Thursday, November 17, 2016

On Traveling

A lot of people I know or meet seem fascinated by my decision to solo backpack for three months, and have a lot of questions about my experience. I decided to write a blog post about what the day-in, day-out life of a solo, female, long-term backpacker (who is also gluten free).

On Backpacking and Long-Term Travel:
Backpacking is a very different experience than vacationing. It’s a lifestyle. In other words, travel is my day-in, day-out existence for this season of life, and like any season of life, that includes benefits but also downsides.

I typically stay in hostels, sharing a room with anywhere from three to fifteen other people. It’s like a college dorm experience, but more crowded and transitory. Unless I’m in a city with cheap food, I try to only eat out once a day, and even then I often have street food or eat at a cafe rather than a nicer sit-down restaurant. That means I have to go grocery shopping in virtually every city I’m in, much as anyone would at home. I assemble the rest of my meals in crowded, sometimes poorly-equipped hostel kitchens, so simple meals are best. A few times on this trip, I’ve splurged on a cheap hotel room or a B&B, usually because I was hiking and there aren’t hostels in smaller towns. Having a room all to myself for the night is an enormous luxury!

As far as clothes go, I started with five shirts, two pairs of jeans, two dresses, two light cardigans for daily wear, and four outfits for working out (two for hot weather, two for cold weather). This means that I wear the exact same clothes in rotation. Since the weather has gotten colder, I got two sweaters and a winter coat at a second-hand store. I usually try to make it about ten days before I do laundry (because I have ten pairs of underwear). I have laundry soap, a sink stopper, and a clothesline with me, and I’ve done my fair share of sink laundry, both to stretch longer between loads of laundry and because I prefer to hand-wash some items. Doing sink laundry is better when you have bottom bunk, because then you can string the line up on the edge of your bed and make a curtain out of your wet clothes. Top bunk is more complicated, because you don’t want your laundry dripping all over your bottom neighbor. Most hostels offer a laundry service where they will wash and dry your clothes for 5 to 8 Euro, so when I commit and wash a full load of laundry, this is typically what I do so that I don’t waste half a day. Regardless of how laundry gets done, I have to strategically plan when to do it, and what to wear while I’m doing laundry so that high-priority items get clean. Afterwards, when I get my clean clothes back, I am always overjoyed at how good they smell!

One of the things people are most curious about is how I approach trip logistics. Before leaving, I had the first month planned (meaning I had hostels and transportation booked). I was hiking the first two weeks of the trip, and it’s takes more foresight to figure out how and where to get on and off the trail. The next two weeks I was traveling with my friend Ciera, so we had a rough sketch of an itinerary before she came so that we could make the most of her time. From there, I went to go visit my good friend Kieryn who lives in Vienna for a week. She helped me create a framework for my remaining two months, creating a tentative itinerary based on the list of cities I still wanted to see. Now, I am mostly sticking to this calendar. I try to reserve hostels or transit anywhere from a few days to a week ahead of time. I rarely know what I want to do once I actually arrive in an area. I ask the hostel staff for suggestions, chat with fellow travelers, and look at top-rated activities on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet. Certain activities do have to be pre-booked because they are more popular - for example, entry to the Anne Frank House or Vatican City. For the most part, though, I show up with a flexible mindset and enjoy what each place has to offer!

Another question I get is how I move around. I consider a variety of factors, and usually end up choosing a relatively inexpensive option that isn’t grossly inconvenient. Within a region, this is often a train or a bus. I didn’t buy a Eurail pass, because it’s actually cheaper to buy tickets individually in most cases. Moving between regions, I typically find a cheap flight. I’ve also taken a few night trains, which are great because you still have a bed, you don’t lose a day to travel, and you save accommodation expenses for one night. Transit is surprisingly one of the more expensive elements of traveling, because I am moving so frequently, and lots of little tickets add up over time.

Travel days are great fun for two reasons. The first is getting to schlep around all my stuff! One gets a few stares from strangers when wearing two backpacks at once - a huge one behind, and a smaller day pack in front. My big pack weighs between 15 and 17 kilos (33 to 38 pounds), depending on how many clothes and toiletries I have at that time. I actually have named this pack - he’s called Sebastian, or Bastian for short, thank you very much - because he is my one true companion on this journey!

A backpacker in her natrual habitat
The other fun thing about travel days is not knowing where I’m going! After getting oriented in a city, it’s much easier to get around, but getting into a city and having no idea where you’re headed can be exasperating, particularly if it’s dark, late, or the weather is bad. Free hostel paper maps help, as do downloaded Google maps which I can use offline with my smart phone’s GPS (I finally figured out how to do this part-way through this trip, and OMG what a lifesaver!).

As you might imagine, the backpacker’s life can feel very unstructured, particularly for a Type A personality like me. I try to add some elements of routine. One is routinely unpacking and repacking my backpack in an effort to keep track of my things. I’ve still lost or accidentally left plenty of things, because I’m me, and I’m not always as careful as I should be. Organizing the pack is also strangely soothing, because my pack is one thing I have control over when everything else feels like chaos. Another important ritual is working out. I run about three times a week, and find it a great and unique way to explore new places. The goal was to do basic strength training once a week, mainly consisting of core work and push-ups, but it’s hard to motivate myself to work out on a cement or tile hostel floor with other people around. Another thing I do to appease my achievement-oriented side is giving myself “tasks,” which usually involve blogging about my experiences and logistical planning. I also still have to take care of certain tasks for the life I’ll return to when I go home.

Now that I have been gone for two months, I usually feel that I have really settled into a rhythm. I have a strategy for structuring my days and getting from Point A to Point B. Although stressful situations can and do come up, I am getting better at handling them because I have been battle tested at this point. And yet, there are moments in which I feel totally unmoored. Homesickness is interesting emotion for me. Some days, I am overwhelmingly excited to be where I am, and I spontaneously break into a grin in public places because I can’t believe that this is my life, that I get to do these things and see these places! Other days, I feel a vague nostalgia for home, but home seems to me an abstract concept. I’ve been doing this for so long that my life before almost feels like the distant past. Sometimes I panic at the thought of going home, back to a country run by Trump and to a job where I’ll jump into busy season working 70 hour weeks. And yes, I have my moments where I am overwhelmed by the longing to see my friends and family, to be in my own bed, to have my own space, and to know where I am and how to communicate for once. I am a person who has an extraordinarily difficult time being present in the moment, particularly when I am uncomfortable or have ample free time (hello, travel days). Therefore, I end up spending way too much time thinking about how my life was, or how it will be. All throughout the trip, I’ve been forcing myself to focus on the present, and to choose gratitude for that which I am experiencing in this very moment. It’s been my spiritual practice of the trip. I fully realize that months and years from now, I will want to give anything to come back to these months, and to this amazing experience.

On Solo Travel:

Solo travel is a blessing and a curse. It’s great in many ways, because I can structure the trip exactly how I want to. I choose where I’d like to go, what I’d like to do, and how long I stay. I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s mood affecting mine, or vice versa. I have so much time to think. I also have gained some distance from my life back home, which allows me to reflect on my choices, relationships, past, goals, dreams, and direction with a fresh perspective. This is especially important for me as a person who can be strongly influenced by the thoughts and feelings of people around me, without ever giving myself space to think about how I personally think or feel about an issue.

At the same time, solo travel is difficult and exhausting. I am the only person looking out for myself. I message my parents once every few days to let them know that I’m okay, and to tell them I’ve made it to the next place safely. However, realistically, no one except me knows where I am at any given moment. If something were to happen to me, it could be a really long time before any of my loved ones would find out. One thing my fellow travellers and I talk about is how little we matter outside of context. There is nothing like being in a foreign country, where you don’t know anyone and likely don’t speak the language, to make you realize how insignificant you are. No one is going to worry about what happens to you. That said, I’ve been overwhelmed by (and sometimes dependent on) the kindness of strangers who are willing to help me find my way.

Not having a travel companion can lead to somewhat humorous inconveniences, such as using the bathroom at train or bus stations (which, of course, are never free). It goes something like this: I dig a coin out of my wallet while wearing two backpacks, slide the coin into the slot and awkwardly push through the turnstile, finagle my way into the bathroom stall, and simultaneously slide off the huge pack and turn 180 degrees so I can actually use the toilet. If I had another person with me, they could watch my stuff for me while I used the restroom, and then we could switch.

Mishaps that would be mildly annoying or even humorous when with a companion can become overwhelming when alone. I am such an external processor! It helps so much to problem solve with someone:
“Hey, do you remember how to get back to the hostel?”
“Where do you think we go to catch the bus?”
“Oh crap, this security line is really long. Do you think we should start trying to get around people so we don’t miss our flight?”
But when I’m alone, these thoughts just ping around my brain and cause a frenzy. It’s hard to stay calm sometimes.

However, once I do resolve the problem and come out on the other side, it is the most empowering thing to realize that I could do it all along! The more times I successfully navigate difficult situations alone, the more confidence I have in my ability to handle anything that comes my way.  

Another complicated aspect of solo travel is your social life, and the absence of close friends. I am experiencing so many amazing things, and yet I don’t always have someone to tell, or to process with. Everyone back home doesn’t want to hear every detail of my life here, and I don’t blame them. Plus, they can never truly understand what I am seeing and experiencing because they are not here with me. The desire for companionship with people with whom I can share these experiences is a good motivating factor for meeting other travelers! I have met the most amazing people from all over the world, and we have so much in common because we are all travelling. At the same time, each person I meet contributes a unique perspective from their own culture and place, so I get to learn about how others view the world, too. Travel conversations can get mundane because it’s often the same conversation topics - where you’re from, how long you’re traveling, where you’ve been, where you still have to go, etc. I love the novelty of meeting new people, but also crave the presence of people who know me, people who can be comfortable being quiet around me, people who know my story. As a solo traveller, it’s a bizarre experience of constantly being surrounded by strangers, so you’re never truly alone, and never with your loved ones, either. And yet, your fellow travelers are in the same boat, and it’s amazing how deeply you can connect with people whom you just met. Every time I leave a hostel, I leave behind a few new friends. It’s a revolving door of hellos and goodbyes.

One other issue with solo traveling is that in many places, I am breaking cultural norms, particularly because I am a female solo traveler. There’s nothing quite like walking alone into a sit-down restaurant, surrounded by couples and families, and asking for a table for one. I’ve learned to bring a book with me everywhere I go, so that I can pass the awkard moments before my food arrives reading. I also repeat to myself a few times an excellent phrase which I saw somewhere once: Well, at least I enjoy my own exquisite company!

Overall, I am learning so much more about myself and others from traveling alone, and I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world!

On Traveling as a Woman:
Solo travel in and of itself freaks people out, but the fact that I’m doing so as a woman really is mind-boggling to many people. Yes, being a woman in this world is dangerous, but it’s dangerous no matter where I am. The illusion is that I’m safe at home. Just look at the statistics regarding sexual assault - I received numerous emails when I was a student as DU detailing the attacks that happened to other women at my school, in my neighborhood. However, I can admit that being in an unfamiliar place makes me more vulnerable than I would be in an area I know well. Knowing that I am alone and female makes me more cautious, at least compared to the male solo travelers I meet. I feel less free to do many activities - for example, I try not to be out alone late at night, and I am very careful how much I drink when I am out. I won’t go to clubs or bars unless I’m in a group. I am more likely to pay for a taxi than take public transit late at night.

Travelling as a woman only makes the sexism and misogyny that all women, everywhere, experience on a daily basis more salient. Here are a few stories of things that have happened to me or to friends on the trip so far which show what I mean. I already blogged extensively about Ciera’s and my experience as women in Morocco, so I’ll put the other stories here.

Barcelona, Spain - A large group from our hostel goes out together. A creepy man who is staying in our room starts dancing with Ciera, and then forcefully kissing her, even though she has already told him multiple times that she is not interested. Of course, there is more than a minor language barrier - he speaks very little English, but good Spanish and Portuguese, and Ciera speaks conversational Italian but neither of his other languages. I grab her arm through the crowd and ask her if she is okay. She nods, not wanting to ruin the rest of my night by asking me to leave. After it keeps happening, though, I realize that we all need to get out of there. When we leave with another friend from the hostel, the creeper comes with the three of us! When we get back to the hostel, the creeper actually crawls into Ciera’s top bunk! I motion to him to get down and repeat multiple times, in Spanish, that she isn’t interested, and that if he touches her again, I swear, I will kill him! This doesn’t stop him from trying to climb back up in her bunk a few more times, for good measure.

Lisbon, Portugal - One morning, Ciera goes down to the nearby square to get a cup of coffee while I finish getting ready in the hostel. It is a holiday in Portugal, so the whole city was out partying all night, and people are still drunk on the streets as they scavenge up breakfast. Ciera is at a table sipping her coffee when a beyond-drunk man approaches her and begins talking to her. She clearly isn’t interested in talking to him, and he notices. He asks, “Oh, do I make you uncomfortable? Why are you drinking your coffee so fast?” He keeps re-starting his stories, because he is angry that she isn’t paying enough attention. She chugs her coffee so she can leave.

Vienna, Austria - Kieryn and I are riding on the subway one night when two belligerently drunk men get in the car, carrying tall cans of beer. They sit down, stare at us, and immediately try to get our attention. They hoot, they holler, and then (such charmers they are), they start shouting, “COOKIE! COOKIE! Pay attention to us, cookie!” We can’t even focus on our conversation, but we sure as hell can’t look at them, so we try to keep our heads down. Then, they start yelling references to Hitler and saying that they are Neo-Nazis. First of all, one does not make references to Hitler or Nazism in this way in Europe - it’s shockingly offensive. Second, there is a strong right-wing movement in Austria right now, so they likely are Neo-Nazis.The whole thing really shakes us up. I even feel unsafe exiting the subway, because I am worried they will follow us.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands - I am walking to put my bag in storage as I arrive at the hostel when I notice a fellow guest staring at me. I think he might be trying to get my attention, but I ignore him. Later, I sit down at the table to take care of a few things, minding my own business. He is sitting further down along the table, and he starts talkin to me. As soon as words leave his mouth, I can tell he is high, drunk, or both. “Hey! You are so beautiful! I love your eyes! I love your earrings! So beautiful!” I roll my eyes, say “Oh gee, thanks,” in a clearly sarcastic tone, and reach for my headphones so I can ignore him. A few minutes later, when everyone else has left the room, he comes up and actually tries to kiss me! I forcefully shove his face away and tell him to leave me alone.

These experiences, combined with my experiences in Morocco, have taught me that I need to have a spine. Our whole lives, we as women are taught to appease, to be likeable, not to offend. I am worse than many women when it comes to wanting to be nice, and not to make others uncomfortable. Being on this trip has taught me that I need to learn how to politely but firmly tell men to leave me alone!

I am learning how to advocate for myself when there isn’t anyone else to stick up for me, and this is a skill I will use the rest of my life in all kinds of situations. I don’t always do it perfectly, but I’m learning to do it! For example, in Morocco, I got into some heated discussions with taxi drivers over how much we’d pay them to take us somewhere. You see, in Morocco, prices are not established - you have to negotiate them before agreeing to a service. We didn’t necessarily know the going rates, but local Moroccans told us about how much we should expect to pay, and these taxi drivers were charging us multiple times that, just because we were foreign! The difference in nominal terms was small, but it’s the principle of the matter, that we shouldn’t be charged exorbitant prices just because we’re not from the area. In one particularly embarrassing instance, a taxi driver and I shouted and waved at each other, before he slammed his door shut and we walked away. Then, when no other taxis came along, we had to walk back and agree to pay him the higher price he was demanding. So the outcome wasn’t what I wanted, but at least I tried to stand up for myself. Sometimes I am successful, though. In Romania, when my taxi driver kept looking down at his phone map whilst driving over twisting mountain passes, I told him to put his phone down because it made me nervous. When he couldn’t find my hotel, I told him to pull over so I could ask for directions - and he did! This may not seem like a big deal, but for me as a woman who has learned to be agreeable my whole life, it was a big freaking accomplishment! Every single time I stand up for myself, it makes it easier to do it again.

On Traveling Gluten Free:

It’s been two years now since my doctor found after a blood test that there was a high likelihood that I was gluten intolerant, and that I probably have Celiac’s. We never did the confirmatory scope test where they sample your small intestine because it’s invasive, expensive, and leads to the same result: eliminate gluten, and see how you feel. So, I was already a young adult when my diet changed drastically. It was also after I studied abroad, so this is my first time doing a long-term trip whilst gluten free.

You know how Europe used to be called Christendom? I vote that we re-name it Bread-dom, because that is seriously what people live on here.

Before I left, I always said that I was just gluten intolerant. So many people told me that I might be able to eat the bread in Europe, “because it’s processed differently, and most people just have problems with how we cultivate our food in the US!” This may be true for some people, but it is not true for me. I had Swiss fondue, with bread, my first week of the trip, and my stomach bloated almost instantly. I now say that I probably have Celiac, although I am not as sensitive as some people I know. For example, if bread touches my food, or the kitchenware used to prepare it, I don’t immediately become ill. This is a huge blessing. Still, it’s hard to travel while gluten free. Most quick, cheap food options are bread based, as are many of the local culinary specialties of practically any European country. Whenever I walk by a particularly beautiful bakery, I tell myself, “Don’t want things you can’t have,” and then I keep walking.

So, what exactly do I eat? I joke that the gluten free traveler’s food pyramid includes the following major food groups:
  1. Cheese
  2. Ham and sausage
  3. Potatoes in their many varieties
  4. Grilled meat
  5. Chocolate bars and Haribo gummy bears
  6. Gelato
  7. Coffee with milk
  8. WINE
  9. Occasionally fruit
In all seriousness, this is often all that I can find on travel days. I can’t tell you how many times a meal has consisted of Snickers bars, Haribo gummy bears, and a block of cheese. When I actually stay in a place longer, I try to eat more healthfully. Larger grocery stores often offer at least one or two gluten free products, and of course I can still eat meals like scrambled eggs and salads.

One difficult aspect is trying to understand whether or not a product has gluten in it when you don’t speak the language. I now have a ritual of taking a screenshot of the translations of “wheat,” “flour,” “barley,” “rye,” “gluten,” etc., in every country I go to. Then, when ordering in a restaurant or trying to decipher nutrition labels, I at least have a chance of getting it right. Of course, there are still unexpected issues. For example, I bought some cough drops in Romania and didn’t think to check the label, because in the US all cough drops are gluten free. I felt really sick for days, and it took me so long to figure out why - the cough drops had f-ing barley malt in them!

Some European countries are much more allergen conscious than the US. For example, a few have laws mandating that all restaurants indicate on menus which items contain common allergens. Quite frankly, I’d be happy if we started doing this in the US! Other countries are much worse. In Barcelona, our hostel prepared a communal dinner, where everyone could eat so long as they threw some coins in the jar. Ciera and I prepared our own meal, and let me tell you, I got very sick of everyone asking why I wasn’t eating the pasta like everyone else. One guy even said, “You Americans and your dietary problems - they’re all just imaginary! You made it all up!” Sure, buddy, the gut-wrenching cramps, visible bloating, and less delicate reactions I have are totally made up. I’m just an attention whore. Totally.

Being gluten free does add an element of adventure and elation to travel, because you look so hard to find things you can eat, and then get really excited when you find something spectacular! When I find good gluten free alternatives, I do tend to go a little crazy, as I did here in Budapest when I stumbled across a gluten free bakery! 

I almost wept with happiness when a restaurant in Ibiza served excellent gluten free seafood pasta. And when I found real Italian food.
A dedicated gluten-free pizzeria in Napoli... Oh my heart
Gluten free pizza AND beer!
In the same way that most people seek out great European beers, I seek out great new ciders. I have gotten to try some really interesting ones!

Just today, a fellow gluten free traveler introduced me to an app called Find Me Gluten Free. It looks pretty great - it shows you nearby restaurants with gluten free options, as well as dedicated gluten free facilities. I haven't used it yet, but it looks promising!

At the end of the day, I really wish I could eat gluten because it would make my life so much simpler. However, I’m learning to be more creative and stand up for myself better because I have to work harder to advocate for and take care of my own health while I’m here.

In Conclusion:
Travel, in general, puts you outside of your comfort zone and forces you to adapt. It allows you to see the world from new angles, and exposes you to different people, places, and cultures. The other aspects I’ve discussed here - long term backpacking, solo travel, traveling as a woman, traveling while gluten free - only intensify and enhance many of the challenging and rewarding aspects of travel in general.