Traveling Alone, Inside Spain and Out

 

Scary. Empowering. Frustrating. Incredible. The times I’ve traveled alone in foreign countries have been some of the richest and most intense experiences I’ve ever had. There’s something incredibly liberating about exploring an unknown place with no one to answer to but yourself, having no one in sight as you hike through a valley in the Serranía de Ronda, surrounded by lush farmland and mountains. It can also really suck sometimes, like when the woman in the tourism office one town over in the Alps gave bad directions, and now you’re walking in the cold rain, unsure of where you’re going, and there’s no one in sight to ask for directions in your broken French. But every time something has gone wrong, it has ended up alright, and left me knowing that it’s a situation I can handle. Traveling alone has pushed me so far out of my comfort zone that my comfort zone itself has been forced to expand and accommodate.

Last week, I went to Ronda, a gorgeous old town built on top of a mountain ridge in the Malaga Province of Andalusia. There isn’t a train that runs directly between Sevilla and Ronda, so I used the website Blablacar to find a ride share there and back. I wish we had a similar platform in the States. Users publish drives they’re planning to do (typically medium distances–this one was a little under two hours), you pay for a spot in their car, and coordinate a meeting point with them. I chose drivers who had received lots of positive feedback from previous passengers. It seemed sort of like safe, orderly hitchhiking with the help of technology.

I met my Blablacar driver last Tuesday morning at the Plaza de Armas bus station, about a fifteen minute walk from my apartment. The driver was a Spanish girl around my age; touring Andalucia with a friend. The other passengers were a quiet American guy, and a very loud Russian woman who led groups of Russian tourists around Spain. She eagerly told us historical and geographical facts that none of us knew. The American guy attempted to talk about the vegetation with the Spanish girls but a lot seemed to get lost in translation. I hadn’t had coffee yet so I chatted a bit with the drivers but tried to tune out the other passengers and just look at the landscape.

Nothing hits me quite like seeing mountains after miles and miles of flat land. It’s the same relief and exhilaration whether I’m returning to the Appalachian mountains in North Carolina or seeing a new mountain range for the first time in my life. We drove up to the ridge where the town of Ronda is situated, and got out at a park in the middle of town. I walked between an orderly row of trees to the other edge of the park, where a cliff dropped off and I stood at the edge of the descent into the gorge below (el Tajo). After a lifesaving double espresso, I got a map and directions and made my way first to the old part of town (el casco antiguo) and then down the side of the mountain.

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The view of the town of Ronda from halfway down the side of the El Tajo gorge.

The descent was steep, on a narrow path that at one point led me through some old ruins. At the bottom, I was surrounded by farmland and narrow country roads. I crossed paths with a man who reminded me a little bit of my aunt’s partner, an Italian farmer with a big laugh and smiling eyes. I asked this man if I was going the right way, and he directed me and wished me a good day. He called me “hija–daughter.” It was the first time I had ever been called “hija” and the second would be later that day, after getting help from a gas station attendant of a similar age. Maybe it’s a common colloquialism, but both times it seemed so incredibly warm and reassuring. I usually bristle when it seems like someone is trying to be parental to me (maybe there’s something about being a young woman that makes so many people, even if they’re close to your own age, or a total stranger, think that they need to tell you what to do.) This was different though; for one thing, I had asked, and for another, I was so grateful for this little thing, this word that made me feel cared about in that unique way that fathers care about their daughters–a mix of protection and encouragement. I knew that my dad would love it when I told him about this adventure, and that he would help and encourage anyone who asked him, just as these men helped me.

As I walked through the gorge, I saw Ronda rising above me to my right, and swaths of farmland interrupted by the occasional house on my left. At one point, I took a wrong turn and ascended the side of the gorge about halfway to the top before the path stopped abruptly. I didn’t mind though, the trails and views were beautiful.

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When I made it up to the top, I was at the opposite side of Ronda from where I started. Walking back through the town, I ran into the man who had given me directions. We chatted and looked out over the valley.

The Blablacar I took back to Sevilla picked me and two other young travelers up at the outskirts of town. Our driver was a middle-aged man who told us about his youthful adventures riding motorcycles and living in London. The other passengers were a woman going home from visiting her boyfriend, and a young couple who had spent a few days in the Sierra de Grazalema. We all laughed and chatted and shared stories.

The following weekend, I left Spain and flew to Geneva. I had planned this for no reason other than that the flight was cheap and I thought it would be neat to see Switzerland. Another notch on my proverbial belt of countries visited. It turns out that Geneva is really close to Sallanches, France, where one of my cousins lives. So I took a bus across the border on Friday night. He met me at the bus stop and we hitchhiked back to where he lives, one town over. We were picked up by two sweet middle-aged women who chatted with him and asked me about the US election. We ate dinner with a group of his friends–raclette, a traditional Alpine dish of melted cheese served with potatoes and ham. It was delicious, and after a few glasses of red wine I stopped being so shy and began chatting with a few of the girls who spoke Spanish. I was too unskilled to feel comfortable trying to speak French, and too hesitant that I would seem like an entitled American to speak English, but Spanish worked. The constant refrain in the back of my mind these days is “learn French.”

The next morning, my cousin took me to the train station and helped me buy a bus ticket to Chamonix (I say “helped me buy.” He did the entire thing and I just paid for it. But I reviewed a few words with him so I knew I’d be alright buying a ticket from Chamonix back to Geneva.) When I got to Chamonix,  I went to the tourism office to get a map and find out how to get to La Flagere, a cable car in the Les Praz village that takes you up to a point in the Alps where there are lots of hiking trails. It turned out being an easy path from Chamonix Centre to Les Praz, but the map I had didn’t go far enough to actually show it. I don’t think I actually ever took a wrong turn, but there did come a point when I didn’t have any idea if I was going the right way, and it was raining and cold. I saw a man standing next to his car and convinced myself that I should just ask, even if I butchered the sentence completely. “Les Praz, c’est la?” I pointed, not sure if the words were right and hoping that the inflection would get my question across. It worked, and he said yes, and I thanked him profusely. When I reached a fork in the road a few minutes later, I gave up trying to navigate and used Google maps. Why Google maps worked for me then in a tiny Alpine village, but not later in the center of Geneva, I don’t know, but I’m not complaining.

The cable car ride itself wasn’t much, but the views it took me up to were incredible. Even in the rain and fog, the Alps are unlike anything else. Standing on the side of the mountain, I understood why my mom holds such a special place in her heart for Les Houches, the little town nearby where she spent her childhood summers, and where I went a few times as a little girl. I met another solo traveler there, an American expat who was originally from Wyoming and is currently living in London. We hiked together for a bit and shared stories about where we were from and what we were doing. It inspires me to hear travelers’ stories. Each one is so unique and fascinating. Later on in Geneva, I would share a room in a hostel with a Chinese girl who goes to school in Pennsylvania and is studying in Madrid, and a Belgian girl with whom I practiced speaking French.

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Hiking in the Alps this weekend

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Me with my cousin, the last time I was in the Alps before this weekend, when I was 6

Geneva itself was a really nice city. I spent Sunday exploring, walking along the lake, eating a mini sandwich from a little bakery in the old part of town, and appreciating the sun that had finally come out from behind the clouds. If Spain is the wild younger sister with flowers in her hair and a crucifix around her neck, and France is the artist who hikes a lot and looks elegant in pastels, then I think Switzerland (or Geneva anyway) would be the eldest, a lawyer with progressive politics but personally conservative financial practices. Neither flashy nor the least bit ragged, marked by signs of conscious self-improvement. There were joggers everywhere in Geneva, and bikes lining the side of the lake. Public art displays addressed global themes and the streets were the most clearly marked I’ve seen in Europe. I will say this, though. For all that America might be messing up, our street sign game is the strongest in the world, and I will never take that for granted again.

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Bikes and boats in Geneva

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Photography display showing the faces of the world

Geneva was the second place I’ve stayed in a dormitory style room in a hostel. The other place was Peru. Both times, there were several sets of bunk beds and travelers coming and going, arriving late at night and leaving early in the morning. I love hostels. They’re cheap, clean, and inviting. Both in Geneva and in Peru, I met many other travelers from all over the world. Crossing paths like this has been one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of this type of traveling. We’re so different from one another as far as background, national origin, and even first language, but we all have this huge thing in common. We’re young, exploring the world and taking it in. It immediately allows you to identify with someone who in many ways is profoundly different from you. It brings home in a tangible way the shared humanity of people all around the world. My own worldview, since I’ve been abroad, has shifted to a more global one, and these connections reinforce that.

The most profound parts of solo traveling for me have been the empowerment I’ve felt and the shifts and expansions of the lens I use to look at the world. Situations that made me feel insecure left me feeling competent. Encounters that clashed with my preconceptions made me reexamine my own biases. But it’s not just that. I’ve seen some incredible landscapes, enjoyed talking to warm, kind, interesting people who I’ll never see again, and eaten some great food.

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6 thoughts on “Traveling Alone, Inside Spain and Out

  1. Ah Sarah! Thank you for taking the time to take us all with you. I just love finding a new post from you in my inbox! I especially love your personalizations of Spain, France, and Switzerland. I think I belong on the border of Spain and France but close enough to Switzerland to visit Susan. I hope all is well on every front and look forward to seeing you soon.

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  2. Dear Sarah, I delight in feeling the joy of your personal expansion, fueled by personal challenges, delightful encounters with kind people, exquisitely beautiful landscapes, and delicious treats!
    Thanks so very much.
    Dad

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sarah – Thanks for sharing your journey with us! Your writing is exquisite, your thoughts inspiring, and the beauty of your environs, which you share so skillfully, is mind-expanding! I love you!!

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  4. Coucou Sarah!

    I envy you for your solo travels – a way of traveling that I’ve always been curious to try! I loved reading your revisit to the Alps after so many years.. thanks for sharing and keep writing as much as possible! Bonne continuation dans ton apprentissage de la langue française 😉 x

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