Preparing to Depart
Barcelona was my first destination on my plan to travel the world. I did not have any particularly strong reason for choosing Barcelona, but when I was 12 years old I loved to skateboard, and I remember watching one video that followed a group of professional skateboarders as they explored Barcelona, finding spots to do tricks along the way. When I saw that video I decided I would one day skate the streets of Barcelona. Although I stopped skateboarding, the fantasy of going to a foreign city stuck with me. I chose to begin my journey in Barcelona in part to fulfill that childhood fantasy, and because it is on the Mediterranean, a body of water I have always wanted to visit.
Besides buying my plane ticket, I spent very little time and effort planning the details of the trip. I even packed the day before I left. I did of course have to make a few lifestyle changes leading up to my departure. I donated or sold a lot of my things (including my bed), and in general sought to downsize and get rid of most of the clutter my life; I knew I would be living out of a backpack when I arrived in Europe, and I worked to cultivate that mindset. I lived with my brother and his family after my apartment lease in Atlanta was up, and that was much-needed time spent with my nephews who I would not see for a while once I left.
Leaving the United States was emotional for me, as I had grown closer to my family and friends leading up to the trip, and I felt a strange mix of loneliness, terror, and excitement at the prospect of going on an adventure far from home. I had to say goodbye to friends I had made at work over the past year, and to friends I had known all my life. We all go away from home at some point, for school or for work, but for some reason it felt different this time. Perhaps because I felt I would be truly on my own apart from my friends and family.
Although saying goodbye was sad, it was also overwhelming the love and support I received. The letters that my family gave me when we departed from each other at the airport gave me a deep sense of love and appreciation for them, and also gave me courage. My friends gave me support in ways that I never would have expected. My good friend Anh gave me a travel gift that has been useful to me every day, and my friend Daniel gave me a public goodbye. I watched this on the first night of my trip, laying in bed at 2AM in a room with four strangers; it helped ease my anxiety. My friend David has been selfless with his time in helping me overcome technical challenges, and was instrumental in setting up this website. Other friends have gone out of their way to make sure we stay in contact and offered me encouragement. An evil eye from Beyza has kept my luck up.
Arrival in Barcelona
When I arrived in Barcelona on the first day of my journey, I was anxious to say the least. I had not booked any places to stay that night, and I had no clue how I was going to get from the Airport to the city. Although I had a phone, I had no data or network associated with it. Fortunately I was able to find my way to the city on a bus, and I got to work getting familiar with the city.
I walked around the Gothic Quarter and was amazed at how unique the environment was. The city was bustling with motorbikes, workers, tourists, and locals walking about. I loved getting lost down the alleyways lined with quaint wine bars and cafes.
That afternoon I found a hostel to stay in, and in good timing as I was so tired I thought I might pass out waiting to check in at the front desk. I took a nap and went out that evening to explore the city. I remember continuing to feel anxious and overwhelmed at being a foreigner in a city half-way around the world from my hometown.
Discovering a Community
On my second day I made my way westward towards Parc de Montjuïc. On the way I kept my eyes open for a hostel to check into and take a nap, as I was still feeling fatigued from lack of sleep and jet lag. By chance I stumbled upon Hostel One Paralelo and was blown away at how friendly and welcoming the staff and the guests were. I immediately felt that I had found a home. I came back after exploring the city more, and made friends over dinner and a night of partying.
Hostel One has four locations in Barcelona alone, and I spent my remaining nights hopping from one to the other, experiencing the unique atmosphere of each and enjoying the sense of community that was formed between all four locations. This experience has gone a long way in helping me overcome my initial anxiety of meeting new people, and of being away from home.
In the hostel environment, surrounded by travelers and locals of a traveling mindset, it was easy to make friends and find people to spend time with, whether it was to explore the city and sight-see, to enjoy the night life, or to go shopping.
I did a lot of walking my first week and got to see some amazing things, both traditional tourist sights and natural pieces of everyday life in Barcelona. The Sagrada Familia was awe-inspiring due to its size, beauty, and complexity.
After an exciting week in Barcelona, it was time to get on a plane for Belgium to visit a friend and his family. Staying on a farm will be a refreshing contrast to the bustling city.
Some Lessons Learned
The first week of traveling was a steep learning curve and I was informed by experience, both good and bad, about how to travel more effectively.
- Drink lots of water, whenever you can. In America, the tap water is safe to drink, and it is freely given at restaurants. I discovered that asking for water at a restaurant is a good way to get ripped off in many European countries. A 1.5L bottle of water will cost you about €0.70/$0.76 in a convenient store, but if you ask for water in a restaurant you might be charged €2.50/$2.71 for a bottle a quarter of that size. Also, if you spend a lot of time walking and sight-seeing, you might forget to drink enough water which will leave you feeling tired and fatigued. I learned to drink a lot of water in the morning before I left my hostel, and to buy a big bottle at the store when I came across them. It's better to drink a lot of water at once before venturing into the city, than hope to find it along the way.
- Keep your plans open. Unless you are going to stay at a specific person's home for a while as part of your trip, don't book a location more than a day or two in advance. Every place I stayed had a totally unique atmosphere and group of people. Only booking one day at a time give you the chance to experience many different environments, and meet more people. I might change my mind about this.
- Do not act unsure of the price when buying something. The first couple days of traveling I was overcharged a few times by vendors who took advantage of the fact that I was a foreigner unaware of prices. This is mostly only a problem in tourist locations, but many shops and cafes outside of the main square neglect to display prices. I found that if I simply handed the vendor cash instead of asking for the price, they would assume I knew it and they would hand me back correct change. If you don't hand them enough cash don't worry, they'll let you know. I only do this at established stores and cafes; for other vendors haggling might be expected.
- The advantages of traveling alone. Some have expressed concern over my decision to travel alone, for fears of safety and loneliness, but I have not found these fears justified yet. It seems counter-intuitive, but I think that a person might be more susceptible to feelings of loneliness when traveling with others, as it is much more difficult to connect with new people when you are tied to a group. At one of the hostels that I stayed in, I was making friends and enjoying the company of just about everyone, but I found it difficult to talk to and penetrate a group of four travelers who all came from the same hometown. I doubt they were being intentionally standoffish, but it was too easy for them to fall back on their familiar relationship in such a new and unfamiliar environment. Whereas I had to force myself to interact with those around me, they unfortunately missed out on new and exciting relationships. As for safety, in the same way that being alone forces you to reach out to new people, being alone in a foreign city gives no sense of false security, and it forces you to be vigilant in your perception of potential dangers.
- Use your travels as a way to learn something. For me in the first couple weeks that means learning how to survive, how to meet new people, and how to feel confident in a foreign place. I've met other travelers who spend years in a place without learning the language. I'm sure they have their own goals and objectives, and they're growing in many different ways, but if you spent 15min a day trying to carry a conversation with a local you'd be fluent in less than a year. So don't waste easy opportunities to learn and grow.
"The very simplicity and nakedness of man's life in the primitive ages imply this advantage, at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature. When he was refreshed with food and sleep, he contemplated his journey again. He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain-tops. But lo! men have become the tools of their tools. The man who independently plucked the fruits when he was hungry is become a farmer; and he who stood under a tree for shelter, a housekeeper. We now no longer camp as for a night, but have settled down on earth and forgotten heaven." - Henry David Thoreau, from Walden