Traveling Alone Is NOT Always Glamorous

why solo travel is not always glamorous

Why Solo Travel Is Not Always Glamorous

Solo Travel Is Not Always Glamorous

If we learned everything we know about traveling from the Internet and social media, we would think it was effortless and glamorous 100 percent of the time.

An attractive young couple on Instagram smiles at their selfie stick-bound camera as they enjoy a scenic breakfast on a rooftop in Bali, a traveler in Thailand somehow keeps her hair perfect on Pinterest as she lovingly feeds a banana to an elephant. Your college roommate Amanda posts on her Facebook page that she's never felt so #blessed as she strikes a yoga pose atop a Malaysian mountain at sunrise...and you wonder how she made it up that mountain, since you recall that Amanda could barely run half a mile in your dorm's gym without complaining.

 Life seems pretty good when you're drinking out of a coconut.

Life seems pretty good when you're drinking out of a coconut.

I’ll admit - in May 2016, I too was under the delusion that traveling was easy. I had just finished college, bought a one-way ticket from my home state of California to Cartagena, Colombia, spent a week in Colombia drinking cocktails out of coconuts on white sand beaches, and was about to spend four days in Madrid before moving to Barcelona for a summer job as a nightclub promoter (also on a one-way ticket). So yeah, travel seemed like a piece of cake.

That is, until my 48-hour long trip from Cartagena to Madrid, during which time just about everything that could have gone wrong...went wrong.

When I left Cartagena, it was so hot that I was sweating after spending only a minute waiting outside my hostel for a cab to the airport. In a T-shirt, sandals and tiny shorts, I boarded my flight to Panama for a two-hour layover before heading off to Madrid.

In Panama, however, it was pouring down rain, and I looked pretty out of place among the other people waiting to board the flight, who were all dressed in down jackets and long pants.

 This does not look like a person who has E. Coli poisoning, now does it?!

This does not look like a person who has E. Coli poisoning, now does it?!

Visa rules you do not know can mess up your plans when traveling

There was an announcement over the loudspeaker that the flight was boarding an hour before schedule, causing confusion among everyone waiting. People started trying to line up to board at the same time, shouting and pushing in front of each other. And thus began the chaos. When my boarding group was called, I walked up and handed the officer my boarding pass.

“Where’s your return ticket?” he asked.

“Oh, I don't have one yet,” I replied breezily, “but I'm not staying longer than three months.” (Three months is the longest one can stay in Spain on a tourist visa).

The officer furrowed his brow.

"If you don't have a ticket out of Spain, you can't board the plane."

“If you don't have a ticket out of Spain, you can't board the plane,” he informed me.

I subconsciously noted what a good rhyme that was before I realized what he was saying. He told me I had five minutes to buy a ticket “back to my country,” and I told him I wasn't planning on going back there anytime soon, so he said I just needed to buy a ticket out of Spain. He said that as the three-month mark drew closer, I could take a trip to a nearby country, such as Morocco, for a day or two “to reset my tourist visa,” and then go back to Spain if I wanted. (That is not, by the way, even remotely how Schengen Zone visa laws work, but apparently, neither he nor I knew that at the time.) I decided to buy a ticket for a weekend trip to Portugal, since it’s close to Spain and therefore cheap, and was almost finished doing so when guess what! The WiFi crapped out. I ran back up to the officer, explained the situation and asked if I could use one of the airline’s computers, which I knew was a long shot, but I didn't know what else to do.

“No computer available,” he said. While typing away on a computer.

I tried again to buy the ticket, but by this point, the last boarding group was starting to walk outside to get on the plane. Getting frantic, I tried speaking to another airline worker, explaining in Spanglish that I had paid for this flight, I couldn't afford another one, I was by myself, and all I needed was a WiFi connection. She essentially kept telling me to go away. I watched the last three people walk out to the plane, and consequently, became a little hysterical. I briefly realized that I must have looked completely insane, wearing shorts when it was raining and making panicky statements in Spanglish. Realizing that I was not going to give up easily, the woman called her boss over, presumably to get rid of me. Thankfully, the boss made a hotspot on her phone so I could book the damn flight. Wiping away stress tears, I thanked her three times in both English and Spanish and ran like hell.

"Once in Madrid, I suddenly felt very sick"

Once I was finally on the flight to Madrid, everything was cool until we had about an hour left, and I suddenly realized that I felt very sick. Like, the “needed to visit a restroom immediately but didn't want to do so on an airplane” kind of sick. The second the plane landed and I was able to leave, I bolted for the nearest restroom. It quickly became clear that it was something I ate that was causing me discomfort, and after spending a few minutes thinking about it, I realized it was probably the fruit my friend and I had stupidly purchased from a random person on a Colombian island on our last day. I went to turn WiFi on to message her and ask her if she was sick too. As I did, I received a message from her informing me that since returning to the States, she had been to the doctor, who had told her she had E. Coli poisoning, "most likely from consuming fruits or vegetables that had been washed with unsanitary water." Awesome.

By the time I left the restroom, a super long customs line had formed. Two hours later, it was finally my turn, but due to my having obsessively Googled E. Coli poisoning and its treatment while I was waiting in line, my phone had run out of battery, and I hadn’t had the foresight to purchase a Spanish wall plug for my charger before my trip.

Unphased, and quite ill, I approached the nearest tourist information booth and asked the woman working there to show me on a map how to get to my hostel. She gave me a paper map of Madrid and showed me that it would take two trains, and it looked easy enough, so I happily went on my way, stopping first to buy a wall plug with the intention of using it to charge my phone as soon as I arrived at the hostel. 45 minutes later, I stepped off the metro and found myself in front of a restaurant advertising lunch for €6. Not having eaten since breakfast in Cartagena, which seemed like an entire lifetime ago, I suddenly realized how hungry I was. I dragged my suitcase down the narrow stairs and asked the man working if there was any way he could charge my phone for me with my charger behind the counter. He said yes, and I handed over my phone and ordered. When my food came, I discovered that my Spanish wasn't as good as it once was, and I had ordered a dish that contained beef. I've been a vegetarian since I was four years old.

After the startling realization that there was a dead cow on my plate, followed by the startling realization that I kind of liked the taste of dead cow, I ate the vegetables around the beef, left it on the plate for the confused worker, paid my €6, and collected my newly-charged phone.

In order to prevent getting lost, next time I will download an offline maps app

The woman at the tourist information booth had said that after I got off my second train, it would be a 12-minute walk to my hostel, so before leaving the restaurant, I decided to use their WiFi to see which direction it was. I pulled up Google Maps….and discovered I was 52 minutes away walking. I still don't know exactly how that happened, and I now know that in order to prevent that, I could have downloaded an offline map before my trip to use GPS without WiFi. At the time, however, I had no idea what to do.

One look at Google Maps showed me the way to my hostel was not only a 52-minute walk, but was also not a straight shot, contained lots of random turns, and basically couldn't be done without some sort of navigational assistance. From looking at the map from the airport, I couldn’t tell where I was. I’m also massively bad at directions. So I just started walking, hoping that if I didn't close the Maps app, the little blue dot showing me where I was would just keep working without an active WiFi network. Spoiler alert: it did not.

After roughly half an hour of walking in what I dimly thought was the right direction, I pulled out my paper map of Madrid again to see if I could find the street I was on. I could not. I walked a street over and looked for that street on the map. Nope. I asked someone walking by where the closest metro stop was, and she said it was further down the street, so I went further down the street, found it, and stopped to look at the metro map. That's when I realized the metro symbol was entirely different than the metro symbols on my map, like a different color and everything.

Before I could process what that might mean, a noticed a cab coming towards me. Guess it’s about that time, I thought begrudgingly. I hailed the cab and told the driver where I was going. He nodded, and I threw my suitcase in the trunk and got in. Five minutes into the drive, he pulled over and asked me to repeat where I was going. I did, and he asked for the exact address, so I pulled out the hostel booking confirmation I had printed out and showed him.

Este es in Madrid,” he said. This is in Madrid.

“....sí, yo se.” I know it's in Madrid.

Pero...no estamos in Madrid.” But...we're not in Madrid…?!?!

As calmly as I could, I asked where we were. He said we were in a small city roughly 15 minutes away from Madrid by car. I don’t know whether it was because I got off at the wrong stop, or because I had basically been walking aimlessly for half an hour, but somehow, I had ended up in the wrong damn city. I asked him how much it would cost to get to my hostel, and he said €40. I audibly groaned but said okay. I was just desperate for the day to be over. Once we arrived, he helped me get my bag out of the trunk, and upon taking a look at my unwashed self in short shorts, rocking dual pit stains and probably reeking of the airplane, he said that actually, the ride would only cost €8. What a homie.

I had reserved my hostel bed too early and now it was all booked

I thanked him an annoying amount of times (again), handed him a 20, and dragged my suitcase into the hostel...only to be told that I was a day late for my reservation, so they had given my bed away, and were all booked for the week. Apparently, booking a flight in America from Panama to Madrid was too many time changes for my mathematically challenged brain to deal with, and I had reserved my hostel bed 24 hours too early. The people at the front desk told me there was, however, an available room at their sister hostel. Wearily, I asked where it was, thinking that with my luck, it would be back by the airport.

“Right next door, one minute away!” they said.

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Thank. Goodness. After checking in to the other hostel, it was smooth sailing. Aside from being unable to eat anything except plain crackers and needing to visit a restroom every hour, I had a great four days in Madrid, met lots of lovely people, and went on to spend a fun-filled summer in Barcelona. As the weeks went by, I got tagged in more and more Facebook photos of me in my bikini on the beach, me enjoying drinks on the balcony of my new house, me all dressed up in the club wearing a pound and a half of makeup and surrounded by new friends. From looking at those pictures, nobody would ever guess that that girl almost couldn't board her plane, that girl spent her first couple of hours in Spain completely lost, that girl had contracted E. Coli poisoning. (Which, by the way, subsided after a very difficult two and a half weeks of consuming only bread products and copious amounts of water, in case anyone was concerned). That couple on Instagram beaming over their Bali breakfast may have gotten into a screaming fight moments before. The Pinterest elephant girl might have spent an hour Photoshopping her hairstyle before letting that picture anywhere near the Internet. And, let's face it, Amanda took an Uber to that Malaysian mountain, and still complained that it took too long.

Traveling is messy, but that's part of what makes it fun. If everything always went according to plan, we wouldn't have any stories to tell, now would we?

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