This is the second part to an overly-long explanation of my first traveling experiences and why I can’t seem to get enough of it. In this part I also rant about tour companies. You can find the first part here.
There was this amazing girl named Gabby that I went to high school with. Gabby and I sat next to each other in our twelfth-grade history class, in which we became absolute best friends. We would later go on to college together. She left because she had the cutest kid and got married (while I’m sitting in my bedroom at my parents’ house wondering if we have any Frosted Flakes downstairs–education does not buy happiness!) but that’s beside the point.
One day, Gabby got the brilliant idea to organize a senior trip for our year. And this wasn’t just your average senior trip cruise to the Caribbean. No, Gabby had a dream that we would all go to Europe to see all of the places that we were learning about in class.
It was pretty easy to get our history teacher on board. My parents were harder to convince. They didn’t like the idea of me going abroad without them to keep me safe (spoiler alert: nothing changes). Still, after seeing how relatively cheap the trip was going to cost and all of the things that I would get out of it, they agreed to let me go.
It was a 9 day tour of London, Paris, and Rome. Fuck, it was incredible.
Here’s the sad part of the story, though: Gabby didn’t get to go. She had set up and organized this entire trip but, at the end of the day, she wasn’t able to afford it. So that sucks. But at least I got a trip to Europe out of it!
I learned a lot of helpful tips on this first real trip abroad. For starters, Jet-lag is real and it fucks you up. Brits do not take too kindly to Americans impersonating their accent (trust me, they know you’re faking it). Legitimate gelato is God’s gift to this planet. Also, the gypsy telling you that her daughter is dying has a friend behind you who is stealing your wallet. Oh, and European trains are NOT like the steam engines like in the Harry Potter movies (but they’re much faster).
I learned something else, too: Fuck organized tour companies.
FUCK ORGANIZED TOUR COMPANIES.
If my family went abroad, they’re the type of family that would want to use such company. So, being the sweet and naive child that I was, I thought that they were there to help you. And to an extent they are. But, in my opinion, the services which they provide are often overshadowed by a rigid schedule, a bitchy tour guide, increased costs for everything, and the obvious appearance of being a tourist.
If you get anything from this post, my fellow reader, I hope that you see that you can travel on your own, at your own pace, at your own terms whenever you want. Can it be frustrating to purchase train tickets online on an Italian website where you can’t find the button to switch the page to English? Yes. Is figuring out the metro to every new city all by yourself ideal? No, it is not.
But it’s even worse to be restricted to the shittiest and most touristy places and restaurants. When you go to a new city, the best and likely most memorable encounters you will have will be off the beaten path.
So get lost amongst the tiny alleyways of Venice! Instead of museum hopping, enjoy a lazy day at the park in Madrid! Eat where the guy at the front desk of your hostel eats when he goes out with his friends! With a little bit of research beforehand (and maybe even a few frustrating guess-clicks on the ItaliaRail site), you can create a much, much, much more rewarding excursion yourself than can provide a travel company.
(I will say that I used a travel company when I went to Morocco because I was a bit sketched out about going and transportation to and within the country was limited. The trip and the company were amazing…they’re not ALWAYS evil.)
Okay so back to my senior trip. Our last night in Rome (which was our last night in Europe), me, my friend, and a group of kids from another school stayed up all night and played cards and got to know each other. When we started seeing light coming in from the windows, the group of us somehow found a way to the roof of our hotel and watched the sun rise above Rome. There are moments in life when it would be nice, looking back on them, to have a picture. But, in the moment, I was completely satisfied and I did not want to interrupt anything. I haven’t spoken to anyone in that group in years but, for some reason, we shared something that night that transcends the time from that moment and the physical distance that separates us now.
That was it. That was when I realized that a life full of travel is a life full of beauty, full of memory, of richness. There’s something so magical about it all.
In the Rome airport waiting for our plane to take us back home, I remember asking my friend Allison, “When do you think we’ll be back?”
“Two, maybe three years,” she replied.
“Why don’t people do this all the time?” I asked her. No one in my family (apart from my dad, who used to travel to Germany frequently for work) had ever expressed interest in traveling abroad. My grandparents haven’t left South Carolina in over a decade. The majority of the people I know don’t even have a passport.
“I don’t know,” she said to me. “People get busy with jobs, with relationships, with kids. There are more important things.”
And I guess that’s the difference between some people. For some, traveling is a distant dream that could happen one day. For me, it’s the only dream.
What is important in your life? How important to you is traveling, and what strides to you make to get out there? What do you think of travel companies and the “touristy” parts of town? Would you rather see the sights or go native?
Let me know in the comments! I’m lonely on here, I need to make some friends!