Most of the time travelling solo is amazing but there are days when it can feel too much. In this article I share some of my travel stories about the downsides of travelling solo
Downsides of Travelling Solo
Sometimes when you travel, you just have one of those days where everything seems like such a struggle. Having a heavy backpack strapped to your back complete with dangling trekking boots, a day pack on your front, a handbag and a shoe bag full of toiletries just gets well… too much.
Then having to find the bus terminal, figuring out how to get to your next destination with no timetable, no signs and just a load of locals who shrug when you ask them in pidgin Spanish.
Finding out which bus you need then figuring out when you need to get off, complete with carrying all your bags back down the bus without hitting any of the locals on the head, before the bus takes off again.
Being told something too quick in Spanish by the Immigration officer that you simply do not understand. Is he saying you can't get into the country or you need to pay them money? Then feeling relieved when he takes pity on your blank, tired face that is feeling woosy from the long bus ride.
Tired, aching and exhausted from the constant heat, dehydrated from fear of no toilet stops on your journey that you didn't even know how long would take and feeling like you've just had enough. After eight hours; one transfer, one shared taxi, one immigration crossing and three chicken buses you arrive at your intended destination (and this is noted as a ‘free' day on your itinerary!)
So as the sun sets on a day that I would rather forget, I need to remember that tomorrow is another day…
As a reminder to myself for my next trip – don't bring so many notepads and books and take Spanish lessons beforehand!
My Day in Budapest
It all sounds so great doesn’t it! You can just imagine your friends saying: ‘oh so and so's gone away for a few days – lucky her!’
And before you go, you feel incredibly lucky. You board the plane, you get excited about where you’re going to stay and what you’re going to see first: then you get there. It may be plain sailing to get to your accommodation or it may throw up some challenges but you overcome them and it doesn’t dampen your excitement.
You check in, you decide to skip the nightclub in the hotel as you suddenly feel very tired and you try and sleep through the constant thudding of the base and screams from people enjoying themselves.
You wake up the next day after broken sleep but you’re raring to go, you enlist the help of the hostel staff to point you in the right direction for the sightseeing bus and as you’re walking towards the pick up point, it comes out of nowhere and hits you straight in the solar plexus.
You hadn’t seen it before, but then it was dark when you arrived, but now in the daylight: it feels like you’re in London, but a weirder version of your home city. Local men are looking at you in a strange manner and people everywhere are holding hands, couples are kissing and looking all cosy and you instantly feel alone!
It’s happened before and I have no doubt that it will definitely happen again, but you forget what it feels like until it returns with a bang. I am fine by myself, I have no problems eating in restaurants, having a drink in a bar or even going to the theatre alone but I have to be in the right frame of mind. If I’m not: I want to run back to my hostel and hide under a duvet.
Admittedly there are couples all over the world, but I only ever see them when I’m not part of one and when I really don’t need to be seeing them. There’s not that many downsides to travelling solo, but this unfortunately is one of them.
Some places just aren’t meant for singles and the ones that I have discovered are modern day cities: romantic cities which are just made for pairs. Budapest is one of them, and as much as I can try and shake off that lonely feeling, as long as I’m here I’m sure it’s not going to go away.
So, I have to keep telling myself that it’s only one more day until I meet my friend and I can get through it. After all, I’m not technically here for pleasure (not until the weekend anyway). And as much as I want to stay in my room and feel sorry for myself, I am going to face this thing full on, put on some make up and glitz myself up and go to the nightclub (that is only downstairs), and have my best night in Budapest!
Getting Scammed in Costa Rica
“Come, come,” shouted a scrawny man holding a thick piece of rope high for me to climb under at the entrance of what appeared to be a bus station. I picked up my pace knowing that my bus to La Fortuna was soon to depart. He mumbled something in Spanish, which I thought meant, “where are you going?”
“La Fortuna,” I answered, starting to panic that I might miss the bus.
He nodded, “si, si,” and pointed to where I could buy my ticket.
I found the counter and rushed back out to where the scrawny guy in the pink t-shirt was waiting for me. My bus was due to depart from platform 2 but I couldn’t see a platform 2.
“Come, come,” he continued and I followed him across the road outside of the bus station to where other buses were parked with no drivers. He came closer to me.
“The bus gone,” he said in broken English. “Five minutes before. Need to take a car to catch the bus,” he said, pointing at one which was conveniently sitting there, complete with a large black dude, ready to drive me.
As the man beckoned me into the car, my reaction was to laugh. I suddenly knew what was really going on. My bus hadn’t left and there was absolutely no way that I was getting in that car.
I walked away with the man shouting after me, and stepped back under the rope into the bus station. A line of people queuing caught my eye and getting my breath back, I panted, “La Fortuna.”
“Yes,” replied the sweetest European girls smiling back at me.
It was only when I was on the bus that it hit me, what could have happened. This was the closest I had ever been to a potentially dangerous situation. I would definitely have been robbed and possibly even worse. Luckily I realised in time but what about others who didn’t?
Welcome to San Jose…
Having not travelled for a few months, this was a reality check. I had forgotten how vulnerable it can be travelling alone, and although this Costa Rica scam isn’t just for women, (having highlighted it on Facebook, a fellow traveller admitted that this had nearly happened to him in Honduras), nonetheless it had shaken me up and been a wake up call. Nearly getting scammed in Costa Rica was not on my bucket list.
I had heard that the bus stations in San Jose left a lot to be desired but it wasn’t until I nearly let my guard down that I realised how much.
There is more than one bus station in San Jose and having arrived in San Jose on an overnight Tica bus from Panama, a local family I had been ‘hanging out’ with during the stops and border crossings on the journey, told me that this area was “peligroso” (dangerous) and from the caged fences surrounding the bus stops, I realised why.
San Jose isn’t the best city in the world and I can see why many pass through but if you are here for a night or two, I can definitely recommend exploring the area near the Gold Museum which feels a world away from the bus stations. A good walking route which only takes 20 minutes is starting at the Mercado Calle Nacional de Artesania y Pintura, which is the Market Street national crafts and painting centre where you can buy any Costa Rican handicrafts from woven bags to t-shirts, shot glasses and coffee produced in the country.
Then, follow this road down to the Nacional Bank for the nicest parts of the city which is a hive of activity with modern shopping and places to eat. Plaza de la Cultura is a photogenic area, with a National Theatre and Museum, and you can find buskers in the square nearby, especially during lunchtime.
If you’re catching a bus, just take a taxi to the bus station and don’t listen to someone who tells you that your bus has gone!
Getting to San Jose
I took the Tica bus from Albrook bus station in Panama City. It departed at 23.55 and after two very slow border crossings, it arrived at 3 pm ish the following afternoon after a stop in a nice buffet restaurant once we’d passed the border. The cost was US $45.
Accommodation in San Jose
I stayed at Hostel La Cuesta which is near the nicer area of San Jose. The hostel is full of character and is nearly 100 years old. The staff are really friendly and will help you with your travel plans for most of your trip. As well as dorm beds they also have private rooms and you get breakfast included.
When You Just Don't Feel It
You’ve been there – you get a feeling that you are going to absolutely love a place then you arrive, you meet a friend that you haven’t seen for months and it just feels awkward, the city feels just a bit ‘not right’ and you wander around wondering what all the hype is about and why so many people have said to you ‘You will love this city’…
But, you’re just not feeling it. ‘What’s wrong with me?’ you think. Sure this city is huge, has so many different areas and the place where you’re staying is great but…it's just not blowing you away.
Istanbul, it's not you, it's me.
I’ve changed. I used to thrive in cities and considered myself a city girl but now it’s the places that I have no expectation of that I totally love: the residential area of Kotor, the fairytale land of Cappadocia, the whole of Albania but I expected to be blown away by the melting pot that is Istanbul – the gateway between Asia and Europe; the furthest point in Europe that I was planning to go. Instead, I am wondering why I came this far?
Maybe that city girl has well and truly gone…
I was in Liberia, Costa Rica, backpacking my way through the country when I knew I shouldn’t have stopped. I was in my stride with both backpacks loaded tightly onto my body when a man approached me.
It was daylight. There was a crowd of people at the bus station just ahead. I still had plenty of time to catch my bus to the next country, Nicaragua. I was leaving from Liberia, my last stop in Costa Rica.
I had seen someone moving out of the corner of my eye, and a dark man with wild, wiry hair crossed my path and stood in front of me saying something in an accent so thick that I couldn’t understand. His eyes an indication that his mind wasn’t really there. As I tried to walk past him his bony fingers grabbed my arm and held it in a tight grip. He continued to speak, still holding onto my arm. I pulled at it to pull away but he remained to hold it tightly so that I couldn't leave.
“I don’t understand,” I said loudly, allowing my arm to relax and go flaccid within his grasp. He loosened his grip as my arm relaxed.
Unperturbed he kept on, staring at me as he sprouted words that made no sense.
Suddenly I felt angry and sensing my chance to get away I shouted loudly, “NO ENTIENDO!” (I don’t understand) and quickly pulled my arm away.
I walked quickly and didn’t look back. I arrived at the bus station shaking slightly and wishing that I could just tell what had happened to someone, anyone but there was no one to tell. I paid the bus driver and took a seat waiting for it to fill up.
It was moments like this when I wished I was travelling with someone but I wasn’t. I was still travelling alone and as I watched people get onto the bus in couples, pairs of friends and as families, I wish I had someone sat next to me to tell me that everything was okay and to hold my still shaking hand.
I thought back about what had happened. I shouldn’t have stopped. I had seen him crossing the road and should have just carried on walking. Nothing had actually happened. A man had only grabbed my arm but what if he had a knife? What if he had tried to rob me. I could hardly walk fast with both backpacks strapped to me like an oversized tortoise. At least I had been able to shout.
As the bus started its engine and took off, heading towards the Costa Rica border, I realised that although it had been short and sweet, it was definitely time to move on and embark on my new adventures in Nicaragua. I was ready to leave Costa Rica.
Missing my flight To Bhutan
The board flashes at me ‘Drukair flight boarding.'
I look at my Eticket – 12.05pm still hours to go. But there is no 12.05pm Drukair flight on the departures board. There is only one at 9.15am that is now boarding.
My heart starts to beat faster. ‘It must be wrong,' I think and scan the board again frantically looking for the afternoon flight but it's not there and the morning one has my flight number. I run up to the check in desk and push in front of a line of waiting passengers.
‘My flight,' I gasp and shove the ticket in the man's hand.
‘It's just left,' he replied and points to the Drukair office.
‘No' I want to scream knowing that they don't even fly every day from Kathmandu to Bhutan. I am three hours early for my flight but it has just left! I feel as if I am in the twilight zone.
In the Drukair office I nearly cry and sit with my head in my hands.
‘The flight changed two months ago,' says the man. ‘Did you not get the email?'
‘No,' I nearly sob.
They take pity on me and sit me down and get me a coffee. ‘We can get you on the flight tomorrow.'
‘But I have a tour booked that leaves today,' I reply thinking that I am doomed.
An hour later, a rearranged tour, visa and returned flight booked, I am smiling and thanking the nice man for helping me.
Then back to Kathmandu but this time to a different area, then to cheer myself up I visit the Monkey Temple, the Royal Palace Museum and congratulate myself on overcoming yet another obstacle with a three course lunch and some more sightseeing.
And after a disastrous start I have the most wonderful day.
Fingers crossed for the flight tomorrow so I can say goodbye to Nepal and hello to Bhutan…
A Drunk in Vienna
The stench of booze was oozing out of his pores. I backed away removing myself from his beer swilling hand that looked as though it may tip at any moment.
‘Got 50 cent?’ he asked in English.
I looked closer at this middle-aged man wearing a singlet and holding a can of beer. He resembled more of a drunk Brit lost in Vienna than someone who was homeless. I continued trying to work out the Austrian ticket machine after politely shaking my head.
Was the machine saying I needed a single ticket? Did I have the right station? I glanced at my map making sure I was looking for the right place.
He was still there.
‘Just 50 cent for something to eat,’ he asked.
‘I don’t have 50 cent,’ I replied, thinking that I wasn’t going to give my lack of cash to this drunken bum who had blatantly just stumbled out of a pub.
I was growing frustrated at the ticket machine and the man who would not go away. Why had I booked a hostel that was clearly out of town instead of being dropped off at the city hostel? Was the £4 saving really worth lugging my backpack around the city?
‘You must have 50 cent,’ he persisted.
‘Look mate,’ I said, the anger apparent in my voice. ‘You’ve probably got more money than me so please go away,’ my patience wearing incredibly thin.
‘I could show how to use the ticket machine for 50 cent.’
‘Just go away,’ I said rudely as he invaded my personal space even closer.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked.
I tried the silent tactic hoping that he would get the hint. His presence was in no way threatening but more of an annoyance than anything.
‘You from England?’ he asked then answered his own question to my amusement. ‘No, your accent is too weird for that. Australia?’ He paused, deep in thought. ‘No not there.’
‘Eureka,’ I wanted to yell as I finally figured out the ticket machine and my ticket came flying into the collection box.
He was now dangerously close to where my change was about to burst out of and in that split second I did something I was not proud off. As my change came bursting out the machine like I’d won the jackpot, I shoved him out of the way and grabbed my money.
‘Aggressive!’ I heard him calling behind me as I made it through the entrance.
‘Hello Vienna’ I thought to myself as the train pulled up on the platform.
N.b I am usually such a placid person and I regularly give money to people on the streets but this man was clearly not one and I didn’t encounter any other person begging for money during my stay in Vienna. In fact, it is an amazing and beautiful city…
Have you ever done anything you're not proud off?
Listen To Your Intuition When Travelling Solo
When you travel alone, the only safety device you have is your instinct. Your senses are heightened and you only have yourself for protection. Sometimes when you travel and meet the most amazing people, you are riding that crest of a wave and it is so easy to forget that any moment can change in the blink of an eye. It's so important to listen to your instinct when travelling.
The world is mainly full of wonderful people but beneath the rose-tinted spectacles lie the snakes and others to be wary off. It’s so easy to forget this and I have been incredibly lucky on each of my travels. I have put myself in dangerous situations both in London and abroad and I have become so much wiser but no matter how smart or careful you are, you need to remain vigilant when travelling.
After an incredible three days socialising with great people, I moved onto a small hotel in a Belizean town. Having arrived within five minutes, a man with dreadlocks approached me and started asking me questions. Immediately my hairs went up and I could feel the adrenaline in my body screaming at me to stay away from this man. After being polite for a minute I firmly said that I had to go and walked away thinking what a strange character. Then as I waited to check into my room, another sat opposite me and asked me questions. It’s so usual for people to be curious when you travel but you just KNOW when something isn’t right. Again I was polite and returned to my laptop with him still sitting there.
I checked in and later at dinner, he came through the restaurant and asked to sit next to me. Again, I was on my laptop but there were no spare tables so I said he could but I would be leaving in a minute. He sat right where my computer was so I had to move it and he tried to talk to me.
I spoke trying to hide the hostility in my voice at this man invading my personal space. I was blunt but he wasn’t getting the message. He said it wasn’t safe to walk into town at night and that he would drive me tomorrow. I refused and asked him if he was hungry (why was he sitting in a restaurant otherwise?) He said no, he had eaten.
I asked if he was getting a drink? Again, he said no.
Then rudely I said ‘Why are you sitting here then?’ and he replied ‘to talk to you.’ I told him I had finished my meal and was going before realising that my room key was sitting face up with the number of my room. I turned it over hoping that he hadn’t noticed but the number was too large not too. As I got up he told me which room he was in and if I wanted anything to just knock his door.
I said ‘I won’t be needing anything’ and left.
Four hours later at 10.30pm, there was a knock at my door, which was opposite a flight of outside stairs and not the safest of rooms but when the knock came I was not surprised. They knocked again louder this time and I sat still refusing to move or even speak waiting to see what their next move would be. Then again, louder than before until they gave up and presumably went away.
I could have asked who it was through the door and still refused to have let them in but then I would be identifying that it was actually me in that room and who would be knocking my door at that time of night? It definitely wouldn’t have been the owner that I met earlier that day, it had to be him: the Lebanese guy from the restaurant who had spotted my room number earlier and knew that I was alone.
I had already bolted the door, perhaps sub-consciously in preparation for an unexpected visitor. Now, I put a chair underneath it to stop anyone from coming in. I was going to ask to be moved in the morning, the office was closed already and I was secure in the room. If I see him tomorrow, I will confront him and ask loudly why he was knocking my room late at night? (without him knowing that I changed to another). No one is going to make me feel unsafe when I am alone and taint my experience of travelling. Sometimes things happen and you have a close shave to remind you that you are a Western woman travelling by yourself and that at times the world is not a nice place.
I can look after myself and I am so sure that if I ever got into a physical situation my instinct would be to fight instead of flight but I am still a woman at the end of the day and you should never underestimate a stranger.
So, if you ever feel uneasy or that something just isn’t right – ask to be moved as soon as you can. It really isn’t worth thinking ‘it will all be okay’ because if there is any element of doubt in your mind, it is better to cause a slight fuss and feel 100% safe than to have wished you have done something sooner.
Listen to your instinct and trust it…I certainly did.