The Test of Time

How does one assess how they’ve ‘improved’ as a traveller?

Three years ago as I was getting ready for my first solo trip to Canada, I was both excitedly and anxiously curious about the places I would see and people I would meet, with no idea what to expect. I packed and repacked my backpack, stressing about being able to fit everything in. Upon landing in Toronto I had a swarm of butterflies in my stomach as I fluttered around the airport in a daze of confusion. Relief came when a man from a bus company approached asking if I was looking for a way to get downtown. I sat upright staring out of the window the whole way with a beating in my chest, too nervous to make conversation with anyone else. When I got off the bus in the city I had little idea of where I was or where to start, asking a girl who looked my age for directions with a squeaky voice. I had to spend five minutes psyching myself up to approach a group of people who were cooking dinner in my hostel.

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On the ferry to Vancouver Island, August 2011

Then, three years later in July I went back to Canada and the feelings were very different from the first time. Excitement was there, but of a different kind. There was no real sense of wonder about what it would be like; I was simply returning to what felt like a second home. I was like a child returning to my usual sweet shop on the corner to buy my usual treat, knowing that it would be there and I would enjoy it. Packing took little time and I glanced over my backpack like a protective parent less frequently. Gone were the butterflies as I strode through Vancouver airport’s arrival lounge. I still wasn’t sure exactly where I was going to get to my final destination, but it didn’t worry me like it would have previously. I calmly followed signs to the trains and confidently asked people questions when necessary. I then boarded a bus and sat back in my seat relaxed, exchanging smiles with an old man when I heard him make a joke to someone. I bought a ticket for the ferry to Vancouver Island and initiated a conversation with an older man and woman. It was only when I arrived at my final destination that the excitement really vamped up. On that first evening back in Canada, I felt immensely proud of how far I had come since my first travel experience alone.

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A boat trip around the island,  July 2014

So much assessment of a person is carried out using academic testing – systems based on objective, quantitative scoring. The education system in England and many other countries means that one only adopts a belief that they are improving at a subject if they receive an improved numerical score for an examination.  Even if someone feels they are understanding a topic easier, receiving a low or average score dents their self-belief. Students are pushed into a system where learning is about passing exams rather than developing a wider intelligence that can be applied to everyday life. However, some of those students who consistently receive the highest marks will have little confidence outside of the classroom in a new social environment. Their grades say little about their personal human development as a whole.

The numerical system of assessment doesn’t have to be used with travelling. There is no test to pass in order to impress anyone nor checklist to complete for someone else to approve,  but simply an experience for one to evaluate for themselves qualitatively. Real-life events allow one to see how far they have developed not as an academic in one specific intellectual sphere, but as a person in general. If a mistake is made, such as getting lost on a map or being conned by someone, there need to be less stress about the repercussions it will have on one’s future career – it is simply a useful life lesson. There is no rush to become better at travelling within a short time period, unlike the pressure a student can face to understand algebra or the Second World War in two weeks’ time. Travel really is one of the most independent, most effective, most fulfilling and most enjoyable forms of learning.

When I returned to Canada, my confidence and ability to travel alone had increased over the past three years not from three years of studying for a degree in London, but from the summers throughout this time when I went travelling. These were the times when the biggest tests were asked of me: the ability to organise myself; communicate with others effectively; cope with difficult situations; be decisive and use initiative; be constantly physically active and mentally alert. No longer were these tests being asked of me in the classroom, but in the real world. And one of the best ways to assess how I had grown as a traveller was to return to the place where it all began and compare the emotions felt. Of all the exams that I have taken on the way to completing my entire education and therefore preparing to enter the real world permanently, travelling has been my favourite and most valuable test.

 

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Souvenirs and Sentimentality

One day as I  went to leave my flat for a class during my second year of univesity, I went to spritz myself with some body spray, but nothing came out of the can. I shook it and pressed down harder on the releaser, but there was no sound of jolting liquid from inside; instead all I heard was a pathetic gasp of empty air. I unwillingly put the can back down, feeling a brief sense of glum. I had other deodorants and perfumes that I could use, but for some reason I still left feeling incomplete, as if I’d lost something.

Then a week later, my watch stopped working. At face value it’s not a particularly special watch of huge monetary worth – a black leather strap wearing away on the inside, its face with its lightly scratched surface surrounded by a golden rim smudged with fingerprints. Most people wouldn’t look twice at it, probably thinking it was a piece of junk. I didn’t even wear it in or outside the flat and hardly even used it to check the time, using items of technology such as my phone or laptop instead. And yet just having it around provided a sense of comfort, so that when I no longer heard its faint clicking and instead saw its hand twitching weakly, I felt a pang inside.

Why was it that I was so moved by these items losing their function? They seemed so insignificant. Financially they were of minute value. But their sentimental worth was huge.

I found the watch when I was in Australia, having met up with my sister for a road trip up the East Coast. We spent a night in a hostel in Byron Bay, where it was attached to the base of the bed above me. For some reason it really caught my interest, and I lay in bed just looking at it. I knew that it had probably been left there unintentionally, and that I should probably give it into reception in case someone returned for it. But another part of me wondered if it had been left there on purpose, as a ‘gift’ from one traveller to another. In the end, I took it with me. At first I felt quite bad for proclaiming it as my own – had I not technically just stolen something? But I later came to believe that I really had been meant to take it.

A few months later I was in Canada, on my first proper solo backpacking trip, with the watch strapped securely to my left wrist. On my first full day I went to see Niagara Falls. As a girl used to the countryside over the city, my arrival in Toronto had been pretty overwhelming and I was still not quite at ease with the whole ‘going-it-alone’ process. On the bus back, we passed a sprawling lawn decorated with a flowerbed cultivated into the words ‘School of Horticulture’. The words rang a bell but I wasn’t sure why. I absent-mindedly looked at ‘my’ watch to check the time, only to fully comprehend what the tiny writing on its face said: ‘Niagara Parks Commission –  School of Horticulture’.

Excitement shot up inside me. It was a bit like the feeling you get when you finally crack the answer to a difficult question – it’s often at a time when you aren’t really thinking about it and instead the answer suddenly comes to you just like that, causing a feeling of accomplishment and disbelief. Despite the seemingly obvious word ‘Niagara’ (and image of a maple leaf), never before had I associated the watch with Canada. The overly-imaginative girl inside me began to believe it was a sign; the watch had indeed been left for me and I’d been destined to come here all along, to continue the journey that its previous owner had begun, and perhaps other owners before him/her. I didn’t want to accept the high possibility that it had just been pure coincidence. Before arriving I’d had doubts about my reasoning and ability to travel alone, but now my trip seemed to have a greater purpose, and any doubts were washed away, all thanks to a boring old watch.

The story behind the body spray isn’t as memorable. I bought it in a ‘Canada Drugs’ store a few weeks into the trip, simply because (I was increasingly conscious of my lack of showering and) it was cheap, to the extent in fact that it was almost tacky (‘Mystical – Our Version of Fantasy Britney Spears’) But it had a nice smell – like candyfloss. Whenever its fragrance filled the air after returning home, the fumes would transform my mind back to little moments from the trip where the aroma had been present: moments of joy and excitement; friendship and romance; sadness and frustration. It seems pretty fascinating, when you think about it, how powerful this sense can be for stimulating certain emotions.

From that trip onwards, the watch went on to become for me that special ‘thing’ that many people have and always treasure. It’s normally a cuddly toy that one can snuggle with for comfort or childhood nostalgia, a special stone that acts as someone’s lucky charm, a poem written by a loved one, or a piece of jewellery passed down through a family generation. But for me, it was a plain old watch – an item that only I as the owner could understand the personal significance of. The watch is often a feature in my travel photos, yet few will probably pay much attention to it, viewing it as having only a practical purpose. But it’s the personal experiences surrounding such random objects that make them so special and worth holding onto. They are a gateway to a meadow of memories.

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It’s fair to say I can get a bit OCD about collecting souvenirs though. And by ‘souvenirs’ I don’t mean t-shirts or mugs bought from a shop at the airport, baring the country’s flag. When I returned home from Canada and reluctantly began unpacking, jumbled together in a plastic bag at the bottom of my bag was a bunch of travel tickets and scrunched-up receipts from certain Canadian shops; dog-eared tour brochures and ripped maps; scraps of paper on which I’d written notes of bus times or the name of a musician I’d heard; pebbles and flattened grass stalks; wrappers and labels from confectionary and drinks specific to that country. I knew it looked slightly OTT, and yet when I discovered later that one of the chocolate wrappers had been put in my bin (mother!) I rushed over in horror to remove it and place it delicately in a box that would later become devoted to travel souvenirs, as if returning an abandoned baby to its cot. Some might say this is the behaviour of a person with worryingly excellent stalking potential, but fresh from the trip I was just so desperate to cling onto every memory.  Each random item took me back to experiences that I wanted to remember, either because they made me feel proud, happy, amused or curious.

Now I’m a little more relaxed when it comes to my souvenir-hoarding, by that meaning I’ve removed the presence of food-related memoirs (mainly because it just makes you crave something you can’t access in your own country). But I stand by the other assortments, curious as to whether, looking through them again in 40 years, they would spark a recollection of some personal event or emotion. I think on the whole, the weirder one’s collection of souvenirs, the more interesting stories they have to tell. It’s fair enough for someone to return home with a load of expensive items from Duty Free, or famous gifts from the Tourist Office shop, but it’s unlikely that these items will provide a special memory of a place. Furthermore, everyone can take a photo of one famous amazing site, but photographs alone can’t necessarily remind one of a unique memory related to it.

You might be wondering how I managed to keep a 75ml can of body spray going for two and a half years. I think that sub-consciously  I was conserving it, not wanting to finish it because that would mean the ending of a tie to certain memories. And so when there was nothing left in that can it was briefly a sad moment, because it appeared to reflect the loss of a link. Likewise, seeing the watch sit silent seemed to signal the end of something, as if a chapter had been closed. Canada was the story I’d been forced to stop reading early because an upcoming degree required other commitments,  and I was reluctant to forget the storyline and the characters completely. The spritzes of spray in the months after acted as a reminder; snippets from the plot I’d immersed myself in. Whilst I had fantastic stories to tell from countries elsewhere afterwards, Canada continued to top the list for the book I found hardest to put down. Now that the scent would no longer hover through the air and the watch no longer tick along, it was as if there were no more words to read –  it was time to accept that, two and a half years on, the trip was officially in the past and no longer a new, glossy book on my memory shelf.

Of course, this doesn’t at all mean that the memories are gone forever. But when one places so much sentimental value on an object, it is easy to feel that a connection to an experience has been weakened in some way. Some people might think trying to maintain strong attachments to travel memories through the form of objects is lame. But what’s wrong with trying to retain a nostalgic association, if the experience really meant something to you? I don’t think people should feel embarrassed about holding onto certain mementoes from a trip because they might seem pointless, unfashionable or weird to others. At the end of the day, it was your personal experience and only you can understand the sentimental worth of something.  Hold on to anything that made you feel anything, because then in later years you at least give yourself a chance to reflect and remember.

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Relevant links: Souvenir Finder

One Girl with a Backpack: Sexism and Travel

2013 was a huge year for sexism and feminism, mainly because of its presentation in the media. The release of ‘Blurred Lines’ caused uproar for its theme of distinguishing between sexual consent and rape, while Rihanna and Miley Cyrus shocked us with their provocative gestures. The issue of sexism suddenly seemed to be all around, with people blaming the predatory demands of males.  What concerned me most about it all was not so much the crude, perverted manner of the men in these videos  – which, in truth, is a feature of the music industry that we’ve been accustomed to for many years now – but rather the extent to which these particular videos illustrated how the presence of sexism is in fact facilitated by its acceptance by women, in the form of their behaviour. Gross as the ‘Blurred Lines’ video was, one has to remember that the ladies prancing around naked agreed to feature in such a degrading production.

Recently, a 25 year old woman was slated on Twitter for selling a story to ‘The Sun’ about her ‘stingy’ date with the Manchester United footballer, Adnan Januzaj. I agreed that it was the female who deserved the criticism, not so much in relation to the details of the story itself, but to the fact that this modern woman was so desperate to be famous, that she felt she must contact a famous football player via a social networking site, only to go and tell all (complete with sexy photoshoot of course) to a cheap tabloid newspaper afterwards, so that she could become known around Britain. Did she really believe this attack on the behaviour of a rich man was an admirable act of feminism?

Women have been encouraged to believe that a celebrity status is the highest of all. Forget entering a profession, establishing their own business, conducting academic research, or working for the government; many young women would rather allow their work ethic to drop in favour of finding money and ‘success’ through appearing as a sex object in the media. In the process of tailoring their behaviour towards only the sexual interests of men, they subsequently allow all respect for their intelligence and moral integrity to be lost. Women are guilty of helping sexism exist in society by a lack of ambition to use their brains, whether in an academic or vocational environment, choosing instead to express their values through their bodies.

I found myself associating this topic with the issue of travelling solely as a woman, regarding debates about how suited the female gender is to this. It can be argued that in travel also, sexism is reinforced strongly by the views of women, or institutions representing them. Travelling alone is still regarded as a predominantly male activity, with the implications being that this biological sex has a superior gift for finding its own way around foreign lands. The concept of a lone female rural backpacker is incomprehensible to some. Realistically, most people would probably scoff at the depiction of a female recluse in ‘Into the Wild’. Some travel sites still seem hold an idea that all female travellers want luxurious hotel resorts complete with swimming pools, and to pay for tour reps or travel guides rather than find their own way around with a map, just because of their sex. Many people question how ‘safe’ it is for women to travel alone, their beliefs being stimulated by newspaper reports on ‘horrific attacks’ abroad, forgetting that men are also often victims of such crimes.

I remember once when I was in primary school, my teacher told us about the murder of Caroline Stuttle, a British female backpacker in Australia. She had studied at college with my sister. And yet less than ten years later, I was doing the same, also at 19, but alone. Was I not scared? At first yes, a little, but this was more along the lines of getting lost and meeting nobody. I feared more that I wouldn’t be able to ‘do’ it successfully on my own and would subsequently have a terrible experience, rather than for my life. Similarly in summer 2012, I watched the film ‘Taken’, where two young American girls are abducted by human traffickers in France. A month later I went travelling around Germany for three weeks, alone. Some remarked on how ‘weird’ this was – was I not put off by the prospect of something similar happening to me?

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The answer was: no. I knew that if I let such fears dominate my thinking, I wouldn’t do anything exciting in life. People who base their life choices on what they read or see in the media are simply depriving themselves. Risks to safety exist everywhere. There would be nothing to stop me being randomly attacked in the UK, never mind in Australia or anywhere else.  Of course some women will get attacked abroad and many of these attacks will be unprovoked. But there will also be cases of assault where the behaviour of the woman will have stimulated the crime, and this is a fact that should not be neglected. Whilst being a foreigner might make one appear a more vulnerable target, it is possible, believe it or not, for a woman to look after herself and reduce the likelihood of such events occurring, through her behaviour.

Ultimately, one has to act responsibly. That means you don’t take up an offer of a taxi by a random stranger and tell him your private address, as happens in ‘Taken’. And if you’re going out with people you’ve recently just met to a bar, from where you’ll have to find your way back alone, you don’t wear a revealing top and get drunk. As long as they act with a little extra precaution, there is absolutely no reason why women cannot travel alone and remain free from any trouble.

Sexist beliefs about the inability of women to travel alone safely are not simply created and maintained by males only, charming as a Spanish guy calling me ‘crazy’ was. It is in fact females who succumb to such attitudes and let them persist, through their expectations of how women should spend their time. I’ll never forget the Canadian lady who looked at me as if I had two heads when she found out I was 19, exclaiming, “But you’re so young?” I looked at her blankly, wanting to respond with, “Your point being?” The concern was almost insulting; this idea that I was breaking the accepted ‘rules’ of female travel, and not normal for doing so. Compared to what some people have to go through at a much younger age, what I was doing seemed like nothing. Then there was the Spanish lady in Iceland who said, “Ah well, why wait around for other people?” not comprehending that I may have actually wanted to travel by myself.

At first, having people remark on how ‘brave’ I was to travel alone made me glow with pride. Now I find myself feeling slightly concerned that it is such a big issue to some people. Despite us being in the 21st century, there remains a strong belief that females not only cannot, but should not want to manage in another country on their own, just because occasional news reports suggest it’s too dangerous for them. Are we as women really going to let such accounts restrict us to the kitchen, while our male peers are allowed to go meet other travellers to get smashed and act like animals in Thailand?

I am not going to pretend that I’m a completely fearless Wonder Woman; there are of course many places in the world where I would not travel alone, knowing that realistically, a blonde girl would be a victim of unrelenting attention. Likewise, I don’t travel alone to prove a point to anyone else – it’s just become such a personal passion of mine that I don’t see having company as a necessity. But I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a slight feeling of smugness when I noticed a man watch me with impressed surprise as I walked past him confidently, bag on back, map in hand.

One is more likely to earn respect from the opposite sex when they show that their behaviour is inspired by an independent mindset, rather than directed by those of others that come in the form of sexual attitudes of some men, or pessimistic views about the sense in female travel. Such pandering to male desires  and media clichés only makes a mockery of feminism as a plausible concept. If women allow rumours and stereotypes to deter them from striving towards an open civil position or experience, they have only lent support to such irrational, archaic views.  Self-determining ambition is a broad means for females to challenge sexism and travelling alone is just one of the ways it can be demonstrated.

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Related articles:

http://www.forbes.com/sites/elisadoucette/2013/02/07/sarai-sierra-emphasizes-that-women-need-to-keep-traveling/

Travel excuses

8 Questions Women are asked when Travelling Solo

Travel & New Year’s Resolutions

I’ve been studying in London for almost three years. The more that I’ve gone home or gone travelling in this time, the more I’ve realised how life in London is so rigid. Every day I walk the same route to university, or the library, and every day I see the same scenes: businessmen in suits storming along the pavements, phone pressed to their ear, frowning with impatience as they deliver an order to someone whilst frantically waving their arms at a taxi; women in pencil skirts and high heels gossiping with their co-workers about that lady who works on reception, Starbucks lattes in hand, handbags perched on their lower arms pretentiously. Their lives seem so ordered – everyday they must go through this same routine. Some of my friends aspire to have this lifestyle when they graduate. They want the smart work clothes and the City jobs. But to me it just epitomises stress and restriction – something I don’t want to feel on graduating from university at the age of 22. Yes, it may also involve lots of money, but are these people actually happy? Are they content with the thought that this same daily routine may be their life for the next 30 years or more?

One day, I decided to walk home a different route from the library. It took a little longer than my normal route, but in doing so I discovered different sights and sounds, and that made it worth it. There were fewer people in suits and ties shouting down phones, fewer taxi beeps and red buses, no men outside tube stations trying to hand me leaflets I didn’t want. Instead I walked along quiet cobbled streets past quaint little private wine bars playing music, my route decorated with planted shrubs and couples walking hand in hand. It was a refreshing change. ‘Why be boring and go the normal route as always?’ I thought. The walk reinforced my idea that after university, there is no essential need to follow one path. Instead, one can be spontaneous, find a starting project, and go from there, seeing where it takes them. There are so many options, so why not start exploring them?

A key motive of this mindset of mine comes from my time in Iceland. My night in Selfoss was the last I’d have on my own before staying with a host in Reykjavík for a week. My plan the next day was to head back to Reykjavík and spend the day wondering around before going to meet my host. I could go visit a few of the museums I hadn’t been to, and maybe check my emails for the first time since arriving, in case someone had contacted me about something important. It seemed like the sensible thing to do.

In the morning I woke early to catch my 8.30 bus, dressing in jeans and normal trainers. The sun was out again. It was a shame my plans for the day involved being inside. I sat down on the kerb near the bus stop, leaning my weight on my backpack, and going over what I’d done so far whilst here. It seemed like a lot for four days – national parks, whale-watching, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes. I hadn’t been to all of the key areas, but the list seemed decent enough.

Suddenly a bus arrived around the corner. It was headed to Landmannalaugar, a place I hadn’t seen but had heard lots about. A couple next to me walked over to it with their backpacks. I watched them go, feeling curious. In my jeans pocket was my dog-eared bus passport. I’d paid a lot of money for it, and it hadn’t been completely used up. Landmannalaugar was one of its valid destinations. I sat upright and looked over at the bus again. The driver was stood outside, resting his head against the side in the direction of the sun, eyes closed. I was tempted to go, and there didn’t seem to be any reason not to, especially not financial. ‘But you already decided you’d go back to Reykjavik, and you’re not dressed for hiking,’ a voice in my head said. I slouched down again.

Then I thought about my plans for the day. Did I really want to be in an urban area, when I could be outside in a rural landscape? Was I really bothered if anyone had contacted me? Did I really want to wonder around a museum when I could do this anytime in London? I imagined my dad watching me now, and how boring he’d think I was. So I got on my feet, picked up my backpack and walked over to the bus. As I buckled my seatbelt and the bus got moving in the opposite direction to which I’d originally intended, I felt an almost rebellious sense of excitement.

The journey to Landmannalaugar takes a few hours. Most of that seems to be spent driving over gravel tracks as you get further into mountain terrain. You’ll pass the proud Mt. Hekla at one point. The ‘thud thud bang’ of the bus as it manoeuvres over the rocky surface, jolting you upwards every now and then, makes you feel like you’re making your way over a minefield. It’s amazing that the tyres don’t get punctured. Every so often you’ll think they have when the bus pauses, and for a second you’ll fear that you’re stranded. But fear not – it’s just the bus pulling over for another vehicle, and you’ll see the other driver looking nervous and sucking in their cheeks as if trying to create extra space on the thin tracks. The views will be quite unexciting for a while, as the bus twists it ways slowly around corners and up steep hills. Reading my guidebook to get some inspiration for something to do in my three hours, I soon felt queasy from the constant jolts and turns.

Then just as it feels like your head is forever going to be filled with the sounds of squeaks and rattles, and dusty gravel is all you’ll see for the rest of your life, a wave of soft green rises up into view. On your right you’ll see the idyllic sight of Lake Frostastaðavatn. Its calm face is lined with faint wrinkles and around it, conditioned by the air’s freshness, lie layers of soft brown tones of hair, primped by bounces from its natural character. From here the bus winds its way along twisty paths and splurges through a river crossing to take you to the campsite. People on the bus start collecting their hiking sticks and supplies together, as Landmannalaugar is the starting base for the 55km Laugavegur hiking trail to Pórsmörk.

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I got off the bus with no plan, but as I went to fetch my walking boots and another hoody from my backpack, the lack of organisation felt strangely nice. There was a tall mountain in view, and so I made my way there. Bláhnúkur mountain is 940m high, and very dusty. As I started my ascent I felt a bit like the bus, pulling over cautiously to let those coming down pass. It was so windy, but you have to keep looking down at your feet to make sure you don’t slip. I stopped halfway up the mountain, thinking I might go blind if I headed any higher. The views are wonderful. Lava fields lie in front of an patch-worked array of pastel-coloured mountains, tinged with soft greens and browns that run so smoothly like oil on a painting. The scenery here was a big contrast from most other places I’d seen in Iceland, evoking warmth and tenderness rather than cold wildness.

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As I stood gazing at the views, amongst rubbing my eyes free of dust, a girl my age came up behind me, and we got chatting. She was French, and this was her first time travelling alone. We ended up spending the remaining hour and a half together, walking over to the hot springs where people bathed lazily, as sheep grazed around them. She was the first person I’d met on the trip who I’d actually like to keep in contact with, not just because I felt I should after spending a few hours with her. And I wouldn’t have met her had I not jumped on that bus.

The day had brought me a new visual perspective to Iceland, allowing me to see a different side to the country, just like taking the different route home from the library allowed me to see a different view of London. The day had signified freedom and impulsiveness, and my trip had been replenished as a result. I knew that had I simply gone on to Reykjavík as originally planned, the day would be nowhere near as interesting and fulfilling.

If people were more spontaneous in life, they’d get so much more out of it. As we approach 2014, my New Year’s Resolution is not really new as such. I just want to keep exploring the unknown and not play safe, but take a new opportunity that arises and see where it takes me.

 

Travel & Trainers: An Evening Run in Iceland

It’s fair to say that in the past year I’ve had a bit of a love-hate relationship with running. I’ve always been a ‘natural’ runner, lucky to grow up in a rural area that allowed me to put on my trainers and run off somewhere without a care in the world. My first competitive memory is of me breaking away from the pack in a sports day race at primary school, only to be overtaken by a boy in the last 50m. Throughout school I enjoyed racing, simply because I found it fun – the adrenaline rush at the start of the race, the burning thighs, the splash of mud, the desperate sprint finish. Away from races, running simply provided an opportunity to be outside observing nature. It made me feel happy and healthy.

Growing up I was fortunate enough not to develop an injury that would prevent me from being active for a sustained period of time, despite taking part in Modern Pentathlon from the age of 12. That was perhaps because I didn’t take the sport seriously enough to allow this to happen – living miles from anywhere meant training intensely would have been an immense ask on my parents both in terms of money and time, and I didn’t want that. Rather than joining an athletics club, I did most of my training for the running phase myself. To me, the sport simply provided social opportunities and a personal goal to work towards. But in my late teens, I stopped enjoying it as much. It had become a sport full of pushy parents, with their emphasis seeming to be on results and winning. This new pressurising environment rubbed off on me, to the extent that going away for a weekend to compete no longer felt fun.

After starting university, I dropped the other four sports to focus mainly on running as the sport to supplement my studies. Attending more structured and coached sessions soon made me regret having as a young teenager turned down offers by scouts to join their athletics club and chosen instead to stick with all five sports equally. Competing in races solely for running, rather than as part of a multi sport, was something that I’d missed. In making running my main sport, I once again had found the perfect balance of fun and competition – a serious hobby that I genuinely really enjoyed. Running brought so many positive elements: a way to meet people; a way to de-stress; a way to keep in shape; a way to have a personal goal. I didn’t have to think about as much as I had with the other sports: commanding a new horse over a course of show jumps; focussing carefully on my sights during shooting; anticipating and responding to the actions of my opponent in fencing; preserving a good technique while swimming…Or at least, what I did have to think about didn’t feel like a task – it just came naturally. And running was such an easy thing to do –  all you needed was a pair of trainers and some motivation, the latter being something I’d always had.

In second year I was in the best shape I’d ever been in – the shape I would have probably been in a few years before had I focussed solely on running. Making massive improvements in my times felt brilliant, and with the BUCS Cross-Country Champs a few months away, I was confident that I’d perform significantly better than the year before. Whilst it wouldn’t be anything remarkable by national standards, it would still be a great personal achievement. I worked super hard in training, pounding the track and dashing up the hills, all in a quest to become better. In mind, body and spirit, I was feeling fantastic.

Then one day a pain that I’d never felt before showed up in my right leg. After a week of rest I ran again while at home for Christmas, only to have to stop. I couldn’t remember the last time, if ever, that I’d pulled up on this route. The pain continued to present itself everytime I ran, but I told myself it would go away. I was running so well, I couldn’t stop now. In mid January I winced my way through a two mile cross-country race, only to ironically finish in my best position of the season. The pain persisted as I walked back to the train station, and it never left. Every step I took was greeted with a sharp sting in the back of my lower leg, and my bone felt tender to touch. I’d never experienced anything like this before. Walking – something I’d done everyday since I was able to stand on two feet myself – was no longer something I could do without thinking about it. I’d pulled muscles before, but this felt totally alien. Walking home from uni a few days later, tears fell down my cheeks as I realised this was a serious issue that, as long as I continued running, was not simply going go to go away.

A week later was the day of the championships. The day before them I got hold of some crutches to help me rest my leg, following a doctor’s assumption that I’d picked up a stress fracture. I was persuaded by team mates to travel up to the race regardless, having already bought my train ticket, and eventually I gave in. I’d never had to be so dependent on other people to help me. Having people hold doors for me, carry my bags, pay for my bus ticket and so on made me feel useless. Seeing everyone warm up in our team colours brought a sting to my chest. I’d been so excited for this day. Of all the national competitions I’d gone to for pentathlon, none had I looked forward to as much as I had this. The course was one of the muddiest I’d ever seen, yet I still felt pangs of jealousy as I saw my team mates crossing the finish line.

Six miserable weeks later I came off the crutches, and the pain when I walked had gone. I felt like a bird released from captivity, free to resume its natural gift of flying. Not being able to be as mobile and independent as I’d always taken for granted had made me retreat inside a hole of frustration and embarrassment. In my first seminar without crutches, I spoke more than I had in the past six weeks of that class. In being able to walk on two feet again with no pain, I was back in my comfort zone, and I’d re-found my voice.

Two weeks later I couldn’t wait any longer, and had to run again. I felt gross – my legs had atrophied slightly and I pinched new fat around my hips. But above all, I just missed it. Watching my team perform at an athletics competition made me fidgety – I wanted to be on the start line again, flooded with adrenaline. But when I put on my trainers for the first time since the January race, I felt nervous. I went for a slow jog on the grass to test the leg, feeling cautious. There was no pain. I breathed a sigh of relief. But my chest felt tight just from a gentle loop around a football pitch. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be back in no time,’ I told myself.

But of course, that was just wishful thinking. Training sessions were restricted to just doing the warm up jog and no speed work. I’d never had to worry before about taking things slow when it came to running, and I soon found myself getting impatient. Watching people do 400m sets on the track from the side, knowing I’d have been up there with them a few months earlier, was hard to watch. Training with my team mates became less fun, as seeing them speed off effortlessly in front of me made me feel demoralised. With exams then demanding my attention, I told myself that over summer I would get back in shape. The summer sunshine meant there was no excuse not to be outside running. But my determination to reclaim my old fitness only impeded my recovery, as I attempted to do too much too soon. Hints of pain re-emerged, meaning I had to rest more in between each run than I hoped. With increased devotion to post-run stretching came a sense of desperation.

But the recovery wasn’t only difficult physically. Alongside the gasping breaths after attempting sets I’d have previously coped with fine came tears of frustration and self doubt. Running was no longer something I didn’t have to think about – every step was placed with anxiety, as I anticipated a burst of pain in my leg. I felt like something was holding me back, and realised that it was fear. I was scared of damaging something so valuable to me again, and having to return to what had been a lonely state of immobility. It was a complicated injury, not caused by one single significant action, but an accumulation of impact pressure that had built up over time. Like an alcoholic who didn’t know his limits, I felt like I didn’t know mine either. But instead of drinking more to test myself, I let my liquid of lust drip away, as the potential risks of pain and feelings of incompetence reduced my desire for the end result. Feeling like I had to think about what I was doing had made running cease to be an enjoyment, and instead a constant indicator of inadequacy. My confidence had vanished, and the motivation to run that had previously come so naturally to me had gone. Feeling disillusioned, excuses began to be made and my frequency of running dropped.

Then I went to Iceland in August, and my trainers were stuffed into my backpack. It’s always my intention that I’ll go for two or three runs during a trip, as it’s a great way to observe scenery and everyday life. On coming back from the Westmann Islands I was spending an evening in Selfoss. Its main attraction is probably the glacial Ölfusa which, as Iceland’s largest river, runs through the town to the east of the mountain Ingólfsfjall. The bright blue river flows fast as it gets closer to the town centre, whipping up whirlpools and creating a constant ‘shhhhh’ sound as it surges downstream. The sun was out when I arrived, and I sat on the banks of the river eating cheap cake from the local Netto. My food the day before had consisted of a cheese sandwich and carrot sticks. My jeans were looser and I was hungry. But as the wind picked up my hunger became directed towards something else. The sugar from the cake had filled me with energy, and I felt impatient. Suddenly I had a real desire to move and be constantly active. I’d been on only two runs in the two weeks leading up to the trip, panting through three miles and feeling fed up after finishing. I’d gone running because I’d felt that I should, not because I wanted to. But today was different – the rush of the river had stimulated in me a craving to run that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

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In the early evening I put on my trainers and stretched outside my hostel, taking deep breaths. But the difference was that they were breaths of excitement, rather than anxiety. ‘I’ll just go for a short jog along the river,’ I thought to myself as I set off. I felt no pain in my leg, and ran comfortably for 25 minutes to the suspension bridge where I’d thought I would stop. My breathing was slightly laboured, but then I spotted a path leading off. ‘I can go a few minutes more,’ I thought. Gravel crunched under my trainers as I ran past a sign named ‘Hellisskog’ into a cosy section of small fir trees, where little wooden bridges offered different choices of direction. I randomly chose one that led me along a quiet gravel track. I had no idea where I was going, but I felt great. I was running with a fluidity that I hadn’t felt since before I got injured.

10 minutes later my legs started to ache a little, hinting that they wanted to stop. Had I been at home or in Regents Park at this point, I would have listened to my body and gladly given in. But here I felt curious about what was ahead, and for the first time in a while I stopped thinking about my leg and just ran, concentrating on the views around me instead. 10 minutes later I turned up at a grassy mound of rock. A sign called it ‘Stori Hellir’, translating as ‘the big cave’. It’s allegedly haunted by a man who hung himself there after suffering a broken heart. But as I bounded up the grass to the top of the cave, I felt nothing but pure elation. Strong winds buffeted my face, but with a revitalising energy that made me grin from ear to ear. Ingólfsfjall with its prominent presence looked down at me proudly. I felt like I’d just finished a marathon  – a true sense of mental and physical accomplishment.

The natural monument I was standing on wasn’t even that special, but to me it served as a huge landmark. It signified progress and pleasure. The spirited drive of the river had spurred me on, and the curiosity that comes with being in an unknown area had made me go further than I not only expected to, but would have had I been running in familiar surroundings. The new scenery had distracted me so that instead of constantly thinking about how well I was doing, I was picking up positive emotions from environmental stimuli, which in turn made me feel good as I was running. By the time I got back to my hostel, I’d run around four miles in total. Whilst there’s nothing significant about that distance, it was the first run in 2013 that I’d enjoyed. My motivation to run had returned, and it was thanks to being in travel mode.

This experience made me realise that I’d been approaching getting back into running with the wrong attitude. Just like the pushy parents from my pentathlon days, my improved level of running had begun to emphasise results and performance. Upon having to stop, I hadn’t processed that before I could get competitive again, I’d have to work my way up from a more modest base. By putting pressure on myself to return to my pre-injury standard, I’d forgotten the core principle that had always previously governed my view towards running – the idea of it being fun.

Now I’m in third year and am still not able to run as frequently or intensively as I’d like to, partly because of work and partly because of little protests from my calf muscle now and again. But I’m simply grateful for the fact that I can run in the first place. My brief period of immobility made me feel so much more grateful for the fact that I’m able to move my legs at all.  But that evening run in Selfoss highlighted why having this ability should be something to appreciate and enjoy, rather than use as a harsh measure of personal quality. If anyone asked me for advice on getting motivated to run again, I’d tell them to go travelling, and let curiosity carry their legs further.

10 Reasons to do a Help-Exchange

When planning a trip, I tend to split it into two sections – part of it involves true hostel-loving backpacking, the other a help-exchange. We’re living in a day and age where students and ‘gap yah’ kids will spend huge amounts of money to volunteer in an orphanage in a developing country for two weeks, in an attempt to boost their CV with extra credentials. Personally, I’m not a fan of this organised travel; partly for the reason that I believe it does little to encourage independence and travelling skills; partly because I’m not convinced that continuously passing young children onto different groups to be ‘cooed’ over and have photos taken with is beneficial for their mental well-being and social development. (This article sums it up brilliantly). Students may also be lured into paying extortionate amounts of money for holiday package tours, where they only mingle with fellow tourists and essentially see the country for five minutes.

If you do a help-exchange in contrast, you’ll spend so much less money, yet probably get so much more out of the experience. The system is simple – you register with a website, pay an £18-£20 membership fee that’s valid for two years, and create a profile for yourself. You can then scout the website’s host listing, or hosts can contact you. The idea is that you do four-six hours of work a day for your host in return for free meals and accommodation, so that you’re both doing each other a favour. In your free time you’re free to go off exploring on your own. A help-exchange can be done in any country on any continent, with an incredible range of options on offer – from helping an Eco camp in Africa build a school for six weeks, to looking after huskies in Norway for one week. Below are ten extensive reasons why you should consider doing one yourself!

1. Develop social skills & independence
The process of organising a help-exchange requires the sole effort of the applicant: you yourself have to find an appropriate host decisively but considerately, noting their requirements whilst taking into account your relevant skills and other travel plans. Instead of filling out an application form, you have to contact the host directly either by phone or email, ensuring you come across as friendly, coherent and suitable in a few sentences without referring to your ‘exceptional’ A level results. You have to organise how you get to your host – sometimes you might be asked to turn up at the door – in which case you need to plan travel arrangements. And finally, you have to introduce yourself to your host using communication skills that convey your genuine personality rather than the one you might use to impress someone in a job interview, and conduct yourself aptly for a guest. The process is like a less formal version of applying for a job – there are fewer competitors, no strict deadlines and no daunting interviews. Help-exchanges are also a great way to boost one’s confidence at meeting new people.

 2.  Save money & recuperate
A help-exchange is budget travel at its best. Even staying in hostels that only cost £17 per night starts to add up if you’re on a long trip. The particularly great thing about a help-exchange is how spontaneous it can be – you can contact somebody even when you’re in the country having commenced your travels – ideal if you’ve suddenly found yourself short of funds or there’s been a problem with your current accommodation. Staying in one place for a while also allows the weary traveller to rest their body and mind – it’s nice to have some time off lugging a backpack around everyday, or constantly thinking about public transport timetables and hostel bookings for the day ahead. Saving money on the practicalities of food and accommodation also means your pennies can be put towards more exciting activities in your free time. Plus, being given free meals in return for your help makes a nice change from a cheap ‘on-the-road’ diet of cheese-sandwiches, bananas and biscuits…

3. Develop new practical skills
The wide range of jobs that hosts advertise for help with means that you can guarantee learning a new skill, ranging from knitting to carpentry. Sometimes I’ve not contacted a host whose description sounded perfect in so many ways, just because I had no experience of the specific work they needed help with. But one occasion where I didn’t let this feeling of inadequacy put me off was with a family on Vancouver Island. They owned a vineyard, and as much my mum might have tried to encourage me over the years, I had no experience of pruning. As I was shown what to do on my first day thoughts of: ‘Oh crap, I’m totally going to ruin this guy’s vines, he’s going to be annoyed with me!’ filled my head. Then I remembered that it wasn’t a test, and I wouldn’t be judged for asking questions, but was actually more likely to be respected for trying to ensure I did a decent job.

Even when you’re not working, you can still learn new skills in your free time from family members. The first time I went fishing was during a help-exchange in southern BC (I wasn’t very successful). On another exchangeI learned the basics of lacrosse and after a few attempts (and one fall) had (almost) mastered the art of longboarding. It’s unlikely I would have accessed such activities so easily when travelling around alone.

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4. Inspire youth
Being the youngest of five children, I’ve never had much of an opportunity to be a ‘big sister’ to anyone, but taking part in help-exchanges has changed that, as I’ve been able to become a confidante to those a few years younger than me. Being trusted by an adult you’ve never met to take a position of responsibility over their children is a humbling gesture, and as a result makes you determined to live up to the duty and set an example. In my case this has mainly involved listening to problems, sometimes of an everyday form and sometimes more serious, and using my experience to give advice for the short or long term. With young teenage girls I think, being female myself, that it’s a particularly rewarding process. They’re going through a stage when older authority can be resented, and being a good role model without alienating them can be quite challenging. But if you get the balance right, you’re likely to see reserved body language become more confident and bored facial expressions develop into expressions of curiosity and familiarity, as they realise that the new girl in their house is actually not that bad, even though she travels by herself/is single/wearing scruffy clothes and no make-up/into running/a bit of a geek. I hope that as a result of this, most of the girls I’ve stayed with have decided that they too would like to embark on their own independent travel adventure one day. Help-exchanges demonstrate that you don’t have to be in a less-developed country (or pay lots of money) to have a strong impact on someone’s life.

5. Expand human knowledge
Taking part in help-exchanges has made me become a better reader of both individual people and families, reminding me in the process that despite any cultural differences, certain human emotional dilemmas occur universally. As a result I feel like I’ve gained greater maturity and sensitivity, which can be applied to everyday life. It’s something that can’t be taught, only obtained through observational experience. An example is from Canada, where I lived with a 15 year old girl whose life, at the insistence of her mother, revolved around horse-riding and ice hockey. Most of the time she was reserved around the household. Then at the end of the week the two of us went to the cinema and I saw an excitement in her that I hadn’t seen before, realising that it was simply because she wasn’t used to going out for social events. Away from her normal routine and slightly domineering mother, she felt freer and more open. Meanwhile on an exchange in Germany, the 18 year old daughter started tearing up as she said goodbye to her parents before they left for their holiday. She wouldn’t see them when they got back as she would be on holiday herself. “I just feel bad because by going away and doing my own things I see them less, and they’re only getting older,” she explained to me after they’d gone. I could completely empathise with her, having experienced similar feelings of guilt in relation to my own parents. It was an irrational feeling that I hadn’t considered might be felt by others. Doing a help exchange can make a ‘foreigner’ seem more familiar, while also giving you something to take back to your own family; be that a greater appreciation of or the inspiration to change its dynamic!

6. Practise a language
The best way to learn a language is through immersion – visit the relevant country and spend time with native-speakers, listening to their conversations and attempting to initiate ones yourself. Even if you’re not planning to learn the language (mastering Icelandic in two weeks would have been asking a bit too much), it’s nice to simply listen to the different sounds and watch people interact through it, sometimes being able to guess what they’re talking about from their actions. While staying with a small family in Germany, I would carry a notepad around with me, at times randomly asking the daughter, “How would I say this?” or “What does that word you keep saying mean?” She would also ask for clarification that her English was okay too, so that both of us were benefitting. I was then able to use what I’d learned after I moved on from the family. It makes a nice change from hostels and charity volunteering camps where, on the whole, English is the international language. And even better: the tuition is free.

7. Learn about other cultures
Living in a family’s home creates an intimate environment where you can witness the everyday native lifestyle – it’s the best way to learn about the values and norms of the country, either through conversations or general observation. Whilst on my Icelandic help-exchange I was told about Christmas traditions (including a detailed description, involving a picture book, of the 13 different Santas), as well as the less obvious and random traits of the country’s culture. For example: when trying to establish ages, an Icelander will always ask for year of birth over the actual number; a wife doesn’t take her husband’s surname – instead it is always the father’s name, ending with the prefix ‘dottir’ for girls and ‘son’ for boys; names of all residents are written underneath the house number next to the door; dried haddock is a popular snack, and so forth… Staying with locals gives one a greater awareness of and access to the signature brands and dishes of that country, such as ‘Tim Hortons’ in Canada and Skyr yoghurt in Iceland.

Doing a few help-exchanges in different areas is even better, as you get to witness the variety of the country for yourself, just like someone travelling to England would notice changes between London and Yorkshire. For example, I could sense varying attitudes towards immigration, marriage and careers in different areas of BC which, as a History student, I found really interesting. What’s more, if there are other foreign helpers staying at the house, you can learn more about their culture too. The first time I had a proper conversation with someone from China was during a help-exchange in Canada, while meeting a few Germans there partly inspired my decision to travel there the next summer.

8. Integrate into a family and community
In previous posts I’ve written about the overwhelming effect of being welcomed into a host’s life so warmly. Sometimes the ‘click’ won’t happen, either inevitably from significant differences in outlook, or as a result of events during the exchange. But when it does, especially in such a short period, it’s a very touching experience. This, combined with getting to know the local area well, can make you really feel ‘at home’. Doing errands for a host in Germany such as going to the post office and doing the shopping required me to familiarise myself with the area, making me feel like part of the community by the end of the exchange. By the end of my week with a family in Reykjavík, I was on greeting terms with an old man who walked his pug at the same time as I walked my host’s border collie. At family dinners or parties, I’ve been involved in the conversation almost, at times, like a member of the family. Such moments can lead to a bond with a family – a long-term bond that hasn’t been formed through the influence of alcohol and consolidated by the desire for a companion to provide temporary convenience and security, as is quite often the case with volunteer-travel friendships.

For me having no younger siblings, forming a bond with a child or young teenager is particularly special. At first introduction they are often quite shy and making conversation isn’t so easy. My Icelandic help-exchange also involved babysitting an eight year old. His English was exceptional, but there still seemed to be a barrier as we sat eating breakfast on my first morning. After getting a shrug in response to “What’s your favourite subject at school?” I asked if he wanted to walk the dog with me: “Nahhh”; or go swimming: “No thanks.” Hmmm. ‘It’s going to be a long week,’ I though despairingly. “Maybe you’d like to play a game?” I asked hopefully. The boy said nothing. Then suddenly his eyes lit up: “Do you like Star Wars?” Ermm… “Yeahhhhh!” I replied enthusiastically. I know nothing about Star Wars. The next two hours was spent playing a game with no idea what I was doing. But it was worth it, because by the end of it the boy was interacting with me more. Within the next few days I was making him laugh as we played toy soldiers or football, and chatting animatedly with him. Then came the day when he asked “Will you be here this time next week?” followed by a sad “N’owhh” when I said no, and upon hearing that I welled up.

One might say that the same emotion can be experienced after looking after an orphan as part of a charity project, but I would disagree. A charity scheme essentially requires a bond to be formed, by expecting volunteers to devote complete attention to a child who is not already emotionally attached to a regularly-present biological relative. In contrast, children from a host family are less likely to require or crave a new bond, simply because they already have a strong and satisfying connection with their family.  The process of forming a bond is therefore more contingent on both characters involved, which subsequently makes it feel more treasurable.

9. See incredible places & do amazing activities for free
They say that guide books shouldn’t be relied on as source for travel ideas, and help-exchanges prove it. A key reason I’m such a big fan of them is because of their potential to help one discover a phenomenal area of the world, or be given a rare opportunity to do something wonderful. For example, one of my help-exchanges in BC involved working on an Andalusian horse farm, where I helped care for and exercise the horses. Being allowed to ride such beautiful animals as ‘work’ made me feel so lucky, as I thought about what some people would give to be in my position. Another family took me tubing down the Similkameen River, and on my final night with them we drank beers and ate ‘smors’ around a campfire in the Okanogan forest, giving me a true rural Canadian experience. This was an area that I would probably not have considered visiting had I been touring the area independently, because of both the lack of tourist accommodation and lack of attention given to it in my guide book. On Vancouver Island, my hosts lived five minutes from the beach, from where I could admire some of the most enchanting sunsets I’ve ever seen. I was given a tour of Victoria and taken out on the family’s boat for an evening cruise. Meanwhile in Germany I was taken on an afternoon sight-seeing tour of Frankfurt with all the benefits of local knowledge, and in Iceland I got to experience the brilliant Culture Night celebrations with native company. For just a few hours work a day, you can receive something back in return that no salary, no matter how big, could buy.

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10. Form special memories & valuable contacts
The sense of accomplishment after discovering or arriving at a stunning place completely on my own is what makes me love travelling alone…but I’d be lying if I said that some of my favourite and strongest memories from trips haven’t come from help-exchange experiences. Some of them are from the examples stated in #9, while some weren’t necessarily so treasured at the time but in hindsight have provided extraordinary tales of great humour that, without a help-exchange, I probably wouldn’t have experienced. Take the time I went to a house party in Canada, only to find myself constructing a sling out of a tea towel for a guy who broke his collarbone after falling off his quad-bike whilst riding under a very very large influence; or the time a host asked me to give her daughter a lift to a bonfire party in her car (as if having to quickly adjust to driving in an opposite way to what I was used to without damaging her car wasn’t enough, I then had to reverse half a mile along a dyke in the dark after we took a wrong turn); and last but not least was the time one family’s 12 year old daughter jokingly drove a lawnmower towards where I was sunbathing on a downhill slope before parking up, only for someone to start screaming at me to move (she’d forgotten to put the handbrake on…)

Then of course, there are the friends that can be made from a help-exchange, either host’s children or fellow helpers, who themselves account for many of the memories formed. I’m still in regular contact with many of those people I’ve been fortunate to stay with, one of whom I visited in Germany after meeting her in Canada, and one of whom I travelled around the USA with three years after first meeting. These people provide a travel contact either for at the time of the exchange or in future, and meeting them has inspired me to become a host one day myself, in the hope of meeting even more special people and creating even more special memories.

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Being involved in a help-exchange is beneficial for a range of reasons: the potential to help a person develop for the better whilst allowing them to have an impact on someone else; the potential for new knowledge, exciting opportunities and significant experiences; the potential to form strong friendships; and simply for the potential to produce a fulfilling sense of knowing you’ve done someone a favour, whilst also feeling extremely grateful for what they’ve done for you. And the best thing about it is that these elements can be attained without having to spend thousands of pounds.

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Been convinced? Check out some of the websites below and get your own help-exchange adventure started!

http://www.workaway.info/
http://www.helpx.net/
http://www.wwoof.net/

A Bus, a Backpack, and a Blessing in Disguise

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 “Don’t lose your passport” must be one of the most-heard pieces of advice given to the young person by their parents before they begin their travels. The gateway to one’s adventure, it seems like the most obvious and significant item that could go missing. So what about the backpack? It is, afterall, the locker to your life during your time away. The love-hate relationship you develop with it from acquiring achy shoulders after walking with it all day, combined with your sigh of relief at seeing it emerge on the conveyor belt, make it almost indifferent to a human travel companion.

This is something that’s particularly true when one is travelling alone. Your backpack becomes your loyal friend who you love to see when you wake up in the morning, but occasionally grow frustrated with for following you everywhere for the rest of the day. It only takes a week of its sole company to appreciate it so much that you begin taking for granted just how important it is. Whilst losing backpacks in transit is common, the location of the traveller in the airport means that on the whole, one can expect to find experienced guidance and a swift resolution of the problem. If someone is with other people, there is the emotional and practical support present to help dry their tears of stress and lend them clothes for a few days.

But when you’re on your own in a random part of the country, who will be there to support you? This was the exact question I found myself asking outside an empty bus station when I lost my backpack, halfway through my first sole travelling experience, aged 19.

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I’ve mentioned in previous posts how I viewed travelling alone as a more do-able prospect after meeting someone who was doing a help-exchange with my family friends in Australia. The system was simple – you did around six hours work a day for the family and received free food and accommodation in return. It seemed like a great way to save money whilst learning about a country’s culture first hand. Seeing this guy become a valued member of the household was touching and I liked the idea of it for myself.  Inspired by his experience, I began planning some for myself in Canada.

However, being biased I assumed my new friend had simply been lucky – surely not all families could be so welcoming? To invite a stranger into your home with your children and possessions seemed risky. After the increased media-hype about child abuse in care homes, I couldn’t help but feel unconvinced about the ability of a family to welcome someone they met through the internet so easily into their life.

I had a week of sleeping in hostels before I would experience this for myself though. And indeed, that one week was enough to confirm to me just how important the backpack is to an independent traveller. Being my first time alone in a foreign country, I was borderline obsessive-compulsive about its security for the first couple of days while in Toronto. I doted on it like a baby, making sure I was super-careful doing up the zip so as not to strain it, and reluctant to get any dirt on it. Then I landed in Calgary to explore the Rockies and embraced the knocks and scuffles the backpack would inevitably receive from various rural activities. Hoisting it onto my back every morning before a hike, its company made me feel like I was on a real adventure. I was experiencing huge senses of personal achievement and my backpack was the one consistent partner who understood. What had begun as a protective arm over it as it sat by my side evolved into a gesture of fondness and appreciation for the feelings of support and security that its presence produced.

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My first help-exchange in British Columbia was on a horse farm. The week went fast and by the end of it, as pleasant as my hosts were, I still felt separate from them. I’d been so busy working that I hadn’t had a chance to immerse myself in their way of life. And yet I sensed that this wasn’t something they looked for from the scheme, instead viewing it as the share of a practical favour, with no strings attached. How included I was seemed completely contingent on how useful I had been, and my sceptical beliefs were reinforced. ‘What was I expecting from one week’s stay anyway?’ I thought as I filled (and refilled) my backpack.

It was a sweltering hot day on August 16th as we arrived late at the bus station. I hurried through the depot and gave my backpack to the bus driver to store without even thinking about the need to tag it, since my journey was direct anyway. Our friendship had reached that stage where I was taking its constant company for granted, and I presumed I’d see it again in a few hours. The family thanked me for all my help and then walked back to the car without looking back. Feeling like I’d already been forgotten, I boarded the bus with my smaller bag.

The bus picked up a fault, so we had to change at Kelowna. I went to retrieve my backpack but the driver assured me it would be put onto the correct bus, so I left him to it. I was the only person getting off next and began feeling excited about my second home-stay as the driver went to fetch my luggage. “A green backpack?” he asked uncertainly as he rummaged through. “I don’t see one here.” Silently blaming his eyesight, I went to look myself. But it wasn’t there; my companion wasn’t there. There was no feeling of comfort at the sight of its bulky shape. Butterflies began to flood my stomach. He asked if I’d put a tag on it, and shook his head disapprovingly when I blushed and said no. “Where do you think it could be?” I asked with panic rising in my voice. The station was closed, so he suggested I ring the Kelowna bus depot.

I frantically slotted dollar coins into a phone box as the driver stood waiting awkwardly beside the bus. The lady in Kelowna’s office couldn’t see a backpack anywhere and suggested it was on the bus to Vancouver. I dialled the number she gave me immediately as sweat drops gathered on my forehead – a mixed effect of the heat and my sudden stress. The bus driver came over to check my progress. Nobody was picking up. He scratched his head and hesitated before saying “I’ve gotta go,” with a shrug of his shoulders. I watched the bus turn the corner and disappear out of sight, leaving only clouds of gravel-dust behind. Suddenly everything seemed quieter. That was the point where it hit me that I now really was on my own. The apprehensions I’d had a year earlier about travelling alone were unfolding and the tears began falling. I felt like the stupidest and unluckiest girl in the world at the same time.

30 minutes and a list of furiously-crossed-out unsuccessful numbers later I reached the correct number for the Vancouver office, only to find it had closed for the day. Frustrated, I crossed the road to buy a drink from the gas station and sat on a bench outside this empty depot, thinking to myself ‘Mum and dad can’t help you now.’ Trying to be rational, I told myself that most importantly I still had all my essentials, including my passport.  In the meantime I’d just have to find my hostel for the night and try the Vancouver office again in the morning. But I was meant to be meeting my second hosts tomorrow. What use was I going to be to them without any clothes? I couldn’t work outside in the peep-toe sandals I was wearing. I had no number to contact them on, so I had no choice but to turn up simply to say that I couldn’t work for them anymore, because I had to go to Vancouver to find my backpack.

The next two hours waiting for my next bus were the loneliest two hours of my life. When it did arrive the driver asked if I had any luggage for the hold, so I told him what had happened. But my brave face had returned in the presence of others and I said with a laid-back manner that I’d ring the Vancouver office tomorrow – “it’ll be probably be there.” Climbing the steps onto the bus however, my face burned as behind me he exclaimed ‘Good luck!’ with a sarcastic snigger. That comment stuck in my head and I struggled to sleep in the hostel that night, filled with unease knowing that my travel companion wasn’t by my side. Wearing the same clothes from the day before, I rang the office early only to hear that nothing there fitted my description. My heart sank and I boarded my next bus reluctantly, anxiously anticipating my next host’s reaction to meeting me, luggage-less.

A blonde lady in an old VW was parked outside the tiny bus station. I felt like a child as I introduced myself with a squeaky voice and explained my problem.  With a drawl expressing both surprise and calm, she recalled never hearing this happen before and led me to the office to speak to the staff. A man and woman inside greeted her with a casual “Oh hey, Lisa”. It turned out they were her daughter’s neighbours. They gave me the numbers of potential stations my backpack could have been deposited at. I rang one of them and hesitated on the pronunciation of my new location. Lisa corrected me with a wink, adding, “You can give them my number to contact, honey.”

Lisa lived in a small town five minutes away. Bare trees dotted the dry brown hills that overlooked the sparse valley like bristles on a hair brush. “I’ve lived here my whole life”, she said proudly. Whenever a car did pass on the bare road, it was likely that Lisa would recognise them and flash a wave. We stopped by her daughter’s place to say hello. I went in for a handshake but she gave me a hug and said “Don’t worry, you can borrow anything,” when hearing about my backpack. They didn’t seem bothered at all. Lisa’s lovely house was a few minutes down the road. The sweet aroma of banana muffins filled the air in the huge kitchen. Country songs played on the radio, soon drowned out by the sound of her pug greeting me with yelps of excitement. I was shown upstairs to my room and offered a shower. “Just chill out today and make yourself at home,” Lisa said with a warm smile.

I collapsed onto my new bed next to my fresh towels and stared into space, overwhelmed. Only an hour ago I’d been fretting over my next move, biting my nails as I wondered where I’d be sleeping tonight. Now I was sat in a room with a toothbrush and clothes lent to me by the younger daughter, as if nothing had happened and I was a regular guest. The sudden change of situation stunned me. I’d never felt so grateful in my entire life. And I wanted to show it. So I put on the clothes and started weeding the garden, determined to show my appreciation and make myself useful no matter what.

In the evening the whole family came round and we sat outside drinking beers. They spoke about the latest town gossip, with me wondering how there was so much to say about such a small place. It was like being at home, only thousands of miles away. The next morning Celia and her fiancé offered me a lift to a second-hand store in Penticton. She sang along tunelessly to ‘Under the Bridge’, with Ben resting a hand on her leg. They planned to marry in Lisa’s garden. In the evening we took the pick-up down to the Similkameen River and spent a few hours fishing and shooting at tin cans, with Celia laughing at her photos.

I don’t know whether it was because I was wearing new clothes, but something about being in this place, with these people, made me feel like a new person. They lived in such a close-knit community and yet I knew that as long as I had a heart and a sense of humour, I would be welcomed into it. At first, losing my backpack had made me feel like I was missing part of myself, but now its loss brought a strange sense of new identity. With a greater dependence on other people had also come a greater willingness to integrate and share my experiences with them. Out jogging later on in the week I waved absent-mindedly at a passing car being driven by a guy I recognised from a house party I’d gone to a few days earlier. I’d been here less than a week and already felt like part of the neighbourhood.

I imagined turning up my previous hosts’ house with no clothes and knew they would not have been as sympathetic. My incentive to help this family out wasn’t from knowing it was a compulsory condition of the agreement, but from a desire to help in return for their generosity. Likewise I could tell that Lisa didn’t simply view me as a temporary employer. She was curious about my life and family, asking questions about us as if wanting to compare. In the car she sang along to Joni Mitchell on the radio, like my mum would.  And I really did see her that way – like a temporary mum. Help-exchanges aren’t necessarily meant to produce that feeling. They might cook for you, but the mothers of the house aren’t required to treat you like a child of their own. But Lisa did just that for me, when I needed that sense of comfort and care. On my last day I went to do my washing, but she said “Oh just leave it, honey, I’ll do it.” The only other person who had done my washing was my real mum. As we hugged goodbye at the station she said, “And remember, you’re welcome any time.” Sometimes I think people say that because they feel they have to. With Lisa, I knew that she genuinely meant it.

I only spent a week with the family in that small town, but it was enough to restore my faith in the compassion of people from around the world towards others they have only just met. Some people will re-define the ‘rules’ of a certain agreement for the sake of helping another human being. I spoke of a backpack almost being like a backbone. When I lost mine, Lisa replaced it and restored my confidence in continuing my trip with an adventurous mindset. I really valued my backpack, but without losing it, I’m not sure I would have got so much out of this travel experience. I never did see my backpack again, yet the trip went on to become my most treasured to date.

***

Help-exchange websites: www.helpx.net / www.workaway.info