Helsinki: My First Solo Trip

There was a time when I did not travel the world the way I do now – on a solo trip, planned independently and on a lean budget.

My adolescence did not involve hopping from one country to another, long stints as an exchange student or anything that set me apart from other kids in Singapore. Travel meant occasional family trips to Australia and one-off school visits to China and Thailand.

All of them were organised by the adults or guides who were paid to make the arrangements, and the people at our destinations spoke or wanted to practise languages that I understood. I never read up on the places beforehand or felt the need to do so.

That changed in 2006, and this is how the travel bug bit me.

Travelling solo for the first time

Pre-solo trip history

I was 19 and in a relationship with a fellow rally racing fan from Estonia, and after a year of reading, learning and talking about her part of the world, I wanted to meet her there. The idea faced resistance (and that’s an understatement) from my parents, though, when I first raised it. After all, I’d never been anywhere without them or someone they trusted.

Tallinn would have to wait another 6 years

Instead, I saved up, bought a ticket for one to Helsinki, Finland (I paid for it in cash!) and planned the solo trip without their knowledge.

All this was new to me, of course. No familiar faces would meet me at my destination, English was not the first language, and I had to avoid getting lost in a country nearly 500 times the size of Singapore. Nonetheless, challenge accepted.

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At least the Finns seemed harmless if the racing drivers I had seen on TV were reliable markers.

Helsinki on my first solo trip
The cathedral is probably the most recognisable landmark in the capital

As the newcomer to the region (and to minimise the distractions from her coursework), I did most of the planning, and I relied on borrowed guide books and TripAdvisor reviews. With every tip and photograph the wander, ust grew, and it was very satisfying to see the itinerary of our solo trip take shape.

I let my parents in on my plans only when it was too late to change anything.

Going it alone

The upshot of flying on Christmas eve was getting an entire row to stretch out on, so the flight was actually comfortable even in economy class. Feeling reasonably fresh, I tested the air outside the airport. It was the mildest December on record, but it was still frigid for someone who had just arrived from the tropics.

Not an ounce of snow to be seen outside
Christmas 2006: Not an ounce of snow anywhere

Getting to Helsinki in 2018: My Finnair A350 flight experience

The realisation that I was finally in Europe only sank in when I arrived at the railway station square and looked around. 19th-Century architecture, Scandinavian modern designs and a tongue that I’d previously heard only in televised interviews surrounded me. The landmarks that were mentioned in guidebooks were even better looking in three dimensions. I held Euro coins in my hand, stood on cobblestones and watched my breath freeze mid-air.

This place felt unreal and being alone heightened that impression

The Helsinki railway station

Finding the Eurohostel was easy, as the tram stops had maps and arrival time indicators, features that had yet to appear back home. At that moment it seemed like I had teleported to the near future.

After the easiest first-ever check-in I could have asked for, I took a walk around the city while I waited for a text message from my other half to meet her. It was mid-afternoon and the winter sun was already setting over the harbour. Such gradual light changes are non-existent near the equator. I was also treated to the rare daytime sight of an empty kauppatori (market square).

Sunset over the harbour
Sunset over the harbour

Little details stood out and amazed me: One had to wait for the lift doors to close as there were only buttons to open them; departmental store staff had the languages they spoke indicated by flags on their name tags. It seems laughable to people who grew up with these things, but I’d never thought about these possibilities or noticed them in the past when other things had my attention.

The Christmas window display at Stockmann departmental store

And then there was the food

I didn’t go to Europe to eat Asian food and it’s still a rule I abide by to this day. Train stations are hardly bastions of culinary refinement, but I had few options on Christmas Day. I still enjoyed the lohikeitto (salmon stew) at the cafeteria, even though the taste of dill was new to me.

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The text arrived and it was time to go, but finding the bus to get to the ferry terminal proved a little tricky. I had the first of my ‘oops’ travel moments when I tried to board one that had just reached the end of its route, and I recognised my mistake only from the driver’s tone. No harm done there, though, as I realised we probably wouldn’t meet again. I laughed it off and forgave myself, something which I struggled to do at times.

I made it in the end though, after walking around and taking the right bus, and boy and girl were happily united.

Tired, happy hands
Tired, happy hands

The aftermath

While the relationship ended some time after the trip, the passion for travel that it inspired stuck. It was empowering to be able to manage my life and my experiences for a week without parental intervention. I relive that feeling whenever I research and plan a trip. From then on, I started pushing what I once thought were the limits of my capabilities. I visited developing countries, going places completely on my own, staying with Couchsurfers and working abroad.

The experiences have shaped my values, beliefs, attitudes and practices, beginning with that first solo trip. I have my motorsport-loving friends and my reluctant family to thank for that.

What was your first solo trip like?