I used to romanticise the notion of travelling solo – a fairly young woman in the brand new place alone and all that. There are plenty of possibilities like having a whirlwind romance with a handsome foreigner, winning a lottery or have an adventure of sorts like the ones you read in books. It is a world full of impossible possibilities, where you can stretch your imagination to the fullest.
They are just romantic notions, not reality at least for the most. Mills and Book type romance aside, there is something only solo travelling can offer. It is the convergence of culture and feeling at home in a foreign land.
In my 21 days stay in Europe, I traveled solo in Belgium close to 10 days. Initially it was lonely, for I did not know how to interact with people of other cultures. Insecurity and naivety often plagues you. I had too many questions: what would they think? Will they think I’m a flirt or making a move? What if they shrug me off, that will be so insulting? How do I approach them or where would be the right place without giving wrong impression?
I just kept wondering until a boat guide who goes by the name Pablo spoke to me. It was initially business. I was loitering around Ghent city centre, Belgium and he approached me to suggest a boat cruise in Ghent river, Leie. I was not too keen on it, for its costs 7 Euro and I was on a budget. Pablo got me talking. He was enthusiastic when I told him I’m a journalist on vacation. “You know when I was young, I wanted to be one. But things did not work out and see where I’m now,” he laughed.
Pablo is in his late thirties and is a Spaniard settled in Belgium. He is one of the crew members of Ghent River Cruise that takes tourists on a 30-minute cruise in the Leie river. In the course of the tour you get to know yesteryear Ghent, its history.
“I will tell you what, a ticket costs 7 euro but for you I will give you for 6.50 euro only because you are a journalist,” he said. I had to make a quick decision. He saw that I’m wavering. “I will be your captain, if you are taking a ride now,” he winked. He won me over and before I knew it I was in the dock with a cruise ticket in my hand.
Pablo began to talk about his life as a captain of small cruise ships that carry close to 30 passengers for a single ride, while waiting for more people to join. He seemed to enjoy his work, calling out to tourists and chatting with his fellow crew in Dutch. It seemed fun. “You meet different people everyday. Some attentive, some just for privacy and romance of being on the boat. What I say everyday is the same but the crowd and their enthusiasm makes each day different,” Pablo says. He is fluent in at least four different languages – English, French, Dutch and Spanish.
When it did not seem like he was going to get more people, he closed the ticket counter and we headed towards the mid-sized mechanical boat. Around 13 of us hopped in, a couple from Spain, a party of four pairs from America and a couple from Russia. Pablo explained alternatively Ghent’s history in English and Spanish. Though a tour guide job might not be as cushy or sophisticated like others, I felt they are knowledgeable and wise. I was only half-listening as he explained how the Ghent’s first beer brewery is now changed into a hotel or how the mansion is now a hostel for tourists. They were interesting tidbits but like me hardly anyone was listening. But Pablo did his best to make it interesting as he pointed out a tortoise that was sunbathing in the bushes. About Gravensteen, a castle by the Leie riverside and how war has affected it. Few of these did get our attention.
When the ride ended, I got out and observed him as he mechanically docked the boat and helped passengers out smiling. I lingered till everyone left and he has secured the boat and asked him, “Could you please a picture of me with this background?”
But there were so many questions that I wanted to ask, like why did he choose this job and how does he handle annoying and disinterested passengers. But I did none of those and returned with a really good pic.
Now I wish, for the sake of this story, I had.