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Advice for first-time solo travel

Lining up a travel buddy isn’t always a feasible option when planning that dream adventure. There’s certainly no shortage of countries to explore and sights to see but finding the ideal person to share those experiences with requires compatible schedules and travel styles and a shared interest on the same destination. That can prove to be difficult. For many (like myself) it can be easier to just set out alone. Travelling on the lonesome – be it for an extended period or a one-week vacation – can be a great way to go. That said, before landing in the destination, there are a few things to keep in mind. As someone who’s giving the whole solo wandering a shot this year, I have some recommendations from my first few months abroad.

Become a “yes” person. Be open minded to all offers and invites that arise. Even if something doesn’t seem interesting right away, taking part in that activity can prove just the opposite. Accepting new offers is often just the thing to enrich travel experiences and hey, they might uncover an unexplored passion. However, becoming a “yes” person shouldn’t mean following along without thinking independently. Rather, it means being unbiased and truly considering the offers instead of automatically shooting something down just to watch Netflix.

Know when it’s better to branch off alone. Yes, solo travellers should consider new opportunities but at the same time, knowing when to branch off from the crowd is key. Say, for instance, the group dynamic doesn’t exactly fit your vibe or the itinerary conflicts with your schedule. Go your own way. Sometimes following the crowd is only going to damper your mood. Early in my travels, I made hiking plans with a woman whose demeanor was… less than friendly. On the day of our hike, her messages seemed unhelpful and abrupt. When she failed to find me at our meeting spot and suggested I instead make my way to the trail, I changed course. I hit a different trail alone enjoying incredible views, a satisfying workout and a hot bowl of fresh trout soup by the river afterwards. In this case, it was wise to change my plans when I felt uncomfortable.

Trust that you are, in fact, capable. Before I left, I read a book of essays by female travellers in Latin America. The common theme seemed to be that everyone felt intimidated until they recognized that they were capable of more than they thought. Travelling means getting outside that well-established comfort zone – especially if doing it alone. Like the female writers I read, I too underestimated myself. At first, it was daunting to do anything alone. Slowly, I came out of my shell. Now, I’m writing this after having spent the past few days in the coffee region alone. I toured a coffee farm, I saw a cloud forest, I cooked a meal and kicked back in a cabin alone and I travelled the nine hours back alone. When travelling solo, trust that you are, in fact, a capable human.

Don’t be attached to items or itineraries. Letting schedules and material objects hold little to no importance will grant freedom. Not being attached to things like a weekend itinerary or perfectly coordinated wardrobe enables travellers to better fall into a go-with-the-flow way of thinking. Recently, my mini four-day vacation turned into a nearly three-week road trip. I wore the same outfits over and over and I unexpectedly got to enjoy parts of the country I hadn’t planned on seeing. It has been one of the highlights of 2018 so far. I’m so glad I tossed out the original plan.

Accept cultural differences. Though it may be hard, don’t use cultural standards from home to judge those who you meet abroad. In the long run, accepting culture shock is going to be easier than fighting it. Keep personal values close of course, just don’t expect others to think in the same ways. Now that I’m travelling, I have to accept that opinions are going to be much different in Colombia than in Toronto. I wouldn’t expect otherwise.

Spend time doing what you actually want to do. One of the beauties of travelling alone is that there’s no need to compromise with travel buddies with differing interests. When experiencing a new place, solo venturers are spoiled by getting to do exactly what they want to do and when they want to do it. If afforded this type of freedom, take advantage. Pay attention to personal interests and spend time doing those things. Don’t let travel blogs or opinions of fellow travellers on what visitors are “supposed to do” cloud that vision.

A Great Algonquin Portage

We arrived at Algonquin just as a dark wall of ominous clouds blanketed the park. “Is this foreshadowing?” I thought to myself.

It was my first time visiting this provincial gem. My boyfriend and friends surprised me with the long weekend getaway for my 23rd birthday and I was relieved to ditch the city for some nature-induced fun. What I didn’t know, was that another surprise awaited me at the entry of the park. We weren’t just camping…we were tackling a great Algonquin portage!

Portaging entails carrying your canoe across the land between lakes until you find a marked campsite that suits your liking. I predicted portaging with my boyfriend, who is an extremely ambitious camper, would entail a weekend of intense physical activity, refined outdoorsmanship and throbbing muscle cramps. Sure it wouldn’t be the weekend of suntanning, swimming and relaxation that I had anticipated, but it was an adventure.

Meeting the gray skies, we quickly unpacked our cars and loaded our waterproof bags into three canoes. In the final moments of sunshine, we paddled around the small lakes searching for the perfect campsite. Note to self #1: Never expect perfection while camping.

After an hour-long search that was decorated with spats of rain, we pulled up to a small, hilly island. We docked our canoes and scoped out the plot. It was spacious enough for three tents and even had a pre-built fire pit. “Guys! Come here!” my friend suddenly shouted. We all rushed over to see an aged memorial plaque for a young girl who died on the island years prior. “Nope!” one of my friends said, completely spooked out. We hopped back into our canoes and begged our biceps to paddle on. As we departed, in some sick joke mastered by the universe, a little red shoe floated between our boats. Note to self #2: Stop watching horror movies.

We passed site after site. That one is too bare…that one is too small…that one isn’t marked…until a loud boom echoed across the lake. Have you ever watched that scene from The Notebook when Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling are passionately proclaiming their love for one another while sitting in a rowboat in a torrential downpour? Now imagine that, minus the charming words.

We could barely see each other as we headed for land to escape any potential lightning. When it slightly let up, we caught sight of flames flickering on the shore. An older couple made their way out to the opening. “Are you guys OK?” they shouted. It’s funny how pickiness tends to wear off in moments of desperation. Attempting to seek shelter, even for only a few minutes, my friend shouted back, “Hey, do you guys have room for a couple more people over there?” For a moment, all we could hear were the pellets of rain slamming our tin canoes as the couple stood still on the shore. Finally, the man put his hands up to his mouth and shouted a half-assed, “Ha-ha!” that reverberated across the open water and into my nightmares for the remainder of our stay.

Although miserable, tired and drenched, we eventually found a marked spot that was, ironically, almost perfect for our weekend. After setting up our tents, we spent the remainder of the drier days exploring the island, cooking delicious meals and laughing around the fire. Note to self #3: Never turn down a surprise camping trip.

To this day, my boyfriend tells people, “Yeah, it was raining. But the only thing filling up the canoe was Courtney’s tears.” Which isn’t true, of course, but it is funny. And if the outcome of an adventure is a funny story, then, in my opinion, it was an adventure well-lived.

 

Reflection: A birthday abroad

Earlier this spring, I turned 27 and for the first time in my life, I celebrated my birthday outside of Canada’s borders and thousands of kilometres away from the place I call home. My birthday came just weeks after I left Toronto to pursue a year of working and travelling in South America.

They say when it comes to birthdays, there are two types of people: those who love it and those who hate it. I’m the latter. Not dissimilar to New Year’s, birthdays, I feel, are a time for reflection and goal setting. A marker of another year past and a new age just starting, birthdays can be anxiety filled and stressful. For some, it’s a dreaded time of year when worries about getting old are at their strongest. Aging, for me, is not of a particular concern. Rather, I’m faced with asking myself the tough questions. Am I where I want to be in life at this moment? Did I make the most of the year that just passed? Is there anything I’d like to change going forward? Am I wiser or just older now? As the questions continue to pop into my mind, it’s no wonder that my anxiety levels rise.

This year though, that changed. Having set foot in Colombia in the last days of February with a teeny wardrobe squeezed into a pack and an even smaller Spanish vocabulary, I set out to live my day-to-day quite differently. Turning up in a new country where little was familiar, I set a precedent to go with the flow as much as possible because, well, given the circumstances, there just didn’t seem to be another option. Plus, having put myself far outside of my comfort zone, little seemed in my control. Worrying wasn’t going to change that. As such, when my birthday neared, I learned to give up my panic routine. I ended up booking a stay in a hostel high in the mountains an hour outside of the city where strong rays of sunshine made for the perfect day of poolside lounging next to a yard of mango trees and avocados.  

There were some things I learned during that weekend when I finally learned to just chill out and take things as they come. Below, are just a few.

Expectation management is key.

Manage expectations and everything becomes easier. In years past, my birthday bash often had to be just so. I needed every one of my friends to show up and have a great time. I wanted a new outfit and freshly done hair. The night couldn’t end too early and oftentimes, my party had at least two locations. This year though, I couldn’t have any of that. I was without my cluster of friends for one, and secondly, I wasn’t even familiar with my new home. So, I booked the mini getaway determined to have fun during my lowest key birthday yet. I went with one close friend and fussed about none of the details. We enjoyed wine, homemade tacos and a tuk-tuk ride up the mountain. I had a great time. I guess simple is better and giving up control makes for a more enjoyable experience.

Sometimes, you just can’t plan for all the details.

I went with the flow and enjoyed a low-key weekend in a tranquil spot and met a lovely group of people also exploring the area. I chose not to fuss over every single detail and things turned out for the best. You can’t plan every single thing to a tee so it’s best not to try and just enjoy things as they happen. That goes for things like a birthday party but it also applies to travel, work or entering a new phase in life.

You heard it before… don’t take yourself too seriously.

I’m not the best Spanish speaker or salsa dancer but on the night when I turned 27, I did both. I joined the party going on a the pool soon after midnight again, determined just to have a good time and be in the moment. I doubt anyone noticed my amateur dance steps and as for the Spanish, I managed to get my points across through broken phrases. Others were encouraging, not judgmental and it was certainly better than hanging back and being a wallflower all night. I didn’t take myself seriously and it was for the best. Duly noted for my year of travels ahead…

Worrying just makes the problem bigger.

As mentioned, with so much out of my control this year, I just gave up the stressing altogether. I did myself a major favour. Instead of entertaining that birag of self-reflection questions, I opted not to bother. In doing so, the pressure came off and I had a surprisingly awesome time. The lead-up to my birthday was a much less stressful event than it had been in years past. I realized that worrying is a problem in and of itself and I had the power to quash that all along.  

Naked sex resort? No thanks

I’m definitely one lucky woman. I have traveled to a few continents over the years and my adventures are always memorable for one reason or another, but nothing will ever compare to the twilight-zone of an experience I had when I spent 4 days in Jamaica this past January.

I was sent on assignment, intending to learn about a new culture, enjoy some sun and sand, and perhaps gain a window into the world of nudists and swingers, at a well-known clothing optional resort in Negril.

I walked into Hedonism II wanting to love the experience and feeling that I would be somewhat sheltered from the exhibitionist lifestyle this destination was known for. Little did I know that I was in the world of the swinger and I, as a media member, was the outsider.  The resort made this clear by setting rules including the one that said I, as a “prude” staying on the Prude side, could not venture to the Naked side of the resort unless I disrobed.

I was completely fine with staying put. What was left out of the description to me from the beginning was that the same rule was not in place for the Naked side guests. They were given free reign of the entire resort and were welcome to carry on as they pleased on every square acre of the land. Oh! Did they ever.

During those 4 days, I saw things I cannot erase from my mind. Despite trying, images of all-aged naked men advancing towards fully-clothed me, attempting to ignite some “connection,” could not be unseen and the attempts kept on over the entire stay- lucky me.

To each their own, but  I spent my days at the resort flanking myself with the more youthful media members, who were also feeling like bait in a tank of hungry sharks.

We managed to enjoy spa treatments that were heavenly and this was actually the only time I disrobed. Our group also had a fantastic time on the party catamaran and amazing nights at the various themed parties. Luaus on the beach, leather and lace soirees as well as toga shindigs made us feel like we were a little more included, because at these events the majority of attendees were actually somewhat clothed.

Eventually the shock of all aged naked people wore off, but the sheer discomfort instilled with the advances, propositions and exhibitionist acts all around us did not. Couples would subtly leave their hotel room doors open and carry on having sex so anyone walking by could see. We all became used to being asked to join in.  “No thanks! I’m good!” I tried not to look in these doors, but it was always like road kill . I couldn’t avoid looking.

It was as if no rules applied on this plot of land. People were having sex anywhere they pleased, except at the buffet because that was unsanitary, but it was apparently sanitary for couples and strangers to get their rocks off in a pool I wished I could have gone swimming in. I didn’t even dare to dip in my big toe.

I guess I am a bit of a prude, and have no problem admitting that. I’m certainly not sitting in judgement over those guests who admitted to me they return to Hedo II again and again because of the freedom they feel to be themselves there. Clearly this resort is meant for a specific type of person:  exhibitionists, swingers and nudists. Everyone who fell under these categories, that I spoke to, raved about their experience at Hedonism II. I have complete respect for those who enjoy that lifestyle. It’s just not for me. I guess I’ll stick to the family-friendly resorts. They are more my speed.

London Calling

Over a decade ago I packed up my things at my childhood home and moved to London, U.K.  It was a sudden decision and one that my family-especially my parents- were surprised by. Up until that point I had always lived in Ottawa and never thought I’d leave. I had a happy childhood and a great group of friends, but after finishing my post-secondary education, relationships changed and I was looking for adventure.

Newly out of teacher’s college, I found opportunities were scarce in Ontario, but the U.K. was looking for new teachers. So I jumped at the opportunity, signed a contract and boarded a plane within three weeks to the city I would call home for 8 months.

Those 8 months were the most challenging and exciting of my life. I was enthralled with British culture up until heading there, mainly because of my mother and her love for British dramas and the royal family. I had fond memories of a childhood visit and at 24, I felt like I was once again a wide-eyed child, but this time could appreciate it fully. The busy city streets and vibrant red double-decker buses, the vintage-style cabs lined up at Charing Cross Station, the cobblestone streets and quirky fashion, and sights like the London Eye and the Thames, all fascinated me on my first journey through the core of the city.

The central portion of London proper had an entirely different vibe than the area that I ended up finding a flat-share in. It did not take long for the novelty and excitement to ware off and for me to get saturated in the day-to-day responsibilities. I lived with two Londoners in Hither Green- at the time, a “dodgy area,” as they say there. I taught in an even dodgier area on an estate in Abbeywood.

The novelty of being in a city I had grown up fascinated by quickly fizzled, and days swiftly passed. I enjoyed a romantic relationship with a homegrown Brit, finally became used to the food and cultural differences, and became comfortable in my role as a nursery teacher.

That’s not to say the transition wasn’t rocky. I experienced severe homesickness and talked to my parents daily for the first month, caught a terrible flu that I just couldn’t shake for well over that same month, was mugged twice-once at gun point – and hated not having my usual drip coffee to sip every morning before work.

The 8 months came and went and I was asked to stay on at the school for another year. I initially said yes, but then retracted. I realized that I had experienced all of London 20 times over and a number of the other British regions– – Cornwall was my favourite.

But with that trip to Cornwall came the starting point to the end of my relationship. My partner at the time was so immersed in his own life and family, and proved to not be very interested in mine. My father offered to fly him to Toronto for my brother’s wedding, and when he said no, I knew that the relationship would not work. The distance from my family made me appreciate them all even more, and if my boyfriend at the time couldn’t, it was time to go home, just as I had planned all along.

Eleven years later, whenever I am asked about the most interesting experience of my life, or the one that made the biggest impact, I always think back to those days in London. I was once a quiet and meek woman, nervous to go shopping at the mall on my own. That experience caused me to cross the pond solo to take on a city that is 10 times the size of Ottawa. Naturally, my next move was to Toronto.

Open letter by a former seafood-hater

It’s embarrassing to admit, but the first time I had sushi I hid it in my purse when no one was looking.

Late in high school, I finally decided to give this raw cuisine a try after hearing my gaggle of best friends rave about California rolls and fresh maki. At that point, I’d never eaten sushi or shellfish of any kind. I sat in the restaurant waiting for my meal to arrive. One bite and I’d be in their sushi-loving club… or so I thought. When my fishy meal came, I could barely tolerate the sight of it. The slabs of slippery, raw salmon on my plate before made me gag. Their texture made my stomach churn. Who was I kidding? I wasn’t a cultured eater at all. I didn’t even know how to use chopsticks. While there way no way I’d be feasting on this seafood dish, I was faced with an even bigger dilemma: all-you-can-eat sushi spots charge extra for that which you do not devour. So, I did something that only a picky eater could understand: I scooped up fistfuls of cold, gooey fish, stuffed them into my purse and left. I must have reeked of fish on the bus ride home.

A few years on, I was living in Toronto still successfully avoiding seafood (and especially the raw kind) when I started dating a man with a Portuguese background and an affinity for shrimp, lobster and, you guessed it, sushi. This person introduced me to the world of seafood, in gradual steps – first serving me the cooked kind. In time, I grew to love a plate of shrimp with a beer or a Friday night out eating lobster. Eventually, I tried a less offensive sushi meal and learned it wasn’t so bad at all.

Learning to love a type of food that I had previously dismissed came in handy when I traveled to new spots, like Brazil, for instance. This nation with its Portuguese roots was obsessed with all the foods which that past boyfriend of mine loved. I’ll never forget the day when, sunbathing alone by the ocean, I managed to order a small bowl of freshly-caught shrimp from a fisherman walking along the beach. My delight of being able to order this snack despite the language barrier quickly waned when I realized the shrimp came with the heads still attached. The freshly-peppered morsels caught just that day were a treat too good to pass up as I sunned myself on the beach though. So, without a second-thought, I removed the heads, doused the rest in lime and enjoyed the perfect Brazilian lunch.

Seafood and sushi are now favourite foods of mine. I’m glad I learned to become open-minded rather than dismissive of these dishes. That goes especially when travelling to places where these sorts of foods are the region’s pride and joy. I’ve found that being open to them while away from home has enriched vacation experiences. I gobbled mini octopus in Cuba on a white sandy beach with my brother. I munched on barbecued conch at a Bahamian cocktail party. I swallowed back ice-cold, butter-flavoured oysters in Boston after a long day spent reporting on the Boston Marathon. I fueled a Cape Cod relay race with a lobster roll and when I visited Nova Scotia, armed with a bib, ample napkins and tools for the occasion, I learned to crack my first lobster. More recently, in Vancouver, I sat by a sunny street and ordered a plate of sushi because you just can’t go to the west coast city without doing so. After I finished, I ordered an extra serving of two pieces of salmon sushi. My favourite.

The girl who once hid raw fish in her purse to avoid eating it has grown to be much more adventurous with fresh ocean foods. The menu items that once caused me to grimace have become a routine part of my diet – and a luxury when travelling. And so, I write this as a sort of open letter to the picky eaters out there because these are the ones I hope to convince to say yes to new flavours. Though it cost me a purse, my introduction to seafood has allowed me to better experience tastes from abroad.

Traveling to Egypt? What to know

This past month, my husband and I went to Egypt for a quick getaway. It was a beautiful experience. The desert sand between my toes, the beaming sun on my face after a long, treacherous Canadian winter, and the beautiful landmarks visible from almost anywhere on the streets are just a few of the things that have me yearning to go back. In the middle of the trip were a few other moments I wish we were prepared for. Its not easy to anticipate everything in a foreign country but hopefully this post can help  others when planning.

Expect to tip

Unfortunately, political turmoil and a national revolution has a way of taking a toll on a country’s tourism industry. Despite everyone’s concern, it is safe! But locals have become increasingly more aggressive towards foreigners. They will open a door for you and ask for a tip in return. It’s important to be extra wary of locals when visiting popular tourist destinations such as the Pyramids of Giza. Whether it’s camel owners looking for riders or tour guides waiting in front of the gates for solo travelers– everyone is unfortunately out to get what’s in your wallet.  

Everything is dirt cheap

Otherwise, don’t worry about running out of money while in Egypt. Food, souvenirs, and even tourist destinations such as the entrance into the Pyramids of Giza, are low in expense- the cost of visiting Egypt is significantly cheaper than anywhere else in the world. My husband and I very comfortably feasted for less than $10, sometimes eating falafels for a mere 25 cents!

Be careful though. Its easy to lose track of  money when casually throwing Egyptian pounds at everyone and everything. Little things like water bottles, a key chain here, a perfume there can leave travelers without notes in a blink of an eye. Exchange more money than needed, because ATM fees are expensive, and currency exchanges  can be rather shady. If you find yourself with money left at the end of your trip – donate it! It is not difficult to find someone who is in need of money in a developing country.

Value for money 

Just because things are cheap, doesn’t mean paying full price. I love the smell of essence and using oil -based perfumes so when I walked into the ‘Perfume Palace’, I knew I was about to do some damage to my bank account. Unfortunately, locals see foreigners as an opportunity to make significant profit. They will ask double the price for something shoppers are interested in buying. So even if it sounds ridiculous, if an item is 100 EGP, start bargaining at 50 EGP. Be firm – even if  it’s not half the price,  a discount will be given.

Make time for an authentic experience

One thing my husband and I strive for during vacations is authenticity. The last thing I want to do in a country like Egypt is go to an Italian restaurant. It just doesn’t make sense.  Each day try to do something unconventional and out of the norm from the average tourist. Although it is daunting to venture out independently in a foreign country, it is important to do so in order to get the full experience.  

Be wary of culture

Egypt is an Arab country with a Muslim majority population. Do some research before a trip! It is easy to stand out if wearing anything revealing. Although headscarves and long skirts are not mandatory like they are in other Arab countries, do try to cover shoulders and avoid wearing anything too short. Planning is also difficult. Egyptians go with the flow and maintaining a schedule is not part of their norm. This may also be due to the fact that traffic makes it almost impossible to get somewhere on time. Expect a 10 minute taxi ride to take up to half an hour. The roads are all one way but patience is key when in Egypt – speed limits and traffic lights do not exist here!  

Befriend an Egyptian

Feeling overwhelmed? Make a friend! Having someone during your outings who knows the language and culture can be a lot more comforting than venturing out alone. My husband and I were happy to meet a tour guide who ended up showing us around Cairo for two days and quickly became a friend. . Whether it was blasting Arabic music during the car ride, or stopping for sugar cane juice on the way to the museum, Halla was an amazing part of a great trip.

Research and be safe, but happy Egyptian travels! It’s a remarkable country.

Portugal travel tips: consider camping

From the stunning coastlines to the lush vineyards of the north, Portugal’s allure is one of a kind. I remember the overwhelming feeling when two of my best gal pals and I decided on this destination for a three-week trip in 2016- there was so much to see in so little time.

I wanted to visit the rolling hills of Sintra, the vibrant city of Lisbon and the cliff-lined Algarve coast, but there was plenty of natural beauty between the nation’s major hubs, and it was calling to me. An agreement was made to skip the headache of booking hostels and the group opted for a more rugged experience. Sleeping bags, cooking supplies and a three-person tent were packed  and plans were set to jump from campsite to campsite along the Alentejo Coast.

To this day,  adventures camping through Portugal are some of my fondest travel memories. Those looking for a journey on a budget, or merely for the chance to get outside and indulge in nature, consider camping along this country’s coast for the perfect cure to onset of wanderlust.

Cost

Camping is a much cheaper alternative to staying in hotels, Airbnbs and even backpacker hostels. On average, I spent about €5 ($7.75 CAD) per night, with some sites costing as little as €2 ($3.10 CAD). Sometimes, this charge was applied to each person, but more commonly, it was applied to each tent, and because the group decided to snuggle up in one, the overall accommodation costs were extremely low.

Most campsites along the Alentejo Coast are located in small towns, so food and alcohol were generally cheaper as well. I remember one night sitting around a picnic bench, listening to the ocean, and sipping on a €0.50 glass of local wine that was filled to the brim- and this was a common occurrence.

It’s worthwhile to dig through travel forums to find campsites and wild spots in an area of interest, or check out iOverlander and FurgoVW for mapped areas throughout Western Europe. In Algarve territory, be aware that wild camping is officially banned.

Environment

Coming from Canada, where there are  some of the most lush campsites in the world, setting up a tent in the often sparse landscapes of Portugal was a bit of an adjustment. But, where Portugal’s coast lacks in trees, it makes up for in ocean.

The Alentejo Coast is a string of sandy coves woven through steep and rocky ocean-side ridges. This stunning scenery is usually only a short walk from  campsites, or, if wild camping,  the ocean is right at your tent door! There’s nothing better than waking up to the soundtrack of the sea.

Some of the Alentejo Coast  is populated with oak, olive and other native plant species- Over 100 kilometres of the coast is part of the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina, a preserved slice of land that’s home to plenty of unique animal and plant species. Unlike Canada there are no black bears or big cats roaming around these parts. There are very few dangerous animals in Portugal, especially along the coast, which is yet another reason why camping here has such a draw.

Site Quality

Campground quality can be a hit or a miss, and the group definitely experienced some rougher plots of land. However, more often than not, all were pleasantly surprised with the location and perks that the accommodations had to offer.

Most campgrounds along the coast are equipped with amenities that are suited for a resort- clean showers, outdoor pools, laundry rooms, on-site restaurants, grocery stores, barbecue stations and even widespread WiFi access. Some of the grounds are so clean and comfortable, that it’s not uncommon for families to park their camper vans or trailers and stay for months at a time. The parks can get quite full in peak season, but luckily, our group was travelling at the end of September and missed the summer rush.

A few coastal spots  are world renowned for their waves and are popular with surf camps and retreats. The grounds stayed on in Sagres, for example, had a surf camp on site and offered lessons to interested visitors.

People

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of camping through Portugal was the many faces  that I met along the way. As most small-town campgrounds are frequented by Portuguese families, I had the opportunity to spend time with the locals and learn about their culture firsthand. Friendly residents and fellow campers brought the group to their favourite beach spots, as well as to local gatherings. They cooked the meanest salted cod (or baccalau) I’ve ever tasted in my life!

There’s something about being in the great outdoors, especially in a country as beautiful as Portugal, that sparks the most basic instinct to bask in the joy of company. The intimate, yet open spirit of camping is one that brings people closer together and it’s an experience that the hostel-jumping trend of travelling often seems to miss. So, on the next trip to Portugal, (or anywhere for that matter) plan  a different kind of adventure- one that allows travelers to see a destination in its purest state.

Solo Travel: Here’s what I’ve learned from being extremely vulnerable

When I told people of my plans to live abroad in South America for a year, the most common response I got was: “I wish I did that when I was your age.” I’m in my mid-twenties and as my departure date got closer and closer, this response became more and more normal for me to hear from those ten or twenty years my senior. In the months leading up to this adventure, I became accustomed to hearing “I wish” over and over again and though I never asked, I usually silently thought to myself: “Well, why didn’t you?” That question was one I genuinely wanted the answer to. By the time I was headed to the gate with my boarding pass in hand, I had a good feeling I already knew the answer. I had just said goodbye to my family, friends, job and home and it felt like I had gone through several breakups in a condensed period of time. Six weeks later, I still suspect that many of those people didn’t bother because hitting pause on life and travelling away from home is so damn uncomfortable.

This is the first time I’m giving the whole living abroad thing a shot and I’ve never felt more vulnerable in my life. The past month and a half has been great yet at the same time, I’ve been well outside my comfort zone almost every time I’ve left my apartment. I see why many opt not to do this, but after  spending weeks fumbling through conversations, getting lost and feeling very, very new in town, I’ve noticed a few things that are likely true for those who do book that one-way ticket. Below, a few realizations I’ve had through the chaotic times.

Many people will genuinely want to help.

My first assumption was that Spanish speakers and Colombian people would surely think of me as an idiot tourist. I expected looks of judgement or for locals to simply overlook my struggles when, say, ordering a coffee or navigating the subway. That has not been the case. Rather than judging, most people want to see others thrive. Here, locals are quick to switch to English if they speak it and when I got lost during my second week, more than one person on my bus kept an eye out for my stop.

The definition of intimidating changes.

A great way to make small problems go away is to replace them with larger ones. I’ve noticed that my definition of intimidating has changed immensely since arriving in Medellin in late February. Before I left, intimidating would have meant going out for dinner alone in Toronto on a Friday evening. Now, that pales in comparison to last Friday’s plans which were to navigate the metro system to get across the city to meet up with strangers to then go on the most exhausting hike way up in the mountains. Afterwards, I then went out for dinner alone… and had to order in a different language. Dining alone in Toronto? Yeah, not so bad…

Small gains become victories.

I had no idea about all the small things I took for granted back home. Basic conversational skills, being aware of my surroundings and having many friends willing to meet up for a spur-of-the-moment beer are all examples. Once in a totally unfamiliar place, the smallest accomplishments seem massive. During my first week, that meant being able to successfully buy three empanadas. Now, I’m still happy with minor things like making a new friend or constructing basic sentences in Spanish.

Consider lifelong interests a fallback plan.

While I’m away from family, friends and all things familiar, I’m finding that my hobbies and interests have been my way of feeling grounded. For example, I write almost every day and as an active and outdoorsy person, I’m enjoying mountain terrain and working out regularly. Knowing your interests and committing to the things you actually like certainly enrich the travel experience.

Personal comforts are way too easy to come by.

It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that the secret to acquiring a cozy household is to first blow hundreds of dollars at Bed Bath and Beyond and consult with hygge gurus to get everything just so. I arrived to my new home with nothing but a (very stuffed) MEC duffle bag and have found that I’m able to find comfort in the objects I have. Like the cards from my mom, sister and best friend, my favourite sweater, a bottle of mint essential oil and a calendar of prints from an artist local to my hometown. I’m making do without favourite beers and comfort foods and all the items that made my bedroom the perfect chillout zone. Surprisingly though, that hasn’t been that hard.

Tourist Tips: Surviving a police trap in Vietnam

 

We missed our turn. Even though we had a map, and even though the man at the motorcycle shop showed us exactly where to go. Even though we had read plenty of ominous articles warning readers to not miss that very crucial turn, we missed our turn.

Let me take you back…

It was the beginning of December in Vietnam and my partner and I were wrapping up our six-week backpacking trip through Southeast Asia. We only had ten days to spend in Vietnam and, although there were plenty of cities and villages we yearned to see, we didn’t want to spend our last week of vacation commuting across the country. But, our unsettled spirit for adventure also refused to let us situate ourselves in one place for the entire duration. So, we compromised.

We decided to hitch a short ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Mũi Né, a sleepy beach town where we could relax and explore the southern coast. Mũi Né is a fairly quiet place, but it still seems to thrive on tourism. It’s especially popular with Eastern European travellers, as many of the restaurants, shops and hotels are owned and operated by Russian expats. The town’s main claim to fame, however, is an unlikely set of rolling red and white sand dunes that are popular for dune buggy trips and beautiful desert panoramas.

This natural landmark was at the top of our list and, as we had done in previous countries, we set out to rent a motorbike that we could ride to the dunes and beyond. The streets were much quieter here compared to Ho Chi Minh City, a place where the mere thought of mounting a bike in  the lawless flow of traffic was enough to induce a panic attack. However, I’m a pretty overly cautious traveller (and person), so, naturally, I began looking up license restrictions, driving conditions and shop scams in the area. Low and behold, Google returned a slew of results about the dreaded ‘Mũi Né Police Trap.’

Story has it, that a while back, some Russian tourists were driving recklessly in the area. In response, the Vietnamese police decided to clamp down on unlicensed drivers. Technically speaking, you require a Vietnamese license to drive a motorbike anywhere in the country, but it’s very rarely enforced, as locals prefer to keep vehicle rental businesses alive. The Mũi Né police force, however, took the order as an opportunity to construct a scam using the popular sand dunes as their bait.

Situated near the landmark’s entrance, they pull over non-Vietnamese drivers and pitch freedom at a cost, encouraging tourists to reach deep into their pockets if they want to leave without consequence. As you can imagine, the more fear they instill, the heftier the bribe they’re likely to receive. Thankfully, we knew exactly where these police officers were stationed and had clearly mapped driving instructions to avoid their shady trap.

Here’s the part where we miss our turn.  

We didn’t realize until they were ten feet in front of us, pulling every foreign face to the side of the road. The night before, we overheard a guy at a bar telling a drunken story about how he just kept on driving, right past the police officers who were too lazy to get on their bikes and chase him down. I felt my boyfriend rev the engine and I squeezed his waist as we zoomed on by, hoping the universe would grant us the same fate.

Suddenly, we were the prey of a police chase. And, before you envision Pierce Brosnan and Michelle Yeoh whizzing through dense traffic at full speed, reel in your imagination- it was more like Wallace and Gromit going a steady 40 kilometres per hour and whistling an apprehensive tune.

The police officer pulled right up beside us, looked over with a tired face and simply said, “stop.” We joined a small group of scared, helmeted tourists who had also been caught. He first asked to see our Vietnamese license, which of course we didn’t have, so he then proceeded to pull my boyfriend into a parked pick-up truck where he broke down a deal: we go free, with the motorbike, for five million dong (about $280 CAD).  

Now, you’ve probably already heard this travel tip preached by your father or your Lonely Planet Guidebook, but any time you clip in your backpack buckles, be sure to have a trusty stash of emergency doe tucked away in a secret spot. It’s easy to shrug off, but, trust me,  it’s so worth it once your staring into the sweaty face of a corrupt policeman.

We told the officer that we didn’t have that much money and showed him our empty pockets as proof. So, he ordered my boyfriend to drive to an ATM machine and withdraw the amount while they held me as ransom. At the time, we were using a Chinese bank card and, for some reason, it wasn’t working in Vietnamese bank machines. In all other money-related situations we were screwed, but in this instance, that Chinese card saved our butts.

We explained our situation as best we could, and after nearly one hour of broken debate with the officer and his sidekicks, they shook our hands and let us free for the mere price of $5 CAD. I’m still not sure if it was our knack for sweet talk, or just the pure exhaustion of being a tainted trooper that got us off, but I sure was relieved to hit the road again leaving the hustle in our dust.

Sometimes in life you miss a turn or two, but hey, all you can do is reroute yourself to the destination. We did reach the the sand dunes, after all, with a stack of hidden cash in our backpack’s inner pocket and a soon-to-be hilarious travel tale to add to the books.