Our We Went Solo stories are tales from women just like you who have decided to travel solo. For this post, Pam Bouey, a solo traveller from the USA, shares her love of travelling and where it all began. I love her style of writing and I hope that her story of why she treasures the solitude of travelling alone inspires you to travel solo.
I grew up in a family with more curiosity than wealth. Dad’s sense of adventure was not thwarted by having three children, rather, he found an old VW bus and converted it to a camper, complete with vinyl seats and a crib sided cubby hole for the baby in the far back. We camped across the United States repeatedly, always going a different route, to visit family in the east. Yes, long before seatbelts.
Personally, I got sick of it, sweaty, sticky seats, drinking Tang (we will never ever ever be friends), and waltzing off on the road right when school ended and all of my friends were making social summer plans. Yet we saw wonders of the world, over and over, and the glory of this earth moulded all of us. It made me a traveler with a constant thirst for new experiences.
When I was 14 we spent a year in Europe for my father’s sabbatical. That is a rough age to be separated from one’s social group, but we rented our house out and took off. We flew across the country and the Atlantic in a charter plane in which people were getting completely blotto smoking joints in the cabin. We breezed into London and cut loose in the hotel while our exhausted parents slept. Then the adventures began.
We inherited another beater VW camper from colleagues of Dad’s who had just finished their sabbatical year in Spain, and we drove down through Germany. My first taste of magic was in Bavaria, where we stayed in a mountain cabin outside of a small village complete with rowdy family beer halls and lederhosen. Somehow we got to see the Passion Play, wander through the walled town of Rothenberg, hike in the lower Alps, meet boys. I was so taken by the dark wood carvings that I decided I would become a wood sculptor.
The locals had not seen frisbees and copied ours by throwing plastic plates around the campgrounds we frequented on the trip. My sister and I were invited to discos where we were asked to do things we had never heard of before. It would have happened at home as well but somehow it was cooler with a German accent attached to the boy. They weren’t very successful.
I will never forget swimming in the Adriatic sea as we camped down the coast of Yugoslavia, the water was like glass with the sun setting over it. I had one of those childhood epiphanies that sticks with you forever and knew this was going to be a life-changing year. I also wrote to my friends almost daily, as I missed them so much and wanted them to all be there to share what I was seeing. The night of the great swim our tent blew inside out with an early season storm and we had to leave, realizing none of the locals had warned us about the impending storm – they had all broken camp and scattered hours before. I found it hilarious but kept quiet while Dad and Mom broke camp swearing up a storm.
We then headed to our destination, the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik. By 1970 it was a well-known tourist destination among Europeans, but most of the U.S. had no idea about this magnificent relic of the past, revived and vibrant and full of culture.
We landed in the Dubrovnik area and secured some rooms in the village of Mokosica. We were quickly informed that my sister and I would not be allowed to attend school as we would be a distraction to the local students. My parent threw together a Plan B that involved enrolling us in the Dubrovnik “Musicka Skola”, private classes in English and History, and private French and German lessons, all from locals. We took the open boat, powered by crusty fishermen for a few dinars, across the pretty fjord and then a bus into the old city, or Stari Grad, for lessons.
I was given no choice but to practice the violin for 3 hours a day, with private lessons and solfeggio classes twice a week. I found that many local teenagers were very serious music students, and the community had a long and admirable reputation for producing wonderful musicians, both classical and folk. French lessons were with an elegant, elderly woman who lived in the middle of the old town, and Dad taught us history and English literature.
Dad studied in the walls of the old town, literally. He earned enough respect to be allowed to wander through the incredible archives, lovingly preserved for centuries inside the fortress city walls. His purpose was to study Balkan history as he felt Americans were sorely ignorant about that part of the world.
Needless to say, we kids were also…kids! Our little brother made friends with a flock of little hoodlums and fished off the docks and raised hell in any way little boys can. My sister and I quickly learned about “good” girls and “bad” girls on our evening stroll down the main division of the old town, the Stradun. Each evening the families and older folk strolled and socialized in the early hours, then were replaced with the young people, showing off their outfits, new girlfriends and boyfriends and flirting like mad. We felt exempt from good or bad status being foreigners and found most of the kids to be warm, welcoming and entertaining.
We discoed at night (after homework!) at the famous Aquarius Disco, dated appropriately, made lifelong friends, crawled through the holes in the stone wall to perch over the sea, and slowly realized how different our lives were than anything we had ever known. I was even named Miss Aquarius and got a dance and a kiss from a famous singer who shall remain nameless as he is still thriving.
We wrapped up our year in Zagreb, at that time a sooty, undersupplied city marred by concrete eyesores that served as apartment buildings. However, by then we knew the ropes, made friends with some diplomats’ and other Americans’ kids and made the best of it. We then set out on a few weeks of travel in the camper, which were filled with adventures, some more pleasant than others.
One rainy day a little girl ran in front of the camper and Mom could not stop in time, the collision knocked her out. We were held in the village by a “judge” who placed police to guard us at our campground so we would not leave and tried to convince us that we had to pay him off, not knowing these American bohemians didn’t have any money. We were not allowed to see the child or hear what the medical result was, but the police hated the judge as well and helped us leave in the middle of the night, with the help of a call to the American consulate.
We continued through Greece, met up with boys from home who worked all year to save money to come to Europe for the first time, camped at beautiful beaches and saw the Greek sites, then headed north through the communist block with mixed results. Every border was a frightening, wired, surreal experience with armed soldiers and lots of bureaucracy. We had to hide in a home in Romania while our bus was repaired and were practically run out of Bulgaria, there was so much hatred toward Americans at that time. Czechoslovakia wanted nothing to do with us, so that didn’t happen at all. Hungary was lovely and full of wonders, but so very poor at that time. Most of these countries were a strange juxtaposition of peasant life and desperate attempts to be modern. We soaked it up every day.
We returned to England and flew home to warm friends and neighbors, happy to return but now brimming with new life. Reentering high school and trying to adjust from the incredible experiences we had just had to the normal life of American school kids was shockingly difficult, our friends were much the same but we had changed.
I decided to dig into school and music and kept up an active social life, yet I felt like an outsider. I shared with words and souvenirs but realized the only way to explain the joy was to take my friends there myself. My sister tore back to Europe right after high school. I talked my girlfriends into coming on a long trip, then suddenly everyone seemed to want to see Europe, and a flood of young pimply local kids bombed into Europe for the summer. We stayed with kind friends and relatives in France, Yugoslavia, Germany and Norway. I knew I would always try to give back in this way as I got older, and I have, with great joy.
The next travel experience was a college year abroad in Aix-en-Provence, with friends I have kept to this day, but by then I realized I wanted to see countries in my own way, so I talked my way out of the dorm to my own apartment and made local friends.
Over the years I was able to return to Dubrovnik several times, including one magnificent visit when a cruise ship on which my piano trio was performing had a scheduled stop. Dad had died and my mother was with me, my husband and my fellow musicians. We docked and I looked out to see a chorus of friends, our former landlord family, my violin professor, waiting and delighted with our visit. My mother went out and cried quietly over the memories of that wonderful year with her beloved husband.
The Hastings Trio was formed in the law school of that name in San Francisco, on a lark, and then found ourselves as the guest artists once a year on Royal Viking Lines’ world tour. We would pick a different destination each year and join for two weeks, performing fairly light classical music for early evening concerts, always able to bring along one extra guest for free, usually one of our parents.
We toured China, Russia and the Baltics, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and Panama Canal, as well as the east coast of South American. The experience allowed me to continue my lust for travel while raising a large family, and obviously would not have been possible without my wonderful family caring for the children. At a certain point, it became too much to manage and the trio faded away, but we all recall those years as some of the best of our lives.
After raising four kids and fighting hard to organize travel for the entire family, I found myself alone again but with relics of friendships all over the place. I decided to start traveling alone and found it to be amazingly satisfying (perhaps after trying to organize too many trips for six people!). I love to meet people but treasure my solitude and limited interaction with new friends.
I learned not to fear renting cars (so what if France loves to surprise you with a speeding ticket you can’t defend weeks after you return home), stopped in tiny villages for meals with locals who mostly left me alone, found things like the Toy Museum in Prague, along with impossibly wonderful opera, parked myself in Shoreditch in London and discovered an entirely new way to do that town, found weird little museums all over the place, and sometimes just spent time in my room reading or writing because I didn’t want to do anything.
My kids travel, have lived abroad, but are settling down with young spouses and families, and I am ready for the next chapter. At 65, I am reducing some of the risks of finding myself alone without resources if I become ill, but I have every intention of continuing to explore the world.
I am warming to organized tours as long as there is some freedom to move, and the idea of going to one locale and spending several weeks there is more appealing. As my family grows up I hope to share some of these chapters with my grandchildren.
I would love to talk to other travelers of my vintage for suggestions, ideas, shared stories, shared laughs. I also want to focus more than ever on avoiding totally unnecessary, frivolous travel, for the sake of our beloved, wounded planet, I think we all need that to remain in our consciousness as we venture out.
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