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.

1073874_10153171824345495_1862413284_o

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.

208009_186880238024855_100001086392980_453641_1564736_n

 

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.

317126_10150810074855495_514372439_n

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.

Advertisements

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.

DSC_0007

DSC_0009

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.

DSC_0004
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.

*

If you would like to use this article as a reference while visiting Szeged, you can download it on the GPsMyCity app here.

 

Likes vs Lives: Hiking in “Heavenly” Hawaii

I recently read Into the Wild, the journalistic book by Jon Krakauer that discusses the life of Chris McCandless and his motivation to venture alone into the Alaskan interior with minimal supplies. After McCandless’s decomposed body was discovered in September 1992, some people labelled the 24-year-old American as an arrogant fool who should have been better prepared for the harsh conditions he would face; Krakauer attempts to explain the reasons McCandless chose to live off the land with little help. He defends the young man’s intentions but acknowledges his mistakes, stating that ultimately it was ignorance, not arrogance, that led to his death.

Reading this book made me think of people I’ve encountered while travelling who have also been inadequately prepared for their undertakings. I can put my hands up and say that, at the age of 19 on my first solo trip, I was one of them as I wore shorts whilst hiking up Whistler Mountain in the Canadian Rockies with its elevation of 2181 metres. Standing level with the clouds, a mid-40s hiker in appropriate gear asked if I was cold, and I knew even as I indignantly shook my head with shivering knees that I should have been more sensible. I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.

However it still shocks me when I see people older than me dressed inappropriately for certain activities and weathers, or attempting feats that are clearly far beyond their fitness level. The single biggest eye-opener was on the island of Kauai in Hawaii, when I and some friends hiked to Hanakapiai Falls in the Nā Pali Coast State Park. You may be thinking how this is a location far different to that of Alaska, but a large difference in temperature doesn’t mean this popular holiday destination is any less dangerous. In fact, the 11-mile trail that encompasses the particular hike I did is regarded as being in the top 10 of America’s most dangerous hikes.

The first two miles of the Kalalau trail along the Nā Pali Coast end at a river that flows into the ocean. As roaring waves thrashed against rocks, I was told by friends native to Kauai that this beach is renowned for the number of drownings that occur as visitors innocently go to the water’s edge, only to be smothered by a wave and swept away by the force of an overwhelming current. Across the river, a trail continues on for two further miles into the Hanakapiai Valley of mud, bamboo trees and rocky river crossings until it comes to the  91 metre-high waterfall where signs warn of falling rocks from the high cliff. If one gets in danger here, there is no mobile signal to call for help.

We set off on the trail at 7 a.m to avoid the tourist trap. Even at this time, the path was muddy and slippery. The rocks over the river glistened with slime. I like to think of myself as quite an experienced hiker – distance and elevation aren’t too big a deal for me – but this trail was definitely one of the most challenging ones I’ve done due to the natural elements it contained. (If you’re not convinced of this by the photos, that’s because my camera was tucked securely in my backpack during these tricky moments!)

DSCN0045 DSCN0042 DSCN0020 DSCN0026

Around midday on the way back we reached Hanakapiai river marking two miles left to go. By now the numbers on the trail had vamped up immensely and people were queuing to cross the river. The sights I saw here and on the last two miles were quite unsettling. I watched with my heart in my mouth as people carrying backpacks far too heavy to support their balance gingerly attempted to cross the river on the slippery rocks. I saw elderly people who could barely walk unaided attempting to climb steps smothered in greasy mud that concealed uneven tree roots. I encountered guys and girls warily descending steep paths drizzled with mud and scarred with skid-marks whilst wearing flimsy flip flops and brand new Nike Airs probably unwrapped from under the Christmas tree a few days earlier. Even at the most challenging times, hiking should be enjoyable. Very few of the inappropriately dressed people I saw looked like they were enjoying themselves.

DSCN0046 DSCN0054 DSCN0058 DSCN0064

 

Travel has become much more accessible thanks to the likes of of travel blogs and social media. Blogs tell us that “anyone can travel”, encouraging people to quit their day jobs for a life on the road. I think it’s excellent that more people are travelling, and it’s something I hope I myself can inspire in people who read my blog. Social media platforms such as Instagram enable travellers to give others instant access to their experiences. There are benefits to this; in particular, it lets friends and family at home know the traveller is safe. Ironically however, this promotion of travel-for-all and availability of instant access could also be creating a cult of irresponsible travel. In a world where ‘likes’ and retweets are perceived to be indicative of popularity and hence success, some people forget to prepare properly and take precaution when it comes to aspects of travel such as hiking.

I will happily be the first to acknowledge that I tend to upload a lot of travel photos onto Facebook and my blog. However this is done days, sometimes weeks after the photo has been taken and not as I am having the experience. This not only allows the traveller to make the most of the moment without staring at a screen, but can prevent them taking risks in the hopes of receiving a quick ‘like’ for their pretty selfie in front of a backdrop illustrating a daring adventure. Getting excited or feeling proud about one’s undertaking can cause an impulse to share the moment with the world, leading to spontaneous irrational choices. Posing with a selfie-stick on a narrow cliff edge in windy weather before a beautiful ocean view? Walking down a slippery and uneven rocky path towards a tranquil lake whilst staring at your phone choosing a flattering filter? Not a smart idea.

Any travel blogger who says they don’t want to impress people with their photos and stories is lying. What I and many travel bloggers can confidently say is that I am not wanting to impress with how I look in a photo, but with the scenery I am looking at. Social media tends to take the attention off the environment and onto how people look in the environment. This is turn puts a pressure on some people (mostly young girls) to look their best. Perceptions of what “looking your best” means on Instagram might not necessarily equate to suitable hiking attire.

Ultimately it’s up to people what they wear when hiking, but they must accept that they are responsible for their own welfare, and their choices will govern how easily and successfully they can do something. In some cases, one’s actions and choices can be selfish if, by putting themselves at risk through lack of preparation, they also put others near them at risk should they be needed to help them. Nobody should feel like they can’t travel, but everybody should know their limits.

In their attempts to promote a destination and perhaps receive a cheque or free perk in return, travel bloggers must be careful not to create unrealistic expectations of what one can do in an area. In glorifying locations as exotic paradises, they must remind readers of the fundamental practicalities of hiking, swimming and other general activities. Before starting a trail, people should have the right footwear; they should check weather forecasts; they should pack sensibly but lightly; they should know details about the trail; and they should be alert and aware of others whilst on the trail. Hawaii may be a heavenly escape of stunning beaches, palm trees, chilled music and luscious cocktails, but it also has the potential to bring hell on one’s trip if they do not prepare properly.

*

Tips for this hike can be found on this website

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy reading The Rise of Techno-Travellers

The Chiefly Outdoor Appeal of Squamish

Situated between the bustling city of Vancouver and the ski-haven of Whistler on the Sea to Sky Highway is the district of Squamish. Its name is approximate to the language of the First Nation people who were the original inhabitants of the valley since around 5000 years ago. Navy explorer George Vancouver encountered Howe Sound in 1792 during his expedition along the Pacific Coast, but the first European settlers arrived in 1888.

The district of Squamish spreads over various villages – Downtown, Dentville, Valleycliffe, North Yards, Garibaldi Estates. Whilst cafes and pubs will have their locals, I didn’t detect a huge sense of community around town. Perhaps the autumn season had dragged everyone into a slumber state, but it all felt a bit flat. This sense of detachment wasn’t helped by the unease of access to other villages without a car. Cabs cost around $15 or you can take local transit for $1.75 a ride. Without a car, options for getting out to Whistler and Vancouver are limited to coach services from Greyhound or Pacific Coach Lines. A journey to Whistler takes 40 minutes.

Many people live in Squamish and commute to work in Vancouver which is 68km (1 hour) away to avoid the higher rent prices, but housing availability is falling here. Residents are also concerned by the lack of available jobs which is an additional contributor towards forcing people to leave. Squamish previously had a large logging industry which eroded after closure of the pulp mill. My Air BnB host appeared to be one of the luckier residents in financial terms, having a job as an estate agent in town.  There is definitely hope for more investment in public infrastructure to help create more jobs and reduce the gap between high and low wage-earners. The Liberal Party’s promise of $125 in funding towards infrastructure development certainly appealed to voters here, the majority of whom chose Pam Goldsmith-Jones as their MP in the October 2015 federal election.

As a consequence perhaps of the lack  of material industries, tourism is now the main source of income for the local economy. Squamish is considered to be the outdoor recreation capital of Canada. The opportunities for climbing, hiking, mountain biking, triathlon and windsports are aplenty and are celebrated during the summer months through various festivals such as the ‘Test of Metal’ bike race. A music festival is also held in August which featured the likes of Drake in 2015.

There are eight provincial parks in Squamish, one of which is the Stawamus Chief park popular with climbers for its challenging granite rock cliff-faces. One of the largest granite monoliths in the world, hikers can tackle the ~5km return hike up to the three peaks of the Chief, which takes roughly 4 – 5 hours to complete depending on your fitness level and how many peaks you target. The trail leads you on a steep ascent of around 600m elevation gain that involves stairs, ladders and rope/chain-assist sections. It will be worth the aching thighs when you reach the top of the fir tree-dotted dome and are greeted by wonderful views of glistening Howe Sound and surrounding snow-capped peaks.

DSC_0274

DSC_0275

DSC_0282

Less aesthetically pleasing is the view of the tired-looking town below. It’s almost as if a jumble of characterless box buildings have been squashed hurriedly amidst great scenery, and they look quite out of place surrounded by such mighty natural superiors. (The photo below was one of the more flattering shots!)

DSC_0288

 

Expect wobbly knees on the way back down the trail and near the bottom, take a detour off to the left towards Shannon Falls Provincial Park for views of the pretty waterfall there.

DSC_0293

Experiences like the Chief hike certainly help point a traveller’s compass in the direction of Squamish. Whilst often overlooked by young tourists in favour of the commercial zeal and party-town feel of Vancouver and Whistler, there is something appealing about the modest urban development of Squamish, as this simply helps emphasise the range of outdoor activities available from the surrounding geographic features. The Squamish landscape has been featured in films such as Free Willy and Happy Gilmore. It’s easy to understand why people choose to live here – for the distance from its loud neighbours and the comparative quietness, and for the access to fresh, scenic outdoor areas and a subsequent healthy lifestyle. It’s therefore easy to understand why rising house prices and decreasing job opportunities are such a concern for residents.

A huge congregation of bald eagles roam Squamish between November and January. If wining and dining is your thing (and you have a designated driver for the evening!) there are also a few varied restaurants to choose from as well as pubs brewing local craft beers. Otherwise, autumn is perhaps not the best time to visit should you want to get a lot of outdoor activity out of Squamish. I look forward to returning one day in the summer when there is more of an energetic buzz around the place and warmer weather for getting out and about.

 

 

 

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.

DSC_0140DSC_0144

DSC_0094DSC_0108DSC_0113

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.

DSC_0121DSC_0122DSC_0125

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.

DSC_0116

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.

DSC_0178

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.

DSC_0191

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: Loyalty and Loneliness in Lisbon

My third morning in Portugal saw me heading to Lisbon, with a single bus ticket costing 19Euros. In the early hours of the morning I quietly stuffed clothes into my bag, praying that the zip wouldn’t break under pressure. I had my bus ticket in my camera bag, so at least I wouldn’t have to open this one for a few more hours…

Even though I had walked past it previously, I still found myself getting lost on the way to Redo Expresso bus station. On a street corner I dropped my bags to the floor and reluctantly re-opened my bag to rummage around for my map, pulling out clothes creased with a frown that seemed to say ‘I was just getting comfortable’. Out spilled my toiletries from the plastic bag used for the airport screening, the bristles of my toothbrush just happening to land on the dirty floor. I quickly clarified where I was and, hearing footsteps approaching, precariously shoved my things back inside the bag. It was 7.30 in the morning and on this empty street, I probably should have been more careful not to expose my luggage like that.

Inside the bus station a scruffy man loitered between waiting passengers asking for money and occasionally yelling out bus numbers. I noticed a tall skinny blonde girl on my left with a large suitcase also avoiding his unsettling gaze. Looking down as he approached again, I noticed I still had toothpaste on my legs from having applied it to defend me against midges in the night. Whoops. A darker girl eating a pastry then joined the blonde and asked if I knew the ETA for Lisbon. I followed them onto the bus and they happened to sit down adjacent to my reserved seat, only my window space was taken up by a sleeping lady who scowled at me when I attempted to explain. I quickly realised I wasn’t going to get far so I sat down next to the aisle with her bum sticking into my right thigh and buckled up. It soon emerged that I was the only one wearing my seatbelt. As we zoomed along the motorway, passengers would walk up to the driver to ask him something without any repercussions. A sharp contrast from transport rules in England!

I got talking to the girls next to me. One was from Croatia and the blonde was a Hungarian called Virág. “It means ‘flower’ in English,” she proudly told me. They had been participating in a student exchange program in Porto and were bewildered when I said I was travelling alone (“aren’t you scared?”) Virág would be alone in Lisbon until Monday and was keen to go sightseeing together.

I always find it a little strange when I meet people travelling who want to buddy-up. If friends from home ask if I get lonely when travelling, I often say that it’s easy to meet people, and yet when I do I’m sometimes reluctant to spend time with them, having got comfortable with my own plans and company. Sometimes just 15 minutes of chatter is enough to satisfy a desire for conversation. Nevertheless as we headed towards the metro station, I swapped numbers with the Hungarian girl, but with neither of us having Portuguese sim cards and hence being unable to call each other, we simply set a time and place to meet in Baixo.

Outside Jardim Zoológico station we were accosted by a lady who pointed at her daughter in a pram and held out her hand for money. I’ve seen homeless people in London use dogs as an incentive to give them money, but never a child. There would be further sights of poverty on the metro as disfigured men walked through carriages asking for money. I would later be told by a Lisbon-expert that such facial damage is sometimes be created intentionally for begging purposes.

A green ‘Viva Viagem’ card costs 50 cents and you can top up accordingly for where you need to travel to, with a single journey costing 1.40. Leaving the Baixa-Chiado metro station, I was overwhelmed by the rush of people and the midday heat. Porto had been quieter and simpler in terms of navigation, but here I had no idea where to begin. I paid 3Euros for a map from a vendor who pointed me in the direction of Alfama, where my hostel was. He told me it would take an hour to walk there. I just wanted to throw my luggage somewhere and chill out for a while, but the mere thought of walking in this heat and through these crowds was exhausting on its own.

124

I wandered down streets with boutiques and high-fashion stores towards the Praça do Comércio, the statue of King José I overlooking the Rio Tejo. The bright sun reflected off the gravelly ground and my head began to feel heavy from the heat. It had only been 10 minutes of walking, but that was enough for me to know that I really didn’t feel up to walking around sightseeing today. However I was unable to get through to Virág, and I wasn’t convinced she had given me the correct number in the first place for me to try texting her. By the time I would reach my hostel to dump my bag and rest in the shade for a bit, it seemed that getting back to meet her on time would be difficult.

So there I was in this odd and unexpected situation of feeling a sense of loyalty to someone, of having to think about someone else. The only other time this had been the case was when I was travelling with a boyfriend whose welfare I naturally wanted to consider. But this was a person who I had only just met. I felt conflicted in that part of me wanted to be alone, yet I almost felt a sense of duty to hang out with this stranger, especially following our spontaneous plan to meet.

With my battery running low but having failed to get through to Virág, I hesitantly turned off my phone. A Yellow Bus Tours kiosk near to where I was sat on a stone stool downing all the water I had left was advertising a boat tour on the river. This seemed like a great way to see the city without having to walk around, and I told myself that I would regret not filling my time with some sort of passive activity. I paid 16Euros for the tour and asked the helpful girl for more recommendations of what to see before joining the queue. Virág had seemed slightly wary of walking around alone and I felt terrible when I glanced at my watch on board the boat at 3 p.m., imagining her standing outside the station waiting for me. But I told myself that this experience would be good for her, and reminded myself that I was here to see Lisbon, not keep people company who I didn’t know and might not even have much in common with. Making friends would just be a bonus of the trip.

The 90 minute boat tour itself was pleasant enough. We passed Cacilhas in the municipality of Almada opposite Lisbon before sailing underneath the Ponte 25 de Abril which seems to represent a European version of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fran. Built in 1966, the name of the suspension bridge refers to the Carnation Revolution of 1974, with this date being celebrated yearly as ‘Freedom Day’ from the fascist dictatorship of  Estado Novo (New State). To our left stood the Cristo Rei (Christ the King), embracing Lisbon with open arms in a pose similar to that seen on the monument in Rio de Janeiro. This was inaugurated in 1959 to commemorate Portugal’s promise not to participate in the Second World War, the pose being intended to express gratitude for the subsequent lack of hardship borne on the nation. With the famous fado music being played in the background, the tour commentary then drew our attention to the Torre de Belém on our right, which was built in the 16th Century as a base for defending Lisbon from foreign attacks. The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) is an impressive monument erected in 1960 to celebrate Portugal’s imperial expansion during the 15th Century.

130 132 135 138

With a better idea of Lisbon and it’s history (and some fresh river breeze) inside me, I was re-energised and ready to find my hostel in Alfama. The man who had suggested it would take an hour’s walk couldn’t have been more wrong. I hoped he just had a terrible sense of time and direction and it wasn’t because he had looked at me and assumed I was too weak to walk at a good pace! Walking up Rua da Madalena in this Old Town area of the city was the moment when I began to develop an attraction towards Lisbon. Life became a constant scene of steep cobbled streets with the pretty tiles on the houses like those in Porto – only prettier and radiating more warmth because of the extra sun – with trams clanging and tuk tuks whizzing past.

147

My map led me past Igreja Sta Luzia where I was distracted by the sight of three women putting finishing touches to a mural of blue and white tiles. Behind a pool of water was a lookout point with purple flowers dangling down from the pillars. White houses with orange roofs and rising Church steeples sat gathered before the shimmering blue of the river. Further up, the lookout from the Igreja St Tiago was even more rewarding. Before coming to Portugal, I had envisioned a large reddish-brown wooden door surrounded by pretty paintwork and lush flowers. Now I had found that image. Here was what I regarded as quintessential Portugal, and it was lovely. I surveyed the nearby tourists for who looked to be the most reliable photographer, but even she didn’t seem to get what elements were needed to make it a good photo. Once again I was reminded of a key downside of solo travel.

141 142 145

150153

159

 

Carrying on up the Rua de St. Tome, the postcard-perfect views continued. I eventually managed to drag myself away and found the road that led to my hostel, passing a salsa bar on the corner with a red mini parked outside. Alfama Patio Hostel – what a place! My impression of Lisbon continued to grow. Dumping my stuff in my dorm, I changed into sandals and went in search of an ATM, tempted by the receptionist’s talk of a BBQ. Map-less, I walked along the street past more gorgeous houses with old men sat on the tables outside smoking wistfully. Tuk tuks would appear out of nowhere, charging up the narrow streets but in a way that was entertaining rather than off-putting. I walked up a street towards the famous Castelo de São Jorge and dropped some cents in the tin of a small lady playing the accordion. Further up a group of tanned, long-haired guys and girls in their mid-twenties attracted a large crowd with their music. I ignored the men bothering people with sales of selfie-sticks and continued my hunt for an ATM.

166 164 156171 11053350_10156099506290495_1445945638224754788_o

Walking back, a solo guitarist played outside a restaurant on the corner and I experienced a brief longing for a romantic date. A mini-mercado sold iced tea and orange biscuits and I sat slurping away on a bench at one of the viewpoints next to a hunky French guy with a man-bun smoking a roll-up and tapping his feet to Bob Marley’s ‘Concrete Jungle’ playing in a restaurant below. Later on on the viewing ledge opposite young boys would start break-dancing. This area and the view around was infectious, one of those places where it didn’t matter if you were alone and not doing anything specific – you could just sit and get lost in your thoughts.

Back at the hostel I got chatting to an an older German lady on the patio who recommended that I see Belém, before she left to meet a friend. People then started arriving from the sister-hostels for this barbecue. I wanted to at least have become acquainted with someone else who was going before heading down to join, but the Swiss girls in my dorm were pretty cliquey and it was difficult to make conversation. I looked out of my open window at the increasing mass of people, trying to psych myself up. ‘I’ll go down in 10 minutes,’ I would tell myself, but I kept adding time on as I began to feel more and more shy. I climbed up to my bunk, unsure what to do. My stomach began to rumble and I ended up opening my pack of biscuits and remaining in the dorm all evening, too shy to go downstairs to a party and introduce myself to an English-speaking crowd. ‘This is pathetic, what’s wrong with you?’ I thought. I had flashbacks to my first solo trip, hesitantly going down to the hostel kitchen in Toronto and daring myself to make conversation with an Aussie guy. I had come so far since that point four years ago, and now I seemed to have regressed. But something put me off joining the party and I instead opted to feel lonely, with only a 1Euro pack of biscuits for comfort.

Out of desperation I turned on my phone, as if hoping it would provide me with some sort of company. Normally I hate using social media whilst travelling but I was craving contact from someone, anyone! A text message with a new number flashed up. It was Virág from earlier, asking where I was. I felt awful and relieved at the same time, instinctively texting back to explain myself. Suddenly the idea of being alone in Lisbon for the next two days didn’t appeal. I had been reading my guidebook for ideas of what to do whilst here and proposed that we spend the next day together in Sintra. We agreed a time and location and my optimism increased. My outlook had changed and I was now looking forward to getting to know someone new, and getting to know a new place with them.

The party continued all night. It was a Friday evening and I knew I couldn’t expect much less. But as much as I struggled to fall asleep, I felt better for having a plan for the next day, and for now having what would soon become great company. Now when I reflect back on how things turned out, I’m glad that I was a social wimp and sad loner on that evening…

*

Read how the next day went in Opening Eyes and Ears in Sintra

 

Would you like to access this article during your trip? Thanks to GPSMyCity, you can download this article and find all the areas I’ve mentioned pin-pointed on a map. Click here!

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.

*

Part Four: Loyalty and Loneliness in Lisbon