Solo Travel Memoirs: A Love of Travel Rooted in Books

Last updated on July 22nd, 2021

Featured image: Jane getting crafty with local children in the library she volunteered at for six years in Peru

How Jane Claud’s life changed at a tiny library in the Peru jungle  

By Amanda Burgess, Editor, JourneyWoman

Jane Claud married a dairy farmer when she was still in college, and the life of a farmer’s wife is tethered to home. They don’t get to go too far too often. A lover of books and learning, she was a librarian at the local high school, and was serendipitously offered an opportunity to travel to France. 

“The French Club was going to Paris over Easter break and they opened it up to any of the faculty. I said to my husband Ronnie: Why don’t we do this? It doesn’t cost very much – it would be wonderful.’ He looked at me like I was crazy,” she recalls. “He said: ‘It’s planting time. I can’t go anywhere, but you can.’ So, I did. Two years later, I went with the Spanish Club to Spain, mostly in Madrid. Then I didn’t get back to Europe again for probably 25 years, but I think it was these opportunities that made me aware that this is something I could do.”

Jane Claud (far right, wearing tinted glasses) with the French Club on the 1978 trip to Paris that sparked her wanderlust

Jane Claud (far right, wearing tinted glasses) with the French Club on the
1978 trip to Paris that sparked her wanderlust

Solo traveller in training

To prep for a day when she’d travel solo, Claud began with solo days on those early trips. Her birthday hit during her trip to Paris – a day on which she did not have to play chaperone. She spent the day wandering around the city, winding her way to Montmartre – a hill in Paris’ 18th arrondissement – for sunset. With some high school and adult learning French, she ended up in conversation with a group of French men from Morocco. 

“I wound up having dinner with them, eating chicken and rice with our hands and drinking wine from the bottle. I was just so proud of myself that I had spent that day completely on my own,” she says. “They walked me back to the hotel so I would get home safely. I was a bit hungover the next day, but I’d had my first solo adventure. Strangely, I was meant to be in Paris on my birthday again this year, but of course that was cancelled.”

After divorcing her dairy farmer husband, Jane began exploring New York state on her own. She roadtripped to Cooperstown – a three to four-hour drive from home – enjoying the fall foliage. 

“I stayed in a nice hotel, ate and drank by myself, went to museums and spent the weekend there. It was the first time that I had driven more than a couple hours on my own. It told me that I could be alone, be independent, and do my thing. I was probably about 30 then,” says Claud. 

Her first big solo trip

It would be years before her first big solo trip, spending a month in Malaga. She hunted for a homestay and found a three-bedroom apartment owned by two Swedish women that boasted one of her must-have travel luxuries – a bathtub. 

“It was a stone’s throw away from the home where Picasso was born, out of the tourist areas. There was a shopping district there, and I shopped local markets, went to the local tapas places. The woman who was the gatekeeper for the house told me where to shop and introduced me to the bartenders and shopkeepers,” she says. “I had a bus pass and would walk, walk, walk until I was exhausted, and then find a bus. I bought bubble bath and had one every single night.”

Jane with a statue of Picasso outside of his birthplace in Malaga, Spain

Jane with a statue of Picasso outside of his birthplace in Malaga, Spain

The experience taught her how valuable it is to stay in one place, get to know the shops and shopkeepers, and have time to do all the things that you want. Travel in general has taught her to observe, enjoy and understand without judgement. In line with JourneyWoman values, Claud describes herself as a curious and open-minded traveller. Those qualities lead her to one of the most transformative travel experiences in her life, in the jungles of Peru.

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One of the markets in Malaga, one of Jane's favourite places to visit while travelling anywhere in the world

One of the markets in Malaga, one of Jane’s favourite places to visit while travelling anywhere in the world

“The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.”
– Albert Einstein

“It was the morning of my 65th birthday and I trekked with a guide through the jungle. We were the only people in this part of it – just us, the birds, monkeys, butterflies and silence. The joy of that!” she says. “Normally, this excursion would have gone next to the local health clinic, but the water level was record-breaking high. The guide knew that I was a retired librarian, and pulled the boat right up to the porch of this little library.”

A young American teacher, who was acting librarian, told Claud that the library had never had a trained librarian as a volunteer. She admitted that she spoke little Spanish, and the woman told her that the kids speak Spanish only and all of the library’s books are Spanish language. The need she’d so clearly seen at that tiny library in the jungle stuck with her, and she spent the next two years fundraising and learning Spanish for her return to Peru. 

Jane teaching an English class in Peru

Jane teaching an English class in Peru

“I’ve spent six years volunteering there – three weeks every fall until 2020,” says Claud. “So, I would say that day was a really transformative one for me. It’s been so valuable for me to feel that I’ve made a difference in so many children’s lives over those six years. I can’t imagine how many books I’ve brought over the years, how many crafts.”

Jane getting friendly with the local wildlife in Peru

Jane getting friendly with the local wildlife in Peru

Claud would write to the president of LATAM Airlines Peru and ask him to allow her extra free pieces of luggage beyond the allotted two, stuffing them full of books and art supplies. She requested one extra piece the first year, and eventually pushed it to six. 

“I’d pick up old suitcases from my friends and the Salvation Army, and leave all but my own. I traded with the women for clothing and jewelry. They knew me in the local community as Tia Juanita. I walked through the community alone, without any worries, and people greeted me and invited me into their homes,” she says. “I gave those kids new books every year, read with them, and gave them individual attention. Every child likes that.”

The little library has since closed, and Claud no longer feels the pull of the jungle in Peru. She’s done all she needed to do there. Libraries in general? She’ll never stop feeling that pull.  

You can take the librarian out of the library, but she’ll keep going back

Libraries have always featured in Claud’s travels. On her first trip to Barcelona, she was travelling with another retired librarian, and they found their way to a library.

“I remember our delight in exploring and realizing that they used the Dewey Decimal System, just like we do in our public libraries. I’ve visited many libraries throughout my travels,” she says. “I also love to see the libraries of rich people, like the Biltmore, or the Bodleian at Oxford. I’m a library user – I don’t ever buy books, except for guide books.”

Her best tips for a life well-travelled

  1. Learn some of the language before you go: “Directions, food, numbers – not only for the prices of things, but sizes. Understand how sizes work if you might want to buy any clothing or shoes. I remember being in the flea markets in Malaga and trying to figure out sizing – you can’t try on things there – and hoping and praying.”
  2. Go off the beaten path: “Try to go where the tourists don’t. About 15 years ago, I was on one of the early travel review sites communicating with someone from Skagway, Alaska before a cruise, and he said: ‘You know, everybody just walks up and down the main street. They take that wonderful train trip, and that’s all they see of Skagway. We might be a small town, but we’re beautiful.’ When we got off the train, my travel companion and I headed in a different direction and ended up in a neighbourhood with beautiful flowers. I saw his work van and knocked on it. He loaded us in and drove us around for two hours, showing us the sights – all because I followed his advice. I try to remember that.”
  3. Have good walking shoes: “Be prepared with shoes that will take you as far as you want to walk – and be in shape to do that. I’ve walked 10 miles a day in Paris.”
  4. Follow your nose to your next meal: “Five years ago, when I was travelling through Turkey, I spent two weeks in Istanbul. I was walking around and saw a restaurant off of the main drag where people were sitting on the floor eating at low tables. I’m a little creaky, but I decided I was going to try it. I honestly don’t remember what I ate, but the uniqueness of being there with all these other people on that same level and shoes off stayed with me.” 
  5. Connect with locals, and be open to their suggestions: “My best friend Diane’s 84-year-old father is from France, and in his youth, dated an English woman who he reconnected with about 15 years ago. She runs an inn in Oxford, which is owned by one of the colleges, and I’ve visited about five times now. The first time I visited her, she told me in advance: ‘There’s an art show opening the evening of your arrival. You’re only going to have 10 minutes to get ready.’ We went to one of the colleges, and there was an exhibit of photography by a professor emeritus. I met a woman who was a gardener at one of the colleges. I met a woman who had written a biography of Iris Murdoch. Interesting people. It’s so valuable having Pat as my friend.” 

At our June book club on the Caribbean, Jane suggested visiting libraries in Cuba:

“The National Library José Martí is a 17 story tall building in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana. The first three floors are open to the public, where one can do research or wander around appreciating artwork. The lowest floor is a two-room circulating collection, including a children’s room.  These are the only books that can be circulated, and it is well worth a stop to see.  

Each province has a Municipal Library. The Municipal Library of Cienfuegos is in a beautiful marble 1879 building, originally a Lyceum.  Due to funding issues, the building is not in good condition, and the collection suffers. There are over 300 public libraries in Cuba. Castro held great respect for literacy. 

The Museum for the National Literacy Campaign (Museo Nacional de la Campaña de Alfabetización), in Mariana, near Havana, documents Castro’s 1961 campaign to bring literacy to all people on the island. To do this, he sent literate young adults out to the countryside to teach reading to children and adults.  The test of literacy was a handwritten letter to Castor. At the end of the year, 96% of all Cubans were “literate”. 

The “Casa de las Americas” is considered the most prestigious cultural institution in Cuba, also located in Havana. Among other things it holds a rich archive of Cuba’s cultural relations with Latin America.”

More Solo Travel Memoirs to Discover

Amanda Burgess, a Toronto-based writer and creative strategist whose bags are always packed for her next adventure, is our Editor at JourneyWoman. She is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), and a Certified Cancer Journey Coach who creates a safe space for cancer patients and caregivers to design their dream lives – while living with cancer, and on the other side of it.

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1 Comment

  1. Jane S. Gabin

    This is an inspiring story. I, also, love to travel solo and I have had some very interesting experiences. Go, women, go!

    Reply

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