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Friday, October 29, 2010

Woman Wandering Solo: Linda Redman

Women Wandering Solo is a series of guest posts that inform & encourage women who don't have travel partners to take a solo trip instead. There are so many amazing places to see in the world, & experiencing them solo could wind up being the best way to do it. To learn how you can share your own story with us, click here.

Another option for traveling solo
Linda Redman lives in Phoenix, Arizona. She has traveled all over the world - both solo & with friends - to places like Costa Rica, Morocco, & India. Here she recommends combining solo travel with an education.

As my friends well know, I am an avid traveler and am constantly exploring new corners of the world (although my real passion is exploring the countries of Latin America). I have been fortunate in being able to share my explorations of the world with my husband as well as with close female friends. As a result my solo traveling has been more limited.

There is one avenue, however, which I would encourage women wandering solo to consider if they are worried about striking out on their own in unknown territory for the first time: enroll in a language school or a volunteer program in a location you want to explore.

While I have opted to do this as part of my ongoing effort to learn Spanish, I have also found it to be a great way to strike out on my own in locales that I have never visited before. While the volunteering option would be more practical if one already had a basic knowledge of the native language, the language school option is viable for all levels (beginners to advanced students of the language).

What this approach to travel offers

• Provides an more secure context initially within which to begin your exploration of a new country

• Allows you the freedom to strike off on your own (when not in class and on the weekends)

• Provides you with an easy avenue for meeting other interesting people

• Increases your understanding and appreciation of the local culture, affording you a view of life beyond that of a tourist

• Provides you with a knowledgeable resource on local activities and sites as well as frequently offers you the opportunities to go on school-sponsored cultural excursions to places you may not go on your own (e.g., eating at the night market, visiting a woman’s weaving co-op, taking a cooking class)

Choosing a language school

While you want to pick an area which interests you, your options will be somewhat limited by the availability of a school. Generally, the larger cities or towns will offer several options to select from. However, in some cases I have found opportunities in smaller rural communities as well.

There are all types of language schools, and you will need to decide what type will best meet your needs. For example, there are large schools (75 to 100 students) and small schools (10 to 25 students). Some have structured classes in small groups, and others offer private lessons. Some schools cater more to college students (especially if located near a beach), while others (generally smaller-sized schools) seek out the independent travelers with a mix of ages.

The time of year can also change the nature of the schools. Schools tend to be full during the summer months. While this means there may be extra activities offered and a greater array of students with whom to form friendships, it can also mean a more chaotic environment and the use of second string teachers.

All the schools offer the opportunities for home stays and I would highly recommend this as another way to further get to know the local culture. However, this experience can also vary. I have had good and bad home stays – ones that have seen me as simply a paying boarder and others who have welcomed me into their home as a guest.

Other alternatives which I have also tried and would recommend include renting an apartment through the school (shopping for food in the local market and cooking it at home is fun), or staying in a hotel for a few days to get a better sense of your surroundings and then staying with a family.

My favorite language school by far has been the Querétaro Language School in Querétaro, Mexico. Not only is the school great (it’s run by a young couple who were involved with the Peace Corp in Mexico - he was a volunteer and his wife ran the Spanish program from the Peace Corp), but the city is wonderful as well.

Whatever you do, before signing up with the school, ask about former students who you can email to find out more about their experience at the school. Also, talk with the school director on the phone.

Volunteering abroad

For me, finding meaningful volunteer work has been more of a challenge and has taken a lot more work than finding a good language school. One easy and potentially good avenue can be through the language school, itself. But I have also found that while a school may say that they can offer you volunteer opportunities it does not exist in reality.

The other problem I have found is that organizations which specifically offer volunteer opportunities can expect you to pay a fair amount of money for this experience, along with the fact that the setting/experience may not be all it is said to be if you start reading the reviews. As with anything, upfront leg work is needed.

However, despite the challenges, I believe that this too can be a great way to experience a country when wandering solo. I have worked for a week on an organic farm in Costa Rica which was wonderful, and in January I plan to return to Querétaro, Mexico for a month to work in a school for indigenous children.

4 comments:

charfranz1 said...

Very interesting and helpful!

Nancy Lewis said...

I'm glad you think so!

scott said...

Nice post Linda! Your experience matches mine. I tried Intercultura in Heredia, Costa Rica. I was more excited about the home-stay than the school but it worked out the opposite. The school was fantastic, the home-stay was a disappointment. It seemed to be luck of the draw on whether you got a good host-family. Some students raved about theirs others, like myself, not so much. I didn't attempt to volunteer, but I observed others that did and it just always seemed like it wasn't quite organized, the volunteer locations didn't know how to use the volunteers or something. So, I agree with you, it can be done and be rewarding, but you do need to do the leg work. Anyway, great post!

Nancy Lewis said...

Thanks for your input, Scott. It helps to know that other people have had the same experience.