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72 days with a backpack: Solo Travel in Europe

After two and a half months gallivanting around Europe, I am finally back home in Santa Barbara. Over the course of 72 days, I visited Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Prague (The Czech Republic), Freiburg (Germany), Las Palmas (Spain), Casablanca (Morocco), Washington DC, and Vegas. Check out an interactive map of where I went in Europe below or click here!

As I’m now reflecting on my trip, I feel so grateful for all of the kind souls who I met along the way, who made my trip more interesting and more affordable. I was hosted by 15 people – 7 from the couchsurfing website, one who I met randomly, and 7 old friends. Here’s an overview of my adventure!

My first stop was in Geneva, Switzerland! All I had with me was this 32 liter backpack!

On August 27, I took the Santa Barbara Airbus to LAX and flew to Geneva, Switzerland, where I and stayed with Alex, my first couchsurfing host, and explored by myself. When asking for directions from a woman sitting on a bench, I made friends with Katia, a Swiss lady who had relocated to live in Uruguay. We spent the morning together walking by the Rhone river, and we later visited a contemporary arts museum. She invited me to stay with her in Uruguay – which I might do next spring!  Alex, Katia and I had dinner together at a restaurant (the only time I ate out in Switzerland as it is notoriously expensive) and I had a €30 veggie burger. (Ridiculous!!!)

Then I used one day of my 3-day train pass (about €300, but it’s not consecutive – you select the days within a month) to meet my father in Kandersteg, a small mountain village with epic hiking and climbing. Our plan was to do a few via ferratas – or “iron way” in Italian (see my previous blog post about via ferratas) – which are climbing routes enhanced with extra protection like ladders and steel cables. We did the longest via ferrata in Switzerland which took 5 hours to climb plus 2 hours to walk back to the start – along a glacier!

Then we started an 8 day trek in the Italian Dolomites from Dobbiacho to Bressanone (with a 4-day break in Cortina) along with Greg and Bill, two of his friends from elementary school. So it was me and three 60-something year olds sharing tiny dorm rooms in mountain huts – despite the snoring, the scenery was spectacular! Thanks to my dad for planning (and paying for!) most of this part of my trip!

Ready for some solo adventuring, I set off alone on a tour of Italy. Traveling by train, I visited Florence, Siena, Pisa, Venice, Verona, Lavis, San Vigilio, and Merano – trying to visit both places urban and rural, couchsurfing when I could to save on accommodation and make new friends. I met a big group of Americans traveling who had rented a villa in Siena, and I asked if I could tag along for a few days – and so I found myself in a gorgeous vineyard in Siena for my birthday! They rented a big van and I was invited with them to visit Pisa and some hot springs.

 So you see, even when I travel alone, I usually find myself surrounded by people! I’m quite extraverted and I enjoy meeting new friends from different countries. However, there are times when I feel tired of being around new people – I get a feeling that I’ve had too much input and not enough time to process. When I start to feel this way, I get myself a private room in a youth hostel or cheap hotel to decompress for a few days.

I was in awe at the Duomo in Florence, although I avoided museums and crowded indoor places because of the virus. Thanks to my German friend Melissa, who I met when I played on the ultimate frisbee team in Malaga, Spain, I played in an beach ultimate frisbee tournament in Bibione, Italy. I met some very generous players there who offered to host me later in Vienna.

After about three weeks in Italy, on October 9, I took a train to Innsbruck where I joined my couchsurfing host Christian for an epic snow hike. My next stop was Salzburg, where I sang the Sound of Music songs in the informative and fun free walking tour. In Salzburg, I stayed at Wolfgang’s hostel, which was industrial, expensive (€25 for a dorm, €70 for a private room), and not too cozy – luckily I made some new friends while doing my laundry (in the outrageously overpriced laundry machine, €10 for wash and dry. Mostly I washed my clothes in the sink.)

Then I had to visit my new frisbee friends Ting Ting and Leon in Vienna – I met them at the ultimate frisbee tournament in Italy, and they had generously invited me to stay with them! They had an extra room in their apartment. Leon gave me his old cleats that were too small for him – which I dangled off my backpack all the way to California – so I was able to join 2 turf field ultimate frisbee practices. Ting Ting loaned me her bike so I could get there easily. We had a make-your-own sushi night, and we watched the USA Ultimate Frisbee Nationals – they knew more of the pro frisbee players names than I did! What amazing hosts!

While they were working, I took some time to rest in their apartment – travel can be exhausting!! – and when I had finally gathered up the strength, I visited the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. I was in tears while looking at some of the art, especially when I found a painting that I remembered from a high school history textbook. I felt such a strong sense of gratitude for being where I was.

I am often hit with this magical, powerful feeling when I am solo traveling – that I’m here alone, in the right place, at the right time, somewhere very far away from home, and it’s meant to be. In contrast, I sometimes feel waves of loneliness and solitude and homesickness. But like everything in life, these moments pass, and the journey continues.

Sometimes on these longer trips I feel exhausted from planning and moving. On days like that, I honor my feelings and try not to do anything too ambitious that day – maybe just take a walk, and I’ll take my book to read in a sunny place, and that’s it. In my 20’s, I felt the need to be doing, moving, accomplishing, and if I missed a day and wasn’t productive, I felt like a failure. Only in the recent years have I learned how to embrace and honor rest. I’m still working on not feeling guilty about it.

I visited Prague for 5 days, and was mesmerized by the cobblestone streets and detailed and colorful architecture – I felt like I was walking through a fairy tale. I found another ultimate frisbee team there (we practiced indoors on a handball court as it was freezing outside) as well as swing dancing – two of my favorite hobbies! I enjoyed cooking for my friendly couchsurfing host Juraj.

Some hosts prefer to cook for me to showcase some of their local cuisine -like Hannes in Italy who made a spectacular knodel, or potato dumplings, and Dario in Lavis who made a kind of pumpkin pasta from scratch – but oftentimes I’ll try to cook for them to show my appreciation for their generosity. My signature dishes are baked sweet potato with greens or a big veggie stir fry.

Then I took an uncomfortable overnight bus where I had to change seats at 3AM to spend Halloween weekend with my good friend Ganga and his Turkish fiancée Pinar in Freiburg, Germany. I had been bugging Ganga since I had first got to Europe, asking if there was any good time for me to visit. I also sent him some postcards reminding him that I was in Europe – and voila! One day he sent a message inviting me to stay for Halloween weekend. Thanks, Ganga!!

I met Ganga when we were both teaching English in Malaga, Spain – he is from Florida but has decided to try to live in Germany permanently. Both he and Pinar are in graduate school in Freiburg studying renewable energy engineering. They loaned me their landlord’s rusty extra bike and I trailed them around the city. We visited a lake surrounded by red, yellow, and orange trees as well as a free, public zoo. Even though my tourist’s view is limited, I observed that society seems fairer and more equitable in Germany, as zoos and other public services are accessible for all.

Next I visited Anne Claude, a good family friend whose mother met my dad 35 years ago while running a 5k in Switzerland. Anne Claude was an au pair for my aunt in the 80’s. Anne Claude lives in Zug, a beautiful lake town in Switzerland near Zürich, so of course I had to stop by for a few days. I had visited her a few years previously and am always amazed by her energy – we hiked up Zugerberg mountain (that she sometimes runs up) and on the way down it started pouring rain. So we jogged, soaked, back to her house!  

She also took me on a day trip to a glass blowing factory and to see the famous bridges in Lucerne. Thanks Anne Claude!

Then I flew from Basil to Las Palmas, the Canary Islands, to visit my friend Jessica, who I had met four years ago in Almendralejo, Spain where we were both teaching English. It was my second time visiting Jessica – she lived in Tenerife last year. I’m so proud of her for living her dream life – she has been living in Spain for the past 4 and a half years! Check out her youtube channel!

We explored the island by car (thanks to her Spanish boyfriend Nestor who drove us) and went on a hike to Roque Nublo, an outer-space-like rocky landscape in the middle of the island. The food there was cheap and delicious compared to the rest of the places I visited in Europe.

Soon my 90 day tourist visa was running out, so I booked a cheap flight for only €300, the caveat being a 24 hour layover in Casablanca, Morocco. Luckily I had already traveled solo in Morocco and made a lot of friends, so I knew someone who I could stay with! I visited Ali two years ago when he lived in Rabat – we met through the couchsurfing app. 

Since Ali had to go to work early the next day – he is a math teacher at a high school – and I had an afternoon flight, I went on a long walk in his neighborhood in the morning. I almost made it to a forest he recommended, but a scary barking dog prompted me to turn around and head back. His neighborhood was overrun with stray dogs and cats, and as a shortcut to get to his apartment from the train station, I had to climb through a small hole in a wall.

As it’s an Arabic country, I’m more cautious about how I dress and wear long sleeves and pants when I visit, although I don’t wear a headscarf. Many women don’t – in fact, I made friends with a very friendly girl named Hafsa on the train who helped me find my stop who wasn’t wearing one. Most people in Morocco speak Arabic and French, although the younger people tend to speak English, too. But when buying my train ticket, the employee didn’t speak English, so I attempted to speak French so I could understand the correct time of departure – I guess my French numbers are good enough! Merci beaucoup! 

Finally I made it to Washington DC, and after a $60 uber ride from the airport with a really grumpy driver, I spent a week with my sister and her kids, biking to see the memorials and museums in my non-babysitting hours. I rented an electric bike using LIME – it was expensive but fun – about $12 for a 20 minute ride. My favorite memorial is the Martin Luther King Jr Memorial which has so many inspiring quotes from him. Here are a few of my favorites:

“We shall overcome, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“Injustice everywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” 

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” 

Travel is oftentimes not comfortable or convenient, and is often challenging, and I find myself knowing myself and trusting myself more deeply as I am faced with different obstacles. The best advice I have for solo travelers is to be outgoing, make new friends, but to also trust your intuition. Rest when you need to. 

My favorite museums in DC are the National Art Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, so I visited both – and I was particularly impressed by the paintings and photographs of Hung Liu, a Chinese American artist who portrays underrepresented groups like immigrants and working class women. She paints on huge canvas prints of old photographs and adds drips and shadows, creating realistic yet spooky images. Thanks to my friend Rebecca (who I met while teaching English in Japan) for inviting me to the exhibit!

Finally I flew to my cousin’s wedding in Las Vegas before finally hitching a ride home with my parents (who were also at the wedding) back to Santa Barbara.

It all felt like a whirlwind, and it feels like a miracle that I made it home! Traveling alone gives me a lot of self-efficacy and appreciation for my freedom. I can’t believe that I did all of that – wow! But somehow even though I’ve been here for only 3 weeks, I managed to get a holiday job at the Yes store, a seasonal shop selling handmade products like ceramics and art made by local artists.

My life feels like a never-ending adventure with so much movement, and I am really grateful to be home – I’m trying to ground myself for a few months. However, my wanderlust has not expired! I plan to visit a Spanish-speaking country (somewhere safe and south of California) next year in March, April, and May. Any recommendations or connections appreciated! I would love to do an intensive Spanish language school and a yoga teacher training. 

Then I hope to work at a summer school or summer camp here in Santa Barbara in June, perhaps. In fall of 2022, I hope to have found a job at an international school so I can continue to pursue my teaching career overseas. 

If you made it to the end, thank you so much for reading (or skimming)! As always, feedback and advice is always appreciated. Have you been to any of these places? Can you relate to any part of my adventures? Sending love and joy to all. Happy holidays everyone!

12 Places I’ve HelpX’d At

HelpX, or Help exchange, is a way to travel for free by volunteering in exchange for food and accommodation. There are other similar models like Workaway and WWOOFing, but the one I use is helpx.net. I volunteered my way across New Zealand and Australia from 2011-2013, and later found places to volunteer in Bali and Japan. Typically, I would volunteer from 4 to 6 hours a day and then have the rest of the day free to do whatever I wanted. After doing this podcast with my author and travel friend Rollie Peterkin where he asked about some of my favorite volunteering experiences, he recommended that I write them all down. So here they are, in chronological order!

Getting up close and personal.

1. Cleaned a youth hostel in Kerikeri, New Zealand
Traveling with my friend James, we lived at Kerikeri Central Hostel for about 3 weeks, cleaning for 2-3 hours a day in exchange for free accommodation. We cleaned the kitchen, bathrooms, and changed the sheets of other visitors. I met a French family, the Bourdains, playing ultimate frisbee in a nearby park, and they invited us for dinner at their self-sustaining farm. I wrote about the experience on my old blog.

After a week cleaning at the hostel, someone from a nearby kiwi packing factory came by to ask if any women wanted a job. Men were not eligible because their stronger hands tended to squish the kiwifruit. I worked at the kiwi packhouse for about a week – it paid $13.50/hour, and was excruciatingly repetitive – before we decided to move on.

2. Trained pears and thinned apples at Fraser Farm in Motueka, New Zealand
The ferry between the North Island and the South Island was gorgeous, and after spending the night at a youth hostel in Picton, we hitchhiked to our first farm opportunity outside of Motueka, New Zealand. We lived in a small house with about 8 other volunteers from Germany, France, and the USA, and spent the mornings thinning apple trees and training pear trees. The pear tree branches had to be trained onto horizontal wires, so volunteers were trained and equipped with a tool belt to twist and attach the branches with different clips and ties. During the weekend, we took a road trip with some other volunteers up to Farewell Spit and Whariki Beach, and later did a 5-day hike called the Heaphy Track. More pictures here.

3. Painted the outside of a bed and breakfast in Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand
Arthurs Pass Village, population 30. Nestled in the mountains, 2 hours away from the nearest city. The town consists of a single cafe, one hotel, and one backpackers. Sound boring to you? I stayed there for 10 days and would have loved to stay longer!

After a hearty group breakfast with friendly owners Geoff and Renee and the other volunteers, we would work on the outside of their house, sanding or peeling off old paint or painting for a few hours. At “smoko” or break time, Renee made us a hot drink from her expresso machine. In the afternoons I went for epic hikes around the local mountains with my new friend Marian from Chile. In the evenings, Geoff and Renee cooked beautiful meals for us like pasta from scratch. See my old blog post to read more about my stay there.

4. Milked cows on a dairy farm in Edendale, New Zealand for 2 weeks
After a four-day crash course on how to run a milking shed, the dairy farm owners Debra and Grahm went on vacation, leaving James and I to watch all the cows. Luckily, everything went fine: we milked the cows, drove the clunky truck to collect pea-straw from town, and had a great time pretending to be farmers for the week in our overalls and gumboots. Original blog post with more details and pictures here.

5. Weeded on an organic vegetable farm for 6 days in Clinton, New Zealand
Known as “the three horse town”, Clinton is in the center of the South Island with one small store, one gas station, one bar, and a taxidermist. Along with 13 other foreigners, we helped weed an organic vegetable farm from 9am to 1pm every day. We stayed in a funny house-truck that we shared with three other people. We went mushroom foraging and made pizza with the mushrooms we found. At night we took turns cooking epic feasts with produce from the farm. And all food waste went to Bacon the friendly pig! More pictures here.

6. Milked goat, chopped firewood, and looked after children in Riverton, New Zealand
We were hitchhiking when Jessie picked us up in his truck. We asked him to drop us off at the campground, but when he missed the turnoff, he invited us to camp at his house. We spend the next 2 weeks volunteering on his sustainable family farm with his two adorable kids, Sage and Willow, and his wife Kristy. They goal is to grow all of their own food and trade with their neighbors for whatever else they need.

At their farm, James and I helped them with daily tasks like milking the goat, chopping firewood, weeding the garden, building a new chicken coop, and babysitting the adorable (but exhausting!) 1 and 3 year old kids. Jessie is training to be a builder, and we also helped him install insulation in the ceiling of their dining room to keep his house warmer during winter.


7. Picked stone fruit at Taralee Orchard near Port Pirie in Southern Australia
Being at the orchard in the middle of summer when all the fruit was ripe was definitely good timing. Volunteering with five other travelers from around the world, we began our day picking plums from 7 to 9 AM. Then we had a group breakfast and gathered in a shed for our next job: slicing fruit for the solar dryer. We laughed and told stories, and it was fun to get to know people from Japan, Spain, and Germany. Once our four hours of volunteering were over, we convened with the farmers and shared a communal lunch. The rest of the afternoon was free to explore the property and look for wild koalas.

8. Yardwork and cooking at the sivananda Mangrove yoga ashram
For a blissful week of relaxation and delicious food, we volunteered at a yoga ashram outside of Sydney.  After a few weeks of traveling and sleeping on couches, it felt great to follow a rigid schedule: 5:30 yoga, 7:00 breakfast, 7:45 chanting, 8:00 karma yoga, 9:30 volunteering, 11:00 morning tea, 12:30 lunch, 1:30 volunteering, 2:30 yoga nidra (lying down yoga where you focus on different body parts), 3:00 afternoon tea, 5:15 yoga, 6:00 dinner, 7:15 kirtan (like a song-circle), 8:15 mouna (silent time).

The volunteer projects varied from working in the garden doing bush regeneration to cooking or cleaning in the kitchen. As there were more than 50 people living here – at least a dozen monks! – the meals required lots of preparation. In our free time we went for walks around the property, looking for wild kangaroos and koalas.

9. Built teepees and mud houses at a glamp-ground in Daylesford, Australia
Sue and Don called their project Gentle Earth Walking. They built custom-made teepees, ranging from 15 to 25 feet wide. It’s a long and loving process. We went with them to chop down trees that would become the poles for the teepees from a nearby forest, which they had a permit for. Next, we would strip, sand, and polish the poles and Sue would sew the canvas cover. Some people would custom order these, and we got to go with them to deliver one and set it up. Their other big project was called Timber Benders – Don makes benches, awnings, and other structures in his enormous workshop.

Wild kangaroos and koalas lived on their property, as well as some elusive platypus. Their house was made out of mud and straw bales, and we got to smear mud on another dwelling on their property. Since they didn’t have electricity besides solar panels, if you wanted to take a hot shower, you had to light a fire under the hot water heater.

10. Teaching English in Tianyar, Bali
During a 1-month tour of Bali, we were cruising around the island in a rental motor scooter ($4/day!) when I received an email from Aaron of East Bali Cashews, who was looking for volunteers. He was just starting his non-profit with the help of his wife Lindsey, and they wanted Americans to come teach English in their after school program. Aaron and Lindsey were starting a cashew factory to give jobs to the locals in Tianyar, Bali, a small town on the northern coast. (Their business has really taken off, and now they ship internationally!)

East Bali Cashews provides healthcare to the locals, and even have started a preschool. They are also researching and implementing energy-efficient and sustainable farming practices. I taught English to teenagers in their after-school program, most of whom wanted to work on cruise ships someday. In our free time, we went snorkeling in the nearby beach and explored the forests nearby. We also got a tour of the factory -it was fascinating to learn all about cashews and how they are processed!



11. Oyster farm in Kumihama Bay, Japan
Perhaps my most unique volunteer experience was volunteering on an oyster farm in Kumihama Bay, Japan. During one of my 2-week winter vacations while I was teaching English in Fukui, I hopped in my k-car and drove 4 hours to the farm. I soon met Atsushi, a friendly and passionate man who had inherited the family business. I spent the next two weeks packing oysters into boxes, and going out on the boat to pull up the oysters, which grow on ropes that are dangled into the bay from wooden piers.

I’ll never forget something that Atsushi said to me: “Living in another country expanded my mind 100 times.” He really made the effort to spend time with and get to know his volunteers, which I really appreciated! There was another volunteer there from Poland named Gosia, and we became good friends, and she came back with me to Fukui and couchsurfed at my apartment for a week. To read more about this adventure read my other blog post about it!

12. Hostel cleaning and dog walking in Quentar, Spain
During a 2 week winter vacation while I was teaching English in Almendralejo, Spain, I did a quick solo tour of Andalucia, stopping in Sevilla, Granada, Nerja, and Malaga. In Granada, I stayed at Fundalucia youth hostel to volunteer for a week. I cleaned the hostel for 3 hours in the morning in exchange for free accommodation and lunch, and walked the two dachshunds in the afternoon. In Granada, I met a friendly street performer who gave me guitar lessons. Read more on this blog post.

To conclude:

Even though there are some moments when you may be dirty, smelly, or uncomfortable, I would wholeheartedly recommend volunteering as a means to travel! I learned so much and met so many interesting people during my time volunteering abroad. And I use what I learned about food production when I teach my students here in the USA. My network of interesting people visits me occasionally, and vice versa. Not only is it free and fun, you get to learn about a community, meet locals, and make a positive contribution to the place you are visiting. Look at the website helpx.net to get started, and you will see there are thousands of opportunities in so many different countries.