The decision to go off on my own was not deliberate. It was in January of 2009 when I was offered a rare opportunity: an internship at the European Parliament. The stint was six weeks and I was psyched. What an honor to be chosen to represent my country, the Philippines.
A lot of people rooted for me. Someone loaned me a suitcase for long-haul travel. Another gave me his miles to cover the roundtrip fare. A couple of friends gave me money for incidentals. It was quite humbling to have this kind of support.
Needless to say, the budget would be tight so there was no room for companionship. I would be traveling solo, and strangely, I had neither a sense of fear nor hesitation. I have always wanted to go to Europe, and no one can stop me. I did know that while the gig was paid, it won’t be enough to cover expenses for extraneous travel. So if I were THAT determined to see the Old World, I would have to pare down my lifestyle on this expedition. And I was. Time to put resource management skills so far learned to the test!
I would be arriving in Amsterdam, via a 15-hour non-stop KLM flight from Manila — my first ever long-haul flight. It was my first foray into the challenges of sleeping in a chair, and the pleasures of in-flight entertainment to distract me from my discomfort. I loved watching three movies in a row, and the food too, surprisingly. Everything tastes good when you don’t have a choice. And it helped with sleep. So I ate, watched movies and slept. I was enjoying every minute of it, and we haven’t even landed!
When we did land, I distinctly remember the wave of cold air that gushed over me when I stepped off the plane. Chilly is rare in the Philippines so it was a strange welcome. Then there were these white people suddenly towering and seemingly hovering over me, like I was Pippin in the army of Gondor! I felt like an alien, and I was.
Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport blew me away. It was massive, modern, and it had all the accouterments, like luggage lockers, walkalators and such that I didn’t know then were necessary. I was definitely not in Kansas anymore.
To get to my hostel, I would need to take a train. The Dutch spoke English well, but the road signs were still in Dutch. I had no choice but to speak up and ask for directions.
Everything was counterintuitive. On my first train ride, I missed my stop, even though I was ready to get off. I would soon learn that in Holland, you need to press a button to slide the doors open. At home, train doors swung open automatically.
Now do recall that this was in the late 2000s when Facebook was still relatively nascent, and the iPhone was still new and expensive. I had a Nokia flip phone but had little to no access to international roaming, a handheld GPS device, or travel mobile apps. But I did have a map. Not exactly helping with blending in as a local, but I was desperate.
A few days later, slowly getting my bearings, I began to explore. Amsterdam is a walkable city, and there was so much to admire. There were peculiarities on every street, in every corner, and in every coffee shop. Each idiosyncrasy built on the city’s charm, and it felt safe to marvel at the surreal. And the people who made conversation after they parked their bikes near the canals were kind enough to help me find my way.
I would say the same for the other European cities I visited on that trip. It was fun to revel in the unknown: to be the child at the candy shop, to wonder in awe, and then walk around aimlessly. There was so much art to see, and so many things to love, if only the clock would stop ticking.
I turned 28 on that first trip to Amsterdam alone, but I wasn’t lonely. I had never felt so happy and alive as I did that day. First solo travel, first birthday abroad, first time in Amsterdam. This happened 10 years ago and I still remember it like it was yesterday.
These are the reasons why I urge women to travel alone, at least once. And it is not hard at all to get started.
When traveling solo, I learn new things about myself: my threshold of pain, and my ability to dance in the rain. They are never constant. But we don’t want a trip to turn into a nightmare. Planning is everything, so be organized. Always check if you need visas for the countries you plan to visit, or if you know someone there who can show you around.
I force myself to quickly adapt to a foreign setting in order to survive. In trying to make peace with my new environment, I respect local customs. The Internet has made it easy for us to do the necessary research.
I have no pride. I always ask for help. People, whether local or fellow nomads, are always ready to help, without asking for anything in return.
I explore independently. I sketch my itinerary as I go along, unrestrained by guide books and tour groups. If it is your first time, though, you may want to design and follow your own schedule, or mix it up with a tour group excursion.
I am free to experiment and try new things, especially food, and to go on an adventure with no fear of failure. Be sure though that you have an emergency contact number on you at all times, health insurance info and medicine for food poisoning. If you are traveling to a non-English speaking country, request for a calling card from your hotel and show that to your cabbie so he can help you get around more easily.
I laugh at my faults, whenever I go beyond my baggage allowance or make a mad dash to an airport terminal. Portable luggage scales are thankfully more prolific now. If you do need to rush from one airport to another, in sometimes inevitable close calls, ask kindly the check-in assistant to put a “Priority” tag on your suitcase.
I know how to flirt and get what I want. It comes in handy when attempting to break the language barrier.
I meet new friends along the way. I usually get invited to conferences, so I try to be nice and get to know new people of different nationalities. We all have interesting stories to tell. Your new friends will take good pictures of you too. I travel by myself once the meeting is over, not during.
I have learned to trust more and find solace in those who are on the same boat. I was initially afraid that my roommates at a Venice hostel would attempt to steal my pack. And then I realized they have a pack to worry about too.
I think I started the selfie trend, with a digital Canon IXUS. Absent iPhones in my earlier adventures, I had to master the art of point-and-shoot self-portraits. Because rule number one on the road is, never let a stranger touch your property.
I appreciate nature. I am grateful for the pulchritude not everyone gets to see, and would like to be more thoughtful about its enjoyment by others in the future. Do not leave a trail behind.
I love myself more every time I move. And I hope you feel the same way too.