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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An Autumn Weekend in Whistler for the Non-Skier

Host city of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler is a commercialised town that thrives off the stream of tourist activity which mounts in the run-up to winter. It’s similar in its appearance and character to the Rocky Mountain emerald of Banff in Alberta (think Swiss-style chalets and designer shops). Skiing is the main attraction here, but if powder isn’t your thing, don’t panic! There are still plenty of things to do on a long autumn weekend in Whistler without getting on the slopes.

Activities all Around

As an Olympic host city, you can expect premium quality from Whistler when it comes to available activities.

Hiking options are aplenty for all levels. You can join part of the 180km Sea-to-Sky trail which runs between Squamish and D’Arcy. A segment of the 33km section running through Whistler passes three lakes: Alpha, Nita and Alta, all of which have their own parks for eating and leisure. Trails are mainly flat and paved, attracting either those who fancy a slow stroll accompanied by coffee flasks and gossip with a friend, or those wanting an early morning solo powerwalk. Experienced hikers can attempt the more challenging 16km-return Rainbow Trail which starts from Rainbow Park on Alta Lake.

The west side of Alta Lake provides a great view of the mountains, even if they’re not sprinkled with snow. Kayakers and paddle-boarders can often be seen cruising along the water. Lost Lake is a secluded place where tourists escape to from the hustle and bustle of Whistler Village, and youths hang out and play guitar on the beach. It provides a great running loop for burning off the sweet treats that will inevitably find their way into your stomach if you visit Whistler.

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For those wanting to move at a faster pace, Whistler is also great for cycling. There are fun gravel routes for off-road biking near Lost Lake. If you stay at UBC Lodge in Whistler Creekside, bikes can be rented for $20 a day.

If you prefer more laid-back sports, Whistler is not shy of golf courses. There is also the swanky Scandinave Spa for those in need of a massage after a long day of hiking. Those tight on pennies don’t have to splash out though ($162 Deep Tissue Package – ouch!); UBC Lodge residents have free access to the hostel’s spa and sauna.

Fill me with Food

There are plenty of eating options available in Whistler Village that cater for various budgets and world tastes.

For a cheap and cheerful breakfast that will fill you up until the late afternoon, I recommend heading to Gone Village Eatery in Village Square where you can have hearty meals for around the $10 mark. Orders are taken and paid for at the counter and there is a washing area for to diners clean up their dishes themselves. This café is also located behind a cool bookstore.

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For lunch, El Furniture’s Warehouse offers a meal for only $4.95. Mainly filled with youths keen to watch ice hockey and NFL on TV, this place serves food that is nothing special (think burgers and mac ’n’ cheese) but it’ll fill you up for a few hours of wandering around. Dups Burritos makes tasty Mexican food priced around the $10 mark. For take-out, the renowned Peaked Pies has savoury and sweet options. Got cash to splash for dinner? Head to restaurants like Caramba! and The Keg Steakhouse for higher-end cuisine.

If visiting Whistler in the fall, it’s likely that at some point you’ll need a hot drink to warm your hands. Good cafes include Pure Bread and Moguls. Both are quite popular and hence pretty small when it comes to seating space, but the $5 cake slices look incredible! Moguls also offers many healthy savoury options.

Craving a sweet treat after an active afternoon? The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory will satisfy your needs. A dazzling display of decorated toffee apples, flavoured fudge, chunky cookies and hand-crafted chocolates awaits you. Naturally the prices in this chocolatier don’t match ‘Save on Foods’ and deciding on one item is difficult, but the chocolate chip cookie topped with dark chocolate, caramel, nuts and raisins is so worth that $7. Just be sure to brush your teeth extra well at bedtime… Another place to check out is Hot Buns Bakery for its famous cinnamon buns and crepes, while Cow’s Whistler sells ice cream and milkshakes made fresh in front of your eyes from a Prince Edward Island recipe.

For home-cooked meals, there are two large grocery stores in Whistler Village: IGA in the marketplace and Whistler Village Grocery Store in Village Square.

With so many more dining options available, it wouldn’t be surprising if you spent most of your money on food during your weekend in Whistler…

Ease of Entertainment

Most shops in Whistler cater for hikers, skiers and snowboarders but there are also fashion and jewellery outlets available including GAP, Pandora and Footlocker. Even if, like myself, you’re not into these things, you can still get some fun out of window-shopping the many stores along the Village Stroll.

Picnics can be eaten on the Medals Pavilion next to the Olympic monument. Here kids run around playing games, glamorous moms in ski-based attire drink smoothies… and the odd couple perform yoga exercises. You can observe the activity from the comfort of one of the big chairs.

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Worth a visit is the Squamish Cultural Centre just outside Upper Village. This exhibits First Nation crafts including Totem poles and canoe boats, with plenty of photos illustrating the connection of these people to the land. You’ll find out interesting information, such as the tradition that newborns are given one name at birth before receiving their permanent ancestral one at adolescence. One memorable photo depicted two mountain peaks which represent two princesses who begged their husbands not to engage in a war.  Entry to the museum costs $18.

Whistler is quite the party town, featuring many bistros that turn into cocktail and wine bars; public houses offering locally sourced craft beers; and three nightclubs. Promoters will often be on the street with big smiles inviting people to join their weekly bar crawl. The last BC Transit bus departs at 12.59am. Any later than this and you’ll be needing a cab.

Getting There and Around

Buses through town come regularly. A single journey in Whistler costs $2.50 (as opposed to $1.75 in the smaller nearby Squamish). Save yourself from rummaging in your purse for cash by paying $22.50 for 10 tickets at the visitor centre near the main bus stop. The staff here are bilingual and very helpful with recommending activities tailored to your interests. Free shuttles run to the Marketplace from November to April and from the Village to Lost Lake in the summer season.

If you’re not driving, Greyhound and Pacific Coaches are the main transportation services, taking two and a half hours to/from Vancouver. The latter is more expensive, however it does offer pick-up and drop-off at Vancouver airport and selected hotels.

Whistler to some is, like Banff, too touristy, plastic and expensive. Hosting the Olympics inevitably boosted redevelopment of its commercial face. It’s definitely not like the more simplistic rural Canada I fell in love with, and yes, you are bound to encounter the odd rich  foreign skiing-nut. However it’s definitely worth seeing just for the experience and for the natural beauty that surrounds the village. Don’t feel unwelcome because you haven’t brought your skis with you; come along to Whistler for a weekend and treat yourself to a bit of commercial charm.

 

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Bear in Mind: Preparing for a Scare in Glacier National Park

‘Failure to prepare means preparation to fail’: that’s something we’re told growing up, whether in school or before competitions. You would think the same motto applied to travel, and in most cases it does. However, the most memorable experiences from travelling do not necessarily arise from preparation, but pure unpredictable chance.

When I started my road trip through the USA, I didn’t consider the possibility of seeing a grizzly bear to be very high. Having not seen one in the Canadian Rockies three years earlier (a black bear from inside a bus doesn’t count), I assumed history would repeat itself, regardless of the breed’s higher population in Montana. Only when my travel buddy and I were walking along the interestingly-named Thunder Knob trail in Washington’s North Cascades one morning,  did the prospect of coming across a bear seem greater. A clanging noise grew louder through the trees and we passed a couple in expert hiking gear walking their dog with a bell attached to its collar. My friend looked down at his outfit and said, “Okay, now I feel unprepared.”

Views of Diablo Lake from the Thunder Knob trail

Views of Diablo Lake from the Thunder Knob trail

In Glacier National Park in Montana, tourists are briefed to prepare themselves for seeing a bear. On arrival at the park’s entry stations, drivers are handed leaflets explaining what to do in the event that they encounter one. (Interestingly, this leaflet recommended making occasional bursts of noise, rather than a constant sound.) Bears were described as more likely to avoid human contact than pursue it, but that didn’t make a backcountry hike seem any less risky.

We drove on to Bowman Lake, the secluded ‘primitive’ campground (‘primitive’ meaning there were pit toilets and no showers, hence a subsequent cheaper price of $15 per night). From the park’s west entrance to the campground in the north-west, it’s a 32 mile drive which mostly involves dusty gravel roads, switchbacks and plenty of potholes. Some cars turned back, fed up with the slow-driving conditions. At six miles, Polebridge is the closest ‘village’ to the campground for stocking up on supplies. A small female ranger at the entry station greeted us and we asked her for clarification of what to do upon coming face to face with a grizzly. “Oh well…you know… you just want to show the bear that is has plenty of space to pass,” the lady began slowly in a cute high-pitched voice, tucking some hair behind her ear. “Just stand still and be nice and calm, you know – ‘hey bear’,” the lady’s tone piped higher as she mimed a shy tiny wave that stemmed from her wrist. “Let him know you’re not a threat, you know, just relax…and back off slowly.” We nodded at her and I bit my lip to stop myself laughing at the thought of this little lady waving up a grizzly saying “hey bear”.

Many more potholes and tight pull-overs later, we were rewarded for our patience by views of Bowman Lake with its scenic mountainous backdrop, before we found a spot in the rustic campground. Accompanying the descriptions of each 12 mile-return hike was a warning about bears. All these warnings, understandable as they were, made me a little nervous. As we set off on a hike along the Lower Quartz Lake trail, I found myself constantly looking over my shoulder, occasionally calling out “hey bear!” in a voice that sounded way too wimpy. Blood flowed to the tips of my toes and fingers. I was in flight-mode and instructions saying to stay still and not run away upon meeting a bear did not seem realistically achievable. I certainly wasn’t going to stand there saying hello with a wave…

An anxious walk along the Lower Quartz Trail

An anxious walk along the Lower Quartz Trail

Why was I so worried? This wasn’t like me. Was it because I was with (male) company that I felt a greater excuse to be scared? Or was it because all these warnings increased the expectation of being confronted by a huge animal? It probably didn’t help that my friend, walking behind me, began telling me a story he’d read about a mountain lion leaping from a tree onto a man’s neck in Washington. I laughed sarcastically to suggest I didn’t believe him, all the while glad he was behind so he couldn’t see me scan the trees suspiciously. “I doubt we’ll see one to be honest…” he then said reassuringly, and I felt a little better. “…But if we do and it comes for us, I want you to run away while I distract it.”

I wheeled round and cried for him to stop it, unable to bear the thought (ha). ‘I am never going travelling with a boy again,’ I thought as we carried on up the path, with him now singing a made-up song to a bear in a baritone voice. “Can we turn around now?” I asked a few minutes later. “Are you really that worried?” he asked in surprise. I don’t think I was; I too was starting to believe we wouldn’t see a bear. But the anticipation of doing so was making me skittish, frustrated with the boring trail. “Okay, okay, 10 more ‘hey bears’ and then we’ll head back,” my friend promised. When we got to 10 I turned around and took off running for home, side-stepping tree trunks and skipping roots in the ground. The potential danger had charged me with adrenaline and I felt a mixture of anxiety and excitement as I dashed back along the trail, blood pumping, not looking back. It was a feeling reminiscent of that I’d experienced in BC in 2011. We reached Bowman Lake breathless with fatigue, relief and laughter, and jumped into the glacial lake, fears forgotten in the freezing cold water.

After all the cautions and expectations, we had not seen a grizzly bear. ‘That’s how it always seems to go,’ I thought. Both of us agreed that we probably wouldn’t see one the whole time we were in the park.

Beautiful (but cold!) Bowman Lake - the 3rd largest in Glacier National Park

Beautiful (but cold!) Bowman Lake – the third largest in Glacier National Park

A day later, we had made our way along the incredible Going-to-the-Sun road and stopped to make sandwiches at the quiet picnic area in St. Mary. As I innocently opened the trunk to find the bread, a French lady nearby started gabbling excitedly to her husband and grabbed a camera. Intrigued, we followed her to the edge of the picnic area where a few other people had gathered, whispering giddily. 20 metres away, a small grizzly strolled casually out of a narrow path and ambled past the picnic benches, oblivious to the humans staring at him in fascination. “He looks pretty young…” my friend remarked pointedly, but still people crept out from the bush to take a closer shot as the bear wandered on absent-mindedly into another pathway. Two couples peeped out from the path the bear came from and called over “Has it gone?” French-couple waved them over. “I’m pretty sure it was a cub,” my friend said louder, but again, his hint wasn’t registered. However, it soon became clear the bear was alone, and people went back to eating their sandwiches, as if nothing had happened. Indeed, it was almost as if it was the thousandth one I’d seen; there was no overwhelming rush of fear or excitement as I had expected, perhaps because I had been bracing myself for this moment for a while, and because the sighting had occurred in a more populous area and with less drama than I had anticipated.

"hey bear"

“hey bear”

A few minutes later, we ourselves walked along the very path the bear had emerged from to sit at the edge of St. Mary Lake. Even though there was a fresh pile of bear dung feet away, decorated oh so prettily with huckleberries, I didn’t feel nervous at all, completely unfazed by the possibility that this bear might return the way it had come. Likewise, the first mile of a hike to Otokomi Lake later that afternoon featured bear droppings every 100 metres or so, but still I felt no fear. Finishing the 10 mile-return trail in one piece, I joked light-heartedly, “Calling out ‘hey bear’ probably wasn’t the most sensible phrase to use.” My anxious anticipation had reduced now that I had actually seen the talk-of-the-town for myself.

Definitely makes the 5-a-day of huckleberries...

With this huckleberry consumption, bears definitely makes one of their 5-a-day…

Our sighting was an experience that many tourists diligently prepare for, researching promising time periods of activity and driving themselves to the most recommended locations before spending hours waiting there, all just to catch a glimpse of a grizzly bear. And yet, like forcing oneself to struggle until a math problem is solved or dance routine learned, it seems that trying too hard at sightseeing might even threaten progress. Events happen when you least expect them and are least prepared. It’s easy to get drawn into the hype of potentially seeing a special wild animal in risky circumstances; it’s the expectation created by this hype that can make us more nervous than is perhaps necessary, and subsequently less successful. I feel really lucky to have seen that bear, knowing that many tourists will leave Glacier National Park feeling disappointed about missing out. It almost seems unfair that it happened so easily. Sometimes people simply find themselves in the right place at the right time, and there are no bear necessities when preparing for this type of experience.

Pine Cones & Brown Bears: The Things We Can See From Running

The end of my degree is fast approaching and I’m starting to think about the things that I will (and won’t) miss from university. While in time I may indeed start to miss 9am seminars, hoarding through countless books and articles late in the library, filling in footnotes on essays, and the ear-splittingly aggressive chants of the hockey girls in the union bar, it will be my time in the university’s running club that I’ll miss most.

Presiding over a sports club has had a greater emotional impact than I expected. Being a ‘figurehead’ inevitably makes one more passionate about the sport they represent, and subsequently keen to encourage others to share this enthusiasm. There has been nothing more fulfilling than seeing people show up to a first session with a pessimistic outlook, only to see them again a few weeks later, finishing the session with a smile and saying, “I’m really glad I made myself do that extra set.” Nobody probably notices the little beam of delight on my face when I hear such comments, or watch someone who originally couldn’t complete the warm up running with a new fluidity. It’s a sight that inspires me for my own running too. I’ve witnessed people do things that they originally insisted they couldn’t, simultaneously surprising myself with how much I enjoy and can cope with being a ‘leader’ of a large group. The experience has highlighted how reciprocal the psychological effects of running with others can be, regardless of age or ability.

But the great thing about encouraging others to run, and being encouraged by them, is that it doesn’t just have to take place in school or university. It can be done anywhere, including when travelling. I’m not sure I would have adapted so comfortably to my role was it not for my help-exchange experiences. It was during an evening run in Canada when I particularly learned how when it comes down to significant circumstances, anybody can take the lead.

My first homestay experience was in British Columbia, where on one evening I was asked by a mother to take her 12 year old son out for a run. Ice hockey season would be starting soon and he needed to get fit. The family lived on a farm near Shuswap Lake, which we would go swimming in with the dogs and horses. I stretched outside, admiring the melting beams of light oozing from the lowering sun onto the placid surface, until the boy appeared reluctantly. We walked down the sandy drive to the road not saying much, my comment on it being a “lovely evening for a run” provoking only a greater look of dread on the boy’s face. I didn’t know the area well at all, nor the boy’s level of fitness. Watching him swing his arms half-heartedly by his rather tubby torso, head down as he scuffed his trainers over the pine cones on the gravel, I figured we would just go for a gentle jog for a couple of miles. Cars barely touched the road that was sandwiched between dark sheets of fir trees.

The sweet smell of pine fragranced the air as we set off. A delicate humming of midges serenaded my ears, soon interrupted by the sound of the boy panting behind me. Eh oh. Was I going too fast? I didn’t think anyone had mentioned asthma..? I told him to think about his breathing – in through the nose, out through the mouth – wary of sounding patronising…but also of causing my host’s son to collapse. When I glanced behind me to make sure he was still alive, a frown of concentration was etched on his face as he inhaled deeply before blowing out, his eyes fixed straight ahead of him determinedly. “Good! That’s much better,” I said encouragingly. He nodded his thanks, eyes still focused ahead. I considered trying to make conversation, only to decide it wouldn’t help with his rhythm. Occasional calls of “Keep it up!” and “You’re doing really well!” received no verbal response. And so I carried on running in front, letting the sound of pine needles crunching under my trainers entertain me instead and distract from any awkwardness.

A few painfully un-conversational minutes later, the road curved uphill slightly to the right. I had no idea where we were going but carried on regardless, staring at the grey tarmac as if it might contain chalk-written signs telling me something funny to say to lighten the mood. Suddenly the boy piped up with breathless gasps: “Okay… we should probably…start talking now… so that…the bears don’t come.” My head jerked up in alarm. Bears? Nobody had mentioned bears! The faint, innocent smell of lemon in the air suddenly became blotched with an overriding aroma of panic. But being the ‘adult’ here, I told myself I had to remain calm. I swallowed and attempted a casual, “Oh, okay,” hoping I didn’t sound too squeaky, before offhandedly suggesting we turn back. “Yeah,” the boy replied earnestly with a greater fluency of speech that seemed to reflect his new-found authority, “and you should probably run behind me now, because although I may not be too great at this long-distance stuff, I can sure run fast when I have to!”

I bit my lip, trying not to laugh as I obediently slowed to let him overtake. His sudden entrance into protective mode was adorable, providing a brief distraction from the startling issue at hand. “Oh I’m sure we’ll be fine, but yeah, good idea,” I said in a confident tone, before immediately casting a fleeting look over my shoulder at the pine trees to the side. “If you see anything, just follow me,” the boy instructed, as I just avoided stepping on his heels after another cautious glance behind me. I asked him about school and his interests, the words ‘bear bear bear’ running through my mind in time with my quickening footsteps. As he explained the rules of ice hockey to me, I tried to decide which would sound better: ‘I’m really sorry, but your son had a cardiac arrest’, or, ‘I’m really sorry, but your son got mauled by a bear’. Nothing could have prepared me for this.

But gradually through maintaining conversation I became more relaxed and the frequency of anxious peeks over my shoulder decreased. While I would continue to encourage him with desperate utterances of “That’s it, pick up those feet!” and “Doing great!”, he would puff “Almost there,” over his sagging shoulders, which would rise again resolutely every time I urged him on.

The sense of urgency caused the boy’s running to pick up immensely. We arrived back at the bottom of the drive exhausted from our mad dash, the boy bending over double puffing away. ‘He must hate me,’ I thought to myself as I wiped the sweat off my brow. But when he stood up straight, spread across his face was a grin of both relief and pride. “It’s true, you can run fast when you have to!” I remarked teasingly, and I held my hand up for a high five. The boy returned it, sealing what became the beginning of a great ‘brother-sister’ relationship for the remainder of my stay. I felt proud of him, knowing that he probably hadn’t run that fast for such a distance before. And I felt proud of myself too. Having never had a younger brother, just trying to persuade an unfit lad to keep running whilst being responsible for his welfare was a new enough experience, before the small matter of bears came up.

Being in a position of responsibility had made me act more calmly than I probably would have if alone, simply because I felt a duty of care to someone; a sense of duty that would have appeared with any child. And at the same time, the young boy had adopted a protective persona that disguised his real fear, feeling that it was his duty to take charge because of knowing the area best, and because of this belief that, as the male, he should look out for the female guest.  A true little gent. Or at least I thought so until it occurred that he’d organised things so that I would be the first to be eaten…

This memory is what always comes to my mind when people ask how I can enjoy running so much. It can do so much for human relations, mainly because of the various contexts in which it can take place. Everyone knows that marathon runners form great friendships because all share a sense of accomplishment, which they have achieved having helped one another get through the process. But this effect of running doesn’t only come from huge distances or competitive settings. In this instance, the boy and I had become closer through a shared sense of fear, with the act of running helping to bring us together through our mutual support and dependence. Someone comparing the before-and-after scenes at the bottom of the drive couldn’t have failed to notice how paradoxical they were, following just 20 minutes of running. I’ve continued to see such sights whilst training with my university team mates.

It only really hit me recently that there probably wasn’t actually any real danger of being chased by a bear – it was perhaps a rumour that the boy’s young, gullible mind had believed. Or maybe he had even made it up so we could head back early, thinking that the girl with bright blonde hair and a funny accent would probably fall for it. But even if that was what happened, I’m glad for it, because of how much the experience helped me get the most out of running while at university. I’ll truly miss walking out of Regents Park with stories and special moments to look back on from the training session, but if I keep running, I know that there will be so many more of these to come.

Travel & Trainers: An Evening Run Around Selfoss

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/