I'm currently sitting in the reception area of a hostel in downtown Rome, minutes from the main Termini station. Since all I really have on the agenda today is to make it to Florence by mid-afternoon (as opposed to my last couple weeks of what feels like non-stop activities crammed into each and every day), I figured this was a good time to write a quick update on my solo traveling adventures. Here goes!
Week 1: Jerusalem, Mitzpe Ramon (Israel)
I left my volunteer position at the Fauzi at the beginning of April- literally April 1. I, accompanied by my volunteer bestie Jake who had a few days off, headed to Jerusalem to base ourselves there for a couple of days. While there I finally got around to doing all the major touristy stuff, haha: hiked the snake path up to the ruins of Masada, swam (floated?) in the Dead Sea, and hiked through the natural oasis of Ein Gedi. I had fun, but mainly enjoyed being able to check them off my Israel to do list... they'd sort of been hanging over my head. <- And that may sound really flippant, but I think I've slightly overloaded on gorgeous treks and ancient Roman/Ottoman/Byzantine ruins. There happen to be a ton all over Israel. So while they were still nice to visit, I wasn't as wowed as a first-timer would've been, I'm sure.
Jake left me to return to Nazareth on Wednesday, and so Thursday morning I set out to my first real location where I didn't know anyone: Mitzpe Ramon, a town situated in the middle of the Negev desert. The draw of Mitzpe is that it happens to be right next to this huge crater-like thing (but it's not a crater!) called a makhtesh. Only seven makhtesh exist in the world; five in Israel and two in Jordan. I'm not exactly sure on the actual differences between a makhtesh and crater... but makhtesh aren't formed by meteors or eruptions or anything- it's all about the natural shifts of the earth that happen in a particular sequence. Anyway, I LOVED it there- stayed for three nights. I did a few different desert hikes that were just amazing, got some sun, and did I mention that the Green Backpackers hostel was incredible? Great vibe, intimate, run by accredited tour guides, and attracted the coolest people (other guests and volunteers). We had a communal dinner, movie night, poker game (which I won!), and lots of interesting conversations. I felt extremely comfortable there and was sad to leave. But I didn't stay as I had other places I really wanted to visit, too.
Week 2: Petra (Jordan), Eilat, Mishmar Haemek, Nazareth (Israel)
I managed to pick up a travel buddy in Mitzpe Ramon- this cool Argentinian named Jose who happened to be a hostel volunteer at Green Backpackers, but used his free days to travel south with me to the beaches of Eilat. We missed our bus... but it turned out for the best as we hitch hiked and arrived at the resort town earlier and for free. We spent two days just picking out beaches to hit up, playing guitar, speaking Spanish (attempting to, on my part...), snorkeling (so good there! An amazing variety of vibrant fish), and chilling on the hostel patio at night. I had a great time, and parting was bittersweet. I hope we meet up again someday.
After Eilat I joined an old person tour to the ancient Nabitian city of Petra, located about two hours over the border in Jordan. I spent two days wandering around one of the eight wonders of the ancient world, and it was an incredible, impressive sight to behold. The city was just so picturesque- and extensive! Right when you thought you'd reached the outskirts, another little path was leading you up a million stairs to some other monastery.... I spent two days there and still didn't get to see everything. A definite highlight from Petra was also getting to stay in a real hotel (part of the tour package). A non-bunk bed. My own bathroom. A full-length mirror. I was in heaven. Took full advantage of my privacy and just stripped and flung myself on the bed. It felt soooo good. <- by far the nicest place I have stayed and will stay while traveling alone.
Once I was let back into Israel (there was a bit of border iffiness, but they finally let me through), I took a series of busses over the course of eight hours to get to my friend Jess's kibbutz in the north- about one hour from Nazareth. I'd been there once before for a day, so arriving again felt a bit like coming home... or at least to a relievingly familiar place with familiar people. It was so much fun hanging out on the kibbutz for a night with Jess and her friends again. They're always a fun group to see :)
On Friday I bid farewell to the kibbutzers and headed off with Jess to Nazareth (she wanted to come back for a few hours to say hi). We arrived at the Fauzi, and that definitely felt like coming home: we knew the town, the people, and it all felt so normal. Though I have to say, returning to a place you already left always feels a bit weird. Like you're coming into another dimension's version of that area, sci-fi- everything's the same, but different, too.... Regardless, it was really nice having a place to stay, eat, and do laundry for free before leaving Israel- the next day I'd be setting off for only unfamiliar locales where I have 0 connections. Which was simultaneously freaky and exhilarating.
Goodbyes while traveling are always hard, and even more-so when it's with people you've gotten to know really well. Saying goodbye to Jess was difficult- she was my best friend in Nazareth for almost a month, and we really bonded. Our goodbye was more of a see-you-later. I sincerely hope we meet again. Plus, I'll have gotten her some cool present by that point as a thanks for her incredibly touching gift of a hamza necklace (which I haven't taken off since I got it). Love and miss you Jess! I also had to say bye to Jake, but we can meet up in the States, so. And the last person I said goodbye to was Hagai, an amazing night receptionist, even if he hates people ;) He saw me to the train station, and from there I was on my way to fly to Europe!
Week 3: Athens (Greece), Rome (Italy)
And then I got to continental Europe! My first day in Athens was more of a catch-up-on-sleep day, as I'd been ridiculously interrogated by israeli security throughout the early morning hours for whatever reason. When I finally felt like getting out, I was immediately overwhelmed by a feeling of loneliness. Here's an excerpt from an email I sent my parents that first day:
"So much of a good time traveling is about meeting others. No way in hell am I going to spend 6 weeks walking around and doing everything alone. Maybe I'm not ready to be an independent backpacker. Maybe we all overestimated my abilities to get out there, be social, be alone, and SURVIVE. Or at least enjoy it.
Clearly I'm still not feeling very positive. I had a good thing going in Israel. I had friends, a community, knowledge of the transportation system and what to do in each location I visited. Out here I have nil. And a major dip in self-confidence.
Part of me wants to end this now and just come home.
I'm too afraid to hack it solo in this big world."
...So I was being a bit dramatic. But looking past the woe-is-me stuff, I actually was feeling like I'd made a huge mistake. And then literally as I was sitting in the hostel, about to write another depressed email, my knight in shining armor [hi MJ!] sits down next to me and strikes up a conversation. And from there my time in Athens was bomb :)
I found myself a part of an awesome crew of two other 18-year-old girl solo travelers (!), and this Canadian dude. We had dinners together, roamed Athens at night, went off to a lake, and just had each other's backs. It was great, and though we were only together two days, it was extremely sad parting from them. But I think we met because forces in the universe wanted to give all of us young, independent girls a confidence boost: you are badass, check out these other chicks who are just as amazing as you are! Oh, and Athens itself? A really cool city. All monuments are located in one spot, the city feels extremely safe, and walking around was fun. A great intro to Europe.
And last but not least, Rome! This incredible city I've heard so much about. And boy does it live up to expectations. I literally spent two full days (at least eight hours) wandering the streets of Rome. Part of that may have to do with my lack of map-reading skills as opposed to how far everything is, but hey, it's a great way to see more of a city than you were originally planning, yeah? There are not only important historic sites every street you turn down, but some of the neighborhoods are adorable, there is so much greenery, and the street fashions make people-watching super cool.
The only bummer with Rome is the people. Not the Italians or anything- my personal people. The people I'm bonding with and exploring all the nooks and crannies of Rome with. The people who don't exist. [Don't get me wrong- I've met people, and even went out to get authentic Italian pasta with someone, but I have no CREW. Which is what I want and what I'm missing.]
So I'm off to Florence today. You could spend months in Rome and still not know it all, but after two days I've hit all the major sites, and think I know what the city's about. I'll come back, maybe. But for now I'm moving on.
Let's go, baby.