Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Traveling Solo Contest: Essays One, Two and Three

by Amy Novesky

Thanks to everyone who submitted an essay to our Traveling Solo Essay Contest. It was fun to read all of your stories. True to the spirit of solo travel, the essays covered such territory as adventure, misadventure, lonesomeness, love, terror, humour, self-discovery, epiphany, sex, the sublime...

Isn't this why we travel the world solo?

To the writers, thanks again for sharing your stories. To readers, I hope you enjoy them. And, hope to see you all on Sunday evening at the reading.


Montreal with my Eyes Closed by Tina Vierra

Months after finishing college, I was sitting on an airline pass my father had given me as a graduation present. This was not a time in my life when I was any good at making decisions.

"Choose any destination in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico," the airline voucher read. "This pass expires April 30." It was now April 15.

I panicked. With no plan in mind, and no time to invite a travel companion, I closed my eyes and pointed to map of Canada, which was the closest I could come to making a decision. My finger had landed on Montreal. I picked up the phone and booked a ticket for a weekend in Montreal.

Montreal, okay. It was kinda French, wasn't it? Like, a North American version of Paris, right? This would be good. This would be fun. This would be...lonely with no pal coming along, I thought. Could I handle traveling by myself? I worried about this for the rest of the month.

On the night before my flight, I had an all-night inventory at the bookstore where I worked--just another little detail I hadn't planned for. I packed for the trip, finished at the store, and got to the San Francisco airport just in time for the morning flight. I slept fitfully on the plane.

I arrived in Montreal on a beautiful, late-April Saturday afternoon, too tired to do much more than vaguely note that the city felt--international. Wasn't Canada just an extension of the U.S.? How could it feel so foreign?

I dragged myself to a cab stand and made my way to the little bed and breakfast I had hastily and blindly picked out of a guidebook. The cabbie spoke French. Madame and Monsieur at the B&B spoke French. I was charmed, but too tired to indulge the feeling.

A nap having worked wonders, I asked Madame B&B where to have dinner, even explaining the starving-bookseller budget because she was so warm and understanding. She sent me down the street to a little (French, of course) neighborhood cafe.

I don't remember the food that night, but I remember the feeling. I sat at the window, looking out at this amazing new city and soaking in that indefinable 'international' mood it was giving off. I ate my first French food and drank dark red French wine, and all of it was making heaven happen in my mouth. I didn't recognize a thing on the menu; I had no idea what I was doing. But Monsieur Cafe was clearly everyone's French grandfather, and I trusted him to give me anything he liked.

I felt so grown-up, and so cosseted, all at the same time. I felt free and powerful and worldly and female and adventurous. But the biggest surprise of all was what I didn't feel--lonely.


untitled by Jennifer Romo

As the bus pulls away from the station and I wipe the tears from my eyes, I'm only thinking that I might never see him again; not the exciting new journey I'm embarking upon. I pass familiar sights while I regain my composure: the Thames, the London Eye, London Bridge.

I'm traveling alone for the first leg of my trip through Europe. Being alone in London and on the ferry over to France is not intimidating. I'm exhilarated by the ocean air and the White Cliffs of Dover.

It's not until we board another bus in Calais that I begin to see that things are different. People are speaking a language I don't understand.The streets and cars are unfamiliar; there seem to be no rules governing the drivers as they weave in and out of traffic through roundabouts, darting perilously close to our large, lumbering bus. With my face pressed up against the window, grinning like a fool, I'm excited beyond belief. I'm in France! On my way to Paris!

The ride ends quickly and I bound down the steps of the bus. I try out one of the few French phrases I learned a month before I left. "Ou est la Metro?" I ask our driver. He rattles off directions to, I assume, the Great Wall of China, of which I pick up maybe four words; one of them is "left." I'm sure I'll find it.

Once in the metro station, I'm again struck by the differences between San Francisco and Paris. There are several young men walking big, scary looking Rottweillers on chains. Occasionally one dog wouldn't like the look of another and barking and shouting would ensue, startling me. I stand in front of the map on the wall, giant backpack on, trusty guidebook in hand. I look at the local street map where my hostel is, find the nearest Metro station, and look to the map on the wall. Here I am. . . here is where I need to go. Piece of cake, this is easy. I'm taking Paris by storm! I head off to buy a ticket from the nearest kiosk, except there are none. I have to go to the ticket window?! But, I don't speak French! Okay, don't panic, maybe the ticket agent speaks English. As I wait in line, I try frantically to form some coherent version of FrEnglish that will communicate my needs, just in case.

"Bon jour! Parlez vous Anglais?"


Expectant and annoyed look as the line behind me grows longer.

"Oh, um, okay. Je voudrais un, uh, billet a, um, the Anvers line a Roche. . . Roche-oo-art?"

"Rochechouart? Ouis."

He hands me a ticket and shouts for the next customer over my shoulder.

I press on and arrive at my hostel in one piece. The friendly clerk smiles at me and says, "Bon Jour! Welcome to zee Avenir 'otel." I smile and say bon jour, and realize that this is going to be fabulous.


What You Wish For by Amy Tsaykel

Today I am at a crossroads, and I don't know which way to turn. I'm traveling alone in rural Estonia, and can't decide whether to extend my stay on the Baltic island of Muhu, or return to the lively city of Tallinn. Truthfully, I think my decision has less to do with what lies before me than what lies within.

It was the promise of peace that drew me here. For months, I survived the crushing pressures of city life by fantasizing about Muhu. Driving through heavy traffic, bustling about at company meetings, and dodging sidewalk construction, I imagined myself wandering this empty, sweeping landscape.

Amid the rock-studded marshes of Padaste Bay, I am shocked to find that coveted solitude to be as disturbing as city clatter.

Arriving at this 16th-century manor, I didn't expect to find many other guests. It's the off-season, and crowds have been thin everywhere. Furthermore, I'd been traveling alone for nearly a week; I didn't want company. But as Kaja, the innkeeper, carried my bags up the marble staircase, I shivered at the uncommon stillness.

"You've got the place all to yourself," she smiled, unlatching my terrace doors. "Enjoy."

All to myself.

I was the only person roaming these dozens of acres, apart from Kaja. Outside, manicured grounds sprawled out an acre or so before reaching a crumbling stone wall. An abandoned building stood nearby. Beyond, pale straw led to the sea in one direction, and to a forest in another.

I inhaled the sharp Baltic breeze, gathering courage. Wasn't this what I'd wanted? Closing the terrace doors, I grabbed my pack and headed out into the sunshine. For miles, I ambled along the shore, stopping occasionally to meditate upon one of the looming rocks. Above, a screeching flock of seabirds reeled and turned. The day passed quickly.

And then came the night.

When I returned to my room, the terrace door was wide open. Had Kaja been here again? I tried to ignore my suspicion that spirits haunted the old halls. As it happened, I saw no ghosts that night but my own.

I couldn't remember the last time I'd heard no sound at all--not a peep. Even the birds were silent. Climbing into bed, I caught my reflection in the skylight above.

Then came the barrage of thought--everything that had been squeezed away in the city traffic back home. For every hour I did not sleep, there is a fresh page in my journal, each more crookedly scrawled than the other. By dawn I'd fallen into hysterical exhaustion.

Now, I finger the cool metal of my room key. If I want the peace I came for, I'll have to face my demons, enduring possibly darker nights. But can I do it alone? A return to Tallinn, where new friends and experiences await, would be surrender.

Ahhh. Perhaps that's what this world-weary woman has needed all along.

I wind down the marble staircase and plunk my key on the counter: I surrender.

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