Hard Beginnings in Warsaw


Thank goodness for the Polish professor who sat next to me on the plane trip to Warsaw. He was returning to his university in Poland’s capital after presenting at an energy conference in The States. We had a very pleasant back-and-forth conversation. Even though I knew nothing about his field, I thought I asked pretty good questions. It was great to have an ally and my anxiety about being a 52 year old woman traveling alone eased a bit.

I had borrowed a relative’s guide to Warsaw compiled by the Polish Tourist Bureau. It offered a frank depiction of the city. I skipped over the section on the red light districts and the suggested fees but read and reread the part about a black market selling everything “Rolex” watches to other items of questionable quality. The market was located around the top perimeter of an abandoned soccer stadium across the river from the old city. I scribbled it out of my map with a red marker.

The guidebook also warned of cab drivers who took advantage of naïve travelers. What did that mean? What would they do to me? And how would I be able to tell them from the good guys?

As the plane prepared for landing, I asked my professor which taxi company was the best. He must have sensed my nervousness because he offered to share a cab with me. During our ride through Warsaw, I noticed the gloominess of the dark grey sky and the patina of dirt that covered the streets and buildings. My protector made sure I was dropped off at my hotel first and told me not to worry, he would take care of the fee. As the cab drove away, I desperately missed him.

A Polish-American travel agent had created the itinerary for my first week. After my solo adventure, I would be joined by my aunt for a bus tour of the country’s southern region. As I stood in front of a tired looking hotel, I wondered if I had planned wisely.

“Hello, I have a reservation for tonight,” I said to the black haired woman with bright red lips sitting behind the hotel desk.

“What?” she shot back. I repeated my information.

“Passport!” She copied something down and then tossed a key at me.

I dragged my suitcase to the elevator and into the room. I was longing for a comfortable refuge but found a shabby room and a bathroom that looked like a graveyard for old porcelain. I turned on the TV and it barked at me in Polish. I slipped out of my clothes into my pajamas and laid my head on the hard pillow.
Then the barrage started. Over and over again I heard the crinkle and swish of pieces of paper as they passed through the space under my door. I ignored the first few, thinking they were menus for food delivery. But they didn’t stop. How many pizza parlors could there be in this neighborhood?

I got out of bed and turned on the light switch. The overhead lamp revealed a small pile of brightly colored slips of paper and I started to read them. Words about hot women, fun sex, young boys, extreme pleasure, and a variety of phone numbers drove away any thoughts of pizza. What kind of place is this? I will sttay locked in this room until Aunt Emily gets here. But will that woman downstairs let me? How will I get food? Should I call the American Embassy? The pieces of paper kept coming. I finally fell asleep until I was jolted awake by male groans of passion from the room next to me. I guess the man got a delivery.

In the morning the sun was shining and I was starving. Like all the other animals on this planet, my need for food overpowered my fear of danger. I left the hotel, found a place that served breakfast, and then walked down the street a bit. Not too bad. I can do this. I went across the street to the train station and with help from a young clerk who spoke English I bought a ticket for my next stop. I packed my big bag and took it down the street to be stored for a week at the much better hotel where I would be meeting my aunt.
Carrying a much smaller bag now, I returned to the station and found my seat on the train. Looking out the window at Poland, I remembered what I had always told my son and daughter when they wanted to give up on a new venture.  Beginning is the hardest part.

Copyright © 2018 The Autonomous Traveler. All Rights Reserved.

Hints for Women Travelers- #4 Beginnings are Hard but Keep Going

I remember when I first learned to ride a two wheeler, I just couldn’t seem to get the hang of it.  I remember finally building up some momentum and crashing into the back of my family’s red and white Chevy station wagon. I persisted and finally learned. I gave up on piano lessons, however. I love music and really regret that I stopped practicing. Playing an instrument would have brought me so much joy throughout my life.

“Beginnings are hard” is a motto in my family. Whenever my kids got discouraged about a new venture, I would pass on these words of wisdom.

Beginning a traveling adventure can be scary. Everything is new and uncharted. My advice is to give it some time. You may be forming unreasonable expectations of the perfect journey but it will be what it is. Relax! It reminds me of my first little dent on my first ever brand new car. It was kind of a relief when it happened. Perfection doesn’t exist, life is messy. Keep going. The journey is worth it.

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
― M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth

Hints for Women Travelers-#3 Yes, Things Might Go Wrong. Go Anyway!

Doubts.  Especially the night before a trip.  Will my car or the plane have mechanical problem?  What if I lose my passport or someone steals my wallet?  What if I get injured half way through the trip?  What if no one understands English? What if I get lost and nobody helps me?

My adult children are world travelers. I remember hearing their lists of fears before trips that mirrored my own doubts. Because of them, I have learned to acknowledge calmly this frenzied accounting of doom and gloom and sternly tell my imaginative mind to go on the adventure anyway. This is now our family traveling mantra.

Sometimes the biggest regrets in life are the adventures and opportunities we didn’t take.


Resiliency for Traveling through Life! And How to Get It


When I was an elementary teacher, I heard about a summer class, something about making kids stronger. The course description said the class was taught by a guidance counselor who had helped students find their inner strength. I wondered if he would reveal the culmination of all  this wisdom in a little package or capsule of words and procedures that would push my students and, maybe, myself to never ending excellence? Was it worth taking 5 days from my summer vacation to go to the class that was over 60 miles away? And then I got the idea! I’d find a campground in The Adirondacks near the class and commute. I would be a student during the day and at night I would complete any assigned reading by the light of my gas lantern and a wood fire. I loved the idea.

The instructor seemed knowledgeable and passionate about what he did. He said he held a camp each year to teach kids resilience. I asked how he got kids from disadvantaged families to attend. His answer startled me. He said he opened the group to everyone because many children from advantaged families lacked resiliency, also. Maybe I knew this. Movies, TV programs and sometimes real life were filled with rich kids who leaned on their family’s privilege to get through life.

He asked if we ever wondered how people who have gone through tough times made it.  People like Winston Churchill, J.K Rowling, Thomas Edison, and Rosa Parks who went through bad childhoods, physical illness, or poverty. He then went on to explain the three factors for building resiliency; goals, role models, and an internal locus of control. I listened intently as he explained the third. With a internal locus of control, a person believes he or she can influence events and their outcomes. People without this character trait blame the world outside themselves for everything. They don’t take responsibility for their actions and live a life of learned  helplessness.

I was thrilled to learn that I would be able to teach and help develop resilience in my students. I could do this by telling them the stories of people who achieved success despite obstacles and roadblocks. I was instructed to help my students set reasonable goals broken down into manageable steps. The instructor told us that kids need to be encouraged to see mistakes and failures as lessons not reasons to give up. And that people, both young and old, must know that that they can’t always blame outside influences for what happens to them. It’s up to every individual to charter the direction of their lives.

I invited my neighbor, Leona, to join me on the last day of my camping/ study trip. She is 20 years older than me and a great friend and confident. She helped me through my divorce, listening to all the drama and allowing me to cry. I vividly remember one session in particular when we walked out on her porch and saw a double rainbow. It seemed to be a confirmation of our resilience and the fact that even though we had both gone through a lot in our lives everything was going to be okay.

I am proud to say Leona is my role model.  Through hard work and persistence she was the founder and the first director of the hospice in our rural county.  Her kindness and wonderful insights have brought comfort to many people.

She was, also, a fun neighbor who was up for anything. When I told her about my Adirondack excursion she told me she would take the day off and join me. She arrived  with an air mattress, sleeping bag, and a buckwheat pillow that her doctor recommended for her neck pain.

We made a campfire dinner and watched the flames die down as we listen to the lovely sounds of loons on the lake. We talked for a while in the darkness of the tent and then fell asleep. The next memory I have is the very loud sniffing sound from outside the tent near where Leona had placed her head.

“Uh, Oh,” I said.

“Bear!”, we both shouted. That was enough to frightened the hairy intruder and we heard him lumber away.

“It’s your damn pillow, Leona,” I said. And we both laughed.

Leona and I have had challenges in our lives but I know there is a stubborn power in both of us. We know that nothing will ever stop us from living life to the fullest. This has made her a great leader and a valued contributor to her community.  It’s made me a brave traveler. We are resilient.

Thanks, Leona!

Copyright © 2018 The Autonomous Traveler. All Rights Reserved.

Hints for Women Travelers- #2 Don’t Go Down Dark Alleys at 2:00 in the Morning

Use common sense and listen to your mother or, in my case, to my grown daughter who made me promise before my solo camping trip across the US and Canada not get into a car or boat with anyone I didn’t know.
When I travel, I get up early to take advantage of the best part of the day. I treat myself to a nice lunch, sometimes a glass of wine. (A lunch meal is usually a lot cheaper than dinner.) After a full day of walking and sightseeing, I am ready for some relaxation time in my room. I stop at a shop that sells groceries to buy bottled water and some nutritious snacks. I like some quiet time to reflect on the day, do some writing, check and send emails, and do some reading about the area I’m in. I also use this time to decide what I might see and do the next day.
Each person and situation is different. In Krakow, Poland I just happened to be in town for the annual music festival. The streets around my hotel were well lit and the night concerts were around the square where there was heavy foot traffic.
If you want to go out for dinner or an event there are always taxis. Ask the people at your hotel to help you set that up.
Woman are intuitive. Listen to your instincts. I taught my grade school students about “stranger danger” and to respect their “uh,oh” feelings when things didn’t seem right. This is good advice for all of us.
Sometimes the most confusing part of a trip is getting from the airport to a hotel. The first thing I do at the airport after I go through customs is go to an ATM machine and get cash in the currency of the country I’m in. I then go down to the transportation area and observe. I look for a established bus service for hotels or a line of taxis that are well marked and part of a company. During my second trip to Poland, someone walked up behind me and asked me if I needed transportation. I declined and went out to the sidewalk and saw the reputable taxis all in a row waiting for customers. That’s how I safely arrived at my lodging.
I also make a habit of asking the taxi driver or the people at the hotel if there is any place locally that I shouldn’t go.
I have never had trouble traveling alone. I use common sense, my intuition, and follow my daughter’s orders.

Keeping Joy in Prague

Map in hand, itinerary plotted, objectives defined, I advanced like a Navy Seal on a mission. I had trained for the September trip to Prague, walking many miles during the summer until my body ached. No longer middle-aged, I was proud I moved with the gate of a much younger woman.
The city sparkled in pastel colors, a mosaic of a million architectural details. Through an arch of a tall stone tower,  I passed onto The Charles Bridge. I didn’t slow down to look at the statues that stood like giants on either side of the carless expanse. I was determined to squeeze as much as I could out of my ten-day stay.
Crossing to the other side of the river, a church steeple marked my destination like a brightly colored pin on a wall map. The streets turned and twisted and I soon realized the journey was not a matter of direction but of ascension. My lungs filled with the air of a lovely blue sky and my heart quicken as I climbed. A wall encircled the most ancient part of the city and guarded not only the church but a small castle. Touring the surrounding gardens,  I discovered an entrance into the fortress up steep, stone steps.
The church’s exterior was magnificent with its stained glass windows and lofty medieval construction but I was agitated. I had seen too many European churches and wondered if I really wanted to spend the day in the darkness of a long dead era. I needed to move. The feeling pushed me across the castle compound.
Escaping through an exit in the wall, I found a little street that once again climbed toward the sky. Although I was moving away from where I had started and had no idea where I was going, I chose the new path, confident that if things didn’t work out gravity would guide me down the hill once more.
Soon the incline lost it steepness, the stores thinned out, more trees appeared, and houses sat in gardens. The peaceful neighborhood slowed the my breathing into silent, gentle wisps. The air was just lukewarm enough not to be felt and I took in the perfect autumn day.
At a street corner, I saw a sign with a picture of a church, the words “Prague Loreto”, and an arrow pointing to the right. Anxiety returned. I skipped the most famous church in Prague. Should I go to this one to get in at least one church today? I released a breath and proceeded to right.
Twelve supersized angels, fat and covered with centuries of black patina greeted me. They were evenly spaced on a wall in front of the church, each a unique individual. The church itself looked like a palace, long and white with gold-colored trim, an orange roof, and a tall domed turquois spire that narrowed into a point as it reached for the heavens. Stepping through heavy wooden doors,  I was surprised to see an open courtyard surrounded by a covered walkway. I paid the entrance fee and on impulse bought a copy of the visitors’ guide. The booklet explained that Loreto was a pilgrimage site and the arcade around the perimeter once sheltered long lines of believers.
Impatient again, I rushed over tile floor of the arcade, barely looking at portraits of the saints on the walls. I glanced at a picture of a suffering man riddled with arrows.  My mind for some reason thought of  “Jeopardy”.  Famous Saints for 200.  Who is Saint Sebastian?
My steps were halted by another set of tall doors. Pulling on one of them, I stepped into a church and was overwhelmed with the same delight experienced during a fireworks display. Pinks, lavenders, mint greens, and pale blues accented with silver and gold leaf gave the large room the feeling of a fairyland. Everything was exaggerated with frescos, lacey metal work, and arches and columns made of marble. What astounded me the most were the life-sized cherubs with their chubby flesh-colored bodies and their gold diapers. Hundreds of these sculptures romped through the church. A group played instruments around the pipe organ and others had perched themselves in a happy cluster above the altar.
I sat in a pew and opened the guide book. “The lavish ornamentation of this church is called Rococo and represents an 18th century stylistic movement against the symmetry and restrictiveness of Baroque Art.” With new eyes, I looked at the nearest cherub and was surprised to see a pair of pliers in his fat little hand and a large tooth in the other. The angel sported a devilish grin as he stood over another angel who appeared to be in great pain.
I chuckled to myself and wished I could go back in time and talk to the man who was bold enough to produce flawed angels for an infallible church. We would have laughed. I imagined shaking his hand at the end of our visit and I could almost hear him say, “Don’t let the world steal your joy”.
I looked at my watch. Better get going, it’s almost lunchtime. Leaving The Loreto, I took a list of restaurants out of my bag and tried to decipher a good choice from the mysterious names. I almost walked into young man who was taking a picture of a door. He scurried ahead as me as I  stopped to look at my map. Up ahead the young photographer found something interesting in a small space between two buildings. He braced his camera and himself against the brick wall.
Another artist looking for the unconventional. I approached the man and waited for him to release his camera from the shot. “Are you taking pictures for a book?”
The photographer smiled, flattered someone recognized his efforts. “No, I am just taking vacation pictures.”
“You’re not taking the typical tourist shots, I admire that.”
The man cradled the camera in his hands, as he shared his thoughts, “It’s all about combining the same old things in a different ways. Life like music has only seven notes.”
“No,” I replied with a little too much anguish, “I am twice your age and I am still looking for the eighth, and the ninth, and the tenth note. and the notes in between. And sounds not even created yet!”
The young man didn’t know what to say, I tried to save the moment, “I bet your pictures are beautiful.” And suddenly I remembered something.  Looking into the photographer’s eyes, I added, “Don’t let the world steal your joy.”
I walked away. I took the my map, my to-do-list, and the restaurant guide out of my bag and dropped them into a nearby trash can. And then I turned down a street I had never traveled before and smiled.

Copyright © 2018 The Autonomous Traveler. All Rights Reserved.

Hints for Women Travelers #1- Protect Your Spirit from Violent Media

We live in a culture where violence is considered entertainment. I won’t watch dark TV shows or movies anymore. If I did, I’d see the world as a hostile place and probably would not travel alone. I would lose my trust in the goodness of humanity,believing everyone had the potential to hurt me. In 2001, I took a 70 day, 7000 mile solo camping trip across the US and Canada and was amazed by the consistent kindness of strangers. I am so glad I left my comfort zone and witnessed the beauty of the world and the people in it.
Joseph Campbell wrote about the power of myths, the long held stories of brave knights on quests and maidens needing to be rescued. Old folktales and horrifying fantasies create fear that can take away our freedom and our mobility. They destroy our independence and our desire to go on our own quests for happiness. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell, everyone has the right to follow their bliss!

Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”                                                                                                                            –Joseph Campbell

Can We Exist without Lists? Tell Me about Yours …

In the next few weeks, I will be posting a list of important points for solo women travelers. I use lists a lot because they help me stay me focused and organized. They allow me to record tasks that I might forget later, especially when getting ready for a trip. I’m not so overwhelmed with big problems or projects when I break them down in little steps. Lists are great for bloggers and writers as a way of presenting important ideas in manageable doses. I would like to hear from you, my readers, about your list making. Not just for traveling but as a tool for getting through the journey of life. Do you make them at a certain time of the day? On whiteboards, notebooks, or Post-it Notes? Do you get a feeling of triumph like I do when I cross off a job or, better yet, throw the whole completed list away? “D.O.N.E!!” The happy battle cry of a busy woman.