My recent trip to Thailand was my first international solo travel adventure in awhile, and I admit that I’d forgotten the ups and downs of traveling alone, especially in the face of trauma when my passport was stolen in Bangkok, a day before I was set to leave the city for the southern coast. When I recount the story to others, I’m usually met with the reaction of, “OMG that sounds like an absolute nightmare! It would have ruined my entire trip.” When I’m met with that response, I can’t help but chuckle. Luckily, I’ve already had that nightmarish travel experience and it actually has set the tone for all of my travels since then.
December 2006 marked my first solo travel trip when I adventured to Italy en route to Spain to begin a semester abroad. The trip didn’t start out well: a series of unfortunate events left me stranded in Rome with the daunting task of getting myself down to Bari, a small town in southern Italy to reunite with my friends. I was 20 years old at the time and it was my first 48 hours in a brand new country. I found myself stranded at Rome’s Termini train station at 1:00am, where I consequently managed to get mugged by two young men hungrily eying my enormous backpack and realizing I was completely alone. Luckily, all that was stolen was about 600 British pounds (could’ve been worse!) and my confidence for being able to travel abroad. I remember sulking and crying my eyes out for several hours, determined that as soon as I could get a phone, I’d call home and arrange to go back to the USA as soon as possible. My romance with Europe had taken a sour turn and all I wanted was to go home.
As luck would have it, two American study abroad students walked by my sad mess on their way home from the bar, and they literally pulled me back up on my feet. They sympathized with my situation, giving me all the spare change they had in their pockets and they left me with one piece of wisdom that has saved me from every less than ideal travel situation I’ve encountered:
You’re not the first person to travel abroad and have bad things happen to you. Many people have faced similar situations, sometimes far worse, and pulled themselves out of it just fine. When you fall down, you pick yourself up and keep going, learning from your past mistakes.
I ended up having to put that advice to immediate use as I waited the night out at the train station, got harassed by a crazy man who followed me around for hours, laughed at by the Italian police who brushed me off when reporting my mugging, and even ran smack into the two boys who has robbed me just hours later. Despite the nightmarish night, I finally boarded a train to Bari and made it to my final destination, only to face two new challenges.
When I finally made it to Bari only to find out that 1) no one in Bari speaks English, and 2) the hotel I was supposed to meet my friends at had shut down years ago. Being unable to use the beautiful mobile technology that we have today to contact my friends, I had to do it the old fashioned way by walking into the nearest bar and making a fool out of myself by using charades and a Spanish (the only foreign language I kind of knew) to ask the locals where to find my friends. Two hours later, after being stared at, laughed at, and finally sympathized with after the village people finally found a young local who knew English, I was reunited with my friends and could breathe a sigh of relief.
You might be able to guess that I didn’t go home after that experience. I completed my semester abroad in Spain, visiting 7 more countries during those 5 months, and completed my semester with the ultimate test: backpacking solo through Europe for 4 weeks. It was the absolute best way to end my adventure in Europe, and I don’t think I would have done it had it not been for that fateful night in Rome. To date, I’ve visited 24 countries since then and of course had my fair share of bloopers and faux pas, but they’ve all paled in comparison to that very first one I ever made. The story itself no longer seems very traumatic to me, but I can still recall every ounce of fear I felt during those 12 crazy hours in Italy. On the bright side, those memories serve me well in that whenever I face a sticky situation, such as losing my passport in Bangkok, those words of wisdom never cease to keep me charging on: When you fall down, you pick yourself up and keep going, learning from your past mistakes.
How about you? What are some of the best pieces of travel advice you’ve ever received?