Time to move on
After more than eight months in Europe - over 1/4 of my total planned RTW journey, it's time to move on. When I started this journey I thought I would leave Europe soon after I spent Christmas in the UK. But it's now the 3rd week of April and I am finally saying goodbye.
The journey so far...
My eight months have taken me through 21 countries (19 new ones), staying in 41 cities and travelling by 12 planes, 11 trains, 10 buses, 4 cars and 2 ferries. Kind of surprised by the number of planes - I thought it would be mainly trains and buses but sometimes air travel is the best option, all things considered.
Twenty one countries... that sounds like a lot but it's not when you consider how many countries are in Europe (either 44 or 51, depending on whether you count transcontinental countries like Kazakhstan and Georgia, which are also partly in Asia). That's only 47%, or 41%. I missed all of the Nordic countries (although had been to Denmark and Sweden before). I didn't go to several of the "big" countries - Greece, Germany, Portugal and Switzerland. But my journey did take me to 3 of the countries usually considered the Balkans - Serbia, Slovenia and Romania. Adding Croatia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which I did in 2012, I have now been to 6 of the 11 Balkan countries - an area a lot of tourists/travellers miss. I averaged about 13 days per country - a decent amount. In some countries, like Czech Republic and Latvia, I only stayed in and saw one city. But I did end up being able to explore a few countries - either by car or by travelling by bus or train to multiple cities within the country.
But however I look at, however I slice and dice it, my journey to date has been exactly how it was supposed to be. I started off with no itinerary. Sure there were some places I had in mind - some I made it to and some I didn't. But I also went to places I didn't really think of - Latvia and Serbia come to mind. That's why I am thinking of this journey as evolving exactly how it was supposed to.
So what were some highlights?
Obvious ones, like the sheer natural beauty of places like Slovenia and Malta
(Should be no surprise Slovenia makes this list - I have spoken before of my love for that country)
And while they may be heavily travelled and filled with tourists, seeing some of the 'great' European cities like Paris, Prague, Barcelona and Florence also were highlights
I've lost track of how many churches I've gone into...
...of how many bridges I've wandered over
... or of the interesting graffiti or statues or art installations I've seen
But this trip was always intended to be about more than just seeing places. It was also supposed to be about experiencing life.
And I have had some amazing experiences...
▪ going to Juno Beach and walking in the footsteps of 14,000 Canadian soldiers who landed there on D-Day
▪ seeing an opera at La Scala, even if it was 4 1/2 hours long. And even more special that it was close to my birthday. Also going to Stratford-upon-Avon to see a Shakespeare play, another bucket list item
▪ touring Auschwitz/Birkenau, a sobering and emotional visit but a place I think everyone should see if they get a chance
▪ going to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. This is a bit surprising as I am not a beer drinker, but you could just feel the pride, making it a special place
▪ attending an intimate jazz concert in Prague. The venue was a cool, industrial space and the band, made up of local musicians, were excellent. It was a great evening out and reminded me of what I would do at home
▪ staying above a pub in a little village in Ireland and enjoying some pub food and atmosphere. The hospitality of the owner was outstanding and it felt like an authentic Irish experience
▪ driving a vintage Fiat through Florence and the Tuscan countryside - how Italian!
▪ living in a stylish and comfortable apartment in Belgrade for 2 1/2 weeks. This may seem like an odd highlight but it was the first time I had that kind of space, with a separate living room so I wasn't sitting on the bed all the time. It just felt more like home
▪ being asked to share my story for She Hit Refresh and seeing it resonate with not only members of that group, but also with random people on Instagram who follow me and engage with me on my posts
▪ walking amongst the ruins of Pompeii and the Colosseum. I've seen many amazing buildings or structures but nothing compares to being able to experience 2,000 years of history up close. Both moved me more than I expected they would
It goes without saying that time spent with family and friends - old and new - also rank extremely high, but I have done blog posts about how important those times have been to me so left them off this list!
I'm happy to say that I haven't had any really bad experiences (keeping fingers crossed, knocking on wood). Sure it has been challenging at times, but nothing I didn't expect (like struggling with a language barrier or getting lost or being exhausted and frazzled after a travel day) or would face at home (like the tech issues I've had or catching a nasty bug and not being able to go somewhere I had planned). And for the most part, I haven't been disappointed in anywhere I've been - only one city fell short of expectations and even then it wasn't a total bust. In some ways I guess I've been lucky, but I also think I can make a statement like "no really bad experiences" because I went into this journey open to whatever was going to happen and I've maintained an open mind and adaptable attitude so have just rolled with the punches while trying to keep my frustrations in check.
Okay, here comes the deep reflection part 😊
When I embarked on this journey, several people made the expected reference to 'Eat, Pray, Love' and talked about what I would learn about myself and how I would be changed by it. I've been waiting for those great learnings or revelations to kick in but they really haven't. At times I wondered if I wasn't going deep enough or making more of an effort to really connect with the places I've been, especially when I think about my first few stops and realize that I sometimes have to refer back to the pictures or posts to refresh my memory. Does that mean that I just experienced so much that it's natural for smaller details to fade after 8 months? Or does it mean that I just skimmed the surface at times, not really 100% present and that's why I don't feel like I've really learned a lot about myself or been fundamentally changed by this journey?
But maybe it means nothing at all. I never really felt like I was embarking on this journey to 'find myself'. I just wanted a bit of a break, a change, a chance to see the world. I wasn't running away from anything or looking to become a different person. Fellow travellers I follow on Instagram posted about this a few weeks ago and it really struck a chord with me. They said they are travelling just to travel. They went on to say "if you try and force this idea of changing and make it your travel goal, then you're going to miss out on all the gradual, organic steps that will hopefully stay with you long after the trip has ended and the buzz has gone". I think that sums up perfectly how I feel. Or as Robert Louis Stevenson said "I travel not to anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake."
One thing I do know though is that as much as I enjoyed the last 8 months, I did feel a bit burned out by the end. I grew a bit tired of aimlessly wandering around yet another western or central European city. In hindsight I probably should have mixed it up a bit - spent more time in eastern Europe perhaps, or made more of an effort to visit smaller, off the beaten path places. But as I said, this journey evolved as it was supposed to. I also know that I need to give myself a break every 3-4 months - stay somewhere for a few weeks to chill. I need that time to recharge.
So what's next?
While I don't feel that the past 8 months has really changed me, or even really challenged me beyond the expected language barriers and occasional transportation hiccup, I do expect the next few months to be a bit different as I shift gears and go to Uganda to do volunteer work with Change Tomorrow and their Stand Up for Women program. Although I am a long time volunteer, a rural village in Africa will be unlike anywhere I have been before, so volunteering there will be unlike my previous experience. And unlike my 2 week volunteer stint in the Peruvian Amazon a few years ago, the length of time I will be spending in Uganda - between 2 to 4 months - will really provide me with the opportunity to immerse myself in the people and culture.
I still don't expect a seismic change and to be a completely different person when I move on from Africa, but I do expect some organic change, as my Instagram friends put it.
After Uganda I'm not sure whether I will make more of an effort to slow down and stay in places longer to really experience them, even though that will mean I will see less of the world on my round the world journey. I will only have a year left and there is still so much of the world to discover. But, like the first year, the second year will also evolve exactly as it is supposed to.