You live and learn as you travel and none more so than you when you first start out. I’m the only one in my family who has ever had any interest or calling for seeing the world. Until my introduction to backpacking aged 19, I had fingers on one hand left over when counting the number of times I’d been abroad; one school day trip to Boulogne and two school skiing trips to Les Arcs and Madesimo.
Not exactly the cornerstone for an itinerant life.
And so it was with no experience of that I embarked on my virginal backpacking trip. It was to be a three month journey criss-crossing routes that friends were doing at the same time, alternating travelling together and going solo.
The prospect of what I was about to do was overwhelming. I had no idea how to prepare for it, or what I know should or shouldn’t plan in advance.
The aim was to head to Egypt after spending time on a kibbutz in northern Israel. My naivety saw me schedule an appointment with the London-based Egyptian Tourist Board in an attempt to reserve a ticket for a felucca ride across the Nile for a date two months in advance.
After they finished laughing, it was explained to me that a felucca was simply a very basic river taxi from one side of the river to the other, lasting about seven minutes and it would be best to just turn up.
The day I was to fly out to Tel Aviv fast approached. I was to be met at the airport by a friend who had gone out ahead. My last night’s sleep before leaving was filled with the most excitement I had ever felt, coupled with no small amount of apprehension.
Long adieus were bid that morning as I cast my eye around family, home and London, wondering if I would ever see any of them again.
The traffic was so bad on the road out to Heathrow, however, that I missed my flight and saw them all only a few hours later when I was forced to return home .
I had tried desperately to get through check-in, dragging my suitcase manically behind me (it wouldn’t be long before I realised how utterly unsuitable a suitcase was for a backpacking trip – and it wasn’t even on wheels), pushing aside anyone in my path. Like a headless chicken on its last, fruitless run, I ran blindly from one member of staff to another for help, hurdling over trolleys and anything else I came across.
To my consummate disgrace, like an Olympic athlete (I felt) I deftly hurdled what I thought was a pile of bags, only to meet with gasps and scorns from those close by.
I looked behind to discover that I had actually jumped over an adult dwarf – I’m praying that term is far more PC than my actions were – who thankfully remained blissfully unaware.
Eventually I just had to resign myself to starting again the following day.
While on my trip I fell victim to everything a first-time traveller would and, some might say, should. In week one alone, I had collapsed from sunstroke, had a severe dose of the squits and was head-to-toe in mosquito bites which I managed to make infected by scratching.
I was ready to come home.
But, I stuck with it and slowly became accustomed to the ridiculous experiences you end up having when on the road.
Some months later I’d succeeded in making it around Israel and Egypt and was now mid-way through an Inter-Railing journey in mainland Europe. Already closer to home, things were getting easy.
The eagle-eyed among you will spot the complacency that was setting in.
I wouldn’t have predicted before leaving home that Spain, where I at least had a smattering of words to see me through, would be the most challenging country on my route. This was mostly due to having almost run out of money and, in those days, it would take a while before I could get my hands on any.
By this point I was travelling alone and had stupidly got myself into a situation where I didn’t have a penny. Given that my train ticket gave me unlimited access to all trains be they long or short haul, ‘accommodation’ wasn’t an issue as I could simply hop on an overnight train to the furthest away point – and did so regularly over the remaining two weeks (ie, ‘It’s 10pm, I’m in Munich and can’t afford a bed, but a train leaves for Venice in an hour – I’ll take it.’).
There was only one night, in Barcelona, when this wasn’t possible as no more trains were leaving. I found the quietest corner of the foyer and settled in for the night with a few other vagabonds. However, it turned out not to be a 24 hour station and we were all thrown out somewhat unceremoniously at about 2am. Safety in numbers, we stuck together and positioned ourselves on the forecourt (really this was a small street) outside and bedded down alfresco in our sleeping bags.
My day bag was tight by my side with the strap wrapped over one shoulder, crossing my body. I’m not sure how long it stayed like this but by morning it was gone. I awoke to find the strap had been cut just at my upper chest level as I was fast asleep.
I’d checked in my main backpack and all the ‘ladron’ (I won’t forget the Spanish word for thief in a hurry) made off with was my unwashed underwear. Good luck with that amigo.
My ongoing concern was not being able to afford buy anything to eat or drink. I was amazed at how quickly I adapted to my new status. Before, I would have been horrified at the thought of approaching other travellers and begging for change, but now I did exactly that.
I hung around major train stations which had tapas counters and would move in quickly to mop up whenever anyone had to leave food behind to run for their train.
I discovered a peso-only coin change machine that worked in my favour by putting in a low value British coin and fraudulently getting back a higher value in pesos.
I targeted train carriages occupied by families who were always generous to a fault when feeding their kids and made sure to include me when dishing out their delicious home-made delicacies.
Scary, really, how easily I slipped in to the world of destitution.
I went to great daily lengths not to give the appearance of someone so down at heel and succeeded in fooling most people. I was even chatted up by a rather lovely young Spaniard whose English was about as good as my Spanish.
‘You have lovely eggs senorita.’
‘Beg your pardon?’
‘Si, your eggs, they are lovely.’
Hmm, what could he possibly mean by …
‘Oh, hang on, do you mean my ‘legs’? I have lovely legs, is that it?’
He takes a look down.
‘Meh. No, your eggs, your eggs,’ he continued, pointing to my eyes.
He never got to find out how I like my eggs in the mañana.
Many, many hard lessons did I learn that summer on my first foray into backpacking which have stood me in very good stead for a subsequent lifetime of travelling. And all without access to internet, mobile phones (or even guaranteed landlines) or digital cameras.
The biggest lesson though was to always remain aware of how much money you have which is, of course, a life lesson for anytime, anywhere and one that I still appreciate today.
That and not underestimating the importance of a good backpack.
It was bad enough being a temporary Bag Lady of No Fixed Abode, but all the worse to be dragging my unbelievably inappropriate wheel-free suitcase around the streets of Europe by its tail.