How letting my guard down led to my biggest travel misadventure and self realization

I want to tell this story in hopes that it provides inspiration to my fellow travelers. This is a cautionary tale about a girl traveling alone and a big mistake that could have been fatal. In this story the girl gets really happy, a little sad, then a little scared. Ultimately she discovers something deep about herself and has the best night of her life. Last December I was at a low point. Coming off of my life changing trip to South East Asia I had post-travel depression. Most of my friends already had travel plans for New Years and it looked like I would be ringing in 2015 alone. One morning in a daze I was scrolling through the Contiki Last Minuet Deals site when I saw an amazing discount on a 12 day tour of Italy. I debated for a bit and then pulled out my credit card. It was booked. In just a week I would leave for Italy! The day after Christmas I was on my way. Flying to Europe, getting a cab and exploring Rome was so much easier and less scary than Asia so I felt like a travel pro. When I saw the suitcases my tour mates brought (for just 12 days) and compared them to my tiny carry-on I knew I was (a pro traveler). The first couple of days were so flawless, simple and easy that I quickly began to let my travel guard down. When in Asia I had my guard set high. I limited my drinks (although my limit was very high…), always traveled in a group, wrote my hotel down, paid in cash, ect. But Europe is so safe! Or so I thought. On New Year’s Eve our tour rolled through Napoli and to the charming town of Sorrento on the Almafi Coast.

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My roommate and I pre-new years festivities!

As the sun began to set my Australian friend Mollie and I explored the markets where we came upon the beginnings of the New Years parade. Without a thought we decided to join the parade! We danced with the musicians and chanted alongside costumed characters. We followed a large papier-mache Donkey to the town square where Donkey was set on fire using fireworks!

Afterwards our group met up for a traditional Neapolitan pizza feast! Then toasted with Aperol Spitzers at this swanky restaurant right in the center of town. For dancing and more drinks we went to Americano. A Kareoke night club near the festivities.

After a few strong martinis bells rang out to single midnight’s approach. So we stumbled out of the club (stolen martini glasses in hand) and joined the masses in the piasa. Before midnight the locals started shooting fireworks at each other and throwing glass bombs on the pavement. It was noisy, hectic, scary and invigorating!

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Street fireworks!

Finally the countdown began. 3,2,1 HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! The crowd went wild. I felt more emotion, energy and happiness in that tiny Sorrento piassa then I did in New York City!

Music filled the air, laugher, chanting and love engulfed me. Streamers flew and confetti fell. I kissed my neighbor and he kissed my friend. It was all in good fun. Then in Sorrento tradition we broke our stolen martini glasses on the pavement. 10906166_10152891595005813_1466665417180988046_n Then the piasa stage lit up and the DJ started spinning. We dance in a large mob and I made friends with some touchy Armenians. They shared their Grappa and I shared my awesome dance moves.

After dancing for what seemed like an eternity I began to notice that much of 40 person tour group was dispersing. I searched and found a couple of stragglers to join. We celebrated for a little longer before they decided it was time to head to the hotel. It was only 115AM. Our local guide told us that in Italy the party really doesn’t start until 2AM. So I tried to convince them to stick around. But they were done. So reluctantly I began to follow them back to the coach. On the way to the coach we passed tons of Italians who were just heading out for the night. They looked magical and majestic in their sparkly dresses and tailored suits. As we continued towards our bus I got sadder and sadder. I didn’t want to go home. The night was young. I wasn’t ready for bed! I tried again at no avail to get someone to go back with me. “YOLO” I aurgued. “The night is young, no regrets” I pleaded. But they were committed to retirement. As we began to round the last corner I cursed myself. “What was I doing?” I questioned myself. “Why am I following these people? I don’t even know them!” I asked. “I don’t need them to have a good time!” I convinced myself. “Why am I using them as a shield? Don’t be a follower Becca!” I cursed. “Do you! Do what you want!” I boasted. Without another thought I bid farewell and sped back to the town square. On my own.

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When alone you take Selfies to occupy your time.

Back at the the piasa I felt a hint of loneliness and timidness. I swallowed my fear and joined the dance floor where I shook my worries away. I found my Argentinian friends again. We danced the mambo, YMCA and the electric slide. Eventually they retired for the night and I was left alone again. At this point it was around 230AM. So did what all good American girls traveling alone in a foreign city should do…I took a walk. I ventured away from the busy piasa where I found myself alone in a maze of cobblestone streets. I was fascinated by the peacefulness that was just blocks away from chaos. I wandered back to the once crowded market and found myself surrounded by twinkling christmas lights. I was alone, but never afraid. In Sorrento on a mild winter night, I felt at home and at peace. As I walked I reflected on the past year. I wished I could see my mom again. She loved Italy and I remember her recounting her wild adventures in Rome. As I stopped to make a wish at a century old fountain I felt her there with me. I wandered back towards the town square and was met by hoards of drunk young Italians on their ways to after parties and other bars. Their laughter and enthusiasm was contagious. “Happy New Year!” is universal and it chimed throughout. I was got my second wind and wished I could find another party to join. I made my way back to the Americano Bar. I only peaked inside. I thought it was dead, so I turned back. I wish I had gone inside the bar. Apparently the three other Americans on my tour were still partying it up at the Americano! I often wonder what my night would’ve become had I found and joined their party. But I turned away. I went back to the DJ and the main stage. I settled down on a bench and listened to Opera singers and local celebrities belt Italian showstoppers. Around 330AM the festivities began to die down. So I decided it was time to head to my hotel. I pulled out my phone and found that it had died. Stupidly I didn’t write down my hotel or it’s address. I only had the information on my phone. I had no option but to hope that someone would know where my hotel was. So I hailed a taxi. When it comes to Italian Taxi drivers I think I won the lottery.

  • First stroke of luck: Rafael spoke perfect English. Second: He was young and enthusiastic. Third: He was charming and handsome. Forth: He thought I was hilarious.

I flat-out said “I have no idea where my hotel is”. He couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even know what my hotel was called. I felt like an idiot. He thought I was super funny. I told him that I knew it used to be a nunnery. That it might be called “Sister’s Hostel”. He hadn’t heard of a hotel like that. So we googled it. Nothing. He called his friends. They didn’t know. So I was up creek without a paddle. I knew I couldn’t lose Rafael. He was the answer. If I walked away and tried to find someone else, they might not have been as eager to help me. So I said “I will pay you anything, just drive and I’ll try to figure out from memory!” He agreed. I hopped in the front seat and we drove. I think we drove all around Sorrento and maybe into Napoli. We navigated the winding streets and whisked past the cliffs and ocean. Rafael asked me to describe the hotel and it’s surroundings. I said “It’s in a very old building, surrounded by orange trees and gardens. It’s on a cliff and has a view of the ocean.” He chuckled “that describes every hotel in Sorrento!” I asked him to drive alongside the ocean. At least we would be in the right area. Finally we turned down a cobblestone path that I recognized. We continued onward. Then I saw a sign for “Phoenix Bar” and I remembered riding in the coach earlier. My friend Molly had asked “What’s a Phoenix?” I knew then that we were close to the hotel! Only moments later I saw what I thought was my hotel. But there were no hotel signs and the large wooden doors were closed. Rafael wasn’t sure so he got out of the cab and went with me to investigate. The doors were locked and my heart sunk. I thought I was wrong. Rafael knocked vigorously and luckily the attendant answered. Once the door opened I saw the lobby and knew I was right! Rafael chatted with the attendant briefly in Italian and they laughed. Rafael told me the hotel was brand new! This was its first weekend open and that it was called “Sister’s Hostel” (I was right!). That explains why we couldn’t find it.

I walked with Rafael back to the cab to pay him and say goodbye. In stereotypical Italian style he begged me to stay with him. I shyly declined. Then he invited me to brunch in the morning. He said “I want to introduce my family to the giggly American”. I was flattered and reluctantly said “I’m sorry, no.” My tour was departing early that morning. I gave him a generous tip (I think I paid like $200 for only an $80 trip). But it was worth it. Rafael was a perfect gentleman and I don’t like to imagine what might have happened if I had been with a different cabbie. My biggest regret was that I didn’t get a photo with Rafael. But my phone was dead so I had no camera. Finally at 430AM I was safe and sound back at my hotel. I passed out fully clothed in my bed. But not before soaking in the extraordinary occurrences on my wild night.

What Italy Taught Me

My second solo trip aboard gave me another opportunity to reflect on myself and life aspirations. Here’s what I learned:

1. I don’t need other people to agree with me

  • In Sorrento for New Years Eve all of the people I was with were going home at 115AM and I wanted to stay out. I tried to convince them to “stay out, seize the day, YOLO!” But they wouldn’t budge. Everyone “was tired”. As I followed them back to our coach I got really sad. I even started to cry. With all my heart I wanted to stay out, dance and be with the locals. That’s when I punched myself in the gut and asked “why do I need these people to be with me? I don’t even really know them! Why do I need them as a safety blanket?” I told myself “if you want to stay out here’s your chance! You don’t need them. Go back to the city square and dance the night away!” That’s when I found myself running back to the party alone and I am so happy I did.

2. I like to dance

  • When I am traveling I suddenly become a dancing queen. I transform into a sexy vixen with dance moves to kill for! When I go to my hometown clubs I’m more reserved. I’m with people I know or around people I’ll probably see again. So I tend to be more self-conscious. But when I’m abroad I let my guard down and dance like there’s no tomorrow. I defiantly want to adopt my new-found dance confidence the next time I go out in the states.

3. Italian food is good but Asian food is better

  • I’ll probably get some slack from this. But I honestly sampled more “life-changing” cuisine while in Asia. I think that American Italian food killed any ingenuity of real Italian food. I actually left Italy being kind of disappointed. Before my trip every told me “you’re going to eat amazing things.” I tried the local cuisine everywhere I went. I had focaccia, black squid pasta, pesto, meatballs, lasagna, cold cuts and mozzarella but nothing really stood out. In Asia one meal was always better than the last. I went home craving pad Thai, fresh spring rolls, noodle soup and screwers.

4. Always pack more underwear then you think you need

5. I can survive without my laptop or ipad

  • This is the first trip I took without bringing a computer.

6. Australians are not all party monsters

  • The last trip I took was filled with a ton of young Aussies who were perpetually drunk the entire trip. Italy attracted an older and more mature crowd. They surely changed some of the misconceptions I made of those from “down under”.

7. I want to take a trip with my best friends

  • Traveling alone is great. But it would be nice to come home and have other people to reminisce with. I feel rude when I’m talking to my roommates and I interject with “one time in Italy or once in Thailand”. I wish I had other people to revel in the glory I my ventures with. I think my girls and I could totally concur South America. I hope I can convince someone to go with me new time.

8. I prefer adventure tourism to historical tourism

  • Italy is beautiful. The history is fascinating and the sites are bucket-list worthy. My tour focused on seeing the ruins, churches and then shopping. After the third city it got a bit repetitive. I now know I prefer holidays where I can trek, swim, kayak, sky dive, ect. I want to experience the land, people and only a little bit of the history. I would love to go back to the Island of Capri or the Cinque Terre to go sailing or hiking. I defiantly need to visit Italy in the summer. I think it would be a completely different trip.

9. I do not like coffee

  • In Italy I did as the Italian do. I drank cappuccino and did an espresso shot. Each time I asked myself “why did I waste money on this?” Gross.

10. I love wine

  • After wine tasting in Tuscany how can you not love wine? I’m now a connoisseur!

Review of Contiki Simply Italy

Here’s my review for the Contiki website:

I booked this trip last minuet on a whim because I had no New Years plans. I’m so glad I went!

Seeing Italy during the winter is a truly unique experience. The cities are a beautifully lit up with sparkle lights and Christmas decor. Ringing in the New Year in Italy you can feel a sense of hope, love and peace in the air. Our trip was lucky enough to celebrate New Years eve in the stunning seaside town of Sorrento, New Years Day in Florence and the Italian Holiday Epiphany in the Cinque Terre. It was fascinating and truly special to celebrate with the locals and see their beautiful traditions.

Our amazing manager Enzo constantly praised us for our decisions to visit his country during the winter. We were often reminded of our luck when visiting towns like Capri and Venice which during the summer are usually impassable due to the high influx of tourists. Seeing how crowded Verona and Milan were in January, I can only imagine that during the summer these places must be miserably crowded.

I come from a mild climate state so the cold weather didn’t really bother me. But many of my Australian tour mates had a pretty rough time on some of the colder days. Apparently it was the coldest January much of the country had seen in 40 years? It snowed in the South!

I think what really makes or breaks your trip is how you spend your free time. I was lucky enough to meet a couple of like-minded people who believed in the Contiki moto #noregrets. We stayed out most nights, met the locals and explored the cities on our own. Some of my favorite memories are when I went walking by myself in Capri and Sirmione. Being in a group is great, but its important to find time for reflection on your own.

I recommend doing all of the me time meal options. I loved the group dinners and most of them provided bottomless wine! The best meal was our final in Rome. The singing waiters were amazing!

I don’t recommend doing the Contiki arranged gondola ride. I didn’t enjoy being in the gondola with 5 other people. I felt like we were going to tip over and only two people got good seats. The rest of us had to hunch over on little stools. Arrange it on your own! I personally am not interested in in-depth lectures on history so I would not do the walking-tours if I went again. There was more “talking” and less walking. Get a guide pamphlet and explore on your own. I felt like these tours took away from our free time.

I was amazed by the size of the suitcases some people brought for our 12 day trip! Travel tip: Pack and then take out half! You don’t need so much stuff! Everyone complimented me daily on my outfits and I had the smallest suitcase of all the girls! Bring only some key items and mix and match. Because it’s winter you don’t need to worry about getting sweaty or smelly so it’s even easier to pack light! Besides you’re in Italy! If you need more clothes you can buy them there!

My favorite things from the trip?
– Boat ride on Lake Garda
– Montebuoni’ Tuscan Dinner
– Electronic Space Disco
– Getting lost in Venice
– New Years in Sorrento
– Chilling with to much wine in the Cinque Terre

Our hotels were all very nice. Some were pretty far from the city center, but all easily accessible by cab or metro.
Our guide Enzo was great. He provided a wealth of knowledge about the history and lifestyle of Italy. He was also very passionate about the welfare, growth and our impressions of his home country. I’ll never forget his daily greetings (insert italian accent) “Contiki…..!!!” His pal and our driver Fabio was quiet but also entertaining. He didn’t speak english but he interacted with us using hand signals and facial expressions. He reminded me of Mr.Bean.

I certainly recommend this trip to anyone looking for a more in-depth and cultural experience. It’s great to spend a 12 days in one country. I feel like we really saw the best of Italy and I know I could go back someday and traverse it on my own! Go on this trip. You won’t regret it!

“The richest people in the world are those who have seen it.”

Review written Jan 2015

My Contiki was: life-affirming, comprehensive, absorbing

You can’t see Rome in a day

We arrived in Rome last night. After checking in we embarked on a night walking tour of the city center. I would’ve preferred to see the sites during the day. I really feel like we were robbed by not getting to Rome earlier. TheTrevi Fountain was closed for reconstruction so I can’t even guarantee coming back to Rome by throwing a coin in the fountain’s waters! #fail

On our rainy walking tour we passed the Spanish Steps, the Piazza Navona and ventured inside the Pantheon.

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This morning we explored the Vatican City! It was pretty neat exploring the smallest country in the world! I really hoped we would get to see the Pope but apparently he wasn’t home. Our hysterical guide Peter helped us skip the line and gave an in-depth look at the Vatican, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. These masterpieces of architecture are a site to be seen for sure. I could stare at the ceilings all day. Every inch is decorated and everything is so vibrant!

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Looking fly at the Roman Forum.

Afterwards we all ate our weight in Pizza at this “by the slice” shop. You pay depending on how much your slices weigh! Ingenious. I ate about four slices and they were all delectable. After stuffing ourselves we took our coach to the Roman Forum and Colosseum.

Peter led us on a very factual tour of the Roman Forum. I would’ve liked to do more walking and exploring and less talking. I think most people would agree that the history is great to know, but we really didn’t see much of the vast ruins. Then we headed to the highlight of our tour, the Colosseum.

It was okay…

I know a lot of my fellow travelers would disagree with me. Yes, its impressive. Yes, its beautiful. Blah blah blah. But there’s nothing really there. You can walk in a circle and up a few flights of stairs. That’s it.

I think its hard for any ancient ruins to top Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

I only wish a hot man name Paulo would’ve whisked me around the Colosseum on a Vespa. If that had happened I think the Colosseum might have been something to write home about.

For dinner our group went to an amazing dinner theater where our waiters sang opera to us! We had bottomless wine and great pasta. It was a super fun musical party!

Musical Dinner Theater!

Musical Dinner Theater!

Then we continued the party by pub crawling. We went to a little tiny bar where we paid twenty euros to have “open bar” for an hour. That meant drink as much as possible before time runs out. I think I had 5 cocktails? After number 3 things got a little fuzzy.

The plan for the night was to get as drunk as possible and then sober up by 130AM to be able to catch my 3AM shuttle to the airport. My tour mate Howard and I made a pact to make sure one another got to the airport. I also commissioned my friend Russel to assure my departure as well (see as he owed me a favor from our last club night). Well I think things got a little out of hand. I pretty much don’t remember how I got from the night club to the airport. So thanks to whoever put Howard and I in a cab!

Going through Roma airport at 3AM drunk was an adventure. Being drunk on bumpy flights was terrible. I had a massive hang over for the duration of my 10 hour trip. Bad weather and flight delays didn’t help with how awful I felt either. But you live and learn. As Contiki says #noregrets.

Wine Tasting in Tuscany

Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 3.05.13 PMOn the way to Rome we stopped for a wine tasting in the Chianti region of Tuscany. Our wine tasting was at a charming 16th century Tuscan winery called Castello Il Palagio. We came during their off season so I think the winery was understaffed. Instead of having a tour and getting to learn about the wine we were just sat down and basically told to “Chow down”. So it wasn’t really a wine tasting…more like a wine devouring. We got to taste several aged red wines and feast on amazing bread and fresh olive oil. While people were still drinking I explored the vineyard on my own. I found rows of aged cyprus trees, aromatic orchids and a adorable cat family!

Charming Cinque Terre

This morning we headed south toward La Spezia and the Cinque Terre region of Italy. The Cinque Terre is a UNESCO World Heritage sites famous for its coastal villages, scenic vistas, rugged cliffs and colorful villages.

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Today we had the whole day free to ourselves so it quickly became my favorite days of the trip. I hung out with two super fun guys. We had a great time drinking tons of wine, eating delicious food and exploring the quiet streets of the different Cinque Terre towns.

We started our food tour of the Cinque Terre with pesto focaccia pizza. We chowed down before exploring a breathtaking castle in La Spezia. At the top of the castle there was a harp player! 10906113_10152893621355813_7806844916176866695_n

Afterwards we checked into our tiny hotel.

Where did I stay? Hotel Firenze Continentale

Then we took the train to Monterosso al Mare where the boys and I decided to sit back, relax and treat ourselves to wine and aperitifs. 10407261_10152893619320813_8236156655788437128_n

Afterwards we traveled to Manarola. There we saw the Befana! The Befana is a witch who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy on Epiphany Eve (the night of January 5). It was so neat to see the old woman parading down the street with hoards of children following and singing. What a special time to be in Italy! After the celebration I grabbed gelato and strolled down to the coast where I watched the sunset. 10922616_10152893619450813_6628597561072186127_n

Then we traveled to Riomaggiore for dinner. Our group filled a tiny restaurant. I tried pesto pasta and we had two bottles of local wine! Feeling happy we caught the train back to La Spezia where we hung out at the hotel bar and chatted the night away.

I truly had an amazing, cinematic, life-affirming day today. I will cherish the Cinque Terre for the rest of my life.