Literally, it means ‘when we want, we can’. Fancily, it means ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. Isn’t it amazing how inspiration often lurks in the most unimaginable corner? Like inside your French textbook, par exemple. I stumbled upon this phrase by accident and was suddenly inspired to write the next chapter of my life. Literally.
I’ve come a long way since my solo Eurotrip in 2008. Between then and now, there have been Australia, Maldives, Japan, Scandinavia. There have been a new job and a marriage somewhere in between, and of course there has also been a revelation. But none of these I had accomplished alone. It was always with one other person; making it just the two of us, or with a group of friends or families. As I continued traveling with others, my memory of 2008 kept getting further and further. After a while, it seemed as if it only took place in my mind. Didn’t it?
Hence, at the end of last year I devised a plan to ascertain what was real and what wasn’t. A good friend of mine wanted to visit her sister in Berlin and I decided to tag along for a few days of free accommodation in Germany. Afterwards, I would set out on my own to Czech Republic and Slovakia. After all these years of having someone to rely on and to make decisions together, it was going to be a test to see if I still had it in me. It – the determination, the courage, the endurance, the level-headedness, the extraversion, the energy, whatever I need to travel a foreign land alone.
My days in Berlin were just like any other travels that I had done in the recent years. Full of laughter, sharing of moments, friends and loved ones to take candid pictures of, to remind me to get off at the next stop, and to fool around with. But the moment my train left Berlin Hbf for Prague, I was suddenly a different person. Sitting alone in a Euro train, spending my time looking at the scenery on the window or planning my next itineraries, I found myself comfortably slipping into my old habits. 3.5 years ago, I had liked the solitude of traveling alone and I realized I still liked it then. Ah, the conductor had arrived at my compartment. I smiled apologetically at the foreigner sitting in front of me as my foot bumped into his while I was busy rummaging my bag for my Eurail Pass. It felt as if I had never left Europe in the first place.
Prague was every bit as charming as I had expected it to be. But I couldn’t stand the crowd, nearly everywhere. Charles’ Bridge, Saint Vitus, the castle, the town square, and the Christmas market that could rival a Tokyo subway station during rush hours. Cesky Krumlov, on the other hand, was a gem. I had the privilege of arriving in the early evening. As the sun disappeared below the horizon, I roamed the dark cobblestone alleys of Cesky Krumlov with hardly anyone in sight. A few times, I had to look over my shoulder to ensure nobody was planning to grab me from behind 😛
Unfortunately, with the return of the sun, came the day-tripping tour buses. My beautiful Cesky Krumlov was soon trodden by the Americans, the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese and many others I didn’t recognize. So I did what I knew best, get away from them. I went for an easy 20-minutes’ hike to the Krizovy Vrch (Hill of a Cross), a series of station of the cross starting at the junction of Rooseveltova and ending at an abandoned church on top of a hill. There were only a few locals hanging around there with their kids and dogs. Facing west, the back of the church was the perfect spot to admire sunset with Cesky Krumlov as the backdrop, far far away from the crowd.
Bratislava was next and it was quirky. Before I arrived there, the only impression I had of this place came from the movie EuroTrip. If you liked American Pie, you would like EuroTrip. In one part of the movie, the protagonist and his friends ended up in Bratislava due to a miscommunication while hitchhiking. Their original intention was to go to Berlin. Bratislava was pictured as a horrifying town devastated by the Cold War and filled with sadomasochists, where one American dollar was apparently worth a gold. If that was your only impression of a city, would you have visited it? I guess I’m weird.
Obviously Bratislava had come a long way since the aftermath of the Cold War. It was just a perfectly normal city, not one that I would have preferred, but it was as normal as any other capital cities in Europe. The day I was there was the mistiest day I had ever encountered. I walked around to hunt for the quirky statues that were said to fill the city. Google it, you’ll surely find plenty of pictures of Bratislava’s quirky statues. Myself, I managed to find The Fairy, HC Anderson, The Paparazzi, The Medusa, The Watcher, and Schoener Naci (the hat-tipping gentleman).
Further east, I landed myself in Terchova. Now, this was more of my kind of place. You could walk from one end of the village to the other in 10 minutes. Aside from this, the rests were mother nature, the Mala Fatra national park. To reach Terchova, I had to ride a local bus from the nearest city, Zilina. The journey was rather worrisome as nobody on board spoke any English, including the bus driver, and the only Slovak word I know was ‘dakujem‘. I had no clue where to get off, the distance from one village to another was so far and in between, all I could see were open plains and mountains. To be fair, Terchova and the Mala Fatra would have been packed with hikers in the summers. But that day, I was the only visitor.
Despite warning from the tourist office that some of the trails could be slippery due to rain and patches of ice, I braved myself for a hike alone. I hiked the interpretive trail that began at the back of Hotel Diery all the way to Stefanova, the next village. The trail itself was probably only somewhat between beginner to intermediate level, but after years of hiking while having someone to hold my hand during a tricky descent, I had my fair share of slipping and nearly falling down during those 2 hours. Looking back now, I think it was really stupid of me to not inform the tourist office of my plan to hike the trail. I didn’t meet a single person at all along the way and I could have tripped, fallen, and injured without anyone knowing.
Further east again, I landed at another national park. The High Tatras is where people ski in the winters and hike in the summers. I based myself in Poprad and boarded the Tatra Electric Railway to go ski resort hopping. I had never seen that much snow in my entire life before. If I had slipped many times in Mala Fatra and yet still avoided falling, I only managed to last 10 minutes walking in the snow before I slipped and fell down. I walked a few more meters before I fell down again, for the second time, and again for the third time. That was when I realized that people around me were actually having a good laugh while falling down on the ice themselves. A group of teenage girls slid down the slope while holding on to one another’s hand and ended up tumbling down in a heaping mess on the snow. They couldn’t stop giggling. Really, I had never seen that much snow in my entire life before. I had never known how slippery it was to walk on icy surface, how it felt to dip my foot in ankle-deep snow, to have snow blizzard blowing against my face till my lips turned dry and my eyes sore, to only be able to see a couple of meters ahead of me thanks to the snowfall, and to be soaking wet and cold after spending a day in the snow.
And that was my last solo day. That night, I took the night train back to Prague and then Berlin. I went back to the warmth of someone’s home, back to sharing a meal and a good laugh with the people I know. I realized what I completed in 2008 was real and that I still had it in me. It – the determination, the courage, the endurance, the level-headedness, the extraversion, the energy, whatever it takes to travel a foreign land alone.
So what is the moral of the story? I’ve always believed that anyone can travel solo if they really want to. It’s just a matter of whether they would enjoy it or not. For someone like me who needs a ridiculous amount of personal time, I will always crave the solitude and the tranquility that come from being alone, and the fact that I don’t have to talk or attend to anyone if I don’t feel like it. On a more serious note, though, I think everyone would benefit from a self-rediscovery and reaffirmation once in a while. And that’s what solo trip is all about. And for those reasons, you would definitely see me embarking on one regularly. Another one next year, perhaps? 😉