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How Kayaking in Croatia Broke (and Rebuilt) Me

I’ll admit, I’ve been dreading writing this post. Lots of deadlines and a two-week vacation with super limited connectivity in Nepal gave me handy excuses for putting it off. But at the end of the day, excuses is all they are. There’s nowhere else to run and the time has come for me to talk about kayaking.

This is truly everything travel can be.

The Set Up

I don’t remember when I first learned you could kayak around the city walls of Dubrovnik in Croatia, but suffice to say it’s been on my bucket list for a long time. In fact, it drove much of my desire to go to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast in the first place. After spending a couple hours walking the city walls this August, my walk to the bus stop was interrupted by a representative for one of the larger sea kayaking tour companies. I rarely accept brochures on the street, but this was something I had genuine interest in, so I agreed to hear him out.

The rep gave his spiel, emphasizing that the trip was easy and didn’t require any kayaking experience. Right away, my biggest concern was alleviated. I had been kayaking exactly once before. It was just a few seconds to cross a river out of necessity on a long weekend road trip with my boyfriend. Not exactly a formal lesson. But in this instance, it appeared that everyone in the tour group got a partner and a guide would teach a beginners lesson before hitting the water. It was a reasonable price and included lunch. Everything seemed to be in order, so later that day, I messaged the rep and booked a tour for the next morning.

dubrovnik-city-walls-1z

Bucket List Gone Bad

I headed down to the beach the next day, paid my fee in cash, and met the guide who was outfitting everyone with their life vests. He asked if I had ever been kayaking before and I said yes, once. He laughed and said “Oh, great, that instills a lot of confidence!” before brushing the sarcastic comment off as a joke. I should have recognized the red flag right then and there.

The guide then explained that there was a slim chance that as a solo traveler I might have to take a single kayak. Well, who doesn’t want to be a good sport in that situation? I had already paid cash. He seemed confident it wouldn’t actually come to that. I agreed to hold tight and see what happened. Mistake number two.

As the rest of the group trickled into our little cove, I noticed everyone else seemed to be in pairs and families. I’ve thought it several times since and I thought it on that beach standing before our red and yellow boats. “Am I the only person in the world who does fun things by myself?”

I bet you can see where this is going, you smart reader you. The time came to pull into the water and I was the odd man out. The only person in the group who did not get a partner and had to pilot a single kayak. My ‘good sport’ attitude lasted ten minutes tops. Because as we pulled our paddles through the deep turquoise of the Adriatic, I quickly realized that I wasn’t simply being asked to kayak by myself. I had been asked to do the work of two people.

Calling It Quits

Naturally, I was physically impossible of kayaking as fast as two people working together. The double kayaks all pulled ahead of me with ease and I trailed far behind the group. I worked myself to the point of feeling ill and still just couldn’t do it. At the first stop, the guide delivered a pointed speech about the importance of keeping up the pace. He said an assistant guide would split off to a shorter path for anyone who wanted to take their time getting to the beach cave on our itinerary, instead of paddling all the way around Lokrum Island. We should choose wisely. He might as well have called me by name, right?

Well, I know when enough is enough. I am five feet tall, slim, and inexperienced. I cannot kayak with the power of two people. The assistant guide branched off. I was the only one to follow. The heat, the motion of the waves, the sinking reality of my physical limitations. After a few strokes, I was queasy. The assistant guide hooked my boat to his and towed me the short distance to the beach cave where we waited for the rest of the group to arrive.

I sat quietly, nibbling at my sandwich. Who knows which was churning more furiously, my seasick stomach or my troubled mind. I tried desperately to hold the thoughts of failure at bay. How long had I waited for this? And now I couldn’t do it? They wouldn’t have let me go out alone if it was unreasonable, right? So the fault must be my own.

The rest of the group pulled in with the main guide several minutes later. He strode across the beach in his wetsuit to greet me, and had the gall to say he was “disappointed” in me and ask if I was hung over. It was the final straw. The impossibility of this kayaking trip, the stress of hopping from place to place every few days, the amount of gear I had lost or broken over the last couple months, the worries for my grandfather recently out of the ICU… Every flawed piece of my hare-brained European adventure came tumbling down.

dubrovnik-kayaking-1a

Hitting Bottom

Tears welled up behind my sunglasses and the guide tried to pass off his appalling comments as jokes. I don’t care if that’s your sense of humor. Those are completely unprofessional things to say to a paying customer you’ve only just met. He walked away and I tried to hold it together with every fiber of my being. When he returned, I had my family troubles on my mind at the moment and let all of that out. I realized that even though it had been at least two weeks since getting the news, I hadn’t said it out loud. The life of a solo traveler – you rarely have people to physically talk to and so much stays in your mind. With this confession, the tears came more freely and I just gave up on any attempt to save face.

To his credit, the guide sat patiently and I hope felt extremely bad about teasing me on what was clearly one of my worst days. I calmed down and took a quick dip beneath the cool ocean water before the return trip. It was of course, more of the same. More stinging saltwater in my eyes as I desperately worked to catch up with the group. More sitting uselessly as the assistant guide gave up and tethered my boat to his.

I took the bus back to my hostel where my dorm mates – fortunately some of the best I’ve had all trip – asked how the tour went and laughed as I explained just how much it blew.

My attempt to kayak around Dubrovnik’s city walls forced me to confront my body’s limitations more than ever before. I did not have more than one or two opportunities to snap a quick photo, because I had to spend all my time paddling. It’s safe to say this was one of the least enjoyable experiences I’ve had on my entire RTW trip.

The Silver Lining

In spite of all that, I have to take some solace in one thing. (My proof that every cloud has its silver lining.) I cried in public and for the first time, maybe in my entire life, I genuinely did not care what anybody else thought of me. My tears were only for myself. They were my disappointment in not having the strength to fulfill this dream and enjoy an activity that’s been on my bucket list for years. To my own surprise, I wasn’t concerned with how my struggles looked to the rest of the group. And the more I thought about how I felt, shamelessly losing it on that beach, the less of a failure it seemed.

So I’m finally ready to admit that I am probably not cut out for kayaking. I’m a hiker and an urban backpacker. My strength is in my legs and back, not my arms. I’m a solo traveler. My strength is in my character and my independence, and I should probably steer clear of activities built for two. And I’m a long-term traveler. My strength is not in my bucket list, but in my ability to roll with the punches.

Kayaking may have broken me, but in just as many ways, it stripped away my image of what RTW travel would be like and made me see the traveler I truly am.

This wasn’t my only sub-par experience in Croatia. Read my review of Zagreb’s new Atomic Bunker Hostel.

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14 Comments

  1. I feel ya. I feel sometimes the compagnies let you do things dispite better judgement. I was in a kayak in France with my BF. In the first 5 minutes we encountered the worst thunderstorm of my life, as we were on the water (stupid) the river swoll up to outer proportions, making it impossible for the two of us to navigate our boat across the rapids. We flipped every.. single… time… by the 7th time we decided to walk around the rapids and at the end of the day, reaching our camp completely broken, we decided not to continue the 2nd day. It coasted us double the amount to be picked up at that point and get the kayak returned, but I think it was the wisest decision ever. Later, news reports came that someone got killed.. that day, on the same river. So irresponsible. Anyways, I am amazed that you found the silver lining and didn’t let it get you down. That shows some true resiliance and you can be proud of that.
    Naomi recently posted…10 day Andalusia Road Trip ItineraryMy Profile

    • Danielle Bricker

      December 3, 2016 at 2:36 pm

      Oh my god! That is just insane. Good for you guys for knowing when to call it quits. It’s never an easy decision to make.

  2. Fantastic post! You’re definitely not the only one who finds themselves doing activities solo when everyone else has a partner or friend. Although my worst hasn’t been an activity but finding myself sitting alone having a 5-course candlelit dinner in a roomful of couples!! Solo travel is amazing but can be tough. The fact that we are both still traveling this way regardless says something though. Never be afraid to give in to the tears, to run away from your plans, or even spend a day in bed just because “today is crap”.

    • Danielle Bricker

      December 3, 2016 at 2:38 pm

      I feel ya Sarah. I’ve learned to really enjoy dining alone (and actually wrote an entire separate post about that), but being the only solo diner in a room full of lovey dovey couples can be rough, especially since I’m sustaining a long distance relationship during my trip.

  3. I’ve been kayaking once with a friend and I can vividly remember how exhausting it was! I can only imagine how difficult it must be to take a single kayak!

    • Danielle Bricker

      December 3, 2016 at 2:40 pm

      Yep. My first experience was a really short distance – very misleading as to how much work actual kayaking is. Maybe I’ll try again with a partner someday…but I think it will be a while!

  4. It’s a shame the guides felt it acceptable to joke around like that 🙁 I’m in Croatia now and just saw that kayaking is available year-round. Thank you for sharing!

    • Danielle Bricker

      December 3, 2016 at 2:42 pm

      Yes, in spite of my own experience, if you have someone to paddle with, I would still definitely recommend giving kayaking a try in Croatia. If you have the time to enjoy them, the views of the city walls are great.

  5. I’m so sorry your kayaking experience wasn’t what you expected. And that tour guide doesn’t sound like the nicest of guys. It must have been difficult to have that disappointment mixed with the personal issues you had at the time boil over – but at least you had good bunk mates to chat to later.

    • Danielle Bricker

      December 3, 2016 at 2:44 pm

      It’s true – guests make the hostel. The place I stayed in Dubrovnik (actually, technically in Komolac) isn’t winning any beauty awards anytime soon, but I’ve found cheap, super out of the way spots like that often attract the coolest people. Dubrovnik is still my favorite hostel stay of my last six months of travel.

  6. One of my girlfriends went for her 50th. Her friend said they spent most of their time trying to get off the rocks in the river! You know what they say…”What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”‘
    Super Happy it didn’t kill you!

  7. So sorry you had such a bad experience. That guide really should have known better!
    Rob recently posted…Kayak Groupon: Deals You Will LoveMy Profile

    • Danielle Bricker

      September 3, 2017 at 10:35 pm

      My guess is working day in, day out with tourists, he figured his role didn’t matter that much. He wouldn’t see a lot of repeat business anyway.

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