Solo Eurotrip, Prague Part 1

For future reference, Barcelona Airport is very bad for sleeping, unless you have something soft, like a giraffe’s belly.

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One of the disadvantages of totally spontaneous travel is that you’ll often have to pay more for flights, because their prices change depending on availability. Or, if like me, you don’t want to pay more, you’ll have to take flights at shitty times, or with shitty connections.

I only bought the ticket the day before the flight out of Lisbon, and I actually didn’t care which of several cities I fly into (Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Krakow), because I wanted to see them all, and they are pretty close together, so I knew I can just take ground transportation once I get into any of them.

As it turned out, Prague was the cheapest, so I got that. However, the cheapness came at a price – an overnight layover in Barcelona. It was 1am by the time we arrived in Barcelona, and the huge waiting areas were all pretty much empty, save for a few sleepers and a few cleaners.

Protip: If you are planning on sleeping in an airport during a layover, don’t go out of secured zone (there’s always a marked exit point-of-no-return). If you go out, you won’t be able to get in again until the next morning, since the security checkpoints probably won’t be open until then. Outside of secured zone, security guards are more likely to wake you up, because they don’t know if you are an actual traveller or a hobo, and they don’t want hobos sleeping in airports. In the secured zone they know you have a ticket, and will tend to leave you alone.

I wasn’t disturbed by security guards, but still, the airport was the worst to sleep in, because the floor was marble (cold and hard), and all the seats have immovable handrails. It was terrible. Next time I’m gonna bring a sleeping bag…


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The first thing I did after checking in at the hostel was to get groceries. One of the guys on staff happened to be going as well, so I tagged along. This is Australian guy #3.

He used to be a crazy traveller (before taking an arrow to the knee), and has apparently stayed in 65 hostels. I don’t know how he is still keeping track – I am at around 10-15 and I lost count already! He said this one is the best one he has stayed in, so he decided to stay for a few weeks. At some point, they offered him a job there, because hey, if you are staying there for good anyways, may as well get paid?

Hostel staff – the only job you can get by simply refusing to leave.

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The next day I went on a free walking tour. If you haven’t been on a free walking tour yet, you should! They have free walking tours in just about every city, and it’s absolutely the best and cheapest way to get a nice overview of where everything is, as well as some history of the place. Of course, they aren’t actually free. It’s more like a name-your-own-price sort of thing. People usually tip the tour guide in the end, though there will be no pressure at all for you to tip, and some people will just walk away. Tours are usually pretty awesome, though, and most people tip happily. Tipping 5 to 10 euro ($6-12 USD) is the norm.

It was a nice and sunny day. We had a nice 3 hours walk around the old town, and ended up going to a traditional pub for lunch.

Prague was once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, and unlike later capitals like Vienna, a lot of Prague remained unchanged to this day. Walking through the gate into old town is like walking into a time machine. All the old buildings and structures are still there, and the ground is still as it was before. Walking into the market square surrounded by all the important buildings and cool statues, you can almost imagine yourself as a 13th century trader dropping by and stopping for a few days to trade with the locals. It was amazing!

The best part of Prague history for me is the defenestrations (the act of throwing someone or something out of a window). The first one was the result of the Catholic vs Protestant conflict. A guy by the name of Jan Hus began by questioning the luxurious and wasteful style of the Catholic church, and called for people to live their lives and worship their god in a less materialistic way. He actually got quite a following in Prague. Of course, the big Catholic guys didn’t like him. They called him over, held a secret trial, and executed him.

His followers in Prague were outraged. They marched to the town hall. Some very bright person inside the building decided to throw a stone at them… bad idea!

They stormed into the town hall, and threw all the council members and the mayor out of the window, and poked them with sharpened wooden sticks to make sure they are dead. Obviously that solved all their problems… and started a war.

There were several more defenestrations in Prague’s history, including one case where someone apparently committed suicide by jumping out of a window… and closing the window behind him. That was not by Czechs but by a Russian. When in Rome, do as Romans do?

They also have a very cool astronomical clock from medieval times. It’s the oldest clock still working today. The different dials show the current time in multiple time systems, position of the sun, position of the moon, and length of the day. It’s amazing engineering!

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Adam tower is the one on the right, and Eve tower is the one on the left. Adam tower is slightly bigger than the Eve tower, to shield her from the rising sun in the morning.

There is also a non-sexist explanation… that I have forgotten. There is still debate among scholars on the true intention of this difference.

Roommates for the night were 3 American guys working in finance. They were slightly obnoxious when drunk, but since they are nice otherwise, I’ll let them keep the “beautiful” label. Also, it’s relatively rare to see Americans travelling. On my trip I have met more Canadians than Americans, which is pretty amazing considering the fact that there are about 10x more Americans than Canadians on Earth.

To be continued…

Solo Eurotrip, Lisbon Part 2

According to Moroccan girl #1, police in Morocco is so corrupt that there’s this one time her friend was stopped for drunk driving (drinking at all is illegal since her friend was Muslim, and Muslims aren’t allowed to drink in Morocco, so a Muslim drinking and driving is doubly illegal), and not only did he get away with it after some bribing, the officer even told them where the next checkpoint is, so they can avoid it. THEN THE OFFICER GAVE THEM SOME WEED and sent them on their way (now not just driving drunk, but stoned AND drunk).

Moroccan girl #1 was quite fun to be around, but I think I’ll skip over Morocco for now on my list of countries to visit…


On the following night, we went out to dinner at a local restaurant with the hostel staff (the beautiful Polish girl mentioned before, and two other guys). Hostel staff are usually fun people, since they are usually avid travellers themselves, and always have endless stories to tell, and travelling tips to share – very useful for newbie travellers like yours truly.

The dinner was pretty unremarkable due to technical problems in the kitchen or something, but we did get to talk quite a lot.

As it turned out, the two people that sat next to me (Indian guy #1, Canadian guy #1) were both doing their PhDs in computer science (one somewhere in Germany, and one in Paris), and they didn’t know each other.

Seriously, I can’t even make this up. One of them does compiler optimisations, and the other one machine learning, but is scared of deep learning (don’t worry, this is the only mentioning of deep learning in this story).

I also got to hear the story of the Polish girl. She grew up in Poland (I gave this away earlier, but I actually didn’t know she’s Polish until this point, since she spoke Portuguese and behaved 100% local), and decided that her day job was too boring, and just learned a bunch of languages (she speaks Polish, English, Spanish, and Portuguese fluently), quit her job, did some travelling, and decided to move to Lisbon and work at a hostel, leaving everything and everyone behind. How cool is that?! And she is only in her 20s according to my highly accurate girls-age-estimator biological neural network!

She then took us all to a local live music bar halfway across Lisbon. I don’t go out too often when travelling since I like to be able to wake up early in the morning and actually do stuff during the day, but hey, it was my last night in Lisbon, and I always have trouble saying no to pretty girls :). Walking on the streets at night was amazing – almost totally devoid of people, warm yellow lights on mosaic pavement, and with a refreshing breeze.

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(Photo courtesy of Karl Gercens, since I forgot to take one, but it looked EXACTLY like this minus the rain!)

On the way to the bar, I talked to an English nurse in her 50s (English lady #1). She has been travelling for a few months every year for decades, and have set foot on all continents and almost every country in Europe, North America, and South America. All by herself. Apparently that’s a good thing about being a nurse – they need nurses everywhere, and with British credentials, you can work pretty much anywhere.

People often say they will start travelling after they retire. But you know, as a nurse, I see a lot of things most people don’t see. I see that many people don’t get to retire. Many people don’t get to be old. And even if they do, many of them don’t have the health to do it by the time they retire.

So I decided I want to do all my travelling now.

– English lady #1

The bars were nice and one of them had an awesome granny DJ.

On the way back, I met a guy from San Francisco (Californian guy #1). He works as an artist doing some freelancing now so he can live anywhere in the world he wants. He just came from Berlin and loved the scene there (“it just felt right”), and will probably be moving back there for a few months. And of course, we talked about crazy housing prices in the Bay Area.

That night I booked a flight to Prague, Czech Republic. Next morning, said goodbye to everyone, and I was gone. I will probably never see any of these people again.

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives for a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most, to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you

– Glinda, Wicked

I had some time to kill before the flight, so I went to check out a few places (a castle and a cathedral). Lisbon is known for being hilly. It was a nice hike.

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To be continued…

Solo Eurotrip, Lisbon Part 1

11936502_10153558853019840_2377981980515560156_oAwesome start of the trip – flight was delayed by 3 hours, because our plane had to come in from Rome, and they had a sick crew member forcing them to return to the airport after takeoff. Sounds like fun.

While at the Luton Airport, I thought I would exchange some euro first since I was not very organized and didn’t do it earlier. Then I looked at the rate. 1£ = 1.17€. Nope. I knew airport exchanges are bad, but I didn’t know they are THAT bad. I later found 1£ = 1.35€ in central Lisbon (interbank rate was about 1.37, so that’s actually pretty good). It’s generally not a very good idea to do cash exchanges while travelling, since foreign ATM withdrawals usually give the best rates (usually interbank rate + 2.5% fees), but my situation was a bit special since I had to get rid of all my £s and close my UK bank account, etc.

Three hours flight and half an hour of AeroBus later, I made it to Praça dos Restauradores, a square in central Lisbon dedicated to their independence after decades of Spanish occupation in the 1600s.

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Can you spot the hostel in the picture? Neither could I. It took me about 15 minutes to find it, but it’s right in the centre of the picture. For some reason, hostels always have tiny tiny entrances.

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A beautiful, young, and very friendly Polish girl showed me to the room (that’s all for now for the description of the girl, but she will come up again later in the story).

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It wasn’t my first time staying at a hostel, but it was my first time actually sharing room with strangers, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

What I absolutely did not expect, though, is to have a 4-hours long conversation with a stranger about everything from our favourite books, to travel, to politics, to violin-playing, purpose of life, self-confidence, and social psychology. And that’s exactly what happened.

Meet German girl #1. She’s from Hamburg, and travelling to figure out what to do with her life. She is pretty awesome.

PS. I am not including names in order to protect the guilty, but also so that people won’t know if I have forgotten their names already.

PS2. If you are reading this, no, Hannah, I have not forgotten your name :).

PS3. Sorry I’m also not including pictures of people, because 1) that’s creepy, and 2) privacy and stuff. You’ll just have to take my words for it – they are beautiful people, unless otherwise specified (there WILL be people later in the story who are otherwisely-specified to not be beautiful).

There was also a German guy (German guy #1). He was slightly older, and works with special needs kids in Germany. I didn’t get to talk to him much unfortunately, because he had to go to bed early to catch an early flight. He was gone when I woke up the next morning. He did give me the last of his awesome Portuguese egg tarts, though.

The next morning, I joined a tour organized by the hostel to Sintra (an old town close to Lisbon). I love it when hostels organize tours. Saves me all the research. It seems like hostels that target solo travellers do this more.

Our tour guide (a guy from the hostel) is a Portuguese guy (Portuguese guy #1) from rural Portugal. He is still in his early 20s, and just finished his degree in international commerce (IIRC), and wanted to learn more about people and their different cultures from all around the world. What better way to do that than working at a hostel? So that’s what he is doing now. Funny guy. Not sure if his going bald has something to do with the job as well, but he didn’t mind, so that’s all good.

Also on the tour were Moroccan girl #1, Australian guy #1, Australian guy #2, and Bostonian guy #1. I didn’t talk to the Australian guys much unfortunately. Bostonian #1 is a life coach. I am still not entirely sure what exactly is it that he does, but it sounded fascinating. Something about helping people making/breaking habits. He is also a fitness trainer.

Moroccan girl #1 does international marketing back home, and is also deeply passionate about politics in that region. I didn’t join that conversation since I know next to nothing about Moroccan and Middle Eastern politics. Sounded intense, though. She also speaks fluent Arabic, French, English and Spanish, and tried to speak French to me upon learning that I am Canadian. That didn’t go very well. Also, apparently 14 hours work-days are normal in Morocco. I’m glad I don’t live there…

Sintra was pretty nice. It’s an old and historical town on a mountain, where many famous poets and writers once lived. Many Portuguese people see it as a spiritual place, and every night, a bunch of people would go up there to perform weird rituals or black magic, etc, often involving drugs, making it slightly unsafe for normal people to visit. But just like all dangerous and mysterious places, it has become a popular place for adventurous teenagers to sneak into at night. It also has a medieval royal palace that is now a museum.

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20150912_142722-2We ended up having Portuguese food at a local Portuguese place (how do you know the restaurant is local? easy. They don’t speak English!). Huge pieces of catfish + beetroot rice + random veggies, for about 6€. Not bad at all! The tour guide said it’s so good that he doesn’t mind going there 3 times a week (every time he does the tour).

In Portugal, they will always bring side dishes (cheese, olives, breads, etc) as soon as you sit down. However, unlike in North America, that’s not free! You are supposed to refuse them if you don’t want them. Usually they are 1€ or 2€, and are basically treated as tips.

As the day drew to a close, we stopped by a pastry place where the deserts were so yummy that I forgot to take pictures.

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Capo da Roca, the most western point of Europe… and where Australian guy #1 slipped and almost died.

“Where the land ends and the sea begins” – Luís de Camões (1525-1580)

To be continued…

 

Solo Eurotrip, Prelude

About a week ago, I left London and embarked on a solo backpacking trip to continental Europe.

It was originally out of necessity – as everyone who initially agreed to join me on the trip bailed out for one reason or another. I decided to go on a trip anyways because unlike most of my friends, I don’t normally live in Europe, and I don’t actually get that many opportunities to travel in Europe.

And that was quite possibly the best decision I’ve ever made in my life!

Like everyone else before they went backpacking for the first time, I had my worries and doubts and all that, but as it turned out, it was much easier than I had imagined. I don’t know why some backpackers make it sound like such a big deal, but it really isn’t! It does require some different skills than traveling as part of a group, but I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult really. Just different. Maybe it would be more difficult if you are travelling to less well-known places, but if you are just doing capital-city-hopping like I am, it’s pretty easy.

The first obvious problem is companionship. We all like to have people to talk to while travelling, and most people imagine solo travelling to be lonely, because well, we don’t have (a) fixed travel partner(s)! But that’s not the case!

Just because we have no fixed travel partner, it doesn’t mean we will always be by ourselves. It just means we have to make new friends all the time (as we sadly lose them at about the same rate). I have made quite possibly more friends in the past week than I have in the past months.

When travelling as a group we rarely make an effort to get to know strangers. When travelling solo, that becomes a necessity unless you really want no human contact at all. Hostels are usually the best place to meet people, since if you pick your hostels right, there would be a fair number of other solo travellers as well, and they would also be open to meeting strangers. Also, everyone speaks English in hostels, no matter where you are (at least in Europe). In countries where the majority of the population doesn’t speak English, people in hostels could be your only verbal human contact all day, and that’s very important for preserving sanity. I try to avoid larger groups usually, since they tend to form cliques, and not to talk to outsiders. Other solo travellers are the best, but couples or groups of 2 close friends are usually okay as well, presumably because they talk to each other all the time already, and would rather spend their travelling time talking to strangers.

Talking to strangers has never been easy for me, and that’s partly why I decided to go on this trip. I want to practice talking to strangers and making friends, and what’s a better way to do that than going on a solo trip where you have to make friends with complete strangers constantly, and have forced friendship resets every few days?

It was a bit awkward initially, but even after just one week, I have gotten much better at it. Now I almost don’t hesitate at all saying hi to strangers, and that’s something I have never done before. And it’s pretty awesome. All the cool stories of travelling and life in general, from people of all personalities and experiences who grew up in totally different environments, and have totally different priorities in life than yours. It’s amazing.

It’s surprising how deep connections can be formed in just a few days.

Saying goodbye can be difficult. Sometimes very difficult. But that’s part of the reality of backpacking. Sure, we exchange Facebook and all that, but technology can only do so much, and we all know we will probably fade out of each other’s lives very quickly.

Some people will like each other so much that they decide to travel together afterwards (and even get married apparently), but that’s relatively rare. Most of the time people plan to do things together in the city, but not beyond.

I think solo (or maybe 2-people) travelling is now my preferred way to travel. So much freedom. It’s feels good to not have to worry about other people when making travel plans.

For this trip, I’ve decided to go super-spontaneous, and never plan more than 2 days ahead. This is not recommended if you are travelling during peak seasons, or in a large group. But for a solo traveller in mid-September, it works quite well. I can still get all the very best hostels, and still have a lot of flexibility in extending or shortening stays in cities, depending on how they turn out. It’s fun to have absolutely no idea where you will be in 3 days. There is a certain amount of risk in doing things this way obviously, but if you are flexible with what cities you want to visit, this works really well. All the seats on the train to Budapest sold out already? Just go to Vienna instead!

No two stories are the same, because our stories are in large determined by the people we meet, and we never meet the same people.

This is my story.