To read the blog post on travelola.org, click on the post link below or visit the Wanderlust website by clicking the Wanderlust logo.
- 9 reasons why solo travel is great (travelola.org)
To read the blog post on travelola.org, click on the post link below or visit the Wanderlust website by clicking the Wanderlust logo.
What to do when solo travel stops being solo travel? When it becomes group travel? Or couple travel? Maybe the adventures are enriched by shared experiences, maybe the chatter and laughter rolls on late into the night, maybe great plans for the next day are derived around a camp fire or hostel kitchen table.
But maybe something inside of you yearns to sail your own ship again, to break free of noise, to just be yourself by yourself.
It happened to me.
A little over a year ago I was bussing from Brazil to Bolivia, practising Spanish with people in the street, dancing with crowds at random festivals, eating birthday cake with local families and following Che Guevara’s final footsteps. Sure, at times I was mingling with others, but so much of my days were spent and decisions made on a solo basis.
Sometimes I was lonely but mostly I was open to meeting whatever people and adventures presented themselves. My heart and mind were open to the world, to life.
Fast forward to March 2013 and I was employed, in a relationship and had signed a 12 month lease on a town house. A desire to be part of something and to belong took over. And whilst my heart felt other joys, my world closed in. Just a little bit.
And so when all sorts of things built up into a crazy head spin, I followed the scent of my traveller blood and did what made me feel real and alive, and I walked out of my share house, into the houses and onto the couches of friends and soon to be friends.
But what about the solo stuff? Not being on anyone else’s schedule? Not having to be considerate of anyone else for a moment? If I was to get back to a place of generosity and warm spirit, I needed a moment of quiet and a moment of selfishness.
The instant that I booked a tipi nearby one of my favourite beaches within a National Park barely an hour away from my Aussie life, I felt my spirits lift. Adventure. Nature. The ocean. My tick tock.
And now I find myself at the end of a week of small time adventuring feeling almost ready to return to the cosiness and rhythm of settled life.
Just one more night, alone, before I rejoin the party.
Travel, I realise, doesn’t have to be about far away places and exotic appeal. It’s about tapping into that feeling of exploration and freedom, and keeping it local can work just as well.
As I sat on the flat, spongy mattress of a cobbled together dorm room near the airport on the island of Tahiti listening to the woes of an eighteen year old French lad who’d had his money and laptop stolen whilst on a cruise out to the Tuamotus and now didn’t have any other option but to wait for a flight home, I realised that this too was the end of my journey.
Well, not really. If Stage 1 had been my initial South American adventures within Ecuador and Peru, and Stage 2 my previous time in Australia and New Zealand, then this travel through Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador followed by a delivery sail from the Galapagos Islands to Tahiti could be deemed Stage 3.
So Stage 3 was drawing to a close. There would still be more adventures up ahead, surely?
One of my favourite modern-day philosophers, Alain de Botton, says: ‘We’re getting better at learning how to structure journeys so that they can assuage what we’re lacking within us.’ And when I looked inside myself and questioned what was lacking (and causing a bit of concern), it was simple: health, familiarity, money. And a big, fat cuddle.
The biggest issue was my health, and my body was begging me to settle for a while. In the last few months, Bolivia had physically punished me and although I’d felt fairly healthy – inactive but healthy – during the Pacific crossing, now Tahiti had delivered up a fever thanks to some tropical sores, sores that stretched the skin on my left leg so tight that touch shot sharp tingles right down to my foot and up to my thigh. My immune system was shot. (I think if you’d told me then that I’d still have another two loads of antibiotics coming up once I was back in Australia, I would have cried. Seven lots of antibiotics within six months? Sorry body. Some people deal better with South America.)
I booked the cheapest flight back to Australia that I could find. But where to? Melbourne had been my original choice destination, a cultural city with opportunities for work and an agreeable cost of living, but Sydney was starting to appeal to me with its sailing scene. So why was I descending into a peachy, sunset Brisbane in mid-June?
I thought back to my French friend and hoped that his misfortunes hadn’t overly soured his impressions of paradise or deterred him from the wonders of travel. Life without travel, without adventure? Unimaginable.
I got off the plane, cursed the fact I’d worn flip-flops and a vest top as I shivered into an Aussie winter, and paused for a moment before I stepped through the Arrivals doors. My heart beating faster and a smile twitching on my lips, I pushed my airport trolley into a politely crowded Arrivals lounge. Still far from my UK home, Australia would be home for now.
Stage 4 starts. An empty page. Some good ideas, hopes and needs, but no plans or expectations. But definitely adventures. Always.
Be prepared: paradise costs a small fortune. Luckily, I was somewhat prepared for the pain. Over ten years ago some friends of mine were on a round the world ticket when they flew into Tahiti to surf, realised the cost of accommodation and living, and nearly hotfooted it straight out of the place. Beach sleeps led to police warnings but kind local bailouts meant that they ended up staying a while: surfing, fishing, catching wild pigs; all the idylls of island life.
But for most of us, accessing this reality of island life is a little more tough, and a more modern climate means accepting that everything here is a little on the pricy side.
Frustratingly, many of the trails and activities around the island have also been made into paid experiences that require a guide or a group excursion, and even a couple of the free ones require permits (see the tourist information centre for lots of information on island hikes and other activities).
In short, people have moved into Tahiti and the surrounding Society Islands and atolls and have commercialised the experience of paradise (in some places to a point that it pretty much stops being paradise, to me in any case). You can’t blame them for capitalising in on an exotic experience; it is after all, what our current world tells us to do.
Walk down the main streets of Papeete and you’ll pass by many designer shops and jewellers. Who comes here to go shopping? All the people moored up in fancy yachts, maybe, or the people who’ve jetted in on business class, or honeymooners on a romantic escape. Or regular, middle class folk who have scrimped and saved for a once in a lifetime taste of paradise. (Whether it’s actually paradise or not is a different matter). Or me and my crew. Hmmm… less likely.
I was lucky to be able to stay on board the boat for a few days because when I checked with the tourism agency about budget accommodation options, they came back to me with a guest house costing 7,200 CFP. That’s £49.07, or US$78.87. Not really budget, in my opinion, but maybe budget for the people who are more likely to frequent the Society Islands. I did some online searches, having paid a minimum of 3euros per hour for internet (no free WiFi available at all, and charged in Euros because of links with France), and I did eventually find a few backpacker friendly paces.
One little food fact that helped to keep costs down (alongside The Trucks experience) was the discovery that there is a policy on keeping the price of baguettes below 85 CFP (£0.58 / US$0.93) so that every member of the society there has the opportunity to buy bread. Stock up on the carbs, then, and free, fallen coconuts. Maybe not the healthiest, but it’s a diet that will keep you alive. For a little while, in any case. Or go catch a fish (just be careful with those coral fish).
Here’s an idea of some costs:
|Cour de Franc Pacifique||British Pound||US Dollar|
|Cheapest hostel bed||2,000 CFP pppn||£13.63||$21.90|
|Budget hotel bed||8,000p CFP ppn||£54.52||$87.62|
|Taxi||1,000 CFP per km||£6.82||$10.95|
|Cheap roadside meal||1,200 CFP||£8.18||$13.14|
|Water (1.5 litres)||104 CFP||£0.71||$1.14|
|Coca-cola can||200 CFP||£1.36||$2.19|
|Beer (50Cl) from supermarket||300 CFP||£2.04||$3.29|
|Icecream in a cone||300 CFP||£2.04||$3.29|
|Loaf of bread||450 CFP||£3.07||$4.93|
|Chocolate bar||350 CFP||£2.39||$3.83|
Realistically, though, Tahiti and the surrounding French Polynesian islands are not the smartest place to visit if you’re travelling tight, and budget backpackers may well want to avoid the place.
Money matters momentarily put aside, solo travellers – and especially single travellers – may also want to avoid this honeymoon area. Even if you can afford it, having constant reminders of stereotyped romance mixed in with pitying looks will ultimately grate on even the most established solo adventurer and happy singleton.
Or you can just enjoy it for what it is, accept that everything is expensive and that you’ll blow your budget, and indulge in being surrounded by snippets of paradise and luxury and love.
It’s really pretty damn special.
But it’s time for me to leave. I’m all spent.
Here’s wishing you all a 2013 full of adventure, good health and good times.
travelola.org will be starting the year with a couple of final posts from my time in French Polynesia before embarking on the next stage of this adventure, a more settled period back in Australia (but still far from family and friends in the UK).
Some planned posts include:
And! I’ve been putting together an ebook containing all travelola postings since July 2011. As I’ve been reading back over this journey, I’m reminded of some amazing moments that I’ve been lucky enough to experience, and I’d love to share them with you. Now I just need to get my head down and focus on the finish.
I’m really looking forward to meeting more great people, having lots of active fun and learning more about the world in 2013. I hope you’ll join me on my adventures.
Back in October 2002, two bombs went off in the midst of Kuta nightlife, killing 202 people, many of whome were travellers enjoying a bit of social time in Bali. Ten years on, survivors have returned to Indonesia to remember those who died in the blast.
I’ve met a few people on my travels who document their journeys, but often, like me, their writing focuses on foreign intrigue, on misunderstandings, on the quirks of being out of your comfort zone. Some travel writing goes deep and addresses the big ones, but so much stuff out there seems to only skim the surface of cultures and countries that would more than likely require a lifetime to properly understand.
And now as my own written journey looks to leave South America once again, I can’t help but think how fortunate I was during my travels throughout Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Brazil. No muggings, no violence, no hold-ups. South America, many people warned me, was still a highly dangerous place to visit, particularly as a solo female traveller. For some reason, I was undeterred, and I refused to buy into the scaremongering.
And South America showed me her beautiful sides, her warmth, generosity and a little dash of chaos. People opened their doors to me, invited me to socials, looked after me when I was sick and alone. And they encouraged me to keep an open mind and heart. I did at times feel uneasy, there were a few moments of military interrogation that shook me up, and in some places there were guys in the street shadows bearing batons. But no dramas for me, thankfully.
But of course not everyone is so lucky, I appreciate that. When I heard about the recent kidnapping of two tourists on the Ecuador-Colombia border, I stopped in my tracks. One of the captured women was my age. The girls were doing the same Cuyabeno jungle tour that I had done back in October 2011. And they described wading through the same mud that I vividly recall.
It could easily have been me. Not that that’s the point, but rather it made me reflect on travelling and timing, on coincidence and luck. These girls did nothing different to what I would have done. It’s not as though they could have been more savvy about the situation, unless you suggest that they should never have visited Ecuador in the first place (and the idea of never leaving ones home comforts out of fear would surely only serve to narrow our views on the world, to close off to different cultures and people? No, please don’t go there.). The girls were released, evidently traumatised, but alive.
Ecuador with its varied terrain and climate and wildlife remains my favourite South American country to travel in. This news won’t discourage me from going back, but it might make me more aware, more alert. Not that that would necessarily make a difference, though. The girls, having been through such an ordeal, may well feel very differently. I’d be curious to know whether it has affected their entire perception of the country.
Because how can such an event not impact on your entire psyche? On your attitude? Different people, I guess, will find different coping mechanisms for traumatic travel stories, ones that hopefully won’t quash their zest for adventure.
Returning to Bali in 2012, one girl who has worked towards finding some solace in the aftermath of the bombings is Hanabeth Luke.
In January 2012 I temporarily put down my backpack in New South Wales, Australia where I met Hanabeth, – a surf chick tomboy mixed with a good dash of feminine quirk and a twist of British. During chats I discovered that she was writing a book, something to do with the upcoming ten year anniversary of the Bali attacks, but I didn’t pry. It seemed too sensitive a subject for strangers.
As time has passed I’ve learnt more, although I’ve undoubtedly learnt more about the spirit of Hanabeth than the event itself. Being in the now is where we’ve been at, in some way as important as remembering. But I will read her book, and I will try to understand what surviving the Bali bomb feels like, what losing a love actually means. Right now it is beyond my comprehension.
The people returning to the place of the 2002 Bali bombings have had ten years now to try to make sense of what happened, ten years to grieve and reach some level of acceptance. I can’t imagine the process ever stops, and that for different people there will be different ways of working through the pain. Writing one’s journey, for example.
I’d been on the road for nearly a year and should know better, but somehow Galapagos was giving me a little test. This was the third example of stupidity since I’d arrived. First, I’d left my bank card at El Chato and had to pay for a taxi to take me back for it, completely cancelling out any financial benefits of sharing a ride there in the first place. Secondly, the whole ATM, no-money fiasco once I arrived at Isla Isabela.
And now this. I’d had this horrible feeling that I’d forgotten something, but then I often have that worry. Only this time it felt real.
Sure enough, once I got back to Puerto Ayora and unpacked my bags I realised I’d left my hard drive and banking key hidden under the mattress in the hotel on Isla Isabela. A two hour boat ride away. How silly.
Time to pull myself out of my drifty traveller dreamspace and tune back into reality, switch back on.
‘Dejo mi disco duro bajo el cochón en Hotel Sandrita en Isabela’. I was back on Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos trying my best to explain to Maria who ran Los Amigos in Puerto Ayora that I’d left my hard drive behind on Isla Isabela, trying to ask her for some help.
She got the phone books out, made a few enquiries and dialled me through to Señora America at Hotel Sandrita, the place I’d stayed over in Puerto Vilamil on Isla Isabella. ‘Ah yes’, said America, ‘I’ll send it through on a boat tomorrow. Be there at 0800’.
After barely four hours sleep I was up and standing bleary-eyed at the water’s edge trying to decide which boat was my boat. I hadn’t fully understood America’s instructions. My Spanish failed me. So I did the rounds and chatted to captains and crew, but no one had a parcel for me.
After some minutes a guy who had been skulking around (and also looked like it was too early for him to be up and about) approached me. ‘Are you looking for a parcel from Isabela? Are you Finola?’ he asked.
He directed me to a little office and sure enough, there was a small package. For me.
Oh happy day.
Privileged worries and a shallow blog posting ? Yes, maybe. But, a reality of backpacking nonetheless, and another story from the road.
I’d climbed Volcán Sierra Negra in the morning and was now back in the middle of Puerto Vilamil on the island of Isabela trying to figure out how to get back to Isla Santa Cruz where I was hoping to meet the captain of a catamaran bound for French Polynesia.
A hitch later and I arrived at the marina where I asked a couple of guys perched on some railings about boat times. ‘That man there’, one said, gesturing towards a guy walking towards us, ‘he’ll take you for $30’.
Half an hour later I found myself riding up top in the captain’s cab – up on the flybridge – whilst twenty nine kids and their teacher snuggled in downstairs under the sun protection of a tarp and the safety of a burly deckhand.
We bounced along, away from a sunny Isabela and towards an increasingly greying sky. Rain started to patter down.
‘Can you…?’ asked the skipper, pointing to the wheel and the captain’s seat, having clearly remembered my earlier jests about being able to captain his boat. My friend Ollie had pulled a similar trick back in 2011 during a trip between Koh Tao and the mainland in Thailand. Whilst he may have got away with dishing out a bit of bullshit in order to convince the crew that he could captain the small ferry, why did I think I could pull the same cheek?
‘I can drive it, you know’, I’d told him, ‘can I drive it?’ It had been a mischievous ask, and now he was off of his pew and I had to deliver. I jumped over into the hot seat whilst he pulled across the rain screen and secured things up top.
And in those few minutes that I turned the wheel the wrong way and in the moments that I tried to steer us on the least choppy path possible, all my Galapagos photos went sliding down the tarpaulin. My little camera made a secret escape attempt. Oblivious, I continued taking my steering seriously until captain finished up his rain mission and returned to his rightful duties.
I sat back in my co-pilot seat and pondered what lay ahead in my adventures beyond this Galapagos trip. This little moment at sea and at the helm had got me thinking: how would it feel to do three weeks without stopping? The stretch from Galapagos to Tahiti could either destroy me or cure me of my ocean fears, I figured.
And then, finally, I realised that my camera was missing. I did a panicked scout about, and the captain killed the engines. Because there she was, nestled on the edge of the tarpaulin, waiting for a big wave to give her enough lift to fly off into the sea. Burly deckhand reached up as we held our breaths; he would either knock her into the ocean depths or save her from a watery death.
Thankfully it was the latter and the remainder of the trip, although wet and stomach lurchingly rough, was accompanied by a little bit of fuzziness. My Galapagos photos may be poor compared to what other people manage to capture, but they’re still my photos, some of my memories.
Ah, another little adventure with a happy ending. (And I meant the fact we got the school group across from Isla Isabela to Isla Santa Cruz safe and sound. Of course. What were you thinking?!)
I’m sitting on a little stretch of beach in Puerto Villamil near to a hotel whose outdoor areas are covered in a blanket of sunbathing iguanas. I think back over what has been an interesting year full of big decisions, of solo traveling, of various dramas that have been emotionally consuming but far from unique in the bigger human picture. It has, undoubtedly, been full-on.
But now, I realise, I’m peaceful and content and grateful. I feel so, so lucky. The people I’ve met, the struggles I’ve overcome, the guidance, the goodness, the inspiration I’ve found at home and along my way. My eyes have been opened, my heart healed.
And then bang! – in a moment of stillness this great wave of love for life hits me. (Reading this may make some of you squirm and look away, but most of you will get it. At least I hope you will.)
And I’m feeling this all in paradise. Alone. On a beach.
A warm salty breeze dries my hair as I sit shading from a strong sun. I look around.
In the distance, boats and liveaboards bob about on a turquoise sea with a bit of chop. White seahorses ride messy waves that splash over black lava rocks and break onto a stretch of damp, golden sand. I can hear the light sound of laughter as a girl and boy scramble around on sharp stones and dip into a nearby rock pool.
Spiky, foot-long iguanas amble away from the water’s edge, back to their basking point on the wall of the deserted beach front hotel. A man wanders down and climbs into a hammock, rocking to the sound of small crashing waves and music that is spilling out of an empty, rundown bar.
For a moment, before the shrill whistle of a father calling his kids pierces the air and before an approaching tour group encroaches my space, I have my little slice of paradise.
La Isla Isabela, tu es bella.
‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ asked my family when I mentioned that I wanted to travel in Colombia, ‘why do you want to go?’ Having chatted to a Colombian girl who had told them that it’s not really a safe country, particularly for a solo female traveller, they were worried. Understandable.
But no need to worry! My new idea of crewing on a sailing yacht across the Pacific Ocean meant I’d have to skip Colombia in any case. In order to stay within a safe sailing window I had to act quickly and be in either Panama or Galapagos, Ecuador within the next few weeks. No cyclones and stormy seas for me, please. And Colombia? Well, it would have to wait.
Or would it?
As often happens, life likes to have a bit of a giggle. The cheapest flights I found routed me via Bogota, Colombia. And when in Colombia, even if just for a few hours, it would be rude not to check out a little of the capital.
Now, on hindsight, I wish I hadn’t bothered. Sure, I can smile about some of the confusion and discomfort and the waiting around, but was it really worth it? Hmmm…
I’d half hoped one of two friends might be waiting at arrivals for a few hours of brunch time catch-up, but the exit was lined with taxi touting middle-aged men. Although unsurprised, my heart sunk. Just a little. After nine months of travelling, arriving into places with no familiar faces to greet me was starting to become a bit tiresome. Ah, what I wouldn’t have done for a big hug, a warm smile and a friend to show me around.
But! – no time to get down in the dumps. Climb back into your gutsiness and get out there, girl! After changing up some money, I went for a chat with a guy in the tourist info point. He turned out to be a smartly suited bearer of bad news.
‘The city and all the interesting things are too far away for your stopover’, he told me. I thought momentarily about retreating back into the comforts of the airport lounge. No. Come on! I’m in Colombia! Let’s go live it, even if only for a moment. ‘You could get a bus to Gran Estación ’, he said, ‘There are shops and places to eat, and it’s only ten minutes away’.
Everyone stared hard at the solo gringa as she tried to figure out where to catch a ride, as she struggled to make sense of buses that bore signs stating that they were going to Gran Estación but actually weren’t going anywhere close. She was clearly no Latina and curiosity stopped the odd passer-by. If they looked a little beyond the straggly, mousey hair, the tall, fair-skinned body and the light, blue eyes, they would have seen a touch of deflation and a mood that was synonymous with the grey, morning sky.
And then at 930AM I was finally there, wandering around an empty shopping centre close to Bogota airport. Nondescript, homogenised, brand focused. Yawn. Do I project my excitement with enough conviction?
Within an hour everything was open and trickles of people got down to some serious spending, interspersed with fast food refuels.
After a few hours of watching the wealthier and professional people of Bogota meet with colleagues or tap away on laptops over a McCafé coffee, I reversed my Colombian journey back to the airport and a promise of a better tomorrow.
Ecuador, my love, I am returning to you.