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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Solo Travel Tips from One Woman’s Nicaraguan Journey

Cartoon Girl’s Face“You are here, but another place is your husband?” My new friend’s English wasn’t the best, but his confusion was clear.

I was a woman, traveling alone. I was of a certain age, yet there was no evidence of a spouse.

In a culture where nearly every adult was paired up and producing children, a happy bachelorette, seeing the world by herself, was an anomaly.

And it’s not just the perceptions of foreign men.

When I related my recent adventures to a female friend back in the States, her first question wasn’t “What did you do? What did you see?” or even “Did you drink the water?” It was “Who did you go with?”

A lot of people subscribe to the Noah’s Ark view of travel. They believe that at the very least, you must do it in pairs.

But while it’s nice to share your travels with a friend or loved one, it’s also fun to experience another culture on your own.

I liken it to the difference between camping in the woods and in an RV. If you’re staying in an RV, you can enjoy nature, yet have a familiar bed, refrigerator and TV. And if that’s your idea of being in the great outdoors, more power to you. But you’ll never really feel the close presence of the trees, wildlife and fresh air the way you would if you were sleeping under the stars.

Woman aloneTravel on your own, and it’s just you and your surroundings. Walking the streets of an unfamiliar place, you’re fully there. You’re not diverted by worrying about your companion’s comfort, or making conversation about familiar things. You’re totally involved in a new experience.

When you’re not reflecting off of anyone familiar, you learn new things about yourself. If you’re so inclined, you can even be someone else. You can present yourself in a new light to people who don’t know you. Try new things. Nobody knows your usual habits. That’s a real vacation from yourself.

Whether or not you’re naturally gregarious, it’s easier to meet people when you’re sightseeing on your own. Strangers are more apt to start a conversation when they feel that they’re not interrupting one.

Afraid you’ll be lonely? The trick to avoid feeling adrift is to plan a vacation with some structure. That doesn’t mean you have to buy a package tour and schlep through your vacation on a bus full of tourists.

Woman CartoonSign up for classes, join special interest groups, or take a volunteer vacation. This provides a ready made group of new friends with whom you’ll have something in common. You can sightsee with them, but you can also go off on your own.

Travel with a purpose, and you’ll come home with more than pictures. You’ll return with new knowledge, maybe even a new skill.

You don’t need to go where your friends have been. The Internet gives you better information than they can, and it’s easy to do your research. Google new places, look at their Web sites, and then read the TripAdvisor.com reviews. Check the place’s local Craigslist.org, not only to find cheap lodging, but also to get tips on interesting events.

I’m interested in learning Spanish. In New York City, where I live, group classes cost $40 an hour and up. That’s enough to pay for a day’s worth of classes, plus room and board in some Latin America countries. So last December, with no holiday plans, I decided to make my own special celebration—in Nicaragua.

Baby ocelotWhy there? For starters, I’d never been there. I’ve loved other parts of Central America that I’ve visited in the past. Years ago, while I’d been marveling at the beauty of Costa Rica, a more seasoned traveler told me that I hadn’t seen anything until I’d been to Nicaragua: mountains, beaches, volcanoes, lakes, colonial cities, great-looking people, etc.

At the time it was politically unstable, scary even for the Nicaraguans. But things have changed in recent years. Nicaragua is now considered to be one of the safest places to travel in Latin America. Couple this with their clear accent, and it seemed like the perfect place to mejorar mi espanol.

Roving around the internet brought me to La Mariposa Spanish School and Eco-Hotel (Mariposaspanishschool.com). The Mariposa is nestled in its own private jungle. Their hot water and electricity come from solar power. The building and furniture are made of sustainable wood. Recycling is a priority.

Best of all, they not only provide Spanish classes, but feature an animal rescue program. The world’s happiest dogs walked in and out of our classrooms.

More baby ocelotMonkeys grabbed coffee beans from our hands. I even got to play with a baby ocelot (at left).

Eating alone is one of the harder parts of traveling alone. But in a structured group, you’ve always got the option of joining others. The Mariposa served meals to the all the guests at once, and conversation was lively. The food was healthy, plentiful and locally grown. And the dining “room” was open air.

Classes were in the morning. Afternoons were set aside for activities. Sometimes I’d join the group, as we piled into the camioneta and headed off to see the sights. Sometimes a few of us would go horseback riding up a nearby mountain ridge.

But some afternoons, I wanted to go off on my own. I explored the nearby villages, navigated the buses, and I practiced my Spanish with whomever I could. I spoke with shopkeepers. I asked for directions on the street. And when a friendly guy on the bus wanted to strike up a conversation, I went for it.

Traveling by yourself can be fun. And there’s no better way to practice some Spanish than trying to explain that, yes, you are in exactly the right place, with no husband.

Tips for traveling on your own…

  • One of the hardest parts of traveling alone is that you can’t rely on a companion to pack anything. Make lists so you don’t forget your bug spray, travel clock, tissue packets, etc.
  • If you lose your wallet, there’s no one to borrow from. So keep a few dollars under the inner sole of your shoe and use a leg wallet for your passport and cards.
  • If the first place you’ll be staying offers airport pick-up service, splurge. Once you’re oriented to your new surroundings (and different money), it will be easier to take buses and taxis.
  • Unless you’re already a nun, dress more conservatively than you would at home. Traveling is not a fashion show. Especially if you’re in a poor country, dress clean, but simply.
  • Here’s something I discovered by accident: I didn’t want to put a lot of money into a daypack, and the cheap one I bought had terrible, hard-to-work zippers. Not only did I not have to worry about being pick-pocketed, but even airport security gave up after opening the first one.
  • Single? Do as I did on a previous trip, and set up a blind date through an international dating site. It can be a fun way to see a place like a local. You’ll meet someone new, and maybe even have a love connection. Naturally you have to use caution. For safety’s sake, tell someone at the hotel about it. (It’s actually less embarrassing than telling a friend!) You can even have your date meet you in the lobby. Believe me, the hotel staff will be more than happy to check him out!
  • Be aware, and use your good judgment about situations. It’s not culturally biased to listen to your gut feeling if someone strikes you the wrong way. You don’t have to smile and be nice to everybody. Sometimes it’s better to be rude and safe.
  • There’s no need to broadcast your solo status. Some single women wear a wedding ring when they travel. I’ve never done that. But years ago, during a solo trip to a little Mexican village, I got a lot of unwelcome attention. So I told the town gossip that I was a recent widow. It was, thankfully, not true. But word spread, and for the rest of my stay, everyone treated me very nicely.

By Julie Manis

Original here

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