This week’s featured blogger is an avid solo traveler who luckily had the joy of experiencing Syria and the Middle East last year, before tensions and turmoil in the region began to rise. Now she is backpacking her way around England and taking things essentially one day at a time. [What a perfect way to live, right?]
Let’s Find Out More From This Solo Travel Expert!
Hi Hannah, please tell us more about yourself, your blog Caravan Of One, and your ongoing adventures.
I’m just a normal American girl who grew up in a small Midwestern town. I’ve always had a love for languages and travel. During college, I studied abroad in Mexico and Egypt. After graduating, I took a three-month trip to the Middle East. Those trips just further ignited my passion for travel.
In late 2011, I caught the travel bug again. Only this time I wasn’t making any plans to return home. In March 2012, I started my travel blog Caravan of One and began selling all my possessions in preparation for travel. In August 2012, I quit my job and, shortly thereafter, I left for Iceland and the UK. I’ve now been on the road for more than one month!
I love that you share a love of “adventure and all things off the beaten path.” For those unfamiliar with traveling this way, why do you advocate it and what has been your most rewarding experience(s)?
I think traveling off the beaten path can be rewarding in so many ways. Leaving the tourist trail will almost always force a person to challenge their preconceptions of the place they’re visiting. In contrast, someone who always sticks to major sights and tourist destinations will only see what they are expecting to see. Throwing a little adventure and flexibility into travel will also allow a person to meet local people more easily. Not to mention that staying away from touristy areas can also help save money!
Spending six weeks in Syria last year was probably one of my most rewarding experiences. Anyone watching the news at that time would have most certainly thought that Syria was at war. However, I saw a completely different picture. I met local people just going about their daily business. Life seemed to be going on as usual. Tragically, the situation has progressively got worse since I was there.
What was it like traveling through the Middle East all by yourself? Did you learn more about the region, or more about yourself?
I suppose it’s a bit of both. In general, traveling alone makes it so much easier to meet new people. It also forced me to speak the language and be more open to trying new things. By traveling alone, I also learned quite a bit about myself and my ability to adapt and cope with new situations. All in all, traveling by myself was challenging at times, but I’m glad I did it.
Given the recent Western stereotypes and perceptions of that region, what would you like us all to know now that you’ve traveled there firsthand?
The Middle East isn’t as scary as the media would have everyone believe. In all my time there, not once did I see a bomb going off or a screaming man burning an American flag. The people are some of the most friendly and welcoming that I’ve met on all my travels. Most Middle Eastern people want peace and security just like most Western people do.
Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. Which would you recommend most to someone who has never been to that region? How about least?
For someone who has never been to the Middle East, I would definitely recommend visiting Lebanon. When I was in downtown Beirut, I almost felt like I could be in a European country. Beirut has lots of trendy shops and an active nightlife. Similarly, western Turkey is a good place to ease into Middle Eastern culture.
In contrast, Syria and Palestine probably would deliver the most culture shock to someone who’s never visited the region before. Unfortunately, I couldn’t recommend visiting Syria to anyone now due to the current situation.
Correct me if I am wrong, but you have studied both Spanish and Arabic, right? How has learning a couple different foreign languages aided you in your travel experiences?
That’s correct. I think speaking other languages is a critical ability to have when traveling. Being able to communicate with locals in their own language can entirely enrich and enhance a travel experience. It has brought me closer to understanding the local culture and connecting with other people. I’ve been able to make friends and learn things that I never could have learned if I didn’t speak those languages. It also helps when I get lost and have to ask for directions!
How have you been conquering your travel fears since you got back on the road? Any new lessons learned or advice to give others?
Well, I think the period before leaving for a big trip lends itself to the “travel jitters.” In the weeks before I left, I was really nervous which I think is normal.
Since I’ve been on the road, I’ve also had a couple of days when I felt tired and wished I was home again. But whenever I get a day like that, I make sure to get lots of rest and allow myself to just do nothing. Also, I try to remind myself of my reasons for traveling in the first place. That usually reassures me that I made the right decision.
Glad to hear you use Couchsurfing.org. What has been your favorite “couch” experience thus far?
It’s so hard to choose. Almost every experience is unique and rewarding in its own right. One of my favorite experiences would have to be in Scotland. I got to CouchSurf with a nice couple in Scoraig, a community of only 70 people in the remote Scottish highlands. There are no roads going in to the town, so everyone and everything has to be brought in by motorboat. My hosts explained to me how they grow most of their own food and produce their own power via wind turbines. It was very surreal; I felt like I had entered a Utopian community in some other dimension.
What was the most rewarding experience of driving around Iceland’s Ring Road and learning about the country and culture?
I really enjoyed staying on Hrisey Island off the northern coast of Iceland. It’s in the most beautiful and remote location. I wouldn’t have even thought to visit except that a CouchSurfer invited me to stay there. That’s the beauty of CouchSurfing! Sometimes you find yourself in the most amazing places out-of-the-way places, almost by chance.
Interesting how you were able to combine a trip to Wales into learning about the history of your family before they emigrated to the US. Would you recommend that others try combining travel and genealogy?
I would highly recommend it. Discovering where my ancestors came from was an eye-opening experience. It also taught me a lot about myself. When the word “geneology” comes up, most people think “BO-RING!” But looking for my great-great-great-grandfather’s grave in Wales was actually one of the most exciting travel memories I have.
I’m amazed to hear that having two American passports is 1) not illegal and 2) that easy to acquire. It makes perfect sense! But tell me, what other little-known travel tips / tricks have you stumbled upon in your journeys?
Well, I don’t know what exactly qualifies as little-known, but one thing I’ve learned to do is be really flexible with my travel plans in terms of dates and places. It can save a lot of money in the long run.
For example, if you want to go to Europe, be flexible as to where you fly into. One tool I really love is FareCompare’s Getaway Map (I think there are also other tools like it out there on the web). It will allow you to browse the cheapest destinations to fly to throughout the world based on your location. As long as you don’t mind being flexible, it allows you to discover some great deals!
What are your first impressions of Europe? Is it the tourist mecca you envisioned?
There certainly are a lot more tourists in Europe than the Middle East. However, so far I’ve found that it’s actually fairly easy to get off the beaten path. It probably helps that I’m visiting Europe in the off-season. But regardless of the season, I think it is completely possible to discover remote and less-known corners of the continent.
So what other future countries can we expect updates from in the next few months?
Well, I’m a bit behind right now with my writing, so I will be posting a lot more about my trip to Scotland in the next few weeks. After that, you can expect updates from Ireland, Wales, London, and then countries throughout mainland Europe. After that, possibly Iran or Iraq!
Any closing words of wisdom for fellow travel addicts?
I’d say just keep yourself open to new experiences. That’s one of the most important things you can do while traveling. And always keep a good sense of humor!