Confessions of an Expat Female Solo Traveler

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Tip: You may want to grab a snack, this is gonna be a long one!

This post is a mishmash of things I've had on my mind lately. Some may surprise you, some will hopefully make you smile, but mostly I hope these will spark wanderlust in your soul and help you set your travel dreams in motion!

#1: I Got Serious About Traveling Late

Hey, my name's Val.
I wasn't able to go on my first real trip out of the country until I was sixteen years old. This may not sound like it's that late, but these days the world is much more accessible. Coming from a lower-middle-class family didn't give me the chances others may have had to travel overseas on an annual basis for a family vacation. Our idea of a vacation was to travel an hour and a half to the local theme park for a long weekend.

Keepin' it sassy since 1990
Once we did make the twenty-hour drive to Wisconsin to visit the family on my Mom's side, but that wasn't exactly a relaxing way to see the country! Luckily, as a sophomore in high school, I was offered the opportunity to travel with my high school Spanish class to Madrid to practice our Español, and my parents were able to make it work. I wasn't able to travel much after that trip until college, but I always knew I'd get back to Spain someday. However, after that first trip to Spain and the occasional trip to Canada, I didn't travel abroad again for the next three years. The reasons are varied and they all basically amount to a lack of resources; namely time and money.

When I was a sophomore in college, my parents asked me if I wanted to be a chaperone when it was my sister’s turn to travel to France and Spain with her class. A free trip to Paris and Madrid? Yes, please. Funnily enough, we got more than we bargained for on that trip as that was when Eyjafjallajökull in Southern Iceland erupted for the first time in decades and we were stuck at the airport in Paris with no way of getting home. I only remember the utter chaos and lots of crying and sitting on airport floors. I never thought I’d have to use the excuse that I couldn’t make it to my college classes because a volcano erupted. But that is a story for another post... Though that trip had its challenges, I knew I would go abroad again but I didn't know exactly in what shape or form until I learned about the glorious world of study abroad.

Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone. -Wendell Berry 

#2: Studying Abroad Saved My Life 

This may sound quite melodramatic.
If you've met me though, you know this is just me! I truly believe that my choice to study abroad in London was a quintessential step in my life journey. Doing so was a catalyst for many other major life choices for me.

Probably somewhere around my sophomore year of college was when I was introduced to the world of International Education and my mind was blown. I remember attending one of those general study abroad information sessions and from then on my brain was working on overdrive with all of the possibilities. I wanted to venture to Australia and hang out with kangaroos and koalas in between study breaks, or I wanted to fly to South Africa and experience an authentic African safari or take the cable car up to Table Mountain to see for myself. But mostly I wanted to be a part of London; so the choice was ultimately pretty easy. This obsession probably started when I first watched Parent Trap and saw Hallie Parker staring out of the black cab in awe at all the sites and sounds of central London. Quite frankly, the obsession never ended and honestly I'd return to England in a heartbeat.

My one true love. His name is Ben. 

After having a transformative study abroad experience in London during my senior year of college, I actively sought out international positions for after graduation. I giddily accepted a position to teach English in a high school in rural Southern Spain as a Language and Culture Assistant. My daily interactions with my students and fellow staff members immediately helped me feel welcome in a culture that I had previously only gotten to scratch the surface of in my high school Spanish class. My new co-workers offered to help me find a place to leave and my bilingual coordinator was super understanding in helping me figure out the dreaded TIE and visa situation. Spanish bureaucracy is a nightmare like no other...

My daily routine included doing simple presentations about my life in the States and helping my students to master the basics of pronunciation, grammar and improve their vocabulary. I also sometimes helped my teachers in their grading process and sometimes created my own projects and exams for my students to complete. I also worked to prepare my older students for their English language-level exams and on the side and worked as a private tutor with three amazing families who became friends over time.

I supplemented my daily interactions with locals by traveling independently around Spain. One particular trip stands out memory; I took a solo trip to Barcelona during a holiday break and decided to take the bus further north towards Besalú, a small, medieval town. I sat next to a man from Morocco and we spoke about the weather, his childhood, my job, and our struggles. We communicated almost entirely in Spanish, which was neither of our first languages. We sometimes had to resort to gestures, but we managed. Though it’s hard to accurately articulate exactly what it felt like to be able to connect with someone completely different from myself and in a foreign language nonetheless, it was an experience unlike one I’d ever had before. It opened up my mind and allowed me to see from a different perspective that I probably never would have the chance to otherwise. Travel is ultimately about experiencing a way of life that is unlike your own and allowing those differences to hopefully impact your life in a positive way. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to help others open up their minds and experience connections with people from other cultures.

It's funny how such important life experiences seem to come out of left field. In college, I was not studying to be a teacher and to be honest, the thought never really crossed my mind. A few months before graduation, my friend suggested I apply to become an LCA in Spain and at first I was completely unsure. Could I handle it? At that point in my college career, I was lost. I wasn't really all that interested in what I was studying in my Communications classes anymore and I was nervous about what my future held. Accepting that position and moving to Mijas turned out to be one of the most professionally and personally fulfilling, frustrating, challenging, inspiring and wonderful decisions of my life. 

I used to tutor Fran in Business English but here we are catching up and enjoying Feria!

Six years later and I still adore mis estudiantes

After I had returned from working as a teaching assistant in Spain, I didn't know what I was going to do with my life. I had made the very tough decision to give up a guaranteed summer job as a private tutor for two of the girls I had been working with the past few months. I made the choice to return home and look for a "real job", whatever that is. I let the societal pressure get to me and that's something I will have to always live with. I ended up working in retail for a couple of years before the thought of attending grad school even crossed my mind. After a year of applying to programs in the states and not finding quite the right fit in a school, I had an epiphany. I knew it was the perfect opportunity to go back abroad! After doing some independent research, I decided to work with a company called Across the Pond who made the process really simple. I also applied to one school on my own. I ended up choosing to study for my Master's in International Education at Bath Spa University in Bath, UK.

I ended up getting a very lucky break and securing a job as a Resident Tutor that worked with the Accommodations Office at the university to keep an eye on the students in certain dorms. The role was similar to a Resident Assistant at American universities.  It ended up being the best thing that could happen to me at school. I made some of the best friends of my life with my colleagues, who were also my housemates. I worked with girls from all over the world: Zimbabwe, Australia, England, and Colombia. That job allowed me to do quite a lot of traveling in a short time as being on a student visa required me to limit my weekly hours and take a certain amount of paid vacation. I was able to visit five new countries in one year while working as an RT: Portugal, Switzerland, Norway, Czech Republic, and Belgium!

After I finished my dissertation (which was a huge personal accomplishment of mine!) I tried and failed to get a job in England as they don't sponsor that many foreign citizens and are making it harder and harder each year to get a long-term visa there. I came back to the US and am currently working as a Travel Agent, which definitely has its perks. But my heart is not content without traveling semi-regularly. Without going into too much detail here, the US is in trouble big time and I want out. My current plans at the time of writing are to move to New Zealand (I'm thinking the Queenstown area) on a working holiday visa.

#3: I Don't Want to Visit Every Country

It is not my goal to see the whole entire world. 
I've read so many blog posts about people whose life goal is to be the youngest person to visit every country on Earth. Hey, to each their own, but that's just not something that interests me.

My current "travel goal" is to hopefully visit thirty countries before I turn 31 years old. I'm currently at 18 countries visited and I just turned 28 years old, so I've definitely got my work cut out for me. Up until this point, I have mainly visited the well-worn countries of Western Europe. This is mostly because it's where I've felt comfortable up until this point and those countries were the most convenient to get to from where I was living (Spain and England). Now that I've been traveling (semi) successfully for a few years on my own now, I'm getting to the point where I'm interested in traveling to countries that are a bit off the beaten path.

I've been dreaming of exploring the candy-colored houses of medieval Sibiu, Romania. I've been itching to visit the Mosaic Temple (Wat Pha Sorn Kaew) in Phetchabun, Thailand to make my best attempt at conveying the rainbow mosaic tiles in photographs ever since I learned about it on Instagram. I've been dying to go to Tallinn, Estonia after since I saw an Easyjet advertisement in the Stansted airport for this town around seven years ago when I was living in London. I remember thinking to myself, where in the world is Tallinn? (However: this trip may or may not be happening in a couple short months!) I can't wait to be able to make the trek up to the Kohtuotsa viewpoint and get a bird's eye view of the Vanalinn (Old Town) for myself.

China is not my cup of tea. Iran and Iraq are not places that I am interested in going. I wasn't interested in Italy for the longest time, and that's okay. I feel it would be a disservice to not only myself but to anyone reading this if I visited places that didn't interest me just to get some new content. Rest assured, if you're reading an article about somewhere I've visited, it's because there was something highly fascinating about that place to me. You will always get my real opinions on a destination and trust me, I've got a lot of 'em!

#4: Don't Wish, Make it Happen

I’d love to help whoever is reading this.
I want to inspire you to take that first trip! If you’ve traveled already, then I want to inspire you to travel as far and as wide as you can. My personal mantra the past few years has been “Don’t wish, make it happen,” which was some of the best advice I've ever gotten. I’ve tried to apply this mantra liberally across as many areas of my life as possible. Whether it was finally dying my hair purple like I’d been wanting to do for years, finally booking my dream trip to Switzerland, finally driving a dog sled in Norway or finally watching the Northern Lights dance across the sky in rural Iceland as I looked on in awe! Each of these experience came with their individual challenges, which normally boiled down to fear. Fear of what, I'm not so sure now. But they say that life happens when you step out of your comfort zone and 'they' are 1000% correct. 

That first step is the hardest, I promise!

While I haven't been everywhere and I still have lots of the world left to explore, I'd like to think I know a few things when it comes to traveling as a solo female and about the process of becoming an expat and moving abroad. I've lived in England two times on and off for about a year and a half and I've lived in Spain for just under a year. I've also been traveling (mostly solo) for the past eleven years. I got my MA in International Education and worked with a cohort of students from all over the globe. I've even worked in the study abroad office at my alma mater! I've studied, traveled, worked and lived abroad. I'm here to provide you with some (hopefully) useful and inspiring information to help you make your own travel dreams come true!

Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind. - Anthony Bourdain

#5: It's All Up To You

Your life is truly in your hands.   
This is one thing I've learned over the years (in my travels and just in life in general). Yes, I believe that there are many circumstances beyond our control however if you want to make something happen in life, no one will be there to hold your hand. You must take the steps need to make your dreams come true. With travel, this could mean cutting unnecessary spending to give yourself extra funds, this could mean finally booking that flight you've been eyeing for weeks, or it could simply mean just starting the research to make a dream trip a reality. But that first step must come from you.
And that's what makes it all the more worth it once you're on your trip. You know that you are the catalyst for your own life.

The feeling of finally seeing the elusive Northern Lights is indescribable

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