Monday, June 6, 2016

Everyday Inspirations #2

Interview with a solo traveller

Today we chat with Jamie* about solo travelling and the 9 month mostly overland trip she took from Spain to Singapore. If you have ever wanted to know about the safety/ logistics of solo travelling or are interested in her takeaways, then do read on ☺

(*Note: name has been changed as she preferred the anonymity.)

Alone, but how could this be lonely? There are the mountains, the earth, the wind, the stillness, the history.”- Image by Jamie*

1) What made you decide to take your first solo trip?
This wasn’t my first solo trip, and by then, I had already been travelling by myself such that travelling solo wasn’t a question anymore.

I love travelling alone primarily because of the independence and freedom I have in every decision, and that it opens me up to many more people.

2) How long was the trip and where did you go?
9 months mostly overland from Spain to Singapore (see map).

Europe Leg

Asia Leg

3) How were the logistics?
I spent a total of SGD 2400 in the 9 months, including visas, flights, food, accommodation (or the lack of).

I took off with a 20 kg backpack, which included my DSLR and electronics, some food I emptied out of my fridge, and all the winter and summer clothes I thought I might need. I left everything else behind in Edinburgh.

The first 30min carrying this “monster” backpack (it was given this name by one of my fellow hosts on my journey) was heavy and long. I wasn’t sure if it was practical or possible to handle it for the next… year. It got lighter and I got stronger over the days.

I spent USD 2 on accommodation for the 9 months. $0.50 to a cute old lady whom I didn’t feel the need to explain what I was doing, and $1.50 at a place near the hospital where I refused to be hospitalised; both in Nepal. The other days I would have couchsurfed, stayed with friends/strangers, spent the night in a police station, been invited to my hitchhiking drivers’ homes, slept in a cave with a shepherd and his 200 goats… I had a roof over my head everyday, except for one night in an old town in Croatia. But even then the decision was voluntary (the roof offered to me was an hour in the other direction I was hoping to go to), and I took my roofless opportunity to experience the nightlife in the city. With my monster.

Dec 2014, Užice and Sevojno, Serbia, Hitchhiking in the fog- Image by Jamie*

For transport I mostly hitchhiked: with buses, cars, trucks, motorbikes, trains… It wasn’t so much a restriction I imposed on myself; I chose whatever the most convenient and comfortable way was. I snuck onto trains in India for long distance travels (without consent from the conductors of course, so you can't really call it hitchhiking.) I had to take a couple of flights due to visa problems (e.g. Iran, Pakistan, Myanmar).

Communication was never really a big problem. The basic words you really need like “water”, “food”, “house” can easily be communicated by a few charades. I am very interested in languages, so I try to learn the local language where I am. I also found out that learning the local language (even if very basic) will always open you up to a lot more people, their culture, and unexpected experiences.

For food- (laughs)- the best idea is to find families! There will always be a mummy (or occasionally, a daddy) who cooks the best local food, and will take care of you as if you were their child. I love cooking, so I try to learn recipes and go to local markets wherever I go.

4) Were there any points where you felt unsafe?
The first time I felt unsafe was when I arrived in India. I was told by every single person who had learnt about my plan to visit India alone as a female, that I was ‘stupid’ to go there alone. The sexual assault stories were all familiar to me by then. “Be careful and good luck,” they said.

Naturally, I was paranoid and on my guard the moment I arrived in India. But I realized that these views are not always true - India turned out to be not very different from the other places I had been. I soon felt safe again.

How would you advise solo travellers on unsafe situations?
Try to prevent any unsafe situation: 1) Don’t take unnecessary risks. 2) Respect the culture - do your research of the law and customs - eg. You can get arrested for not wearing the Hijab in Iran. In India, don’t wear shorts to attract unnecessary attention. 3) Make agreements with yourself about what you will and will not do. For me, I don’t (or at least, try not to) hitchhike overnight or roam the streets alone at night in certain countries.

If you are already in an unsafe situation: stay calm and have a clear head- focus on finding a way out rather than feeling afraid.

5) Were there any times you felt lonely?
There is a distinction between lonely and alone. You can be alone and be perfectly at peace with it. Even though I was travelling alone, I was never once lonely. I was always meeting new people everyday. I am also very comfortable just being with myself. In fact, it is important to me to have some personal time.

There was only one time, at the eight-month mark in Nepal, that I missed home and being around the comfort of family and friends. It was when a few unfortunate events hit me at once - I had food poisoning, was on post-exposure rabies vaccination, had a very bad allergic reaction… and on top of these the Nepal earthquake happened. There was a moment I did feel that it would have been nice to just have someone telling me everything was going to be okay…

May 2015, Pokhara, Kaski, Nepal- Image by Jamie*

6) What did you learn?
I learnt so many things. I learnt about love, religions, humanity…

I also learnt that the ‘poorest’ people are often the ones that share the most. The less you have, the more you know how to share or give.

I was very lucky to experience many sides of some places, from staying in a rich uptown neighbourhood, to sharing a small living space with a family who had recently managed to get out of a slum. Even if the family did not have much, they would share whatever food they had with me. They would even pack lunch for me as they were worried about what food I would be able to find outside. 

7) The best moment(s) of the trip?
Everyday was really special to me… There were many moments I remember being driven to tears, seeing how lucky I was to have met so many amazing people.

To share with you one, I can tell you about my most romantic friend. I call him that not because we had romantic feelings for each other, but because what we did together was just so special. He was really so sweet.

I wanted to hitchhike to the mountains in Iran. It was winter. He told me, “No hitchhiking. Also no people go there, so cold. You no go mountains.” I shrugged it off and insisted that I would find a way. The next day, he told me he wanted to show me something. We got into a car with his 2 other friends -a girl and a boy- (in his religion in the country, a boy and a girl cannot be alone together). He drove off and I didn't even ask where we were going- I love surprises. And then I saw the mountains. I was so touched - he had taken leave from work, borrowed a car, called his friends and made all the plans, just so that his silly friend could get her wish to visit the mountains. We had a lovely picnic in the mountains with a spread of food and drinks (Man, Iranians sure know how to do a picnic.), and a lovely short hike in snow and ice. We picked and ate ‘ice lollipops’ along the trail.

We got into the car and I thought we must be heading home now, after such a lovely day. Until I noticed the rickety car driving over sand… and I saw many people paragliding from the sand dunes.

My friend. A pilot. You fly? With him?” he asked me.

We ended the day with climbing the sand dunes, watching the sunset, talking about life at the top, and sitting by a fire under the starry night in the desert.

It is the culture in Iran to give gifts to guests. I told him that I didn’t need any material items. So he gave me this wrist band. He wanted to remind me to fulfil my dream to rock climb.

8) Any regrets?

No (laughs). I wouldn’t trade anything for all the people I have met. Of course there is a bit of sadness. You meet so many amazing people that touch and shape your life but it is physically and emotionally impossible to share a life together all the time (or if at all). For some you may never see them again. Relationships are intense but fleeting.

I still keep in touch with some of them through the internet, but it will never be the same as being with them. And there are others where there is simply no way of keeping in touch - they may not have internet, or even an address in the village, or maybe we don’t speak the same language. But, at the same time, this has taught me the ephemerality of things. I am grateful we crossed each other’s paths, no matter how brief. I will always remember them.

9) Looking forward, do you think you will be taking more solo trips or travelling with others?
It depends on my objective of each trip. I enjoy travelling solo and will probably continue doing so, but I would also like to share the experiences with a selected few (e.g. my younger brother).

It’s also great to have a travel partner in many ways - 2 brains are always better than 1, you learn from and about your partner, he/she may see the same things in a different perspective, and sometimes just having someone with you adds a sense of security. It also makes it logistically easier- you share the load and costs. But it is extremely important that person’s travel expectations align with your own.

10) What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about taking their own solo trip?
Be open minded, respect differences.

Everyone travels differently, so figure out your own style. And bon voyage :)

Thank you for sharing your story!

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