The plane was descending. To my left, a middle-aged soccer dad chaperoning his daughter to a soccer tournament smiled nervously at me, and through clenched teeth muttered: “Bienvenue Ã Paris.” To my right: Paris, Charles de Gaulle Airport. My stomach turned as I clutched tighter to my battered copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
Over the course of the next three weeks, I lonesomely backpacked my way through some of the largest cities in Europe: Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and London.
I won’t lie and say the days prior to my leaving weren’t filled with sleepless nights and stomach-churning dread, not to mention nagging from my parents: “Jessica, I know you’ve bought the tickets already, but you can still change your mind.” Or “are you sure you don’t want us to come with you?” And “here, take these combination locks, passport copies, and stuff these traveller’s cheques in your shoes just in case.”
Eventually, the worrying subsided and was replaced by overwhelming excitement. Between frantically navigating my way through wire-tangled metro systems, befriending fellow travellers, sorting out an overnight train crisis (those traveller’s cheques did eventually come in handy), and soaking up the European sights &- there simply wasn’t a moment for worrying.
I had a fling in Paris, went clubbing at all hours of the morning with unbelievably sweet Germans, spent a terrifying night sandwiched between huge Austrian guys on a sleeper train, and had a four-hour discussion about religion at the crack of dawn walking back from the Eiffel Tower with a Mormon from Utah. I knelt at the centuries-old graves of my idols Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms, and spent mornings writing and smoking in outdoor terraces over cafÃ© cremes and ecstasy-inducing brioche.
None of this would’ve happened had I not picked up the phone one April afternoon and breathlessly whispered, “yes” to the voice on the other line.
A year ago, I found myself attending the funeral of a woman who had died far too young. Looking down into her open casket was like staring down the barrel of a gun &- the realization of the fleeting nature of life hit me. I was terrified that it might all end too quickly. And so, months later, when a travel agent friend called me with an offer to get me to Paris and back for $600, I didn’t give it a second thought. It was wanderlust, pure and simple.
Fellow solo traveller, Veronique Soucy, was also overcome with wanderlust. When she and her friends were camping in British Columbia, she decided to leave the pack and find her own way home. Rather than taking the same route back to Montreal, she decided to venture home through the North. This included the Yukon, Northwest Territories, as well as Manitoba and Ontario. Once money ran out, she worked in a hotel in the Yukon for a month, slept in bunker houses cradling a golf club for security, and even stayed in a women’s shelter in Manitoba for several nights. In this shelter, her assigned roommate had been beaten brutally by an ex-lover and was suffering from drug problems, alcoholism and physical ailments.
“She was coughing her lungs out… her boyfriend had broken her ribs, and when she coughed her ribs would roll against each other. She would cry and moan about the pain,” said Soucy. After a few days of accompanying this woman to the hospital and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, she disappeared. “We became friends; I would take care of her. One night, though, I returned to our room and she just never came back. I don’t know what happened, I never saw her again.”
Throughout the course of her trip, Soucy experienced the extremes of the wandering lifestyle. Some nights she would bask in the nightlife, partying and clubbing. Other days she would be serving shepherd’s pie for 20 kids and parents at the shelter; strangers she had never met before and would likely never see again.
Every lonesome traveller naturally realizes their ability to adapt to new situations. It’s impossible to anticipate where the next night will take you. After all, there are no certainties in life, but depending on where you are, there will always be new and exciting people around you. One philosophy that many backpackers follow is karma. Given that it’s a foreign country, the worst can and probably will happen so a good deed can go a long way.
Cam Donaldson, a second-year international business major (enticed more by the “international” and less by the “business” aspect of his degree), can vouch for this philosophy. After graduating high school, Donaldson had no idea what he wanted to do with his life. While the rest of his friends pursued their academic dreams, heading to universities, he left his hometown of Pittsburgh, and took off for Norway. He stayed there for a month, and continued through Europe for the next two. He returned home, but a few years later, he caught the travel bug again and decided to tackle Australia and South East Asia. Like many of the people he met across the globe, he is a big believer in karma.
“Every time I saw a lost backpacker, I would always try to help them out. I’ve given money to strangers who have lost their wallets, just because I know that I wouldn’t want to be in that situation,” said Donaldson.
In the global community, the backpack can be a badge that unites travellers. Friends are surprisingly easy to make when one is vulnerable in a foreign country, and life stories are unravelled in days. Donaldson met his current roommate in Australia. Returning to his apartment at the end of the day is a constant reminder of the experiences they shared together.
“No matter how shitty life gets, I still realize that I’m living with someone that I met abroad.” He also adds, “we both experienced something extremely incredible and living with someone that I’ve been through that with, keeps me grounded.”
On the surface, it seems like just a few weeks or months away from home. People can have longer stays at overnight camp. However, when one takes off and ventures into the unknown on their own, they inevitably change. I left because I needed to be away from any sense of normality, and I was curious to see where I would end up. Upon my return, the people around me noticed an intangible shift &- I was more mature, more optimistic, and I felt a new sense of self-assurance.
There are always concerns and worries about things like theft and lost passports. Certainly, these are problems that might be more easily dealt with on a group trip, or with a close friend. But, traveling in packs come with a different set of issues &- less freedom to do what you want, a constant concern for other peoples’ needs, not to mention the pressures of having to be social all the time. There is also less of an urgency to meet new people. I can’t say if it’s better or worse, but the best parts of my trip, and the lessons I took back with me, resulted from being alone and having to fend for myself. And you know what? I didn’t get murdered, mugged, or sold into the sex trade.
Advice for the lonely traveler:
1 – Think carefully about which kind of bag you want to bring. A backpack is great for cobblestone steps and if you’re going to sandy locations with no sidewalks; but it can be annoying to carry around in crowded cities. I was really happy with a little bag on wheels.
2 – Make sure there’s free Internet in your hostels. It’s a great way to maintain contact with people back home, and for emergency hostel/travel bookings.
3 – Hostelworld.com is an excellent website for browsing pictures, directions, and reviews of different hostels.
4 – Always take a glance at the public transit maps before arriving in the city so you don’t get overwhelmed when you land. And don’t forget to jot down the directions to your hostel beforehand.
5 – Many hostels offer free breakfast and it’s beneficial to take advantage of them, especially if you’re traveling on a budget. A big breakfast can last you until dinner time.
6 – Try to learn at least a few key expressions in the language of the country you’re visiting. It’s a sign of respect, and goes a long way in meeting locals.