Books & Bridges: Budapest for the Quiet Solo Traveller

There seem to be two types of solo traveller. There are the ones who, as extroverts or simply because they don’t enjoy being alone, enjoy putting themselves in social situations and meeting new people. They will join free walking tours and bar crawls and essentially go to any place or do any activity that allows them to interact with others. Then there are the solo travellers who, perhaps being slightly more introverted, are happy to explore alone and avoid the big social scene, looking for picturesque serenity more than pubs and parties.

I definitely fall into the latter group. If I’m travelling solo, particularly if it’s just for a short break, I don’t tend to look for social contact and companionship. Brief encounters with a random character are enough to satisfy my social sanity whilst ensuring my personal itinerary isn’t interrupted. The truth is, I like having time alone and having the chance to fulfil my own plans at my own pace. However, if I do happen to meet someone who becomes a great travel companion, I will cherish this new friendship and do my best to preserve it.

Budapest is a top choice for a boozy holiday with a friend or romantic getaway with a partner, but it’s also a great place to wander around solo. Below is an account of my time in Hungary’s capital city.

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A few bad experiences of sharing hostel dorms with snorers has made me more inclined to choose Airbnb for accommodation. This is definitely a wise option for Budapest because of the exchange rate. I spent £19 a night staying in a spacious room with a double bed, hosted by a lovely lady called Maria. Her cool apartment is decorated with various travel souvenirs and is conveniently located next to Nyugati station. She’s also very helpful when it comes to recommending things for you to do and see that cater to your particular tastes. If you sign up to Airbnb using my code, you’ll get a discount!

It was in Budapest where my love for vintage shops was reignited. Falk Miksa utca is home to many antique stores varying in value and appearance – some are elegant stores featuring opulent collectables, others have more of a flea-market feel.

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I love nosing through vinyl collections for Motown records, and the one above has many to browse (although Motown music isn’t so popular in countries of the former Soviet bloc). Inside, the store was packed with CDs from Britney to Deep Purple, Jennifer Rush to Santana. Opposite this was an antique shop called Kacabajka, where an old lady sat contentedly on a wooden chair chatting with the male owner. Some people would call the items in the shop junk, but I loved looking at the typewriters, delicate crockery and other interesting knickknacks. It was here where the question “Beszél angolul?” caught my attention (it means “do you speak English?”) and I looked up to see a Middle Eastern couple asking me what metal I thought an ornament was. After helping them, I hoped the shop owner wouldn’t proceed to start chatting away to me in Hungarian…

To others it was obvious I wasn’t Hungarian. As I browsed some fancier antiques in a store down the road, a man on a stool said: “This man [the owner] would like to know where you are from.” The questioner wore a top hat and waistcoat and rested the point of a long black umbrella on the floor. When I said I lived in London, he told me he had visited Portobello Market a few months ago and had some good finds. He spoke with a well-to-do accent and I suddenly felt like I was in the scene of a 1920s F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

I was keen to browse some second-hand book shops, but discovered that sadly those recommended in my (slightly dated) guide book had shut down. However my Airbnb host recommended I try Massolit on  Nagy Diófa utca. This is a quiet little street (I walked past it about three times) which makes the cosy cafe and book store even more appealing. University students and academics appear to be the main customers, with a range of genres being offered from romantic fiction to political economy. I spent a good 30 minutes deciding on which book I would buy, only to end up buying two – ‘Roughing It’ by Mark Twain and Pascal Mercier’s ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ –  for between 1000 and 1500 Forints each (£2 – 4). In some cafes you feel very aware of being alone, but here you can sit with a hot drink, some cake and a book and feel completely comfortable. Once again I was transported to a New York setting, this time when I was aged 15 on a trip to visit my sister, sitting in a cafe in Greenwich Village and seeing a girl in a black hat, blue vintage dress and boots eating soup alone whilst reading a book, thinking to myself that she was really brave and cool.

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Budapest is a beautiful and safe place to walk around at night. Visit in early spring and the river banks are not bustling with people, as they seem to be all year round in London. If you’re into photography, you’ll love capturing the glittering bridges and various Churches, palaces and parliamentary buildings that beam brightly at the Danube below. I happily spent a couple of hours each evening taking photos from both sides.

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Another thing I love when travelling alone is to have picnics. You can choose where you eat and there’s no waiting involved. Thankfully there was an Aldi near where I stayed so I could stock up the night before, paying around 775Fts for some baps, cereal bars, fruit and chocolate. Naturally I also had to include Hungarian cakes in my itinerary. A good takeaway bakery is Lipóti on Kiraly utca, which makes a delicious chocolate and blackberry brownie cake as well as classics such as poppy seed cake.

For picnic locations, head to the Buda side of the city where you’ll discover more historical architecture and see its greener side. I made my way there over Margaret Bridge, taking a detour to visit Margaret Island. In summer this large park holds performances in its Open Air theatre and there’s also an outdoor swimming pool. You won’t see the park at it’s prettiest in the spring, but I did love how there was a separate 5 km track set up for runners!

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Castle Hill in Buda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site home to regal museums and the Royal Palace. You enter a quaint quarter where you’ll find many tourists but all within a tranquil haven of cobbled streets, splendid statues and quiet restaurants. The picturesque views of Pest continue for over a kilometre. It’s the perfect location for a wedding parade!

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If you want to get even bigger and better views of the city with fewer tourists on your tail, head further south and stride up Gellert Hill. There are various paths that zigzag to the top, with little signage to direct. The logic seems to be that the quicker paths will hurt the most! It was just below the famous Liberty Monument that I noticed a man stood with a briefcase with a fidgety manner looking around at fellow tourists. As I passed him he asked me to take a photo of him so I naturally obliged. He was Dutch and explained with shifty eye contact and an odd smile that he was on a stag do and had been told to have a crazy picture taken, otherwise he’d be paying for all the drinks that evening. I shrugged and nodded along. “The crazy picture involves me wearing no trousers,” he said with nervous excitement. I politely declined and walked away while he looked on helplessly. Seeing random men expose themselves in woodland areas was definitely not on my itinerary today!

Panoramic views of the Danube and Buda’s rolling suburbs await you at the top of Gellert Hill. It seemed like the appropriate place for my picnic. Unfortunately I also seemed like an appropriate person for people to ask for photos from. One of the requests came from a Scottish man around my age. A brief conversation revealed that he was having a week off from teaching English in Prague. He asked what my plans were for the rest of the day, and I sensed he was interested in hanging out some more. However when I mentioned my plan to browse more markets and second-hand shops his mouth straightened with indifference. He was planning to go to an open table-tennis meet in a bar.  The two types of solo traveller had clashed. Maybe it would have been a fun event but I had no intention of changing my plans; I was enjoying my independence too much! Shortly after we said our goodbyes and followed our preferred routes down the hill and into the remainder of our individual trips.

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Take a right after crossing the Elisabeth Bridge and join Vaci utca – one of the longest shopping streets in Pest. Near the end you’ll find more craft shops. If you carry on south you’ll reach the Central Market Hall near Liberty Bridge. Inside this huge building is where locals will buy their meat and fruit, as well as spices, spirits and pastries. Upstairs tourists can find various gifts and souvenirs including paintings and shot glasses. There are also plenty of food stalls around if you fancy saving your Pick salami for later…

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For your third day in Budapest, City Park is a pleasant place to come and read a book in the spring sunshine. It was here that I enjoyed seeing a mother leave her toddler to crawl on the ground and examine a stone plaque. I wish more parents would be less pedantic about safety and allow their children to explore their inquisitive nature!

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Heroes’ Square

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If the weather isn’t so nice, and even if it is, definitely devote a couple of hours to the House of Terror which is on Andrássy utca in the direction of the park. Interested as I am in history, I’ve never been a huge fan of visiting museums. I find them quite draining and if the weather is decent, I’d rather stay outdoors being active. However this former headquarters of the Nazi and successive Soviet regime is definitely one of the most interesting and enlightening museums I’ve been to. In each room visitors could pick up a sheet which summarised the country’s history relevant to the context or theme of that particular room. Excellent footage was shown, whether it was interviews with former camp labourers during the Nazi occupation or propaganda films created by the Soviets. Harrowing as some of the films and photos were, the museum didn’t try excessively to influence visitor’s emotional reactions; it simply gave the facts and left them to decide how they felt. Even better, I only had to pay 1000 Fts for entry because I had ID to prove I was under 26. This discount scheme is a brilliant way to encourage youths to learn about the history of their or another nation. For just £2.50 I became so much more knowledgeable about a period in Hungary’s fascinating history.

Because I ended up being gripped for almost three hours in the Terror House, I could only grab a milkshake from Kino Cafe before heading for the airport. This 80s-style art house cafe situated off Kiraly utca makes fruit shakes for 570Fts that actually taste like real fruit, with no added sugar. I wish I’d had more time to spend inside (…and try their cheesecakes).

Whilst the city didn’t have so many events nor so much pretty greenery at this time of year, March was still a great month to visit the very walkable Budapest. I’d highly recommend it to someone embarking on their first solo trip, especially if they are a quieter traveller. Even if wandering alone, there are still plenty of opportunities for momentary but memorable social encounters that won’t require you to sacrifice individual plans. Flowers were beginning to bloom but their arrival hadn’t yet attracted swarms of tourists – ideal for someone who likes to avoid the crowds and adventure alone!

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If you have additional suggestions for quiet solo travellers visiting Budapest, please comment below.

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Have an iPhone or iPad and planning a trip to Budapest? You can download this article for reference on your visit as a GPS-coordinated app! Just click here and you’ll get to the GPSmyCity download page.

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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!)

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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.

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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.

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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

Escape to Portugal: Exploring Porto without a Camera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Part Four: Loyalty and Loneliness in Lisbon

Why is Sunset Beautiful?

The title of this blog post comes from a question that someone I know once randomly posed – a question that I’ve never really thought about before. Being an everyday phenomenon, sunset is something we are so accustomed to that we don’t bother questioning why we value it so much.  Here are some thoughts.

Watching a sunset, we see a blend of soft colours ooze into a relaxing haven of warmth. This calms our minds and comforts our bodies, and the sensual gratification that we receive in turn creates a sense of romance, which everybody at one stage or another desires. People wish to be happy, and a sunset sources the chemicals that grant this. When we ourselves feel happy, we have a more positive outlook towards life, which makes us more likely to regard the things around us as being of beauty.

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Hawaii

The changing of colours that come with a sunset- from yellow to orange to red to violet – is unusual in that we are not used to seeing these colours during most of the day. The element of being unique can contribute to notions of beauty. Strong colours in the sky cast a glow over the land which we become immersed in, leading to a sense of escapism as if we are in a different world. When the colours reflect on water, a sparkling path invites us closer to the warm sun, which leads onto my next point…

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Vancouver Island

Changing colours around the Gulf Islands

We rely on the sun to live, because light is our planet’s main source of energy. Without photosynthesis, we and the other wonderful organisms that decorate the Earth wouldn’t be alive. A factor that contributes to visions of human beauty is health – healthy skin, healthy teeth, healthy hair. The health benefits of the sun therefore give it a saintly status; we regard it as beautiful because its physical effects make us as individuals feel beautiful. But it is only at sunset when we are safe to look at the sun and really appreciate its features and what it does for us. Just like we can describe a generous human as having ‘a beautiful soul’, describing the setting sun as beautiful is a (perhaps subconscious) way to express gratitude for yet another day of preserving and nurturing life.

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Tofino

Sunset may also be regarded as beautiful because of its accessibility.  Some people see it more than others depending on their country’s climate and location. To those ‘others’, the lesser ease of access to the sun’s company makes sunset seem more pure and beautiful in its value – like a holy temple that one must undertake a pilgrimage to see, or a highly-renowned hidden jewel that grants the power of immortality.

Sunset softens the surrounding landscape and gives it a new dimension that we may not have noticed in the daytime. It can add charm and character to a prairie landscape or bland city and help define key features. The silhouettes a sunset creates cause contrast, arousing a sense of mystery.  A sunset highlights patterns in the clouds which capture our imagination, as we try to trace recognisable shapes.  Ripples in the water off Vancouver Island become more noticeable in their neatness, as if each has been carefully crafted by hand.  Sunset stimulates our visual and emotional creativity.

Sunset in the Grand Tetons, Wyoming

Grand Tetons

…and after

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Vancouver Island

Sunset is also something that we have no control over, and that aspect, whether you believe it to be caused by science or a religious being, captivates and fascinates us. From certain places such as the Grand View Point Overlook in Utah’s Canyonlands, one can’t tell where the sun is disappearing to. It looks like it will simply merge into the ground and flow out in all directions like lava. When it doesn’t, we often think nothing of it and do something else now that the show is over. But when you really think further than all the prettiness, our planet has just rotated without us even realising – a significant and yet minor process when one considers that this activity occurs alongside the other under-acknowledged activity in our huge solar system, which itself is just one of billions of galaxies. If you take a moment to really consider what’s going on behind the scenes, it’s a pretty beautiful thought.

Canyonlands

Early sunset in Canyonlands

Canyonlands

Goodnight from the Grand View Point Overlook

On a road trip, the sun’s slow setting encourages us to carry on going, teasing and taunting us so that we feel inclined to chase it. The sun can keep us company and out of boredom, we hope that its remaining light will lead us to our final destination for the day, somewhere interesting. It really can be ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’.

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Sunset even seems to make the surrounding environment and wildlife appear peaceful. We associate it with sweet bird song and the chatter of insects. It signals the winding-down of the day, with its slow process helping us to de-stress from a busy day. Psychologically, we can associate it with having accomplished something in the daytime and subsequently earned rest.

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Serenity in the Black Forest, Germany

Sometimes, the setting sun might make us feel sombre, as it symbolises the final hours of a beautiful journey and the closing of another chapter of life. But is any strong emotion that is inspired by something physical not beautiful in some way?

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Vancouver Island

To sum up, sunset is perhaps beautiful not necessarily just because of the visual aesthetics, but because of the secondary emotional, mental and physical associations that it stimulates.

In Search of Natural Beauty

I have an issue with aspects of the no-make up selfies that we have seen filling up our Facebook newsfeeds for the past couple of months. Whilst it is undoubtedly fantastic that the social-media based campaign has raised millions of money for and increased awareness of breast cancer research, the process has also highlighted just how uncommon not wearing make-up has become.

We ‘like’ these selfies of our friends and comment on how beautiful they look, as if supporting them through a difficult time. Through this we make being in photos while wearing no make-up a big deal, and I find that unnecessary. Even worse, there are people taking these ‘selfies’ who clearly are STILL wearing make-up. And that’s saddening, especially since I’m pretty sure the original ‘no make-up selfie’ was intended to promote the bare, untouched face of a woman, following the slating of Kim Novak’s appearance at this year’s Oscars. I believe ‘solidarity’ was the goal of Laura Lippman  when she posted a no make-up selfie in support of Novak, challenging other women to do the same. And yet through the adapted Facebook/Twitter phenomenon of a #nomakeupselfieforcancer, females have been totally contradicting this original purpose. ‘Come on girls’ and ‘let’s do it for breast cancer’ are some of the captions I’ve read that accompany these selfies where one can see a trace of eye liner and lack of bags under the eyes (somewhat surprising given that it’s dissertation/revision period). The captions promote female empowerment, but the photos tell a lie.

I uploaded onto Facebook a selfie featuring my dog, taken on a walk back home in North Yorkshire. I hadn’t been nominated for the breast cancer campaign, but I quoted the words ‘no make-up selfie’  in the caption, partly because I wanted to highlight how taking a selfie without make-up has almost become only justifiable if it’s as a one-off or for charity. But great as this organisation is, why should we require an incentive to raise money and awareness for a certain cause in order to go bare-faced for the camera? Make-up is a security, giving people the confidence to be seen by others. When it’s taken away, that confidence crumbles like that very powder used to mask one’s face, one’s visual reality.

Why have women become so reliant on make-up? Is it really the case that most fear no man will find them attractive and want to talk to them if they are not wearing it? Or is it just that the ‘like’ culture of Facebook has made us too scared to risk not reaching those all-important double figures? One can simply not afford to leave pimples uncovered and eyelashes unpainted when striving for the sense of appreciation and fulfilment that comes with a Facebook ‘like’.  These have become a form of assessment, through which we can think ‘this means I’m considered good-looking’. We evaluate our friendships through this ‘like’ system, even asking jokily (but not really joking) why our flatmates/coursemates/teammates haven’t ‘liked’ a photo. We ask them to top us up to 20 – a favour to help show our ‘Facebook friends’ how many ‘real friends’ we have. Even more tragically, the MySpace days of ‘pc4pc’ seem to be returning, with people ‘liking’ a photo of someone that they don’t actually like in real terms, just because they feel they should return the gesture. It’s also a comparative process, whereby girls find themselves in competition with each other, mainly for male attention. We’ve all been there when we were interested in a boy and felt offended when he didn’t ‘like’ our latest profile photo. “Does it mean he doesn’t find me attractive?” is the natural response. “Why did he ‘like’ her photo but not mine – does he like her?” is the next, even more paranoid reaction. It’s become so ingrained in Facebook-active females to the extent that being told in person that we look nice in the photo is not quite good enough for our ego – we want other people to see that others think this of us.

I’m not going to pretend that I’ve not felt my shoulders rise slightly after receiving quite a few ‘likes’ for a photo. Furthermore, I’m definitely not innocent of uploading a profile photo of myself because I think my face/ hair/legs look quite good, whilst avoiding choices that highlight the bend in my broken nose/chickenpox scars on my face/my weird right eye that always seems to look smaller than the left when I smile. But I think I’m safe in saying that these vain choices are matched by photos from my travels; photos where the landscape is the main focus, and I’m just there to say ‘I was here’/’I did this’ (albeit with a pose that still gets plenty of stick – it’s fine by the way, I can take it…) In that case it is the landscape earning a ‘like’ rather than one’s face – possibly the most genuine and rewarding ‘like’ of them all, because it shows appreciation for something one did or took, not how they look.

That’s one of the positive things I find about travelling. It is the beauty of the landscape, not the person in it, which matters. And travelling alone means there is no pressure from others to look a certain way. There is no need to wear make-up, because being in a place where you don’t know anyone means that there is no sense of having to impress anyone. Seeing and discovering wonders of the world highlights that there are so many more valuable things on the planet than the comfort of being told that someone finds you attractive. A lack of make-up makes the whole experience feel more natural – a detox for the body and mind, skin and brain. One can just get lost in a world untouched by chemicals and artificial light – an image whose beauty is formed from a natural foundation, not one from a tube.

If people I come across whilst travelling don’t think I look attractive, so what? Afterall, I’ll probably never see them again. Of course there are times when you see a good-looking boy and immediately panic about your so-fair-they-mayaswell-not-exist eyelashes and that spot on your chin. But surely it is quite stereotypical of us as females to assume that a man will take into account how attractive we are when deciding whether or not to speak to us? We seem to have forgotten that looks aren’t everything. One of the many things that travelling has taught me is that at the end of the day, guys don’t really care how ‘pretty’ you are, if you are an interesting person who they can have a laugh with. People travel hoping to meet other people along the way. Sometimes when alone in a quiet place, the potential for a companion is nice. How they look is irrelevant. And if a guy does care, is he really worth an hour of putting stuff on your face?

I’ve had some of the most fun travelling whilst hanging out with guys, unleashing my inner tomboy. The fact that I wasn’t wearing make-up at the time meant nothing, and I remain good friends with them. It was the fact that I didn’t let consciousness about my gender and the stereotypes associated with it affect my behaviour that made us get on so well. Long-boarding downhill (complete with one or two falls), swimming in snake-inviting creeks, hiking up steep, muddy paths – they don’t have the most potential for looking attractive, but they are the sorts of activities that make you realise that appearance really isn’t that important when so many other things are going on around you.

From these experiences, I’ve found it even easier back on familiar ground to walk bare-faced through London, the place where everyone supposedly cares about always looking good, exposing myself two or three days a week to the many eyes of people as they go about their business – people who I know will not be thinking about how I look.  Someone on social media at 8am is more likely to be scrutinising your face for imperfections, than the lady sat opposite you on the tube at this time. Facebook is now the main forum for our visual judgments, a cyber world of vanity and competition, where the screen keeps us safe from criticism of our shallowness. It is actually in the real world where we are more likely to escape this image-obsession, because believe it or not, here there is so much more for people to look at than someone’s face.

So by all means carry on taking your no make-up selfies to raise money for breast cancer research. But regardless of the campaign, I challenge you to leave your house for a class or work one day with no make-up on, where Instagram can’t protect you, and the Facebook ‘like’ won’t be there to reassure you that you are considered attractive. Let your skin breathe and enjoy not having to worry about smudged mascara. And in doing so, think to yourself: ‘Who really cares that I’m not wearing make-up?’ Because the fact is that whoever does is not going to make your life significantly worse. And if they are, you could just ‘unfriend’ them.