I always thought that traveling alone was something I would never do. “If a problem came up and I was by myself, I’d freak out and not be able to think clearly,” I thought.
It’s true that I’d flown to Europe, and to places in the US on my own, but always on the way to joining a group. But the solo travels of my friend Ann, (co-organizer of our Phoenix area travel Meetup*), inspired me to try a trip on my own, and even to stay in a hostel!
For my first try at this “solo travel thing” I decided that I’d keep it simple, staying in one city hostel, exploring that city (Prague) on foot, and not trying for any intra-city transportation. One evening late in the spring, I went over to Ann’s, and she went on the “hostels.com” site with me. She showed me how to read the reviews, look at the location, and how to book my stay on line. I opted for a hostel which had been given high marks for cleanliness and efficiency, and was located very close to the main Old Town Square.
The location was very important to me. There was another hostel which had better reviews for friendliness and helpfulness, but it was a short streetcar ride away from the Old Town Square. I wanted to be able to pop out the door of the hostel, eat dinner at a nearby restaurant with lots of people-watching, and walk back to my hostel in a few minutes. No night time streetcar rides for this gal!
As I made the reservation, I couldn’t believe how cheap the hostel stay would be, compared to a hotel! Even though in both hostels, I opted for my own room rather than the dormitory.
I chose December because I really wanted to get the feel of a European Christmas season.
Buying two Prague guidebooks, a Rick Steves and a DK Eyewitness Travel guidebook, I got an idea of the layout of that city. I decided to explore the Old Town on the first day, the hilltop Castle district on the second, and the New Town on the fourth. For the third day, I decided I would splurge and contract with one of the Prague guides recommended by the Rick Steves Prague guidebook. I made a reservation by e-mail for a half day trip out to the country side to see one of the castles.
Even with all my careful plans, as summer went by I realized that I was getting more and more nervous about my solo December trip. I decided to “dip my toe in the water” with a solo weekend trip earlier in the fall. As I’d just taken five weeks of a beginning French class, I chose Montreal, mid-September. This time I booked the hostel myself without Ann’s help. I bought a guidebook, and even printed out Google Map directions from my hostel to the areas of town I wished to explore.
Thursday night of that solo Montreal weekend, I was so nervous I couldn’t sleep, just lay in bed, straight as a board, hyper-ventilating! I would have been even more nervous had I known for the Chicago-Montreal leg of the trip, the plane would be cancelled! Even the plane after that was full, and I and most of my fellow passengers found that instead of arriving in Montreal at three in the afternoon, we got there at 10:00 PM!
I had planned to take the shuttle bus into town, but was wondering whether an airport-vetted taxi would be a safer option at that time of night. But I got to talking to a woman who assured me that there would be plenty of people taking the shuttle bus even at this hour, and that the area I was going to would be full of night life and people. Not to mention being a fraction of the cost.
I blanched when my stop turned out to be a darkish intersection between tall buildings. I thought to myself, well, I’ll have to walk to the next intersection before I figured out where I was on my map. But a cheerful-looking young man in military fatigues whipped out his smart-phone, asked the address of my hostel, and displayed for me a bright-blue map of my three-block route.
Well, I had a blast on my first solo weekend! The first day I did feel a bit strange being on my own, but enjoyed seeing the Old Port area and the excellent museums of Montreal’s history. By the second day I was physically exhausted but mentally energized, exploring so many different neighborhoods and hiking up to the lookout point on Mont Royal. I was able to speak quite a bit of French, and had a great conversation with a young Asian woman (in English) from Vancouver who was attending McGill University.
The first night at the hostel, none of the young people were that friendly and the loud noise of the bar kept me up at night. The second night, the bar was quiet, and I had a couple of interesting conversations: a rather geeky young lady (in Montreal for the Comicon convention) was rather clueless at social small talk with her peers; I actually think she had more in common with 65 year old me! An Irishman of around thirty told me that traveling solo was “the only way to go.”
It’s true what I’ve heard, I thought, people are more willing to talk to strangers in a hostel common room than in a hotel lobby.
I found a great little cafe a block away with a wonderfully friendly owner, of Lebanese Christian descent, who made all the people in there feel welcome as a little community.
Flying home, I can’t explain how good I felt. Why did I feel younger? Was it because when you are young you do many things you’ve never done before, and I had just done just that? Or was it that pleasure one gets in conquering something which one was afraid to do?
The week in Prague was just as exhilarating. Leaving my home, again I felt sheer terror as I rode the shuttle bus from my home to the plane. Once on the plane, everything seemed routine. On the UK-Prague leg of the flight, I had a great conversation with a young Czech man who had just been visiting a friend in Silicon Valley, about the difference in life views between young Czech people and young American people. I do not believe I would have had that conversation if I had not been traveling alone.
Half way through the week I had arranged to hire a guide who had been recommended in the Rick Steves guidebook. He took me on an outing to Karlstejn Castle. This outing was my biggest splurge of the week but it was really worth it.
As in all my trips, I tried to do some preparation which would add to my understanding of my destination. Besides listening to a CD of Czech phrases, I also read two wonderful books on the history of the area.
“Prague Black and Gold”, by Peter Demetz, which enthralled me with the history of the city. Demetz grew up in Prague (his Jewish mother was sent to a concentration camp where she died, and he spent the Hitler years in a special work camp for half Jews) and fled the country in 1949. He brilliantly fulfills his aim to show both the dark side and the brilliant side of Prague’s history.
“Thunder at Twilight: Vienna 1913-14” by Frederick Morton, took me on a roller-coaster ride that ended up in that part of Europe being the catalyst for World War I. I also read a book of Vasclav Havel’s essays, and what an insight those essays gave me, with their glimpses of life under the strangle-hold of Soviet control.
A huge point Havel raised was something I had not considered: that the Soviet style kind of government fosters the rise in society of the least ethical, most hypocritical people. Rather than talent rising to the top, the people who had success under communist heirarchy were the ones who said what they were supposed to say and played the party game.
It sunk into me that this was the first time I would visit a formerly Communist country. I thought of this again on the last day I was there, where, in the New Town, I stopped at a small monument to two young men who had burned themselves alive in protest of their country’s domination by Russia, only twenty years before that domination ended.
I learned the difference between the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic, from a girl behind a counter in London’s Heathrow airport. When Czechoslovakia first became independent, she said, the two republics were one nation. I was later told that they separated because the Czech Republic wished to have more of a free market economy and the Slovaks wanted to stick more with the socialist way of doing things.
The Old Town Hostel in Prague was very different from the one in Montreal. It occupied the second and third floor of a three story building. The day time receptionists were two young American women, and the night desk guy was Czech. At the end of the floor of each hall was a common room where coffee and cereal was served in the morning. I had quite a few conversations with the other people, all of whom were decades younger than I.
There were a large group of Japanese, who were very polite but not talkative. A young gay couple (male) one of them had a speech impediment and the other was very chatty to me. A Brazilian guy, tall and aristocratic-looking, told me that he prefered to travel alone.
“When you are with others, one wants to go this way, one wants to go that way. I prefer to travel alone and see what I want to see.”
The rooms were quite cold, but I slept well on the little wooden bed with it’s small mattress. I wore my knitted cap every night, and two sets of long underwear. One night I even wore my coat in bed, it was so cold. I was surprised to find that none of this bothered me at all, and neither did sharing a bathroom.
I won’t go into the wonders of Prague here…the Old Town square with its two story high decorated Christmas tree and all the little booths with the Christmas markets. The King Charles bridge with its parade of statues over the beautiful river, and seeing the balcony where Vasclav Havel had addressed the crowd in the Velvet Revolution. The Mucha museum and architectural examples of Art Nouveau.
So thanks, Ann, for inspiring me to try some solo travel. Next “homework assignment” for
moi is to do a solo trip that includes some intra-city transportation!