My weary eyes stare down at my watch. It's 3am and rain is tapping on the window as the train creaks and groans along the tracks. All I can see are the tips of trees, half-hidden by fog, swallowed by the black abyss. I'm halfway through a 3 month solo backpacking trip across Europe, and after a pitstop in Slovakia, I find my mind racing but my body still steeped in slumber. Realizing that sleep will elude me until I reach Vienna, I take this time to look back on my time abroad and cobble together some thoughts, lessons, and semi-lucid run-on sentences. These are the notes I jotted down.
Why did I fly 5,000 miles away from everything I know? The longer I travel, the more I realize it's in search of that crazy, head-buzzing feeling - the rush of endorphins that floods your body the minute that stranger you just met becomes you best friend, at least for the night. At home, this happens every so often, but abroad, this happens every single day. Fate brings complete strangers from opposite ends of the world together to share stories and make new memories - that's the beauty of travel.. As a backpacker, you constantly make small talk and friendly exchanges with the people around you. But in every city, there are always a few people who, even within the first couple minutes of talking make you feel like you've already shared countless dinners with them back home. Whether you spend 5 minutes with them or 5 days, it may not even matter - every shared experience is so warped and intense because time is so limited.
Stop hiding behind your phone.
My first night in Krakow, I got in late and missed everyone at the hostel who was already on a pub crawl. Around midnight, after grabbing a quick bite and wandering around Old Town, I realized I had two options - I could either call it a night and go to bed early, or do something I've never done before, and head to a bar alone to try to meet people. I opted for the latter.
Now, most people, including myself, turn to their phones to make believe they're doing something important when they're in uncomfortable situations - for instance, times when they're just standing around by themselves in a crowded bar where it seems like everyone else is already deep in conversation with friends. This is the scene I found myself in, but I had made the conscious decision to leave my phone in my room so I couldn't use it as a clutch.
When your eyes aren't glued to a screen, good things happen.
Although the first couple of minutes were kind of awkward, after I ordered a drink, I started chatting up these two girls who each had 5 shots lined up on the bar. I said something completely stupid like, "Hey, there's no way all those shots are just for you two" and chuckled. Before I knew it, they handed me a shot and introduced me to all their other Irish friends. We ended up wandering around the city, in and out of different clubs, and stumbled back to my room at 6am. I'm pretty if I had decided to stare at my phone every time I felt anxious those first few minutes at the bar, I would've left the bar alone 20 minutes later.
The generosity of others has shocked me.
Within knowing someone for 2 minutes, I've had rounds of drinks bought for me. When I looked lost and felt stranded on a street whose name I couldn't even pronounce, a nice Hungarian woman walked 5 minutes out of her way to point me in the right direction. When I've tried to buy coffee but was short two dollars, the barista just handed it over and smiled. All over Europe, and I'm certain now that all over the world, people just want to do good. We're always bombarded by news of hate and terror, but step away from the screen and into the real world and you can see that the vast majority of people really care for one another.
I'm traveling solo, but I'm definitely not alone.
Whenever I talk to friends back home, the same question always comes up, "What are you doing and who are you with?"
Surprisingly, I don't feel like I've had enough "me" time. There's always someone to talk with, get lunch with, or go out with. Whether you'll ever see them again is another story.
I've said a million times that meeting other people from different parts of the world is my favorite thing about traveling, but sometimes the best days can be spent alone, wandering the streets or falling asleep under a tree in a park by yourself.
Forget what you're supposed to do.
Although Krakow is steeped in tradition and medieval architecture, these days it's a huge party destination in Europe. The beer is cheap, the girls will make you weak in the knees, and an early night is considered to end at 5am.
On my last night, I decided there was no way I could possibly be out until sunrise again. My whole hostel started loading up on drinks at 9pm, and usually I'd be right there in the mix, feeling like if I wasn't, I'd be missing out on some unique experience. But, sometimes when you realize you've been there and done that way too many times, it's better to try something different, even in the midst of peer pressure. I ended up heading to an amazing jazz club with different student bands rotating on stage. At about 1AM, I found myself alone in the middle of town, with a McFlurry in hand, just soaking in the energy of the city. Groups of kids all around me were stumbling into bars, getting their night started - but somehow, in that moment, I felt so content just sitting there by myself. I guess as you get older you realize you're not missing out on much if you take a night off. Although most people would rather end their night with a crazy dance party than sitting on a stoop drinking a McFlurry, it's some of these rare moments of solitude on my trip that stand out in my memory the most.
Take more chances. Life is more fun that way.
Embrace the unknown.
My plans have gone by the wayside. I missed my bus to Budapest and now have two weeks of absolutely nothing planned until meeting friends for the last half of my trip. I've always been a fan of winging it, but not knowing where you're sleeping in 24 hours will definitely make you think on your feet. It may be stressful and chaotic at times, but it's definitely more exciting. So, you have two choices - freak out or go with the flow.
There are still good days and bad days on the road.
Trust me, I'm not complaining, but every so often you have a bad couple hours on the road. These are usually days when you're moving from city to city. You've got a huge backpack weighing you down, walking through a city you've never been to, when it's either too hot, or too rainy, and no one understands what the hell you're saying when you ask them for directions. There have been times where the metro has been shut down so I've had to spend an extra hour figuring out bus routes to get to my hostel. There are other times where you ask someone for directions but you still end up heading the exact opposite way of your room for the next 20 minutes. Your legs are sore, you're back is aching, then you get to your hostel and realize you can't even get to your bed until check-in time 4 hours later. But, it's all part of the experience.
There's also the occasional sting of homesickness - it's only natural. The first 4 weeks of my trip, I'd hardly given a thought to how life in LA with family and friends was. But, one day in Poland, all of a sudden I started thinking about what a good night's sleep in my comfy bed would feel like, without 6 strangers in beds next to me, where I could wake up and have a massive breakfast - rather than go on an hour long quest through the city on foot to find a decent meal. I wonder how that party was that all my friends went to, or how family dinner on Sunday night was. But, it's like inception - the minute you let these thoughts creep into your head, they grow and grow until it they consume all of your thoughts.
But, just as fast as these ideas infiltrated your mind, they're shaken off the instant you find yourself in a new conversation with someone at a bar or at the hostel, or realize, "Hey, this time 2 months ago, I was sitting at a desk staring out the window daydreaming of this moment."
When traveling, you have to open up. Quickly. Your first day in a city is always someone's last. Make that time count.
Find your own groove and stick to it.
Some people are going on 3 years of travel, while others are on a 3 day escape from their routine. Some have quit their jobs, others are in school. Some have big plans and ambitions, others have no idea where they'll be sleeping tomorrow night. A while back, a good friend had told me something along the lines of, "I used to think life was a race, but recently I'm learning that it's more of a dance." We've only got one shot at this thing called life - go at your own pace, do what gets your heart racing, and don't be afraid to take some time, find your groove, and stay a while.
Something I've been doing while traveling is making a point to have a meaningful conversation with at least one new person a day. This means getting past the small talk and really learning about where that person is from and what keeps them ticking. While it's easier when traveling, I'd really like to try this back at home - whether it's at work, at a coffee shop, or at a supermarket, put yourself out there and see what happens.
Sometimes the destination makes no difference - it's great to travel and see sights in parts of the world you've never been. But, my favorite things about traveling are the people you meet and the liberating feeling that anything is possible. Whatever city you wake up in on any given day, the fact remains, that there's no structure or routine - the day holds endless potential.