Monday, March 11, 2013

The lessons of traveling alone

Taking a photograph of myself, from the Cupola, the Vatican

There should be an 11th Commandment:   To travel alone, once in your life. Even if you spend  a mere 48 hours roaming a city you will never call home, it is an experience worth taking and will leave you empowered for the rest of time.

I remember riding in a car, young, maybe 16, and being asked the question, "What do you want to do"?  My answer was travel. My first trip abroad was to Ireland in 1985. That experience and the inheritance of  the "bug" from my mother led to my utmost desire to see this world.

My first experience of being abroad alone was in Spain. It was my first time in mainland Europe. I spoke no Spanish, or very little. I had met my friend Lea, who was also a solo travel inspiration. She had walked the Camino de Santiago, alone, (on my bucket list), and I met her in Madrid. We spent time in the hallowed halls of The Prado, admired Guernica, ate a $200 lunch at the Ritz and drank wine and tapas with Carlos in a neighborhood haunt where I practiced my Spanish and learned the ever important phrase, "Dos vasos más de vino tinto por favor". We travelled to Sevilla, where we climbed the Giralda, wandered the twisted alleys of Barrio de Santa Cruz, I took my favorite photograph of my trip, and endured the 100 degree heat by drinking cervezas at Theresa's Bar.

Picasso's Masterpiece, Guernica, The Prado, Madrid, Spain

Tables for cerveza, Sevilla, Spain

My favorite photo, Sevilla
Lea and I drinking cokes at the Sevilla Bus Station

We travelled to Cadiz, to the relief of the Atlantic in the intense heat, drank cervezas at Playa Victoria, told ourselves we were badass, and started our tradition of spilling wine in hotel rooms. (red on white sheets, not pretty). And then, she left. Flying home and leaving me with a cheat sheet of Spanish phrases and a fear mounting in my chest. I was alone. In Spain. Was I insane? I admit, I cried when she left. I used my credit card to call home from pay phones on the street. Throngs of people passing me, not one familiar face, not one familiar word, except on the other end of the line, from my husband, or mother, thousands and thousands miles, and an ocean away. 

Shellfish for sale on Playa Victoria

I was among zillions of Spaniards on their own vacations, I was homesick and I didn't like it. I was waiting for my mother to meet me in three days time, back in Sevilla, but wow, those three days, seemed like three years. I followed the Lonely Planet walking tour. I ordered wine and food in broken Spanish. I went to the beach alone, and I took photographs and I read. My first lesson learned, it wasn't so bad to be alone in Spain. I made Cadiz my city for 72 hours. I photographed women shopping for their greens in the morning, and boys on bicycles on their way to play basketball. I made my photographs personal. Being alone lends more to the creative mind, maybe because you have more time to think. I was scared and then I wasn't . I felt powerful and yes, I felt badass. And those three days in Spain led me to my next solo trip, 2 weeks in Italy.

Boy, Bike, Basketball

I had turned 40. Italy was going to be the place I was going to spend the summer of my 40th year. My husband, Brian, and I were planning on 2 weeks, and I would spend 2 weeks alone, spending a month in the beauty of Italia. Brian is probably my favorite person to travel with. We seem to be in synch when we travel. We always have an amazing time no matter where we go. For Italy, we decided to fly to Genoa, where I lost my passport (another blog post- forthcoming), and then to the Cinque Terre for a few days, and then we had no plan, except that Brian was flying home from Rome in 2 weeks. We had no accommodations booked after the Cinque Terre and were playing it by ear. And how we loved the Cinque Terre,  The UNESCO World Heritage site of the 5 fishing villages along the Northwest coast of Italian Riviera. We hiked the trails, ate tomatoes whose taste will never be surpassed,  lounged on the beach in Monterosso, and lit candles in the churches for friends at home. We traveled through Tuscany, to Venice, and then to Rome, all the while enjoying the beauty of this amazing country. From the cobblestoned streets and walled city of Lucca, to the dizzying network of canals of Venezia, to the majesty of Rome and the echos of 400 hundred churches announcing yet another hour in the Eternal City.

Looking down on Riomaggiore, Cinque Terrre, Italy

Ahhhh Venice
And then the inevitable, he had to leave.  What the hell was I thinking, opting to stay in Italy, ALONE, for another 2 weeks. I basically cried for days before he left, anticipating the loneliness.  A taxi picked him up for the airport at 4am on a Saturday morning. And here I was again. Alone. I could do this. I decided on side trips from the insanity of Rome. I travelled to Orvieto that first day. I lingered on ancient streets, drank wine from Umbria, visited catacombs, marveled at astounding Duomo and actually felt at home. I wished I had could have stayed and not returned to city life, but......back to Rome. I climbed the Cupola of the Vatican by myself. Acting like a solo tourist- taking pictures of myself from the top, because really, even if I ever return to the Vatican- I'm not climbing back up there. I had to take those pics for posterity. I walked the Via Antica, read the annals of Remus and Romulus, saw Jesus's footprints, and took in the city around me. My cousin came to see me for three days and leaving Rome, left for Amalfi. After her departure, I was, again, on my own. Why would I leave the gorgeous Amalfi Coast. I secured a room in Positano. And oh Positano. 

Detail of the Duomo- Orvieto
Positano. Positano. Positano. I spent hours upon hours under a green and orange umbrella on the beach here. Houses tucked into cliffs towering behind me. Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina at my side. I whiled away the days, lazing off the whirlwind sightseeing of the previous two weeks. I was..... relaxed. Positano will have that effect on you. I had an amazing meal at Max, a recommendation from Lonely Planet, again. I sat alone, ordered a bottle of wine from the tome that had been handed to me and ate homemade spinach ravioli. I partied with my fellow restaurant patrons until the place closed. I shared glasses of wine with a Mexican opera singer, talked solo travel with a couple from Toronto and met a man who had graduated from Clark University, which is three miles from my house. Oh the people in Positano. I began to feel comfortable in my own traveling skin. And it was here that I began to love solo travel. The next day I boarded a bus for Ravello. I walked the gardens, bought pottery, had limoncello and tiramisu. I sat next to another female solo traveler. We exchanged stories and I began to feel part of a community. part of a larger complex of women, that travel alone on a frequent basis. I could make my own choices, sleep late or watch all 7 Harry Potter movies on my laptop. I could drink too much wine, stay 12 hours on a beach and yes,  finish Anna Karenina without the worry of no conversation. The magic of Positano created the solo traveler in me.

Looking over Positano. 
Leaving Positano, I headed back north, to Umbria,  to Assisi. Perched upon a hill in Umbria with ancient castles and turrets and sanctuaries. A peace descended upon me. Here, I sat in the public square, enjoyed wine with a girl from Beirut, and took in the immense power of the place. I felt as if I had been searching, and, here in Assisi, I had found it. There was something more tangible, more reflective, more at ease, and more pure than being in the Vatican. I fell in love with Assisi. Walking the streets lined with mementos and souvenirs of St. Francis, buying bread  from the storefront in the shadow of the Basilica, watching the animals come to get blessed, this place had me in awe. I loved the solitary peace I felt as stood awed by frescoes and Umbrian sunsets. I spent the last of time in Florence, finally becoming homesick for my family, friends, my dog, my life. I loved Florence, promenading through the halls of the Uffizi, crossing the Ponte Vecchio in awe of the gold, wishing I could buy bags upon bags of leather. But, I don't think it got my full attention. I was ready for home. 

My next venture abroad alone was my biggest risk yet. I had read one of those foolish books put out by Life Magazine, Heaven on Earth, which displayed 100 places to see on Earth before you die. I'd been to a few, Venice, The Grand Canyon, San Francisco. But there were a few that had stuck in my brain: Angkor Wat, The Serengeti, Tallin, Estonia and Cartagena, Colombia. I needed to go. I bought myself a ticket, and as mentioned before, very little Spanish skills, I boarded the plane for Bogota, connection to Cartagena. This was my icing on the cake. I had the most amazing time in Cartagena, I cannot wait to go back. I WENT TO COLOMBIA ALONE. My friends thought I was crazy. people thought I was going to be raped and kidnapped. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The people of Colombia were among the friendliest I have ever encountered on my travels. 

The colors of Cartagena are blinding. As I walked the streets of the well planned grid of the Old City, my eyes were often summoned skyward towards the over-adorned balconies, overflowing with bougainvillea and fuchsia, painted in overlapped layers of turquoise and teal. I meandered through a city of the past, passing horse-drawn carriages and men in Panama Hats. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's echoes following me down the streets as I imagined Fermina Daza, taken from the confines of these ancient city walls, away from her lover, and brought back to live a life of stature and prominence. I drank beers at Cafe del Mar, watched the sunset over the Caribbean, snorkeled at the Rosario Islands and asked strangers to take photos of me in those "must see" spots. 

Facades of Cartagena

Cerveza at Cafe del Mar
I never felt unsafe, despite walking by hordes of prostitutes, not speaking the language, or the overall true grittiness of the city. I felt embraced by culture and I, in return, embraced it back.  I found a hang out, a lovely restaurant around the corner from my hostel, El Parche de Leon, where I spent my nights. I had amazing food, met amazing people and made friends that will remain friends (Thank you Social media). We listened to music, spoke English and drank wine. I was sad to leave. It's a place I hope to return. As a solo traveler, the connections I made in Cartagena were really the essence of why my trip was successful. I only hope in the future, with my upcoming solo trips, whether it be Copenhagen, New Zealand or Nicaragua, that the mood of the place, the psyche of the people, touches me in the way that Cartagena did. My only option is to set forth alone again and find out. 

Hanging out in Parche de Leon, Cartagena

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