Originally from: Izmir, Turkey
Native Language: Turkish
On the road since: October 23, 2015
Returning home: August 16, 2016
Before travelling, Solen was working in the advertising industry in Istanbul for the past 17 years. She started as a Jr. Copywriter and left as a creative group head. She worked for multiple international network agencies.
At a quiet family-run hostel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, I woke to find my travel partner Ido having a conversation with Solen in the common area. The three of us got talking for a while and became good friends. We met up with Solen again and again throughout Cambodia to share travel mishaps, delicious seafood dinners on the beach, and all together great moments.
Months later I was surprised to find out that Solen would be in Singapore for the same few days that I was visiting. We wandered the city and got caught up with each other’s travels. She’s an intrepid traveller with bright ideas, a desire to explore cultures and traditions, and a relentless wanderlust.
Can you remember a specific turning point that made you want to take this long solo journey?
Yes, I can. It was the moment I came back from my first overseas solo trip from South America. I was traveling and living with a limited amount of items in my backpack for a month. The minute I came back and opened the door of my apartment, I realized how much stuff I had gathered over the years. It felt like insanity came to life. I had invested all my money on things. Shoes, bags, dresses, cosmetics, nice furniture… In that moment, everything in my life felt so wrong. I decided to downsize and get rid of the items that I didn’t need and swore not to buy anything for a year to save for traveling longer.
How does your journey differ from a vacation?
I think the most important thing is that this isn’t a commercial break from a dull life -- this is life itself. I don’t have an apartment to go back to, I don’t have a place to unpack, put the dirty stuff in the laundry, brew myself a cup of coffee and start missing being on a vacation immediately. Now dorms, guesthouses, hostels are my temporary houses. If I am to stay there for only a couple of days, I don’t even bother with unpacking.
Also, when you go on a vacation you tend to splurge. It is a very precious little amount of time you have in your hands and you want everything to be perfect.
Since it is for a week or two, you really don’t want things to go sideways, you can’t afford to get sick or have a couple of rainy days. You want that short period of your life to be picture perfect. When traveling, you have all the hours of the world. You don’t mind bad weather, you don’t mind setbacks or spending your whole day on a train or a bus… Because there is always a tomorrow to chill and enjoy your day.
"This isn’t a commercial break from a dull life -- this is life itself"
No one seems to regret taking these long-term solo journeys, why do you think that is?
Solo journeys are amazing opportunities to get to know yourself better. It is not an easy path to take regardless of your destination. You face a lot of challenges and learn to cope with them. As you solve the problems without any help, as you survive from dire situations, your self confidence gets a big boost. You get to know yourself better and you learn to make peace with the parts of your personality that you can’t change. Also you meet amazing people along the way and build life long friendships with some of them. I cannot think any other experience as enriching as solo traveling.
What goes through your mind when you hear about political troubles in your home country while you’re travelling?
It is absolutely unsettling to be away from my country as things have become very complicated recently. Because of the time difference there are days when I wake up to the buzzing of my mobile phone and I immediately know that it’s not good news. I cancelled my last trip to Komodo island and stayed in Lombok to be able to follow the news when the military coup attempt took place. I tried to reach out to my family and friends and make sure that everyone was ok. I spent 3 days in a hotel following the social media and news channels. It didn’t matter where I was, it felt like hell.
You mentioned to me once before a sense of kinship between Turkish people (‘strangers’) when you identify one another away from home. Can you explain this bond using an experience you’ve had?
A friend of mine had connected me with a Turkish expat living in Bangkok, thinking we might want to get together over a dinner or a drink. Unlucky for me, she was flying out of the country on the day I arrived. But then, out of the blue, she asked me if I wanted to stay in her apartment while she was away and left her keys with security for me to pick up. I never met her face to face and I spent more than a week in her beautiful apartment as her guest.
Another example is again in Thailand where I met a fellow Turkish traveler online, who was on Koh Tao. When I told him I was also traveling there, he came to pick me up from the harbor, he helped me to find my hostel and settle down and then he took me to lunch.
Today, I am still in touch with both of them.
"I cannot think any other experience as enriching as solo traveling."
What do you think of the inevitable travel opener question ‘where are you from’?
As you say, it is inevitable. I think it is a nice way to start getting to know people. Also if you know about their home countries then the conversation can extend to lifestyles or politics. If you don’t, it is even better because you have an opportunity to learn about it more. I am very curious about politics, economies, traditions and life styles of different regions so as I learn more, I feel happier.
We’ve talked before about the various ages of backpackers and how it’s a different experience depending on the stage of life the traveller is in… are you searching for something different from what the younger gap-year backpackers are?
Most definitely I am. Most of the younger backpackers that I’ve met have never experienced the corporate working life and they are just taking a break in between their studying and working lives. I cannot forget a conversation I had with one them in Philippines. He was 22 years old and about to go back to Germany, hoping to have a job that he applied for earlier. He really wished to work there. When I asked him what made that company so special that he pursues a career opportunity there, he responded, “Well they have a free gym and free coffee stations. So, it’s really nice…” I smiled and nodded silently.
I worked in a very competitive field for more than 17 years. I had a very nice career and all the free coffee in the world. But I guess you have to have all of these first to understand that they cannot satisfy you at all. I think 30-somethings thrive for something bigger and bolder by giving up their fancy corporate jobs, stable incomes, fancy apartments, car loans and mortgages. Whereas our younger versions are in a phase that they strive for this type of stability. After a decade or so some of them will also discover that it wasn’t the life they wanted in the first place and some of them will live happily and remember their brief backpacking journey as a long-gone adventure. I am not praising or criticizing any of the choices, some people are content with a grounded life style, some people are simply not…
You’re nearing the end of this journey which is always an emotional time. So how do you plan which path to take in the future?
Actually, it is strange but I don’t feel emotional at all… I have spent almost 10 months in Asia and I think I am ready to say goodbye. This has been an amazing journey for me but I am craving for a decent piece of cheese and a slice of whole grain bread and some olive oil. I had so much rice that I guess it is enough for the rest of my life.
My plan is to go back home for a couple of months and start traveling in Central and South America for another year. I know it is going to be a whole different experience than Asia -- and I'm looking forward to this. ■