easily imagine soldiers crouching down to protect themselves from armed attack. Over its rigid stone walls you’ll see great views of the surrounding countryside (but more so on the right-side.)

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The National Palace of Pena is classed as a 1.5km walk from the castle, but feels like less. Don’t let the uphill gradient put you off, as you’ll likely find that by the time the bus arrives, you would have reached it by foot. Being the most popular of the palaces, this one cost 14Euros to go all the way inside. I found myself in an unfamiliar position where I had to explain my budget to someone else, and with me feeling restricted, we agreed to pay the lower fee of 10.50 for access to the grounds and onto the terrace only, although I soon learned that this was perfectly adequate. Built in 1840 as the holiday destination for the Portuguese monarchy, the palace strikes as quite gaudy with its vibrant mix of bright colours and patterned tiles. But even if it’s too kitschy for your liking, it’s still worth a look and you can’t help but be impressed by the effort that has gone into building and maintaining it.

It was while walking through the park with its various nooks and crannies that I began to realise that actually, Virág and I were more similar than I thought. Just like first impressions of the palace’s exterior might be that it is over-the-top in its appearance, I learned that Virág had more appeal to me than at first believed. We had interesting conversations and seemed to have similar outlooks towards certain issues. It made me smile when, after a moment of silence during which I began to feel grateful for her company, Virág said “I’m glad we met on that bus from Porto.”

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I found during the day that I was rubbing off on Virág, and likewise she was rubbing off on me. At one point she agreed to walk instead of take the bus, and I was persuaded to choose a hot option for lunch. A great place to eat in Sintra is at Xentra. ‘Free buffet – 8.50’ may look deceiving, but you’d be amazed at how great the value is. Drinks are priced separately but for the main, you can choose to have as much as you want of salad, chorizo sausage, chicken, pork in white wine, fried squid and bacalhau (a cake of cod, potato and white sauce), while for dessert there is the traditional treat of Serradura – whipped cream mixed with a ‘sawdust’ of crushed biscuit. You won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

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Virág was keen to see another palace and feeling content with my stuffed stomach, I was no longer feeling frugal. We took the smaller bus 435 to Monserrate Palace which is situated a twisty 3.5km from the town centre. After paying the 8Euro entry fee and walking along the dusty path towards the entrance, I became mesmerised by the view ahead. The palace evokes an ‘Arabian Nights’ feel alongside hints of a mansion in British India, and when I saw a wedding reception take place outside, I longed to wear a pretty dress instead of my scruffy denim shorts and trainers. Pastel pink marble pillars lined a corridor underneath an intricately decorated ceiling. In the circular music room with a grand piano I could imagine the happy couple waltzing to their first song. The stone terrace looked out over a sprawling lawn that led to a majestic oasis of botanical gardens. We explored this exotic maze hearing only the sounds of trickling water and bird song. I felt even more like I’d entered the Garden of Eden when we encountered a hippy trio singing and banging a soft drum. It almost seemed inappropriate that we were all wearing clothes…

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I envied the little girls in their white bridesmaid dresses because they must have felt like princesses here. This palace was everything one should be – authentic, classy, elegant, pure and sophisticated, but small and subtle at the same time. Everything looked so pretty, catching the late afternoon light so perfectly, that I found myself constantly getting my camera out, no longer caring that the battery was getting very low. We had definitely saved the best till last. But was it not for having company, I might not have seen it.

The day had definitely reminded me to be more open-minded when it comes to sight-seeing with other solo travellers abroad. Listening and taking into consideration the interests of a new companion had been a valuable experience. It had highlighted that two minds can be better than one. With some people, one day of their company travelling around would be sufficient, but I found myself wanting to also spend the next day with Virág too. It was not that I had suddenly lost all desire to travel alone, but I was more inclined towards the idea of giving spontaneous companionship a chance.

I walked back to my hostel from Rossio station with map-less ease, feeling more comforted and confident in the knowledge that I had the option of sharing my experience of Lisbon with a new friend.

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Read the final chapter from Lisbon in Lazy Sundays in Lisbon

 

Escape to Portugal: Exploring Porto without a Camera

On my last day in Porto, I decided it would be a no-camera day. My battery on both my DSLR and my phone had already dropped to two bars and I didn’t have a charger with me. With the bigger city of Lisbon coming up, I knew I should save up my shots. The weather didn’t look great anyway, and I had been told by a work colleague that the famous bookshop I intended to see only let visitors take photos early in the morning. Nevertheless it felt strange leaving the camera behind in my locker and I had a feeling I’d regret not having it with me.

I began the day by walking up the famous Rua St Catarina, home to the famous Majestic Café which I had been told by a few people was a must-see. I glanced in at the café with its elegant décor but wasn’t mesmerised enough to warrant going in. I’m not a tea or coffee drinker and am more interested in visiting markets where I can witness more of the local culture. Sure enough, I soon found Mercado do Bolhão where stalls inside a wrought-iron warehouse were laden with fruits, veggies, flowers, deli and various crafts. Rummaging through a box of magnets in search of a cheap memento, I was joined by the old lady behind the stall who would mutter away in Portuguese “1 Euro” before picking up ones she thought I might like. I wasn’t actually that impressed but she had charmed me enough with her motherly nature to make me buy one anyway.

Next it was onto the fruit and veg stall, where the lady said “C’est tout?” having assumed I was French. I went with it and wandered on to buy a chorizo pastry and the famous natas (custard tart) for a packed-lunch later on. On the way out I passed a man with dreads playing with puppets for money whilst his young son, also with dreads, sat in a basket staring at a book. Passing by them calmly walked a lady from the market with a box of fish propped on her head. In her raggy dress, she was such a contrast to the flashy tourists and boutiques seen on Rua St Catarina, but this was like a sight of traditional Portugal, and that was when I wished I had my camera with me.

Lovraria Lello was my only set plan for the day, having been told that it was a must-see. However when I reached the famous book shop on Rua das Carmelitas, I discovered that a voucher had to be bought for entry and the queue was pretty substantial. I decided to come back later and instead roamed down cobbled streets with stray cats dashing underneath cars. By now I had really fallen in love with the design of Portuguese houses, sometimes decorated with floral patterns, sometimes a blue-checked style, sometimes painted in the form of green tiles, or sometimes just painted one single pastel tone with a balcony underneath each window corresponding in colour. I was wandering down random little streets with no real idea where I was going, but I didn’t feel like a tourist. I realised this was because I didn’t have my camera with me. Its lack of presence seemed to give me a greater sense of familiarity with the area, making me feel like a local just going on a relaxing ramble, rather than a tourist following an itinerary with the objective of finding a specific new destination.

Walking alone along the riverside on a dainty narrow metal bridge to the left of the road, I had one of those sudden “Am I actually allowed to be here?” thoughts before connecting back to the road and walking up the Rua da Restauração towards the Jardins do Palácio de Cristal. The ancient tram churned past me up the steep street where golden leaves bunched up underneath the line of trees. With free entry to the grounds, this botanical garden is a nice oasis away from the bustling Ribeira district. Past the pretty pond where ducks and peacocks loiter is a lovely viewpoint of the river Douro. Cue another moment where I wished I had my camera.

Down some steps you’ll find various manicured lawns decorated with flowers, ponds and sculptures. On a bench in the quiet serenity I bit into a squashed plum and its juice dribbled down my shirt. But there weren’t many people around to witness, nor to give me odd looks as I sat staring into space feeling frustrated but not knowing why. The state of not feeling like a tourist had also given me a sense of aimlessness which made me feel almost bored. I realised just how much entertainment having a camera can bring, and how much I love creating photos even when there isn’t much around me to inspire something. I began to ask myself why people take photos in the first place. Is it to document an established piece of art (whether natural or manmade) or to create art?  As I write this I still haven’t forgotten the view of the river from the lookout, since I was forced to really embed it in my mind, knowing that I would receive no stimulus to the memory otherwise. I decided that for me a camera is valuable for making a scene out of something and putting my own touch on it, rather than taking the textbook ‘perfect’ holiday snap.

At 4pm and with the midges starting to attack, I finally left the gardens to give Lovraria Lello another shot. By now my feet were starting to complain from walking in flat-soled sandals. Thankfully the queue outside the shop was much smaller now. At the kiosk I asked for a visitor ticket in what I thought was satisfactory Portuguese, only for the boy to respond with a  blank look. I repeated in English but, having heard mutterings of French behind me, found myself saying “Oui” when he asked if I just wanted one. “I’m confused – are you French or English?” he asked. I felt like saying “Nej, svenska” and giving him my best Viking glare. My mood got worse when an obese English woman pushed past me in the queue with a pitiful attempt to speak clearly given that I may not have been a native speaker (at least I try with other languages, even if I just receive puzzled looks in return…)

In the queue I studied the guide pamphlet given to all ticket-buyers in order to scout out the location of the genres I was most interested in. However, it soon became clear that few people visit this shop to buy books. It turned out that the rules had changed since my work colleague came here – now cameras were permitted all day. But I wasn’t disappointed by this, because this change in regulations in fact made my experience a disappointing one. Squeezing past mobs of tourists, I noticed that the shop was much smaller than I had expected. The red spiral staircase and the ceiling above were pretty but not mind-blowing, and they could hardly be appreciated anyway because there were so many people queuing up to take photos. ‘Snap snap snap’ was all I heard. After having waited what felt like an eternity for a girl to finish her wide-eyed mouth-open ‘Oh my God!’ pose, I began climbing the stairs only to have to pause again for another poser.

On the upper floor I found myself in a mosh pit of tourists constantly banging into each other in their quest to get a perfect selfie. I was disappointed to learn that the regal-looking beams weren’t even made of real wood, but plaster. The languages section was pretty good but I don’t have a particular desire to master Portuguese so moved on towards the arts section where I found some memoirs of Jimi Hendrix, although I wasn’t inclined to spend 16Euros on them. When a Chinese man stood on my toe without saying sorry, I knew it was time to go. Another traffic jam down the staircase and I was rushing out of the door in relief. I had spent about eight minutes in the shop, four of them spent just trying to get up and down the stairs. It hadn’t even been worth the 3Euros to get in.

I can understand why the managers of Livraria Lello changed the rules so that cameras are permitted in the shop all day – they must have received unmanageable rushes of people in the early morning and subsequent complaints when people had to be turned away. But the swarm of paparazzi ruined the place for me, the saturation of tourists taking away its integrity as a bookshop. People came here to take a photo and then left. All they wanted was to say they had visited this famous place; they didn’t want to experience it. I felt even more glad that I hadn’t brought my camera with me; I didn’t want to be one of these people. Their intention may have been to capture and document art, but for me their overbearing presence erased the art.

By now the weather had cooled and I took a seat at one of the tables by the olive trees on Avenue dos Aliados. It began to drizzle faintly but I remained put, eating croissants and enjoying watching people go by. I felt no sense of rush, no need to see places and take photos of things. Eventually I decided to head back to the hostel via a supermarket to get breakfast for the next morning, as I would be catching my bus to Lisbon early. Pingo Doce was packed with shoppers and I appeared to be the only non-Portuguese around. Joining a queue with some baps and bananas, an old lady in front started jabbering away to me. I shrugged my shoulders apologetically and said “Sou inglês .” The lady continued to jabber away with me standing there awkwardly. Then a lady in the queue next to us joined in, nodding in front of me. I could feel others’ eyes begin to close on me as I stood lost in translation. What had I done wrong? It was only when the lady to my left physically put her hands on my waist and gently but firmly pushed me forwards that I realised the other had been telling me to go in front of her because I had fewer items. In the end the cashier got confused and went to process the lady’s items first afterall. As I went to stand behind her again, the old lady rolled her eyes at me as if to say “These staff are useless.”

Scary Russian lady was just leaving my dorm as I arrived back, but no-English Nicky Minaj-fan had moved out. I was joined by two tired German girls who were shocked when I said “Schlaf gut”, remarking how it was ‘komisch’ that English people learn other languages in school. If anything, today had proved there should be more value placed on learning languages in the British curriculum. At the same time however, it does seem to be the case that the stereotype of native English-speakers being lazy with other languages leads to pickiness by foreign-linguists when one does attempt their language. Any slight mistake in the accent seems to result in incomprehension, whereas with English people it tends to be that anything goes.

Tonight a trashy rock band was playing in the Festival das Francesinhas, covering the likes of Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. Midges partied hard to the music by attacking my legs. I tossed and turned trying not to scratch my skin to pieces, but it was too difficult. Feeling desperate, I descended my bunk and rummaged in my wash bag for toothpaste. I figured that it would have a cooling effect whilst also repelling the buggers, so I went to bed with my legs smothered in Colgate…and it worked!

Lying down finally in comfort and feeling like a genius, I thought back over the day and how refreshing it was, not only to be surrounded by a constant whiff of mint, but to have gone a day without a camera, being a local rather than a tourist. I had had a nice enough time in Porto but two days was enough and I was ready to leave, feeling I’d enjoy Lisbon more. I would miss the old ladies in local markets, but not the paparazzi in tourist hotspots.

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Part Four: Loyalty and Loneliness in Lisbon