Note: This post was almost entirely written about 2 weeks into my 6 week backpacking trip from Germany all the way down into Montenegro and back up again through Poland. Some extra thoughts on how these feelings changed by the end of the trip, and a post-trip catch-up will definitely be coming.
I’ve had a lot of rambling thoughts about traveling so far- about the way I’ve done it, the people I’ve met, and how I may have done it differently. Overall, when my mom asked me last night if I’d rather have done it with someone, I can hands down say ‘no’ without pause.
Three reasons stick out:
- The flexibility: Traveling alone, I can decide any day to switch plans for the next day, like I did multiple times. Sometimes, you just don’t jive with a city, or you haven’t met the best people. On the opposite end, sometimes you fall in love with a city instantly, with the people you’ve met, or just know that you need more time to explore where you are. This happened at least 3 distinct times. Once, when I hit Split, where I had intended to stay for at least 2 nights to explore from there, I realized the city was not at all the calm, cultural treasure I was somehow (crazily) expecting. So, I hopped on a ferry to the island of Brac, where I got to stay with a great family in their small home. In Mostar, where I intended to stay only 1 night, on the other hand, I fell in with a small group and got (very willingly) sucked into going on a group tour with the hostel keeper’s brother the next day. I stayed an extra night, and even regret not staying longer since, it turns out, there’s so much more to Mostar than I imagined. Towards the end of my trip, too, I ended up ditching plans to go back to Germany, this time to Dresden, to instead follow someone I’d met back up to his home of Poland. We got to stay at his mom’s place in the middle of nowhere for a night, where she (with zero words of English, and me with about 3 words of Polish I’d convinced him to teach me on the train) nursed me back to health with medicine and fed us the best homemade goulash and beet mix (made with horseradish) I’ve ever had. Each of these changes wouldn’t have happened if I’d been with someone else.
- The people: I am so grateful for the people I met on this trip, and I know none of those interactions would have necessarily been the same if I’d been paired up with someone else or in a group. I got to Couchsurf with a Slovenian Army medic in Ljubljana, cliff-jump with a group of Kosovar army divers in Croatia, and fall into hiking with an American travel writer and a German watch maker in Austria. I do think that most of the time, at least for someone like me, you get more immersed in the culture when you’re alone, when you’re forced to ask for directions, start conversations with waiters or other patrons at the bar, or make small talk (which often leads to much deeper conversations) with others at your hostel. When you’re not already engulfed in conversation with a friend, it can be much easier to soak in the culture around you, even just by people-watching with no distractions.
- The resourcefulness: To get around areas with little English, you point-blank have to build a sense of resourcefulness to find your way around. Especially since I didn’t have a cell phone with a data plan during my 6 weeks, I had to go back to the basics (well, early 21st-century basics): screenshotting maps before I set out, looking up general things to do, and learning some basic words before sitting down at a restaurant with no translations. Don’t get me wrong, the majority of people are extremely friendly anywhere you go, and willing to help, but when you do come across someone to whom you just can’t articulate that you’re allergic to crab or that you need a pharmacy, you’ll definitely be happy you looked up train and bus times, best routes, and currency conversions as backup. You’ll learn to rely somewhat in part on the kindness of strangers, on articulating thoughts through 1 or 2 words, or even with hand gestures, and on maps. I’ve had to look up small towns, walk along country roads, and jump on busses with no real certainty as to the destination. I wouldn’t change any of these experiences.
Would I do it differently?
Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder if I should be doing the trip differently. When I hiked the Alps with 2 other people, I wondered if I wasn’t losing some sense of discovery that I’d hoped to get hiking alone. In small towns, I wondered if I wasn’t too independent and isolated, not getting to reply interact with anyone except those few who spoke good enough English. When I stayed in hostels, I sometimes wished I’d couch surfed instead of hanging out with Australians and Germans (nothing against this!- always tons of fun) in a hostel. When I went to bed early, I questioned if I should go downstairs to get sloshed with the other travelers. But if I’ve come to realize one thing, it’s that you can always do a trip differently. Staying with only locals in every city will be one experience. Getting to know other travelers from all the world will get you a different one- and may give you new friends and new places to visit to go see those new friends. Perspectives will always be different. Traveling alone can also afford observations you may not have had with someone else. And that’s something I’m still trying to work on- this balance of all kinds of travel and appreciating each one. It definitely takes time, and I still struggle with it.
Traveling can be really easy
One thing that I’ve felt overwhelmingly, though, is just how easy traveling has been. Yes, there’s way less English spoken than I thought there would be, especially when I venture out to small towns, and yes, that sometimes means I sit waiting for a regional bus for over an hour after it’s supposed to get there (thank you Fussen) without being able to ask if and when it’s actually coming (thank goodness for a no-expectations, relaxed and spontaneous traveling schedule). But overall, it’s just been… fine, honestly. There’s plenty of information online and overall, people are willing to help if they can. As long as you don’t have a busy schedule, and can stand to be late, you’ll be just fine. I’ve also so far been traveling without any data plan or minutes or anything. Just free wifi when I get it in hostels or cities or at McDonalds (thank you for that). But as long as you have an open mind and a sense of adventure (and some common sense about you), you may be surprised just how easy it is to travel, even when you don’t speak the language or are in completely foreign territory. It does make me wonder why more people don’t do it, since I don’t consider myself that fearless, despite the millions of times people in every country have told me that, covering their mouths with their hands sometimes. Or maybe I’m just a little crazy. Either way, I encourage you to do the same. It will be so rewarding to discover places you never even thought of going to, that are off the beaten path – trust me. Nothing is stopping you but yourself.
You’ll notice cultural differences more than you have before
This one might be controversial, but one thing I love about traveling is that, after the general Buddhist-like notion that anyone you meet around the world can have the exact same characteristics, dreams, and priorities as anyone else (all of which is definitely true, and still amazing to me to this day), what makes it interesting are some of the differences. In Munich, I remember sitting at the dinner table with my German host, his Ukrainian girlfriend, his Russian roommate, and another couchsurfer from Hong Kong, and being almost stunned when he questioned, almost in a half-mocking, half-pitying tone, how Americans can even afford to travel with all the student debt our system leaves us with. I’ve always been aware of this difference, but only when burdened with that exact debt myself, now that I was old enough for it to be personal, did it really hit me that Americans are not always envied. With our broken health care system, our mounting student debt, and our tiny vacation allowance, we aren’t always an enviable model for other countries. And that broad, big notion is something that’s stuck with me considerably, and made me reconsider some of my own priorities.
Little cultural stereotypes can also make for interesting conversations and situations. In Innsbruck, for example, I found myself agreeing with my Austrian host (nicely, of course) about the initially-cold nature of the Germans I’d met in Munich. And when her Romanian friend showed up, we joked about the struggle to be spontaneous, something they were “working on.” In Stockholm, another Canadian couchsurfer and I found ourselves rushing after our host, laughing, as he sprinted up the stairs to make it just on time for our 8:15pm “meeting time” with another group of couchsurfers. As Americans and Canadians, a meeting time with friends is almost always a loose contract, with about a 15-minute window of leeway time. Showing up early would almost show desperation. But to our Swedish host, this was almost life or death.
One of the most fascinating courses I’ve ever taken is a Cultural Management class I took in Paris during my year abroad. With students from all over the world, we openly discussed general characteristics of people from different countries, ranging from punctuality, sense of humor, formality, to ways of forming friendships. While it’s easy to see commonalities among people from all different backgrounds, I think it’s important, and frankly, fascinating, to acknowledge and discover some of these differences.
Enjoying the moment and not rushing through
I also sometimes struggle with appreciating just where I am, and that also just comes with traveling I think. I look at the calendar and see time rushing by, so I build out a rough itinerary of cities to go to, places to visit, and experiences to do. But if there’s one thing I learned in New Zealand, it’s that rushing from one place to the next didn’t bring me much. I still feel like I raced around the island, bouncing from one place to the next and never really got a sense of each one. So it’s a constant effort to settle this and to just focus on being present, on slowing it down and enjoying the moment and where I am. I may not see everything, but I hope I at least come back having felt like I’ve seen something worthwhile, got a sense of each place, and leave some room for mystery and a return visit.
So if there’s one thing I beg you to do, and that I keep reminding myself every day, it’s to have zero expectations of each place you go, and of your trip in general. Be open to meeting people and throwing your plans out the window to go visit them later instead. Recognize that not everything will go to plan, and that’s an adventure in itself. I may not make it to Serbia like I’d hoped (I did actually make it there, for better or for worse), and that’s ok. Get out of it everything you can, and soak it all in while it lasts, because the fun and the adventure lie in the mistakes that happen along the way, in the moments you never expected.