Category Archives: NANOWRIMO

20 years ago: 1 back pack, 2 months, $33/day and me

Exeter graves
In honor of the recent Samhain & Halloween.

I’ve always wanted to travel.  Always.  Once I graduated from college I started to save aggressively for two years, and was able to do a two month backpacking trip around Great Britain, Scotland, Shetland, Orkney and Wales.  I stayed in youth hostels mostly, traveled by train, walking, rare busses, and once or twice hitch-hiked.  I carried everything on my back.  One backpack, two months, thirty-three dollars a day.

I had been planning for a few months, talking about it with family and friends, gave a month’s notice at work (Me: I am planning a two month trip.  I totally understand if you cannot hold my job for me, but I’d be glad to come back if the position is still available.).  Two days before I go, work apparently didn’t think I was really going.  Yep, I really, really was going.  The day before my trip, I have to convince my family that I really was going away for two months, and someone needed to give me a ride to the airport shuttle.  Really?  Yes.

I had only my first night or so of lodging booked when I got on the plane from the USA, mid-June of 1994.  Yes, I was going to be traveling for two months.  I honestly don’t remember landing or how I got into London.  Jet lag is a real thing, and it had set in.  I vaguely remember my first meal in London…Burger King, wandering through St. Paul’s Cathedral, and getting to my hostel, finding my bunk, and then nothing for a few hours.  I woke, feeling slightly hungover, and went to find food.  It was broad daylight, at eleven at night.

I had a general idea of where I was going to go, but reserved the options to change at a moment’s notice.  I find out that an event isn’t happening till a certain date where I was originally heading, I immediately checked to see where else I could go in the meantime.  I get to a place and find there is no vacancies, I hopped on a train to another city that can put me up for the night.

I had no one to go with, but I wanted to go.  So I went.  I learned the joy of solo travel.  I wanted to sit, so I sat.  I wanted to see a certain sight, so I went to see it.  I was hungry, I found food.  I was cranky, usually a nap helped – more later on being able to sleep anywhere.  I was up-beat, I enjoyed myself.  I had to deal with my own self.  I really believe that traveling distills and reveals who you are  as well as your strengths and weaknesses.

Traveling solo also makes it easier to meet people on the road.  A solo traveler is more approachable.  I’ve been invited to lunch by an elderly Scottish couple, and their Australian brother-in-law, an elderly gentleman shared his tea on the train, because the cost to buy was “too dear”.  I traveled for a week with a handsome Israeli man.  I cooked dinner with two young Italian boys, and taught them to make potato soup.  (Me: “Have you ever cut potatoes?” Cute Young Italian: “No, Mama always does.”  Me: “Well, you are going to learn today.”).  One of them wrote such beautiful poetry, comparing me to the jealous Sun…I swoon to this day.  I met a seventy-five year old woman, who just climbed Ben Nevin, a tall Scottish mountain.  I want to be like her when I grow up.

I was invited to visit Paris, as I was cutting through a cow paddock, on a small Orkney island, by a sweet French fellow.  Cows, by the way, are very, very large creatures.  Also very curious.  The cows were stalking us.  I was happy to reach the far side of the enclosure.  We went to cross the island, and we found a mansion in the middle of “nowhere”.  I regret having a non-changeable flight home.  I would have gone to Paris.  Lesson learned.  Just sayin.

Oh, and a sight that I have yet to match, from Bath, England…acrobats, in g-strings, one wore socks, doing handstands on raised hand supports, clenching lit sparklers in their butt cheeks.  I have photographic evidence.

I got scared a couple of times – one of them I call it my Scooby Doo night.  As a kid, I remember watching cartoons where the cartoon character has to cut the fog with a knife, and eats it with a fork.  Always thought it was so silly, cuz it is just water vapor, just fog.  Silly cartoon. But, you know…I have experienced fog that could have cut with a knife, and eaten with a fork.  It wouldn’t have been so scary, if it had not been eight at night, after just getting off a train, in adark town, the whole platform and station cleared of people, five minutes after the train arrived.

I walk through a very dark town, all closed up, a mile or so to an inn.  The only inn that had space available.  As I approach the building, I seriously consider going back and sleeping at the train station.  It is a huge stone building, and I am totally convinced that a Lurch-like being would open the creaky door, and croak out, “Yeessss, Come in.  We’ve been waiting for you.”  Luckily I hadn’t seen many slasher flicks, so was soothed by the warm glow coming from the upper windows.  As I approach the front door, a jolly man opens it, light and life burst from the entry way, and I’m so happy I could cry.  I asked for the least expensive meal, and then up to my bright cheery yellow room to collapse in relief.

I learned useful skills on my trip.  I learned how to do “hair-wraps”, using embroidery floss wrapped tightly around a tiny section of hair, in different patterns.  This skill actually made me a tiny bit of money once I got back from my trip.

I learned how to let go – especially of things in my pack that I was not using. About a week into the trip, I divested several pounds from my pack, sent home what I didn’t need, but couldn’t leave behind, and was much happier about carrying my life on my back.

I learned how to shop in charity shops, slap together simple meals from fresh ingredients purchased from the market the same day.  I learned patience.

I learned how to read bus and train time tables.  I learned how to sleep anywhere.  I learned how to hitch-hike (don’t worry, only did it twice in Shetland).

I did not learn to Scottish-square dance on the Island of Unst.  The fellow was so sweet, he really wanted to teach me, and still smiled when I trod upon his toes.  He let me go back to being a spectator.   Good man.

Half way though my trip, at the one month mark, I make a collect call home.  You know, just to check in, let them know I’m still alive.  I was, at that time, on the furthest northern most island of the Shetland archipelago, a little lonely and tired, and was looking forward to a quick exchange of I’m goods, and I Love you.

My Grandfather answers, and replies to the the international operator, “Naw, we don’t want any!”  And hangs up.   The Universe had decided that I not have any contact with home.  I was a little shocked.  A little sad, at first.  I had a cup of tea, and went to bed.  The next morning, I felt as if I had experienced a transformation.  It had taken a month, and the catalyst of a  refused call to create this change.  I woke up feeling free.  Not ecstatic, no high emotion.  I felt suddenly clear and clean, a sense of satori that decided to hang around for a while.

So why the retrospective?  Why recount my glorious trip from almost twenty (holy crap – this actually just hit me) years ago?  Because I basically gave my notice, (if an acceptable contract doesn’t surface) to an extremely well paying job, to travel abroad again for about six months starting in January.  I’ve changed, both in good ways and bad.  The world has changed.  Technology and my use of it has changed, which will require a balance of the burden of carrying, cost & security, as well as the benefits of connectivity, and productivity.  The world has changed, with the unrest of the last decade, travel is more challenging, prices are higher, severe weather has changed the face of many places.

I want to see places as they are, before they are gone.  I want to breathe the air, walk upon the distant soil, and make myself a part of each place I visit.  I love the sense of belonging I get when I spend time in one place.  I am a person, and I belong here.  I am real here.

My sense of expansion grows with every journey I take.  My sense of what is important changes, and distills.  I love the entire process of travel.  Hatching the plan, researching the journey, destination, experiences.  Don’t tell the TSA and gate agents, I even love all the hassles of travel.  I grouch about it, complain, whine…but secretly, at the end of the day, I love it.  My feet hurt, and I’m nasty sweaty…I love it.  I’m starving, and I don’t recognize the food items for sale…Love it.  Asking for directions in a foreign language, and not really understanding the answer…Yep, Still love it.  Standing in front of history, a world class museum, experiencing how other cultures live – I love it all, with a deep, almost painful, burning joy.

This isn’t an Eat, Pray, Love thing.  I pretty much love my life.  I’ll be using this time to do things I don’t normally have time to do.  Intensive travel, language learning, writing and photography.  And, who knows…I might just create the Field Guide to Awesome!