On a whim...

A first-person account of a solo female traveller who took a career break to see Europe and came back with delectable stories

Sights while hiking in Plitvice National Park in Croatia - the longest trail is over 18km and takes around 8 hours to hike.

Growing up, I used to look forward to yearly trips with family, but travel changed in a big way for me when I went on my first Himalayan trek to Kuari Pass. It made me grasp how meaningful and soul-satisfying travel could be. I was one with my thoughts, away from all the distractions of the world — and I couldn’t have been happier.

Since then, I forayed into travel blogging, travelled near and far, in and out of the country. After six years of working as a programmer in Bengaluru, I finally decided to take a career break and slow travel for three months in Europe. I chose Europe for my solo travels as it’s favourable for backpackers. Affordable hostels, world-class public transport infrastructure, solo-travel friendly, rich culture, and plenty of countries to choose from, all with a Schengen visa — meant it required a lot less planning than other parts of the world. Once I received my Schengen visa with 90 days validity, it was time to put on my planning hat, and take it one step at a time — flights, hostels, transportation, places to explore, and the likes.

Starting from Sofia, where my flight landed, I planned to visit 13 countries in about three months. Including Bulgaria, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Estonia, Sweden, Copenhagen, Germany, Portugal, and Spain. The idea was to traverse through Balkans and then head to the Baltic states, continue to Sweden, and Copenhagen in the Scandinavia, and then back south to Germany, and finally ending in South West Europe in Portugal and Spain. While I had a loose itinerary, most of the travel planning happened on the go. Also, I made sure that I could travel across most of Europe through public transport, except for a flight from Frankfurt to Lisbon, and then between Lisbon and the remote Flores Island (as there are no better options to reach the Flores). Travelling on a backpacker budget can be quite a task in Europe, considering the exchange rates of Euro (1 EUR ~ 80 INR). So, for shorter travels, I found a community-based social networking site, which connected me with locals who offered accommodation for free as part of a cultural exchange. And when I wanted to stay for longer, I signed up for volunteering programmes, which provided food and shelter in exchange for five hours of work daily, for five days a week. The job varied — from painting walls, making flutes, packaging perfumes, and soaps, creating and editing videos to writing content for a new project— and I loved the variety of it. 

Those days helped me stretch my travels longer — there were weeks I spent less than 20 Euros when I was volunteering. Additionally, I also hitch-hiked, shared rides with strangers, cooked my meals whenever I could. As it turns out, when you go out of your comfort zone, the experiences could be exhilarating. I hiked in the most picturesque and bountiful landscapes of Azores (Flores and Corvo). Cycled across the border from Slovenia to Austria. I attended a Cacao (Hot Chocolate) ceremony in Estonia. Also, I watched the city light up during the festival of lights in Berlin and danced the night away solo in a fancy ferry on the way to Stockholm from Tallinn. All the while, making friends from a whole different way of life than mine. I even got adept at clicking my own pictures through DSLR using my phone as a remote. Travelling solo doesn’t mean you need to have mediocre pictures of yourself. The more I travelled, it became quite evident that the world isn’t as scary as the society cracks it up to be. I witnessed the kindness of strangers far too many times. A random restaurant owner offered me her next morning’s breakfast as she didn’t have any vegetarian food at the restaurant for dinner and refused any cash in return. My host in Ljubljana offered me meds when I was down with a cold. A random lady offered to buy me a transport ticket in Lisbon. My host in Tallinn gifted me a wooden wallet handmade by him (one of my favourite treasures from the trip). I realised that a smile is universal, and it’s easy to make connections even without speaking the same language. Of course, I had my fair share of challenges too. I missed my bus from Vilnius (Lithuania) to Parnu (Estonia) due to the time difference and had to find a hostel at midnight. Almost got detained at Frankfurt (Germany) airport for carrying pepper spray, had sleepless nights while living in a tent due to fierce storm, among other things. Adventures or misadventures — I can say one thing for sure — I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was a life-changing journey, one that I’ll treasure for a long time to come.

 

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