I could write a lot of pages about this new adventurer. But I can tell you the only thing you need to know now is that she is not only one of the most interesting people I’ve met in life, but she is also my friend. Helena is also the kind of traveller that really makes a difference in the places she visits, and you will know why now.
MT: Talk a bit about yourself
Helena Conlon: If you’d asked me this last year, I would’ve been able to give you a neat description of my job and extra-curricular hobbies and interests.
I had been a secondary school English teacher for the previous 10 years (with a one-and-a-half-year stint in Brazil teaching ESOL).
Like many British teachers, I loved the actual ‘teaching’ part of my job: when I closed my classroom door and it was just me and students.
However, the ever-more-restrictive teaching methods and pressure on teachers and students to achieve arbitrary exam results gave me a growing sense of dread.
In my spare time, I made up for that by passions and organising Brazilian cultural events centred around live music, dance and food; studied Portuguese and, following the break-up of a long-term relationship, began planning a career break.
In fact, I’ve recently returned to the UK after spending 4 months last year volunteering with refugees on the Greek island of Leros and visiting my sister in Perth, Australia, where she’s lived for the last 7 years.
But, like everyone now, I’m currently in the midst of an increasingly messy lockdown. For the last 10 weeks, I’ve been hunkering down in Leeds with my parents while I wait for international borders to reopen and to be able to return Leros.
MT: When did you start to be interested in travelling?
MT: Talk a bit about yourself
HC: It was in my first year of Uni when I took part in the University of Sheffield’s charity hitchhike, Bummit, from Sheffield to Riga, Latvia. I was 19, in a team with two other students I barely knew and, along with 149 other hitchhikers, had the mission of reaching Riga on a budget of £15. It was so much fun!
We did take a few risks which I wince at now, such as getting into the back of a (lovely) German trucker’s lorry with about 6 other ‘Bummiteers’ and travelling 200km along French and Belgian autoroutes, then pitching up a minuscule tent at the side of a motorway just outside Brussels.
We were one of the first teams to reach Berlin, our midpoint, after blagging a journey across Germany on a high-speed train. Another highlight was spending an afternoon in a local pub in the small Polish town of Bialystock.
We drank good Polish beer (and maybe a little vodka) while chatting to a lovely old man named Stanley who’d worked for years in the construction industry in London.
Our Polish was non-existent, and his English was very rusty, so we communicated by drawing on napkins.
As well as providing me with a stash of memorable anecdotes, I think one of the main things I took from the experience was an understanding that, ultimately, human beings are kind and helpful.
I’m still in touch with an old boss I worked for while at university. Whenever he hears about my latest trip, he tells me that that hitchhike has a lot to answer for!
MT: What is your first travel-related memory?
HC: Being on holiday at a small resort on Rhodes, Greece when I was 5 years old with my parents and sister. I clearly remember walking along the poorly lit, dirt road from our apartment to the taverna for our evening meal.
I still have an impression of the heat and the deafening sound of the cicadas – so different from Leeds where I grew up!
MT: What is your favourite place (travel destination) in the world? Why?
HC: I think it has to be our family’s special place: Keswick, Cumbria. It’s nestled between impressive fells on the edge of Derwent Water, one of the national park’s most beautiful lakes. Holidays there are simple affairs mainly involving walking and eating – what we love most!
We have our little family traditions (mainly, but not exclusively food-related) such a post-hike beer and Hungarian goulash at the walkers’ pub, The Dog and Gun; buying an ice cream and a bag of duck food from the kiosk by the lake and feeding the ducks; teasing my dad about his obsession with Ordnance Survey maps and subsequently getting lost, and not forgetting a good old-fashioned English cream tea.
My dad first went there as a child with my grandparents and my parents stayed at a bed and breakfast there for their honeymoon. Since I was a toddler, we’ve been countless times.
I think what we appreciate most is the headspace we all gain from the stunning countryside and experiencing life together at a slower pace.
MT: Have you ever had any bad experiences when travelling?
HC: When I was 22, I travelled for a few weeks with a bright and fun young Irish woman called Rachel. We’d met volunteering at an orphanage in Cambodia and after a month, decided to set off and see some of the countries together.
We parted ways when I went to Vietnam. About 6 weeks later, on the morning that I was catching a plane from Sydney to Bangkok to fly home, I logged into Facebook. I’d received a message from another volunteer asking me if I’d heard about Rachel and if I was ok.
I quickly looked at Rachel’s Facebook profile; it had been flooded with heartfelt messages to her and her family saying how special she had been. Others recounted little anecdotes about her.
Some said, ‘rest in peace’. I couldn’t understand what had happened to her and didn’t have time to process anything before rushing off to the airport.
I managed to read some news when I got to Bangkok. Twenty-five people had died after drinking Arak, the local bootleg spirit, that had been laced with methanol.
It was a big shock. I wrote to her parents when I got home and sent them all the photos and videos, I had of her. I don’t think her death ever really sunk in for me.
MT: Which countries have you travelled to?
HC: Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Holland, Andorra, the Czech Republic, Poland, Latvia, Greece, Italy, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Australia, Argentina, Chile and Brazil.
MT: Do you have any advice or tips for aspiring travellers?
HC: For a while now I’ve been reflecting on my obsession with travel within the context of climate change.
Lockdown has really brought home what we already knew: air travel is often unnecessary and a huge contributor to climate change.
We’ve seen clear skies, unspoilt by fuel trails, been able to hear the sweet little birds chirruping away and rediscovered affection for places (quite literally) on our doorstep.
For me personally, I feel it’s the start of a change in my travel habits. Although I recognise that it would be more than slightly hypocritical of me to encourage aspiring travellers not to travel by plane, I think that we can all do our bit by slowing down and making the journey part of the experience.
One of the most enjoyable ways to travel is by train – you get to see so much more of the country and people are much more likely to interact when sitting opposite each other at a table seat. And of course, a train journey emits a fraction of the CO2 per passenger than flying does.
MT: What are the challenges of travelling solo? (if you are a solo traveller)
HC: There aren’t many! I loved the solo travel that I’ve done: exploring Chapada Diamantina, Brazil; hiring a car and driving around Tasmania, and my South East Asia trip when I was 22. I guess it depends on how you define ‘solo travel’.
Although I’d started all these experiences alone, it was never long before I met other travellers and had company. When you travel alone, there are no compromises, no obligations, no stress – you’re free!
I guess the hard bit is when you have the occasional down day. Sometimes it’s easy to get a bit stuck in your head. Potential travel companions are never far away though! You just need to go find them.
MT: How have your travels changed you?
HC: It’s hard to know if my personality and outlook are the reason, I like travelling, or if it’s because I’ve travelled. Probably there’s an overlap. I think travel’s helped me develop a bit of a c’est la vie attitude for when things don’t go to plan – it’s rarely the end of the world.
My self-confidence has definitely grown; I know that I can trust and depend on myself when I’m alone. And travel has made me interested in languages and discover capabilities I hadn’t known I had.
MT: What country or city is your travel bucket list?
HC: I’ve never been to the Middle East or to the African continent. I’d love to get a camper van and drive all over the world!
MT: Future travel plans?
HC: My plan now is to get back to Greece to continue volunteering at the community centre on Leros. While I’m there I’d like to explore the surrounding Dodecanese islands, hopping on and off ferries.
I definitely want to see parts of Turkey too, which is only about 20km from Leros. There’s a beautiful coastal hiking route, the Lycian Way. I’d like to complete some of that.