The Road Trip Routine

The Road Trip Routine

The smell of coffee in vehicles makes me nauseous.

My parents know this; I tell them year after year, but they still always insist on filling their thermoses with McDonalds’ coffee right before we hit the road.  It’s something I’ve come to accept, part of the road trip routine.

Every year we make the 13-hour drive from St. Albert to the Gulf Islands and by now every one of those thirteen hours can be whittled down to a list of expectations.

June  1998 – Hour Seven, Day Two.  

I am beginning to doze off already, even though we just got back on the highway.  I’ve just swallowed a Gravol to counteract the coffee odour and the pill is already starting to kick in.  It’s seven in the morning, and the sun still hides behind the tree-lined mountains, but my parents are antsy and ready to get moving.  Before I forget, I lock my door, and bark at my brother to do the same.  It’s a silly habit; I never lock the doors for city driving.

In the passenger seat my Mom pops a CD into the player.  Nobody has to ask what album she chose; we always listen to Meat Loaf right after we cross the B.C. border.  The screech and moans of Meat Loaf’s guitar fill the air while he sings about Paradise by the Dashboard Light.  I’m old enough to know the words, but too young to know what they mean.

I reach for the yellow Tupperware container that rests at my feet and pass around some Jolly Ranchers, as usual ensuring that I get the watermelon ones.  When the track changes to a mournful love ballad I feel my eyelids getting heavy again.  I put on my headphones and reach for the pile of pink cassette tapes that sits between me and my brother.  Fred Penner is better for the next stretch of road; we’re headed into the valley.

The Liebster Blog Award

The Liebster Blog Award

Last week, I received a nomination from fellow travel bloggers Ben and Charli at Wanderlusters.  I recently came across their blog through the travel photo roulette competitions, and was amazed by the gorgeous photos they’ve been posting!  So thank you both for the nomination!  I look forward to seeing more of your posts.

The Liebster Blog Award functions as a sort of chain letter between up-and-coming bloggers.  It serves to recognize the work of newcomers and promote connections in the blogging scene!

Instructions for the nominees:
• Link back to the blogger that nominated you
• Write 11 random facts about yourself
• Answer the 11 questions that the blogger who nominated you posted
• Nominate 11 other bloggers
• Ask them 11 questions


So.. here it goes!

Eleven Random Facts

1. I am probably the most patriotic Dutch person outside of the Netherlands.. Well at least in Canada! 🙂

2. I really like long, old movies… Some of my favourites include: Gone With the Wind, Dr. Zhivago, and It’s a Wonderful Life. My favourite genre is historical fiction: Zwartboek, Ever After, and Titanic being a few of my favourites.

3. My name, Ellen, means light Ellen - Salsa, 18 Feb, 2012 16

4. I have a degree in history and writing. I’m doing my Master’s in writing, but am hoping to eventually complete a doctorate in Holocaust studies.

5. I am really obsessive compulsive about some things: for example, I hate it when people leave cupboards or drawers partially open, and I hate it when the pages of a new book get dirty or bent – I try to keep all my books looking as if they’ve never been read.

6. I eat more tortilla chips and salsa than anyone else I know. My brother and I used to go through 1.5 L of salsa and a couple bags of Tostitos per week. Right now I’m on a diet, which is mainly peanut-butter based, so that’s not going too well either.

7. I really like farm animals – especially cows and ducks. When I was in Holland when I was ten, I named a group of goats and visited them every day.

8. I own over 30 dresses, but only one pair of jeans.

9. I’m left handed, and am completely useless at sports. I like to blame the latter fact on the former. 😉

10. I’ve broken my left arm twice (see #9). Both times involved running on roads in unsafe conditions (gravel and rain).

11. Salsa dancing has infiltrated all aspects of my life. I dance many times a week, and travel all over the world to salsa clubs and events!

Eleven Questions from the Wanderlusters

1. If your budget was unlimited, what would your itinerary include?
One of the best experiences I had on my South America trip was a helicopter ride over Iguazu Falls. It cost $100 USD for ten minutes, but it was a splurge that I have zero regrets about. I think having a limitless budget would allow me to say yes to all of the opportunities that I pass up in hopes of saving. Extended camel treks through the desert, scuba diving, hot air balloon rides… at some point these will all have to happen, regardless of my budget.

2. What’s the best piece of advice you could give us?
Do what YOU want, and travel the way YOU enjoy traveling. You don’t want to look back on your trip and realize that it was completely catered to your companion’s interests. Everyone travels in different ways, so consider your own travel needs. Sleep in if you want, or indulge in expensive restaurants while skimping on accommodations.

3. Where do you call home?
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Soon to be the Netherlands…

4. What (if anything) inspired your desire to travel?
When I was ten, my parents took my brother and I on a six-month camping trip across Western Europe. That led to a permanent infection with the travel bug.

5. What’s the one “unnecessary” item you always pack?
Salsa shoes! I can’t imagine a trip without at least one night of dancing!

6. Who would you most like to invite to dinner?
Living Male: Obama… or Orlando Bloom/Enrique Iglesias 😉
Living Female: Princess Maxima of the Netherlands
Historical Male: William Shakespeare or Julius Caesar
Historical Female: Anne Frank or Anne Boleyn

7. Which member of your family do you take after?
My mom’s Dutch cousin, Hannie, is the most traveled person I know. She’s been to something like 80 countries, is a fabulous photographer, and has a great sense of style… I’d like to believe that some of her traits have drifted across the Pacific to me! 😉

Ryan Air Flight8. Which is your preferred method of transport? Air, land, or sea?
I used to get really sick on planes, but I love flying and am mesmerized by airports. Now that I can handle flying a bit better, it’s definitely my #1 choice!

9. What’s your worst habit?
I am extremely, extremely bad at making decisions.

10. Have you ever lost anything on your travels?
Once I lost weight, but sadly that was a one-trip experience. Normally I don’t lose much, although on my last trip I lost one of my favourite shirts, and someone stole my phone.

11. What do you aspire to achieve in your lifetime?
Publishing a best-selling, award-winning novel! (High enough aspiration?)



Now that I’ve answered these questions, here are the 11 other new bloggers that I would like to nominate:

1. Meredith of Curious Meredith

2. Nicole of Nicole Basaraba

3. Ashley of Ashley Abroad

4. Russ of The World on My Back

5. Alouise of Traveler Ahoy

6. Richie of The Dancing Irishman (Salsa/Travel)

7.  Julika of Sateless Suitcase

8. Marti of Down the Wrabbit Hole

9. Alison of A Flamingo in Utrecht

And now a couple of non-travel, but still fantastic starter blogs

10. Adriana of History and Such

11. Peter of Peter Keith  (Cooking tips)

DSC09684Here are my 11 questions for you:
• What are the coldest and hottest climates that you’ve experienced?
• Which would you rather pack if you had to choose just one item: a bathing suit, or a dressy outfit?
• What is your favourite travel tune?
• Have you ever been to a concert or music festival abroad? What was the experience like?
• What is the first thing you like to do when you return home from a trip?
• Do you pack books or an e-reader? Or what is your technological must-have?
• What is the strangest food you’ve sampled abroad?
• What country do you think has the best alcoholic beverages or beer?
• Is there anywhere to which you never want to return?
• Where was your first flight, and how old were you?
• What is your occupation, if you’re not a full-time blogger?

La Viajera Auditions for the Amazing Race Canada

La Viajera Auditions for the Amazing Race Canada

“Esther asks why people are sad. ‘That’s simple,’ says the old man. ‘They are the prisoners of their personal history. Everyone believes that the main aim in life is to follow a plan. They never ask if that plan is theirs or if it was created by another person. They accumulate experiences, memories, things, other people’s ideas, and it is more than they can possibly cope with. And that is why they forget their dreams.’” — Paulo Coelho, The Zahir


In line with the idea of forging our own paths in life and ignoring the “American Dream” plan, my younger brother, Peter, and I have sent in our audition tape to Canada’s version of Amazing Race.  We are just one of hundreds and hundreds of pairs who entered, but we thought it was a fun project to do together.  You never know, maybe we’ll have a shot.

For our video, we decided to do a spoof of the new Molson Canadian commercial (Check it out here).  Enjoy!


One Year and 68 450 km Later… the Final Map of My Journey

One Year and 68 450 km Later… the Final Map of My Journey

It’s been exactly one year since I packed up my bags and took off to Edmonton International Airport for the trip of a lifetime.  (They call it that, but I plan on making it a more-than-once-in-a-lifetime-trip).  At that point, I really knew nothing about what I was getting myself into.  I started off the trip on a high with the Vancouver Salsa Festival.   From there, I headed to Europe, where I spent some time with some of my most beloved Dutch family members, and of course, my close friends.  I even got the experience of St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland with someone very dear to me.  Then it was off to Portugal, and onward to Brazil.

Looking back, it amazes me how many places I visited, and things are beginning to get a little fuzzy.  I’ve been home almost two months now, and I know I’ve slowly slipped into the post-trip rut.  You know the feeling: work seems like a huge chore, and you’re already itching to get out there again.  Some things about home stayed the same, but other aspects (especially of friendships) have changed.  There have been a few days lately when I just want to leave for the Netherlands now…

I think the issue and perceived solution of leaving are one in itself.  Because I know I won’t be here for too long, I haven’t dug in deep roots.  I view everything as temporary.  I haven’t bought a car, haven’t found a “career” job, and have no interest in looking for a relationship.  So I haven’t quite let myself routine to a settled routine.

So it’s with mixed emotions that I look back on my trip today.  It’s gotten to the point that my trip seems like a distant memory.  It’s amazing how quickly the rush and clutter of Western life sets in again.  But I know that while I’m here, I will take full advantage of my amazing friends and salsa opportunities, and hold out until it’s time to hit the road again.

Fortunately enough, I get to go on a mini trip this coming week.  Better yet, it’s to the 2013 Vancouver Salsa Festival, where I will get to see a few people that I met on my trip last year, either at the very same congress, or in South America!  I can’t wait to reconnect with them on the other side of the world, and watch my year come around full circle.

For anyone who is interested, here is the final map of my trip.  I’ve listed the dates and hostels that I stayed in in every location, for a reference tool for anyone who is planning their own trip.  Contact me if you have any questions about the accommodations!

Over 315 days, I traveled through an estimated 84 cities/towns in 17 countries, using 29 planes, 15 boats, 5 motorcycles, 3 bicycles, 1 helicopter… and more metros, trains, and buses than I can count.

 Total Distance – 68, 640 km  (This is a rough estimate based on the most direct routes, as opposed to the actual highways/roads journeyed.  The number should actually be MUCH higher than this)

Total Hostels/Accommodations: 55+



View La Viajera — The Trip in a larger map

Photo Friday: Solitude and the Sand Dunes in Florianopolis, Brazil

Photo Friday: Solitude and the Sand Dunes in Florianopolis, Brazil

I finally understand the hardest part of solo travel.

It’s not dealing with unsafe situations, nor is it trying to make friends.  It’s not even the inconvenience of cramming a backpack into a filthy bathroom stall.

It’s being back home.

Don’t take this the wrong way — I’m not lonely.  I feel overwhelmed by the number of friends who have been asking me to meet up for coffee.  Yet no matter how many people ask about my trip, or look at my photos, there is still something I can never transmit — the memories.

When my brother and a few of my friends came to visit at various points during my trip, I thought that it was fantastic to have the company.  I wasn’t lonely then either — I was making lots of local friends.  But having loved ones visit gave me people with whom to share the experiences, and more importantly, the memories upon my return.

Still, there are a few countries in which I was completely alone: Ecuador, Uruguay, and Brazil.*  Now that I’m in Canada, those memories are locked in my mind.

Last week, the Brazilian hit “Balada Boa” came on at a Latin bar.  While everyone else let loose and danced in a circle, a wave of emotion hit me.  I was transported back to my road trip across southern Brazil.  Vinicius, a local who was on a tour of his own country, had driven me from Paranagua to Florianopolis, and during the four-hour trip, we discussed our faourite zouk music and sang along to “Balada Boa.”  Nobody here will every remember that, nor will they remember the night we spent dancing zouk and forro on the beach of an almost-deserted island.

The same thing happened last night as I listened to a CD of Uruguayan guitar music for the first time.  It had been a gift from the artist himself, an old man who I met along La Rambla in Montevideo.  No matter who listens to the album with me, nobody will be able to recall the smile on the old man’s face, or his deep concern for my safety as I continued my run along the beach.

Those memories are all mine.  

I have this idea that, every year that I get older, it will become harder and harder to find a “soulmate.”  Not because all of the good men will be taken, but simply because each year leads to thousands of new memories that I will never be able to truly share with my future husband.  They are things that I can only try to tell and explain through words and photos.  Maybe that’s why some people are so afraid of ending a long-term relationship — they’re afraid of losing years of shared memories.  In the same way, some people are afraid of traveling alone.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but nothing is like having been there yourself.

*Well, in Brazil I did have the opportunity to meet up with a couple of friends from my semester abroad in the Netherlands, but they don’t live in North America either, so the problem is the same.  (I don’t want you to think I’m forgetting about you Sandra, Thais, and Jorge!)

Visiting a House, Remembering a Home

Visiting a House, Remembering a Home

“I don’t want to be little again. But at the same time I do. I want to be me like I was then, and me as I am now, and me like I’ll be in the future. I want to be me and nothing but me. . . I want to be every single thing it’s possible to be. I’m growing and I don’t know how to grow. I’m living but I haven’t started living yet.”
― David Almond in Jackdaw Summer



January 21, 2013

I turn the Toyota Corolla onto a slippery, unplowed suburban street.  The car isn’t mine.  Like many things in my life these days, it was lent to me to aid my transition back to “real life.”

The tires squeal as they slide along the ice.  Some things haven’t changed — 22 years on this crescent, and each one involved terrible winter roads.

I pass a man shoveling snow.  I’ve known him since I was three — the father of my first best friend.  He lives at the end of a keyhole, and we used to mock my mother because she would  habitually turn her head to glance at their house as we drove past.  Once, my brother and I even taped a sign to her windshield — “Don’t look left by the Riediger’s.”

My chest tightens as I round the bend.  #17 looms in front of me.  Dark brown, shadowed by a towering fir tree.

I still think it looks like a bunker.  Or a haunted house — every Halloween our place was the creepiest on the block, even once we stopped decorating it.

Cruuunch — go the tires. That driveway has always been tricky to shovel.

As I put the car in park, I spot the toys in the side yard.  Toys that were never mine.  They painted the garage door lighter, I note.

My vision blurs slightly, and I blink hard.

I ring the bell for a door that no longer opens with my keys.  I stare at the Christmas wreath until the door swings open.

A wide smile, a friendly face.  Behind her, a boy races up the stairs.  Has he already discovered that those steps are great for jumping tricks? My brother and I once choreographed a whole dance routine on those stairs, to “Backstreet’s Back.”  We pretended not to hear when the pop stars asked, “Am I sexuaaaal!?” just so my mother wouldn’t get mad.

“You must be Ellen.”

My focus snaps back as she greets me.  Her husband enters the hall.  He shakes my hand, and passes me a fat bundle of mail.

The floor plan of my house — their house, I should say — hangs, framed, on the wall in front of me, just where the settee used to sit.  The walls are yellow now, the floor, hardwood.

I smile politely, and ask what else they plan to change.  They’ll paint my bedroom, I suppose.  Nobody wants purple-spotted walls.

We talk light fixtures and baseboards while I listen for footsteps and recurring thuds.  (Meisje always bumped into things.) But there’s no Schnauzer coming to greet me, and the silence tells me I can’t linger any longer.

“You’ve kept the bookshelves,” I remark as I turn to leave.

“Yes.  They’re beautiful bookshelves.”

For the first time, I realize, they are clear of clutter.

The Toughest Adjustment After Returning Home? — Facing You

The Toughest Adjustment After Returning Home? — Facing You

“Back to reality” — it’s a saying I’ve never liked.

We create our own reality.  If you don’t like yours — change it.

Still, at the end of every trip, it’s a phrase that we toss around.  It symbolizes a return to work.  To responsibility. To routine.

For the first time ever, I was excited to return to Canada.  To see friends and family.  I couldn’t consider this a return to reality.  In 2012, “reality” had meant waking up every day with no commitments or sense of where I would end up.  I wasn’t going to return to my “old” life back home; I would be continuing the path in my new one.

My plane touched down in Edmonton last Wednesday at 2 AM (three hours late), in the middle of a blizzard.  Even the weather couldn’t quell my excitement.

Within hours of landing, I was hit by so-called “reality.”  Not work.  Not responsibility.  Relationships.

The biggest adjustment this time around has been the reintroduction of friends and family into my daily routine.  While traveling alone, I made new friends, but my interactions with the closest people in my life were generally limited to Skype sessions and social media.

I forgot about gossip.  I got over a broken heart.  I avoided jealousy and drama.  I learned to be more independent.  Too independent, perhaps. 

I was lucky enough to have amazing friends come to visit while I was gone, but for most of the time, I was alone. — Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia

Suddenly, I’m immersed in a world where people know me.   Inside and out.  I have acquaintances, exes, friends, and maybe even an enemy or two.

It’s a fabulous feeling to walk into a bar, and see a circle of familiar faces.  To enjoy a meal with my family.  To get advice, and share secrets.  But, I’d forgotten what it was like to tell someone news, and watch it spread and mutate at a cancerous rate.  To have people judge and assume.  Tell me who to date, and who to stay away from.   My life is on display again.

After getting used to so much independence, and the ability to disappear in the Amazon for a week without hearing from anyone, it’s a bit of a change.  Yet considering that I already expose much of my life via this blog , I can’t call it a major issue.  The bottom line is, I love my friends, I love my family, and I love that they care.

You are the reason I came home.  


And so ends 315 days of travel…

And so ends 315 days of travel…

In a few hours, I will head to El Dorado airport to travel the final 6651 km of my trip.

Tomorrow’s destination: Edmonton, Canada.


Over the last 315 days, I’ve found myself in 84 cities/towns in 17 different countries.  (Including flight layovers).  To get to these places, I’ve used 29 planes, 15 boats, five motorcycles, three bicycles, one helicopter… and more metros, trains, and buses than I can possibly count off the top of my head.

I’ve met hundreds of people, many of which have opened their homes to me or shared with me their food and stories.  Some of these people have become close friends, and I know for sure I will see them again in the future.  To everyone I’ve met, I am forever grateful for the way you have shaped my trip.  And of course, to my brother and friends from Canada/Holland who came and met up with me, thank you for your visits!  I’m glad I have people I love to share some of these memories with once I am home. 

Above all, thank you to everyone who has supported my writing by keeping up with  For those of you who may have been wondering, my return to Canada will not mean the end of this website.  I’ve already renewed the domain for another year, and hope to extend it beyond that.  I have ten months of stories built up, and have hardly scratched the surface of that with what I’ve posted so far.  I have received lots of messages asking for South America travel advice, so in addition I want to build this site as a practical resource.  Above all, I hope to use this as a stepping stone for a career in (travel?) writing.

Some upcoming stories include…

-My Near-Death Experience on a Bolivian Bus

-How to budget a multi-month trip

-“Yellow Underwear” and Other Colombian New Year’s Superstitions

-Notes on Being a “Strawberry” in Mexico

-“So Why Don’t You Have a Boyfriend?” — Reflections on Being a Single Solo Traveler

– One Malbec, Two Malbec, Three Malbec…Floor: Biking the Argentine Wine District

-How to Survive a Dutch Night Out


I hope that you continue to read and enjoy what I have to share.  My next adventure is just around the corner!

Thank you all once again for reading and participating in my trip.  For those of you in Canada, I can’t wait to see you all!

All my love,

La Viajera