I’d travelled alone before multiple times, but usually for conferences, which does not exactly qualify as spending days on my own discovering a new city or country. This time for the first time in my life I decided to take it a step further and after the conference to spend a few days on my own in Portugal. This was my first time ever visiting the country, and I am always apprehensive about getting along in non-English speaking countries (since English is the only foreign language I speak well).
And I have my reasons to be apprehensive. It happened to me before that due to some misunderstanding I missed my bus and was stuck at a Prague bus station pressed by time to go back and with no money for a ticket back. Or as I was taking a bus to the airport in Madrid (which a friend reassured me was going to the airport), ended up in the outskirts. So I was alone at a bus stop at 6 am somewhere around Madrid, needed to catch my flight and no one around I could ask. And the list can go on…
So basically I always worry unnecessarily and fear the worst when it comes to travels. There were no major mishaps this time around (yet, as I am about to fly back today), but I have to say in only 10 days I have experienced more than in over half a year of my regular life.
First of all, let me say that I found Portugal to be very beautiful. Being an old country, it has a lot to offer in cultural and historical perspective. And being a former sea and colonising power, you can tell it used to be a very rich country. The churches and old buildings are richly and expensively decorated. The current shabbinnes only contributes to its charm. And I will definitely would like to come back one day and explore more of it.
Now, there are also some things I wish were different. I did not enjoy the fact that somehow they try to rip off tourists in one way or another. For instance, I take a cab from the train station to the hotel, and though it was shown one price on the meter, somehow he was asking me for double the price. When I asked why, he seemed no longer to understand English. And there are many cases like that.
I also was quite stricken by how many beggars and homeless people you see on the streets. Not so much in Lisbon, but in all the other cities I visited. And I come from one of the poorest countries in the EU, and even for me it was overwhelming. And there were some really heartbreaking cases, such as a woman with proteases on both legs, sitting prostate in front of one the major monasteries, or an old lady without eyes playing (I forgot which kind of) musical instrument on the street. And everyone is just being cheerful, soaking in the sun and the glamour of the old historic streets, the contrast would not be any more distinct. Observing this made me appreciate living in a country with properly functioning social system. It is beyond sad to see these people, forced by necessity, to sit on the street, using their shortcomings and disabilities as a way to get by. The inequality is simply everywhere…
Now about getting by on my own. I was apprehensive, especially during my stay in Porto where every one on the streets is talking to me and seems to want something from me. I was lost many times, I walked in circles — which very often here implies climb hills — I asked for directions (and I am the kind of a person who believes I can do it all on my own, so it is very difficult for me to ask for any kind of help), I met some rude people (who urged me to be rude myself), I met some genuinely kind people, I had interesting conversation with a Portuguese lady on a train, I ate food I had never tasted before in my life, I ended up being in small, local bars, family-run restaurants, dimly lit, and suspiciously looking diners, some fancy and quite beautiful ones as well. I climbed so many hills, took the old streetcars taking you on a journey winding through those small streets with old houses where you see people chat in front of their front doors, laundry and flowers hanging everywhere, and the air is somehow filled with the smell of freshly and deliciously cooked meal. And I had to be pushy, I had to be shameless, I was sightseeing alone so I had to constantly nag some random people to take photos of me, I had to get used to be having a meal in a restaurant alone (but thank God for books!), I had to use gestures to explain to the bus driver where I needed to go (btw, never take a bus in Lisbon because they do not announce the stops, and they do not stop at every stop, so the only way for you to know where you are supposed to get off is if you travelled that route before…or ask the driver to stop, of course). I also had the most embarrassing moment in my life yet; as I was crossing the street on a red light (no one waits for green light here as it usually takes forever for the traffic-light to change), I happened to be passing above the metro, which happened to be passing underneath right at that moment. So you’ve seen the famous photo of Marilyn Monroe? Well, I could not hold down my skirt unfortunately. And this happened in one very busy square. I also for the first time in my life while on a city trip visited so many museums and looked at some many pieces of art.
Sometimes when I was seeing a group of friends having a blast, or just couples being together, I was a bit jealous of them that they have all these amazing memories and experiences to share with. And it makes it so much easier — if you get lost, you are lost together, if something happens to you, you’d know there is someone there you could lean on.
But I realised how important it is to be comfortable with being with yourself, and being a single child and having a complicated childhood, I’ve been very skilful at that since an early age. When travelling alone, you do not build memories with someone, but you get so enriched but what you see and what you experience, you are pushed beyond your limits, you learn to be independent and completely self-sufficient, you learn to find piece and comfort in the small things in your trip — not in the moment you shared with someone special for you, but in the small treasures that you discover along the way. Travelling alone is definitely underrated and, at least for me, did offer me more experiences than I could imagine. But my next trip I do not plan to do on my own 🙂