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I was a twenty-something American in Paris.  There were five of us, crossing the Seine on our way to the Louvre.  A bike race was happening on the street below us and everyone stopped to watch.  The minutes ticked away.  I felt agitated.  I don’t really care about sports, especially that one.  I don’t ride a bike.  I wouldn’t know Lance Armstrong if I ran into him on the street.  And I love art.  I didn’t know what to do- wait for my friends or go ahead to the museum.  It made me wonder if I’d be better off on my own.

Solo Travel

If you’re considering going it alone there are two important things you should know about solo travel:

1) You don’t have to be alone at all. 

None of the gang I was hanging out with in Paris had gotten on the plane and crossed the Atlantic with me.  I met them on the road.  Even for a socially-impaired, super-introvert this is remarkably easy to do.   If you get lonely, book a local tour.  By the end of the day you’ll be friends with everyone in the van.  Or buy a six pack of beers to share in the hostel kitchen.

2) Going solo has its pros and cons.

  •  The best thing about solo travel?  Guess who decides what you’re going to do that day? (Hint- it’s the same person who decides where you’re going to eat lunch, whether you want to hit the streets early or sleep in, how many days you want to stay in town, whether you should go to a museum or lay on the beach…).  When you travel solo you follow no one’s agenda but your own.  That rocks!
  • The downside of always being in charge is always being in charge.  Traveling involves a lot of thinking, navigating foreign languages and chaotic bus stations, making decisions about how best to spend your time and money.  Solo travel means there’s no one else you can leave this to when you want a break.
  • Sometimes a party of one can get in when a larger group can’t.  I went by myself to Disney World and was whisked to the front of every line to fill a cart that had a stray seat.  I showed up for the Gibbon Experience (awesome zip-lining in northern Laos) and got in the same day without a reservation.  Smaller means more flexible.
  • One of the disadvantages is that in some parts of the world you will find yourself paying for a double occupancy room even though there’s only one of you.  Once you get over being annoyed, this can be convenient: one bed for you, one bed for your pack.

 

Contemplating an acient ball court…

Traveling with Others

Doing things- anything,  with other people means compromise.  It means giving up always having things done your way.  Rather than have the world be flexible with you, it requires you to be flexible with others.  I don’t drink coffee and I prefer to shower in the evening.  Sometimes when I travel with other people I feel like half the day has gone by before they are ready to get started.  It’s a good chance for me to practice patience, going with flow, chilling out- skills that will serve me well in life as well as travel.

Provided expenses are shared fairly, traveling with a friend or friends is often cheaper.  It may also allow you access to more.  I hired a friend, who happened to be fluent in Mandarin, to be my tour guide in China.  When I was deciding whether or not I was willing to increase my expenses by doing this, food was a major factor.  Food in China is served family style.  Eating with a friend, we could justify ordering three dishes at each meal, but alone? Well, missing out on all that good food would just have been too sad.

The big difference is mental.  Alone is more reflective, with a friend you share perceptions- have more opportunities to see things through someone else’s eyes.  You’ll get more laughs out of the ridiculous things that happen (and believe me, ridiculous things will happen) if you share them with a friend. Your down time will be more interesting.  You may also get sick of that person.  It’s good to agree in advance that everyone is allowed to strike off on their own once in a while.

A Word for Couples

So what if the someone you’re thinking of traveling with is that special someone? Traveling with your partner means spending a lot of time (like every hour of every day) together.  I remember meeting a young woman in a hostel who was traveling with her fiancé.  A friend commented that she’d heard traveling as a couple could be challenging, to which the woman emphatically replied, “He’s driving me crazy!”

So traveling as a couple is good chance to test your relationship; to make it or break it, to see if you’re ready for a next step (marriage or cohabitating) that involves more time together.

When it works, it can be great.

And if you’re clever, you can really make the most of it.  I was particularly impressed with a scheme cooked up by a couple of British honeymooners I met in Central America.  (Cheers, Debs and Phil!)  Being that they were both around 30 and had been living together for a while, they decided they didn’t need a new toaster.  Instead, they made their own wedding registry of the more spendy things they wanted to do on their trip (boat cruise up the New River, spending the night at the expensive hotel in Tikal, cocktails on the beach in Caye Caulker, etc.) and got their friends to give them money for all those wonderful things.  Then as they “spent” them all they would email a thank you and a photo.

Made me wonder if I could pull it off without actually getting married…?

 

In the end, the best measure of whether or not you will like traveling alone is whether or not you like being alone.  If you enjoy your own company, solo travel is likely to be a good fit.

After two days of touring the castle and museums in Berat I head off for a hike and a local cultural experience  in the nearby mountains. Berat is not so touristy that it’s lost its authenticity but still, there are a few other tourists wandering about and I want to go someplace where there are no other tourists.

I walk to the bus station and catch a bus to Bogove, where there are reported to be some beautiful waterfalls and a swimming hole that the locals enjoy.  The bus is a big one, an old touring bus too worn out for tourists but upscale for a local bus.  By the time we reach the edge of Berat it’s full.  We ride for an hour through a landscape similar to western Colorado.  There’s a lot of that here.

This road resembles the road between Crawford and Gunnison: steep drop-offs to our right, heavily forested, high snow-capped peaks in the distance.  The main difference here is that I’m riding in a large bus and about every 300 yards we pass a bouquet of flowers marking the place where someone – or a busload of someones – flew off the edge into Never-Never Land.  They say that auto accidents are the leading cause of death in Albania.  I saw a couple on my way from Macedonia and I believe what they say.

There aren’t enough passengers continuing on from Skrappar to Bogove so I must wait for the next furgon – a mini-bus – to load up.  This is a nice little town.  A wide promenade leads from a large square where the buses and taxis congregate so I decide to stroll along and do a little people-watching while waiting.  It’s mid-morning coffee time; people of all ages are strolling the promenade and men fill the cafes drinking coffee.  Women don’t sit and drink coffee in Albania.  It’s acceptable for foreign women to do so because, well, they’re strange, but a local woman would never do that.  After the stroll I return to the square to sit in the sun and keep my eye on the mini-bus.  I have no idea what time it will leave, what time I must be back from Bogove to catch the return bus to Berat, nor for that matter do I have any idea what time it is in the moment!  I’m soon joined by Buca Rosa – her name means Beautiful Rose in English.

Now . . .  there are 3 kinds of Albanians when it comes to communicating with foreigners.  There are those who speak English and enjoy talking with you in English.  There are those who don’t speak English, never utter a word but who are very adept at communicating with hand signals, facial expressions, and tone of voice.  Then there are those who speak only Albanian and know you don’t speak or understand Albanian but that doesn’t phase them.  They chatter away.  Buca Rosa is one of the last.  I think perhaps she is a little simple-minded, but she is very sweet nonetheless.  In the end she asks me if I will take her photo and she poses with a broken and crumpled unlit cigarette and a rose, then hands me the two roses she has picked from the park’s garden.  The furgon begins filling and I go to catch it.  Good-bye, beautiful Rose. I shall not pass this way again.

The following day I leave Berat for Tirana.  I don’t quite know where I am when the furgon drops me off in Tirana.  The guide book had said I would be dropped off near the train station.  I look around,  but there is none.  I try to get oriented, but before I can I’m surrounded by helpful Albanians.  I must tell you, the Albanian willingness to help is wonderful.  But it can be a little difficult to manage when it’s six taxi drivers who don’t speak English and want to get you loaded into the next available taxi.  It becomes a bit like playing the game Charades.  I say a word and one of the taxi drivers thinks he understands and begins animatedly telling the others what I want and waving for me to get into the taxi.

“No, no, no!” I protest, and sit down on the curb with my guide book to gather my thoughts.  Soon a random passerby is pulled into the discussion.  He seems to understand most of my needs but he can’t understand something as complex as –

“Are there good places to stay in Shkodra? I don’t yet know if I want to stay here in Tirana or go on to Shkodra.” or, “I have all these leke I need to exchange before I leave the country.  Is there a bank nearby?”

So I hunker down with my book again and try to ignore the fray above me.  But my book is still no help.  There are no hotels or hostels listed for Shkodra and I have no idea how many leke I’ll need to get there.  I finally decide to let them hustle me into a taxi and get on with my life, trusting in Fate once again.  I tell the tax driver to take me to the bus station but no sooner is the door of the taxi closed then I decide I should just stay in Tirana.

I know of a good hostel here and I can get myself settled and oriented in peace and quiet.  I also know the hostel owners will speak English and be able to guide me where I want to go.  I don’t particularly want to stay in Tirana but neither do I want to stay in Shkodra so I may as well stay in Tirana where the landscape is somewhat known.  At least I have a map and a guide to the city and at least I know there’s someplace I can get the information I need.  So I direct the driver to the Tirana Backpacker Hostel.

“What?”  He looks at me like I’m insane, shrugs his shoulders and says something to his friends and we head to the hostel.

This was the right decision.  It’s a very nice hostel.  The owner and staff do indeed speak good English, there’s a kitchen available for my use and a grocery store just down the street.  I know exactly how many leke I’ll need to get out of Dodge tomorrow and I can settle in for the afternoon and write.  As I settle into my room the clouds open up and pour.  Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain.  I don’t care.