Culture, People

Solo Travelers Talking: Lauren McKeehan on Multiple Languages, Local Advice, and Free Water

Mt. Etna Sicily Solo Travel

We’re fascinated by the fearlessness of solo travelers, so we’re talking to people about what it’s really like behind the social feeds. If you’re a solo traveler with a story to share, send us a message on social to be considered.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

A:  I’m 22 years old, recently graduated college, and I’m from Laguna Beach, California (yes, like the TV show). Growing up in California, I got pretty spoiled by the beautiful beaches and the weather where you never really need a coat. Looking back now, where I grew up really influenced my choice of travel destinations. I’ll always pick a beach over a mountain; the sun over snow. (Not to mention, you get to bring a lot more outfits if your suitcase isn’t stuffed with big sweaters!) OK… back to the question. I just began my first full-time job as an analyst in a large consulting firm, and I focus on government and public service clients in the U.S. After studying finance in college, I was preparing myself to go into the business world, but finding this position gave me the opportunity to make positive changes that affect the public. By helping government agencies innovate to run more efficiently, we help them to better achieve their missions to serve the public good; I like how I get to make an impact from behind the scenes. At the moment, I am working very domestically, but in the coming years I plan to look for opportunities to move to an international branch of my company!

Q: What do you think drives your desire to head into the unknown?

A: You never know what you’re going to find. Isn’t that so exciting? Even with hours of research on the internet, you’ll get to a new country, and somebody is going to tell you about their absolute favorite place—that you never found in a travel blog. This feeling of constantly discovering places, things, and people drives me into the unknown.

You can plan all you want, but in my experience, letting the people I’ve met along the way help direct my path has turned out way better than I could have ever planned.

Q: Tell us about your first solo adventure.

A: I had just graduated college in December of 2018, and received my job offer that allowed me to push back my start date. So, I packed my bag and headed to Chile. I began my trip by working as a volunteer at a hostel in Valparaíso (a funky, colorful town on the coast), and I met TONS of travelers. I got to hear travel stories about the rest of the continent from people coming and going constantly. I learned about the places that were unmissable and the places that could be easily skipped. 

I was so inspired by the amount of solo travelers I met—more girls than guys actually— who really motivated me and dispelled fears I had about traveling on my own. I continued my journey throughout the country and got to know many of the beaches, valleys, deserts, and lakes of Chile. I took a lot of buses, drank a lot of pisco, and really stretched my Spanish speaking abilities. The Chilean accents in Spanish are so strong! 

Atacama Desert Solo Traveler Swimming
“I went north to the Atacama Desert with a new friend I met in Santiago. It’s the world’s driest desert, but it’s filled with so many beautiful lakes & surrounded by mountains. Definitely a must-see in Chile!”

Q: Can you tell us about your latest solo-travel experience?

A: I went to Italy last September without a game plan. Well, my sister was getting married on Lake Como in October so I knew I had to be there at that time. But apart from that, I was wide open. 

I learned how incredibly distinct cultures and dialects are from one region (even town) to another.

I saw the country from top to bottom. I worked on a vineyard during the grape harvest, which sounds glamorous, but let me tell you—I deserved every bite of pasta they paid me in. I moved south as summer slowly turned into autumn, and autumn quickly turned into rainy winter. I chased the sun down the country, and luckily I caught it when I found beach weather in Sicily in November.

Winemaking in Italy vineyard Piemonte
“So grateful for the experience I had working with other travelers from all over the world on the vineyard in Piemonte. Just in this picture are new friends from Australia, Germany, Argentina, and Italy. Together, we picked almost 30 tons of grapes!”

I fell in love with the language, the people, the PIZZA, the architecture, and the coastlines. I’ve seen most of the major cities, but there is way too much worth seeing in that country; I don’t know if anyone could see it all in a lifetime. I promised myself I’d move there for a season of my life, whether it be a few years from now or for my early retirement. 🙂

To be honest, Italy has my heart.

Q: What are a few of your solo-traveling must-haves?

A: First off, definitely my reusable water bottle. I feel pretty strongly about not using plastic water bottles unless absolutely necessary; it amazes me to see the extent to which the world is hooked on them. At the beginning of my traveling career, I had this fear of drinking from the tap in other countries. It is important to definitely be cautious and ask whether the tap water is drinkable in each city you travel to; and in my experience, listening to this advice has worked out great.

Don’t spend money on daily bottles when everyone around you is drinking water for free.

Valparaíso Chile solo traveler
“This was in Valparaíso, pretty early in my water bottle’s travel career. I got the sticker in the photo at the art market in Plaza Sotomayor from a local artist. She was about my age and had some really trippy designs. I liked her work so much, I actually got a bunch of stickers from her and mailed them home to a few friends.”

Also, I’ve added a handful of stickers to my reusable bottle from the places I’ve gotten to know, and each sticker tells its own story. Being placed on something I use everyday constantly brings up vivid memories of my experiences in different parts of the world.

And of course, another must-have is a journal! I can’t emphasize this enough. Traveling alone, you get to know your real self. Put your internal conversations down in writing. Tentative plans, trails of thought, recommendations you don’t want to forget— put it all down. You’ll meet tons of people, try tons of different foods, and find your new favorite bar in the world. As time goes on, a lot will fade from your memory. Keep them all in one place. When you get home, you’ll add your journal to your bookshelf and have a little reference to all the unforgettable moments of a wonderful chapter of your life.

CHALLENGE: As time goes on, try little by little to journal your thoughts in the language you’re learning.

 It may just be throwing in foreign words into English sentences at the beginning. But, this exercise will gradually get easier! It can be a very valuable way to practice (in a completely judgement free environment—hey, go easy on yourself) and test what you really know. Also, it is an exercise that will definitely lead you to look up new words, and the next day you’ll hear one in conversation and be so proud that YOU taught you that word. 

Q: Do you think learning languages is an important aspect of being a global-focused traveler?

A: Yes! I have been in a lot of situations where speaking the language has been so valuable. Even a basic level can really help—help you barter in a market, help you get directions, and of course can help you get out of sticky situations. (Like when you run out of cash before trying to pass through a tollbooth on a highway in Costa Rica.)

Also, speaking the local language can be a way to make the locals more seen and appreciated.

In a lot of cultures, it’s interpreted as a huge sign of respect. I mean, you’re demonstrating the time and effort you’ve dedicated to such a big part of their culture. In my experience, it goes a long way.

People in Italy were constantly blown away when I spoke Italian. They all asked why I would want to learn it. I would respond by asking them perché no? (why would I not!) I could meet all of their friends, go to their family dinners, and learn so much about the reality of the experience of Italian people—in such a candid way. (My Italian friends loved to talk about the latest political drama, especially after a few glasses of wine.) I would have never accessed this other perspective nor gained this understanding of the people solely through speaking English.

Sicilian olive seller
“At the farmers market in Sicily with my new friend, the olive man. He made me try almost all of them!”

Q: Can you tell us a little about your experience learning languages?

A: I’m of Hispanic descent, but my parents don’t speak Spanish; their parents do. Being first generation Americans in the 50s, my grandparents wanted to blend in as much as possible. I only began learning Spanish when I was in high school, and I only decided I really loved it when I was in college. I took some courses that quickly turned into reading novels and writing essays, but felt like I had a very mechanical grasp on the language, not a natural one. Only after my experience working in Spanish in Chile did I really start to feel comfortable with the language—a whole seven years into my Spanish career.

Since then, I discovered and visited some of my long lost family in Colombia, and couldn’t have been more grateful for the way I had dedicated myself to the language over the years.

All of my studying ended up enabling me to better connect and form relationships with them. Life is truly amazing.

New Years Eve dinner with my family in Pereira, Colombia
“This was before our New Year’s Eve dinner with my family in Pereira, Colombia. I learned a lot about their holiday traditions! One of them is eating 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve. You eat each grape thinking of what you wish for in each month of the new year. Right after a huge family dinner, it was actually hard to get down 12 big grapes.”

On learning Italian, my Spanish really helped get me off the ground. Before my trip, I spent a few months at home studying online resources, and I dedicated at least ten minutes every day. I actually learned by translating from Spanish to Italian, as many words and verb conjugations have very similar roots and patterns. I started my trip with a small base that I worked to build upon.

When someone noticed I was American and switched to speak to me in English, I took the opportunity to ask them to continue in Italian to help me improve.

It wasn’t the easiest, but I tried my best to communicate as much as possible in Italian, making as many Italian friends as I could. After so much practice, I eventually graduated to switching my writing in my travel journal to Italian, which I could have never imagined based on my level of Italian at the beginning of my trip.

Q: How do you plan for the photos, the friendships, the culture, and all the delicious food to make for the perfect solo trip?

A: Ah, like I said, personally I plan for the weather… and the rest falls into place. The people you meet along the way really make the trip. Whether they be other travelers or locals.

What’s so cool about meeting other solo travelers in the same place is, you guys already have something in common. You both really wanted to experience this country, city, place, and didn’t let anything stop you. You were both open and courageous enough to say, Me voy (I’m leaving, but a bit more dramatic) and step out into the unknown; I love that. 

On the other hand, it’s also important to make an effort to get to know the locals. It’s hard to say you really got to know a place without really engaging with the people that it consists of. Again, speaking just a bit of the language can go a long way, and it can be the biggest ice breaker. After I’ve exchanged just a few words with some locals, a question I was asked fairly consistently was, “Where did you learn my language?”. This ended up opening doors for conversations and friendships that might not have necessarily happened otherwise. 

You’ll learn so much from the people who cross your path, regardless of where they’re from. Essentially, keeping an open mind and making an effort to talk to new people makes for the perfect solo trip in my experience. 

Q: So, where’s next for you?

A: That’s my question too! Italy will always be calling me, but Patagonia, in southern Chile and Argentina has been on my mind. I’ve met a lot of backpackers with amazing stories, and I’ve seen some breathtaking documentaries on the naturaleza in the south. Also, I have some friends waiting for me in Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, and I promised them I’d make it down there. 

Q: Any parting advice for aspiring solo travelers?

A: Step out of your comfort zone, and you will be really surprised by the joy, growth, gratitude, and perspective that comes with it. 

Also, if you see a new fruit you’ve never seen before, TRY IT!

Copao, a Chilean cactus fruit
“This is copao, a yummy cactus fruit I tried in Chile. It is naturally very acidic, so generally you put sugar on top to counteract it. With some sugar, it tastes very similar to a kiwi!”

Q: Where can we follow you?

A: Instagram: @laurenmckeehan

Thank you, Lauren! We hooked Lauren up with our Unlimited Languages subscription, because she already speaks Spanish, Italian, and is interested in Portuguese. If reading about Lauren’s love for languages has inspired you to take an adventure of your own, share your story with us at @rosettastone or DM us on any social channel.

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