The news scared me out of my sleep this morning

How terrifying it is to wake up to news stating that a stabbing act of terrorism happened right in the heart of borough market.

To think I was just there less than 2 years ago, walking from my hostel to london tower and passing by the road leading to borough market. My eyes widened to the news on my phone of the incident happening at 5+ in the morning- Singapore time. I thought of all my friends who were in London. Some had already marked themselves safe on facebook, the others did not. I couldn’t imagine watching someone get stabbed right in front of me, let alone multiple times. How the survivors must have felt, going through such a traumatic experience.

Terrorism is real, and this isn’t limited to just London but to so many parts of the world.

With the current surge in terrorism attacks, it really brings me to wonder… why? And am I missing out a big picture here?

22 days in Europe, 3.5K SGD

Hi everyone! After such a long hiatus, I’m back! After a good three weeks flying solo in Europe, I touched down on Saturday with barely a day to unpack and get my mind ready for work. My mind is still somewhere in the clouds, jet lag and approximately four to five hours of sleep a day. But in the meantime, while I take the morning trains to work, I still look back on my trip with fond memories!

Flying Solo

Flying solo definitely wasn’t my first choice. I had originally planned to go as far as five years back. I wanted to do it when I was 18, but it was just so unattainable because I was a student then and not earning an income. I wanted to do it before I turned 21, but besides money being an issue, friends who wanted to come couldn’t make the trip and so on- the idea of travelling to Europe scared me. I’ve heard so much horror stories about being pick pocketed and it being very unsafe for a young woman to travel alone. When my friends heard what i was doing, they said, “Are you crazy?!” Finally, somewhere in January, I decided enough was enough. For me, 2013 and 2014 was tough enough, and I felt as if I was going to explode if I didn’t get away from everything here at home. I felt that by taking a long break alone somewhere completely different in terms of culture and people will be good for me.

Local Experience Versus Safety

That’s why- I decided to try………. Couchsurfing! Couchsurfing for me was extremely convenient. Not because it offered free nights at a host’s house, but because I was travelling alone and wanted to meet new people, experience new things, new cultures and build friendships around the world. I had joined couchsurfing a year ago but never really got on it.  It was only early this year where I decided to host some travelers in Singapore and bring them around Singapore that I became more active on the site. Trust me, I have heard and am aware of the dangers of meeting complete strangers online, let alone staying with them in foreign countries. My mother not only flipped the chairs, tables and hit the ceiling when I told her, but eventually she understood why I needed to go and gave me ample respect as a adult to make my own choices, though she was worried for my safety beforehand. In this post, I have linked all the hosts and people I met with their permission to do so. I will not talk too much about them but rather generally, because I think the experience and impressions you readers would have should you decide to stay or meet the friends I’ve made will be on your own. This is because I hope to bring more awareness about Couchsurfing and it’s wonders, and also the fact that strangers are really, just friends you have yet to meet. With an open mind and heart.

Beginning the journey

I flew the morning after my brother’s wedding, and I sat Qatar. It was a 6 hour flight to Doha, and a transit of an hour at the airport before a 7.5 hour to Paris- which was my first stop. My journey began here! My mother had actually requested for me to take this photo while waiting for my sister to drive over to pick us up on her Iphone (She recently started using my sister’s old Iphone 5 and she’s learning, but I think she’s getting there).

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Leaving Singapore!
Everyone I love who came to send me down personally on that Sunday morning. Thank you for supporting me endlessly.

On the Plane

As I checked in, I feared for myself tremendously. A lot came to my mind. Why was I doing this? Did I really want to do it? Did I bring everything? It was obviously too late to back out now, and I was freaking out on the plane. I even bought an internet plan on the plane because fear suddenly gripped me. What if everyone who told me I was crazy to go alone to Europe was right? That I will be robbed and murdered or worse sold to some sex slavery like the lead’s daughter in Taken? And then…

The first Boo-boo

When I arrived at Doha’s Airport to transit, we were greeted by a pleasant surprise. Yup, you guessed it. We missed our connecting flight to Paris. Bam! This was the first time anything like this has ever happened to me. When my colleagues heard this, they laughed. “Who ask you to book only one hour of transit time? It’s definitely not enough!”

I was mad of course, because it was Qatar who should have departed from Singapore on time but instead we had issues and we only departed an hour later. I was going to say something to the man who told us the bad news, but then a bunch of French men blew into smokes,”What do you mean I missed the flight?!” “Don’t you know I have an appointment tomorrow morning in Paris?!”  So I stood there and watched him get it, really badly. I felt bad for him so instead I kept quiet.  People were really mad because the next flight out was 8 hours away. I mean, what were we going to do for 8 hours?

Panic is not a good look to have when you’re alone

Panic filled me.

I need a solution, What do I do? Where do I go? How do I get to the hotel Qatar provided me?

Then I saw this girl who was holding a Singapore passport. She looked friendly so I asked her what to do. Instead, we ended up being friends and another girl who was also travelling solo approached us.  We went to explore Doha together that day, it was pretty fun! We even went to the Islam Art Museum.

Doha Hotel Room
Oryx Rotana, Doha
With Yilin and Fahila, who I met at Doha’s Airport

Later, after almost 7.5 hours on my second flight. I reached CDG Airport, Paris.

Paris , France

In Paris, I stayed with Caroline and David. You can check out their profile here. They’re a lovely couple that live about 20 minutes from Paris City’s center. David was kind and picked me up at the airport, and we spent some time in the morning getting bagels and talking. I met Caroline after who had just woken up and we had breakfast together. Because David and Caroline both work, I went out to explore Paris on my own.

I opted to meet another local to sight see. That’s when I met the beautiful Erika Rossi. You can check her profile here. As you know, Paris trains are so confusing and hard to tell or hear because I don’t know how to speak french, and also because I was super jet lagged and blur, I got lost somewhere along the metro. Erika was so sweet and came and picked me up somewhere along the lines, and we went to explore the city and chat! She was amazing and so nice. I really had a good time in Paris.

In general on Paris

Paris is pretty safe. There are beggars on the streets who can be a little over the top, they go to your face and ask you for money by shaking their caps or tin cans, but if you just ignore them it’s ok. The only issue I really had was language, as most of the locals only spoke french. I loved the fact that the men here were extremely gentlemanly. They actually pushed open the train doors when they see females running for the train. Eiffel tower wasn’t as hyped up as I hoped for it to be, but still beautiful neither-less. And take at least a day in the Lourve if you’re the museum type of person (I’m not so I didn’t bother going).

Also, men and women both kiss to greet on the cheek. The first time was really weird because I wasn’t used to it, but after awhile I kind of got the hang of it. I suppose.

In Paris

Colmar, France

When I first wanted to go to Colmar, I was offered a place with another couchsurfer. However, that person backed out and I was at a loss, so I made a public trip to ask if there were any hosts available. That’s because Colmar has no hostels as it’s a very small town and hotels are very expensive. That’s when Thierry contacted me to offer me a place. Being a little scared, because he is a single male, the first thought was to reject him. But when I clicked on his profile, not only did he have 19 reviews of girls who stayed with him, but he received very good feedback on couchsurfing. I asked my mother and she told me to trust my gut instinct. And so I took the leap of faith. And Thierry, was amazing. Check out his profile here.  He took me around Colmar and explained to me all the historical facts of Colmar, and he took the effort to drive me around to and fro from the train station. Also, cool thing to note- he has a basement with like 12 pinball machines, which he collects. We spent one night drinking beer and playing pinball, which he obviously beat me to because he’s so good at it! On my last night, his son cooked dinner with me as he helped to wrap the wantons while I fried it. It was a extremely nice cultural exchange! Thoughts on Colmar Their Bretzels taste pretty amazing, and their traditional houses are beautiful. It’s a place that you can finish in one or two days, considering it’s a small town. I definitely want to come back just to spend a day or two here because it was a very nice getaway from the ‘city’ sides of France.

In Colmar

I also took a day trip to visit Stratsbourgh, France. Check out their cathedral! It’s pretty amazing! I met HeeYoung through couchsurfing and we spent a few hours together in the city getting to know the areas of little petite and conversations over coffee. It was nice. Also, the toilets here cost $1.80 Euros for each time you enter. So try not to drink so much water. Especially if you were on a budget like me. I would rather pay for a sandwich and use the toilet in the restaurant.

Interlaken, Switzerland

I stayed with Christa, you can view her profile here! She lives in beatenburg, about a 20 minute drive away from interlaken west station. Christa, was the most vibrant girl I have ever met, I loved that she stayed in a farm with three chalets, and she let me experience the life of a farm girl. I played with donkeys, touched pigs, watched chickens run into their coops, held a chick in my hand and squealed. It was a really lovely experience! We also went hiking around mountains and saw waterfalls and beautiful lakes!

On Beatenburg and all parts Interlaken

It’s a very close to mother nature feel country. It’s a whole different outlook from what we city girls see here in Singapore. I definitely want to visit Switzerland again. It’s on another to do list, for sure.

With my host Christa, Mount Murren

Florence, Italy

I booked an Air B&B which was really worth the price (Click here for the link), that’s when I met Massimo. He made me fall in love with Florence thoroughly, because he made my first experience on air b&b the most MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE ever. I kid you not. Not only did he win a superhost award from air b&b, he has 50 references on his profile! ( I was the 50th review). Massimo was amazing. I was supposed to spend a night in Cinque terre but due to time constrains I had to scrap that out, so I cancelled and forgo-ed a booking in a hostel there. I messaged Massimo to ask if I could stay an extra night in florence, and if I should book under air B&B or could I just pay him directly. His reply was, “It’s ok. Stay another night. It is free.” When I arrived, I paid to sleep in the living room on a air mattress, which is why the accommodation is cheaper than other air B&Bs in Florence- but was shocked to see that Massimo had given me his room to sleep in. It was extremely kind of him. He made amazing pasta for me that night and on my last night in Florence, he took me to see the sunset on his motorbike! Because of him, I left with a beautiful memory of Florence and we have stayed in touch since. He is really a friend worth keeping. Absolutely friendly and amazing. When I woke up on the morning I was leaving, Massimo left for work. but on the breakfast counter was a card he had written for me saying goodbye. I was touched of such a action! So really, if you ever go to Florence, choose him and you won’t regret it!

With Massimo, my amazing air B&B host!

On Florence

When I was at Saint Maria Novella Train station, I ran into this man drinking beer (I assume he was a drunkard) because on his way to the dustbin on my left, he hit hard into my bag and I almost fell over. Thinking it was an accident, I let it go. But after he threw the bottle in the bin and he turned to walk back in the same direction, he hit me again and this time I almost fell because i was carrying all my luggage (haversack in the front and back). You must really watch out for crowded public spaces on your belongings. But overall, Florence was still my favorite Itallian city, that’s for sure. Ponte Vecchio was beautiful, And you really have to wait for the later evenings, 8ish to 9ish to really see the reflections on Ponte. They’re famous for their gelato so that’s a must try. And it’s a walkable city so walk as much as you want, it’s ok to get lost because it’s pretty do-able to retrace your steps.

Rome, Italy

In Rome, I stayed in the hostel The yellow in a 6 bedded female dorm. One thing to note, the air-con is FREEZING. and you can’t turn it off. I wore PJ’s and two jackets while covering my face and body with the blanket provided but my teeth chattered to no end. It’s a central air con so there is no control. And it was very, very noisy. Even after midnight, I couldn’t sleep because the bar downstairs blasted music. The only good thing was that it was just opposite mama Angela’s which served good pasta. That’s about it. In Rome, I met up with Jennyfer and she introduced me to two of her friends, Marco and Stefano. We walked 15km around Rome at night and it was beautiful! I really enjoyed my night with them and Stefano even bought me ice cream. What a gentleman. I always had the dream to visit and take a picture with the Trevino fountain. To my dismay, it was closed for renovation. I did however go visit an underground track, because in the olden times, male athletes ran…… completely……naked. So women weren’t allowed to see them, so a track was made downstairs, whereas an artisan market now stands above those tracks on main ground. The history of Rome can be quite intriguing.

With Stefano, Jennyfer and Marco in Rome

Venice

I stayed in a 14 bedded female dorm in Generator, Venice.  Venice was nice and the hostel was extremely clean. The only bad thing for me was that my bed light didn’t work. But their breakfast was pretty good! I met Olga (you can check out her profile here) and she brought me around Venice. She’s nice and friendly, and i learnt a lot about Venice’s history! Burano was nice, colored houses were pretty but it wasn’t AS great as I hoped for it to be. I went to Murano and witness some live glass making BUT most of the time you have to pay exorbitant amounts ($12 euros) just to sit in the workshops so I stood from the outside looking in . However in Murano, I was completely ignored at a pasta restaurant, they served 2 Caucasians behind and in front of me and looked blank through me, despite me trying a second time to point at the menu and ask them for a seat, they remained nonchalant, so I walked off. Guess Racism still exists, though I expected better from Venice.

Amsterdam/Eindhoven

I stayed with my childhood friend Carol in Eindhoven, and made a day trip to Amsterdam. This is one of the reasons that I try to explain about when people ask why my trip was ‘all over the place’, since people always started out in Venice and worked their way up or in London and worked their way down. The answer is: CAROL!!! She was busy in school and the only time she could hang out was in end June. Thus, the dates were made. Don’t you love me more now, Carol? *wink*

With Carol at Dinner at Usine, Eindhoven

In Amsterdam, I ran into my IJ friend Marrilynne and her lovely family, and together we toured around Amsterdam together. The Anne Frank House is a must! The red light district was a eye opener, and though my plan was to try a few brownies for ‘exposure’, I decided against it because it shortened my travel time mentally. Also, the shops I ran by were so dodgy, It was almost ten degrees when I was there, I was so under-prepared for the weather!I kept hoping and jumping around to keep warm!

Amsterdam was really so-so in my opinion, i did have a very pretty painted picture in my mind of this place until i saw the red light district for myself, which included completely naked and bikini clad women shaking and dancing to passerbys in all shapes and sizes. It made me very sad, really. Though I understand it is a profession, I feel for the girls who are there by circumstance and not choice. 

Final stop, London!  I stayed in a 14 bedded female dorm in the oasis, St Christopher’s Inn. I didn’t really have a good time there because the toilets consistently got clogged when you showered (The waters rose to ankle level) and it was so noisy at night. It is very common to hear ambulances bleeping multiple times at two in the morning. And also, 14 girls shared 2 sockets. There were times some other dumbass in my dorm plugged out my phone that was charging when it’s only been charging for 10 minutes, and another morning when I woke up to 17% battery, I was so flipping mad. But the perks of this hostel was that I actually made some really good friends there, and they were all travelling solo.The hostel also lets you deliver stuff to the hotel (My sister wanted some mother-care items so she shipped a whole box over for me to take home) Also, the location is impeccable because you’re really within walking distance to the London Tower. Which is amazing! Give and take, I suppose. I caught the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime’s play and it was AMAZING. Definitely worth the price I paid for close to front tickets! In London, I lost my camera on the metro on the way to the Harry Potter Exhibition on my birthday. I felt so terrible after but after that I determined to not cry anymore over split milk. At least I had the photos from my phone camera. I came back to the hostel tired but found a package waiting for me from Mike, from the book of everyone! Check them out here! 

You can personalize a book for your loved ones and the graphics are beautiful! Did you know, in 1992 (the year I was born, Viagra was created?)

I managed to take a day trip to Brighton and saw the beautiful Brighton pier. But I didn’t manage to get to 7 sisters in time because I had to rush back for my flight. It was such a waste!  Oh well. Till next time.

On Spending on the trip as a whole: 

This is a question that many of my colleagues and some friends asked when I came back. “How much did you spend on this trip on a whole?” And here’s my answer…….. counting in everything. Flight, accommodation, food, leisure, and transport. I traveled and spent approximately SGD $3.5K. Which I actually was shocked to find out when I came back. Disclaimer* This amount doesn’t count the things I splurged on using my debit card, like a fossil watch for my birthday in Florence ($108 euro), a long-champ bag that Caroline asked me to help her buy ($55 pounds) and a spree at Primark London ($120 Pounds) Here’s how I really saved through the trip:

  1. I couchsurfed 70% of the time, so I saved on accommodation on a whole. However, because I believe strongly in giving back, manners because nothing is for free-so, I do give gifts/prepare a gift/ buy food from the supermarket to stock back or cook for my hosts to thank them for their hospitality. So yes, there is some cost involved, but there is less cost than staying in a hostel/hostel.
  2. I used ryanair. wait for tickets. Some go as cheap as 29 euro!
  3. I limited my souvenirs. I only allowed myself to buy 1 magnet and 1 keychain from each city I visited.
  4. I refused to take buses when I was in Italy, so I waked through Rome and Florence (Average of 18-22km of walking a day), it was really healthy and it was cold so I never perspired, so it was really a win win.
  5. I took a tram in Amsterdam that cost me $3.90 Euro for one stop. I was so mad after, I walked around Amsterdam too.
  6. I bought my train ticket reservations on the day of travel. Making the reservations only 8 to 10 euros per ticket. If i had prebooked it, it could go as much as $120 SGD for seat reservations.
  7. I bought a Eurorail Global pass (It was $470+ Euro) but worth it because I got lost so often on the train as long as I flashed the rail ticket I was good to go. Saved me a lot of money for sure.
  8. Check for student passes for transport! In venice, I paid $28 Euro for a vaperetto rolling card. It let me take the vaperetto unlimited, when one ride costs $6.50 Euros. Or there are unlimited day passes (6 euro for metro unlimited for a day)
  9. Wifi is free when you buy a sandwich at the restaurant, but sometimes you can just stand near enough to get the free wifi without buying anything. Some cities like florence have free wifi in the city area.
  10. I also met locals who brought me around to little nooks and crannies of their country, and there was definitely Cheaper and equally good food than the city areas. So I saved on cost in that sense!
  11. I used my towel and never paid for sheets in hostels, it can go as high as five euro per towel so it made more sense to bring your own.
  12. Always bring your student pass! there are always student prices all around museums and other attractions that can save you a few euro.
  13. I was always on the go, so a sandwich was ideal for me so I saved a lot from not eating in restaurants, water is cheaper in supermarkets like coop. But from time to time I went to nice places to eat, mostly for dinner but never more than 15 euro per meal.

On giving back

I was lost in Rome (refusing to pay for the tram) and got lost. Then, I heard from the corner of my eye, a older couple. The woman went, “NOT HERE LAH! THERE LAH!” and I grinned from ear to ear. SINGAPOREANS!!!! I ran over to ask for directions and found out they were Malaysians, well close enough! While asking for directions to the Colosseum, this uncle took out HIS OWN TICKET for the Colosseum that he had just come back from (it’s valid for 2 days for 3 attractions and gave it to me). I was so touched and inspired that I decided to give back/pass on the kindness. So because of that, I saved $12 euros and could go to all these attractions in Rome. After I was done with the ticket, I passed it on to someone else queuing outside the Colosseum. When I was at the Vatican museum after finishing my english digital guide, I passed it on to someone queuing for it. I did the same at the Harry Potter Studios with my digital guide. Point is: I am no Saint, but the fact that all we need to do was to pass it on in order to make someone’s day- that in itself is a small action, but in the long run can be a big difference to someone else’s day. So guys, if you travel, please give back when you can! (BUT DON’T GET CAUGHT HAHA)

Reflecting on the trip:

It was a very good trip away from the hustle and bustle of Singapore, and it was definitely what i needed. Murphy’s law indeed proved right, which is that what can go wrong, will go wrong. But with every trial that comes with it, be it a situation or unwanted scenario, I felt that I in turn became a little more courageous to explain or explain my viewpoint. There were lots of times when you needed to stand for yourself, especially since you’re alone in a foreign country, and to constantly map out your journey and get lost can get so intimidating at times. There was a point of time in Paris when the trains got so confusing that I was terrified to leave my host’s place alone for the fear of getting robbed or abducted, with no thanks to taken’s movie. But with time I learnt to just go with the flow, ask and seek for help, and if I got lost, to find the next best alternative. Running around Solo gave me a lot of  time and space to think. It also gave me the freedom of doing what I wanted to do when i wanted to do it and how I wanted to do it. That was the real meaning of what it meant to be ‘free’ in my opinion, where your choices are not tied down to anyone or anybody’s opinion but by your own, and only your own. The most important take away of all was that on this trip I realized how small Singapore was, in the sense that there was SO much more out there for me to see. Someone once told me, if you spent 1/4 of your life on Singapore already, did you really want to spend the whole 4/4 of your life only experiencing what it meant to live here?  That’s when I really realized that solo travelling was something I needed to do before I did the other big things I wanted to do in life. I don’t think I will have as much time as I did now, then I would in 10 years time when I wanted to pursue other things like a job, a career and so on. To be honest, I don’t think I would stop travelling if time and money did not stop me, I did not expect to enjoy the solo time that much. Before I left my sister told me that I made the wrong choice to travel solo to Europe, because it can get very lonely for one week, let alone three weeks. But funnily enough, (and this isn’t pride talking) I was alone, but I never once felt lonely. I have made such wonderful memories and great friends on this trip who I still keep in touch with on facebook and instagram. Over the last few nights when I go to bed, I felt so disorientated. It was as if I had really, lived a dream. This post took me approximately 3 days to craft out in between late nights after work and jetlagged mornings.Don’t listen to the people telling you otherwise. You’re not them, and they are not you.  To the people who have had that nagging feeling to leave everything behind waiting for that sign, this is it!

XX Cally