I am recently back from a most fantastic trip to Spain and Portugal, and while the whole trip was glorious, this post will focus on the first seven days. The aventura en solitario.
I have never traveled alone. Yes, I have flown alone. I have ridden buses alone. I have certainly spent brief periods of time by myself in unfamiliar places. But I was always meeting someone, waiting for someone, with someone else. In the past decade or so, that someone was usually Mike. He is the best travel buddy a person could ask for. He is funny and patient and spontaneous and easy going. Plus, he is an excellent driver, is super handsome, and can set up camp in the dark.
But Mike couldn’t come on this one. So it was just me. And guess what! It was awesome.
After an uneventful 36 or so hours of flying and busing, I finally made it to Granada, Spain, home of the Alhambra and free tapas with every drink. I got in late, and pushed past fatigue from a sleepless night and jetlag to venture out of my hotel near the Cathedral for some Spanish food and, even better, Spanish vino. My first thrill of solo travel was realizing that I didn’t have to consult with anyone about where to eat or how long to stay. I read the local newspaper (sort of) as I sat at the bar. I ate quickly and drank slowly. In halting Spanish I chatted with the bartender (cook? owner?) about where else I should go that was close by. I went home when I felt like it. I slept like the dead.
In the morning I took a bus into the mountains and spent the next six days hiking all over the Alpujarras, a string of mountain pueblos in the Sierra Nevada. Each day I tackled some new challenge, and got through it. The silliest was a miscommunication about gelato that ended in a young man cursing at me in Spanish. The most serious was when I got lost high on a slope and had to walk along and then on top of an acequia to get to a dam to cross a ravine. Each time the obstacle was behind me, I felt strong.
In the evenings when I pulled, tired and sore, into a new village, I was eager to learn about its nuances on my terms, at my pace. And, one of the main reasons for choosing the adventure in the remote area I did, I wanted to practice my Spanish. That meant a lot of talking with strangers, and inevitably talking about my aventura. I loved the look of surprise on people’s faces when I said that I was traveling by myself. Several older men offered to walk with me. 🙂
When I told the crew – local farmers, fisherfolk, and purveyors of jamón serrano – at Bar Los Rosales in Trevélez that I was hiking up to the Siete Lagunas they piled on the advice (most of it being that I was a fool to go). They believed it would take me at least ten hours – probably more! – to climb up to the basin and then back down to the town and should therefore start out at 7 – no 5! – in the morning to ensure that I would not be undone by the heat. The owner was so nervous that the morning of the hike she insisted I eat extra cake and return promptly to the bar upon my descent to prove to her that I was okay. Alas, the hike took me less than seven hours and the bar was closed for siesta when I got back, but that evening we all shared a round of drinks and stories about hiking and why we love the mountains.
A few times I met an older person, usually a man, who believed that I could do it. Who wasn’t surprised that I was out there. Who didn’t think I was crazy. Anthony, a kind hotel concierge, gave me the best advice of the trip: “Sarah, if you get lost, remember you can always climb. From higher up you will see where you need to go.” He must have known what was ahead of me.
How many people like Anthony would I have talked with if I’d been with another person? If my traveling companion had spoken more Spanish than me, perhaps I would have been left out of the conversation. If they had spoken less, perhaps I wouldn’t have engaged in talk with strangers so readily or for so long. Because I was by myself, I got to decide when to talk and with whom to engage. If I was uncomfortable I just paid my tab and left. If I was happy I stayed and tried to glean as much as I could from the funny, tough, patient men and women of the Alpujarra.
Most of my six days in the mountains, however, I was alone. On my first day, when I hiked the “popular” route up to the Siete Lagunas I saw four other hikers. On the 45-ish km trek from Trevélez to Lanjarón, I never saw another soul on the trail. I waved at the occasional farmer off in a field and once a truck drove by me on a rare section of road (thankfully – I had made a wrong turn!), but mostly it was just me. It was both peaceful and exhilarating to be by myself for so many hours a day.
It was peaceful to be quiet. To listen to the sounds of unfamiliar birds and comforting cowbells far up the mountainside. To hear the wind whip up a barranco or catch the hint of a stream up ahead. Sometimes it was so quiet that the sound of skittering lizards startled me, like there was something much bigger out there just out of sight.
It was exhiliarating to take charge of every situation. To find my route by paying attention to the trees and slope and sounds. To climb to high ground when I was lost so that I could get my bearings. To feel unsure of my path, but then to spot a barely visible red and white marker on an old stone and let out a “whoop!” because I knew I was on the right track. With each decision I felt more confident and energized for the next literal and metaphorical fork in the road.
This post sounds pretty egocentric, and I guess it is. It’s about doing something by myself. It’s about learning how to be alone, at least for a little while. I am an extravert, which means I get my energy being around others. This hasn’t changed. I am also married, and my husband’s opinion and feelings are as important to me as my own. I am used to discussing, debating, and taking others’ thoughts into considertation, not just when I travel, but in a lot of my life because I like to be around people. But for seven days in Spain, I didn’t do any of that. I just, well, I was just me. It was really cool. I learned that when I am afraid I get pessimistic quickly, but each day out there I got better at taking deep breaths and imagining solution-based scenarios instead of worst-case scenarios. I learned that my Spanish grammar needs a lot of improvement. I learned that I eat better but drink worse (aka more) when I’m out to dinner by myself.
Most importanly I learned that I like to be by myself sometimes. I thought that it would be really hard for me, that maybe I wasn’t going to like myself enough to be alone for such long stretches of time or maybe I would get bored because I was boring if I didn’t have someone else around. But it was all good. In times of quiet I contemplated life and how to do better. I took in my surroundings and worked on – cliche alert – being in the moment. In the evenings I met strangers who taught me about their culture and made me laugh. I read a lot. I never watched tv. I ate well. I slept even better. It sounds cheesy, but so much time for thought and reflection was, for me, a good thing, probably because I don’t tend toward alone time naturally, as an introvert might.
I will travel solo again. I enjoyed it too much to let this be the only time. But I learned something else as well. I really love traveling with Mike, probably because I love him so much. When something awesome happens, I want to share it with him. When something is difficult, I want him to be there to help me get through it. But now I know that I can also get through it on my own. I can get a lot out of a place because I am alone.
So, next summer, when Mike is out in the field again for six weeks, I’ll be heading somewhere fabulous, by myself. Where should I go?? I have a year to plan, so shoot me your suggestions!
Yours in wonder,