The Value of Taking the Road Less Traveled

Throughout my life I always seem to take the road less traveled.  Do things that are different than the norm.  I attended hippy circus camp as a kid, played lacrosse when my school didn’t offer the sport, attend a small, relatively unknown university 3000 miles from home, and study abroad in Croatia instead of a more popular destination.  I’m not consciously choosing to do things different, these options have just always held greater appeal to me.  Maybe growing up as a left-handed Jewish Redhead poised me to make these decisions, but regardless of the reasons why, I have always gravitated towards doing things a bit different than others.  I had never really seen the value in this until I embarked on my spring break trip a couple weeks ago.

Instead of traveling to more popular Western European destinations like most people do (and there is nothing wrong with this), I decided to spend a week traveling through Serbia and the Transylvania Region of Romania.  I figured that I will have plenty of opportunities in my life to visit more easily accessible Western European spots, but seldom will I have another opportunity to head east and see some truly unique places.  In addition, Lonely Planet had rated Transylvania the #1 region in the world to travel to in 2016, so I felt that this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Unsurprisingly, no one in my program was planning a similar trip, so I was going to be doing this trip solo.  Most people would be disappointed by this, but I was actually glad that I was going to be doing this by myself.  It offered me a sense of freedom; I was only bound by my own ambition.  In preparing for my trip, I made a loose schedule of places I wanted to hit: I knew I wanted to see Belgrade, Serbia and the Bran Castle (home of Dracula) just outside of Brasov, Romania, the rest of my trip was left open to whatever I wanted to see.  I decided I wanted to do the majority of my traveling via train instead of flying because I felt that it would allow me more flexibility and exposure to life and culture in the areas I would be hitting.  So with just a skeleton of an itinerary, a backpack, and a ukulele, I set off on what would become one of the more challenging, intense, and fulfilling weeks on my life.

Almost immediately, I was met with unique challenges that come with travel in non-western countries.  To get to Belgrade, my first destination, I had to take a bus to Bar, Montenegro where I would catch a 12 hour train to Belgrade.  I arrived mid-afternoon in Bar to a bus station where no one spoke english, no wifi, and no ATM.  This seemed to be a persisting theme throughout my trip.  I quickly learned that I need to be prepared with ample money, and a basic knowledge of the language and directions to get to where I will be staying that night.  The next day I got to the Bar train station with 21 Euro in my pocket, expecting that there would be an ATM at the station or the ability to buy a ticket with card.  Wrong and Wrong.  Luckily for me, the train ticket happened to cost exactly 21 Euro.  Additionally, I arrived 20 minutes before the departure time because.. well that’s what you normally do. But because this is the Balkans, 18 of those minutes were spent standing in the back of the line while an old man argued with the teller.  Fighting my inner neurotic Jew, I was able to stay composed and hopped on the train legitimately 30 seconds before it left.

I could spend the rest of this just telling you about all of the situations similar to this that I encountered (being the only American on a decrepit bus that took us through the Serbian backcountry, missing my train in Timisoara, Romania because my phone didn’t adjust to the time difference, arriving in Cluj-Napoca, Romania at 2am without a room booked for the night, having my ukulele almost pried out of my hands by Gypsy kids, losing 2000 dinars at a Belgrade Casino, the list goes on..) but that’s not what this post is really about.  Instead, this post is about that value that comes from getting out of your comfort zone and embracing the challenges that come with dense travel through unfamiliar areas. On this trip I traveled through some of the most naturally beautiful areas I have ever seen.  I hiked the snow-capped Carpathian mountains in Romania, wandered through remote villages of Serbia, rode through the time-absent countryside of Transylvania where shepherds corralled their sheep and farmers carried hay in their horse-drawn carriages.  I visited some truly unique cities that were unlike anything I had experience prior.  I got lost in the graffiti covered back alleys of Belgrade which visually embody the grit and personality of the once Capitol of Yugoslavia, explored Sighisoara, Romania, the last truly medieval city in Europe and the birthplace of Vlad Dracul the Impaler, toured the breathtaking castles of Rasnov and Bran in Transylvania, giving me a glimpse of medieval feudal life.  I met and shared stories travelers from all over the world who live in the alternative universe of the global nomad.  I partied until the sun came up on boathouse nightclubs in Belgrade, drank homemade palinka (Romanian moonshine made from plums) in Cluj, and danced to Romanian pop music covered by the club’s in-house saxophone player.  By getting out and experiencing places that were totally foreign to me, I was able to have experiences that most people in this world will never get to have, and I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity.

Finally, my greatest takeaway from my trip with the realization that no matter what corner of the earth you go to, there are people living just as complex and intricate lives as yourself.  That fact may seem trivial; of course there are people living everywhere with complex lives.  But until you lock eyes with the construction worker in Montenegro, the Shepherd in Transylvania, or the barkeep in Belgrade, it’s hard to really internalize this concept.  There billions of people on earth who experience the same emotions and tribulations as us that we never spend a second thinking of.  And why should we?  They have no effect on anything that goes on in our daily lives.  But by doing so, we gain a sense of humility and compassion it is hard to conceptualize otherwise.  As with the rest of my life, this spring break I took the road less traveled by and I lived to tell the tale.  Hopefully you have the opportunity to do the same.


Just Listen.

            A study abroad experience is- by nature- selfish.  You leave everything at home behind, your friends, family, school extracurriculars, to spend a semester in any city or country you want.  You get to travel to places you’ve always wanted to go, see the sights you’ve always dreamed of seeing, and party whatever night you want.  Very little responsibility is placed on you besides having as much fun as possible (and going to class, of course.  Hi mom).  For me, this is the first time in college where I have felt truly free of responsibility, and I can be as selfish as I want.  And let me tell you, the freedom is quite liberating.
                   However, I do feel that there is one requirement of all study abroad students that is largely ignored.  And that is taking the time to relocate our focus from ourselves and transfer it to the people who live in our city.  Too many times I hear stories of students who go abroad to a large touristy city, only hang out with American Students, go to study abroad bars, eat at fancy restaurants, and never make a local friend or have a truly substantial conversation with someone who embodies the spirit of the city.  Is that really a study abroad experience, or just an elongated vacation in another country where the drinking age is 18?
               Living in Dubrovnik, I have no choice but to get to know the locals.  In a city of 42,000 people where the majority of population congregates in a walled stone maze, you tend to start recognizing the same people.  From the shop owners lobbying for your business, to the bartender who knows your order (shout out to Ivana), to the kid in your class whose family lives down the street from you, etc..,you become apart of this city whether you like it or not.  And being that I am officially a Temporary Resident of Dubrovnik, it’s my duty to dedicate my time to the people and their stories. And boy, do they have stories.
            Only a couple of decades ago, this area was engulfed in one of the most brutal, horrific wars in modern history; the Yugoslavian War.  While on the surface one may not notice the scars of the past, but once you look behind the tourist traps and dive into the annals of Dubrovnik -it’s people- and hear their stories, you gain such a sense of humility and appreciation for this courageous city and it’s resilient citizens.
               While exploring of one Dubrovnik’s parks, I came across a seemingly homeless man sitting by the water.  I struck up casual conversation with him, and some five hours and few sandwiches later, I had learned more about the War and the people who’ve been effected by it than I ever could have sitting in a classroom.  He was one of the most insightful and compassionate people I have met in my two months of being here.  Maybe it was the profound concept of treating him like a human being and listening to what he had to say, or maybe it was just in his nature, but he opened up to me like I’ve never seen a stranger do.  My new friend (who wished to remain nameless) let me write down a few of his stories from fighting in the War and his thoughts of the conflict in general.  I want to share them with you.
    **the following is a rough transcript of what he said, however I did my best to translate his broken English.  I express no personal opinion or bias on the matter.  The italicized and quoted paragraphs are him**
               “I was born in Mostar in 1965. I lived in Mostar and went to school while living with my father up until the start of the War (He is ethnically a Croat who grew up and lived in Bosnia).  Before the war things were very tense. 4 months before that day they were stockpiling weapons and preparing for war.  It was said that the Yugoslavs from Serbia was planning their aggression.  From September-October 1991 there were preparing for war, running drills.  2-3 thousand people in their unit or “quarts”. I was in Mostar from July 1992 and it was peace.  All around Mostar there was war.  From July- April 93 the war in Mostar began between Muslims and Croats.  I was there. I did not want to fight.  I have solution to end this (he spoke of a peace agreement that he created and brought to the government, but he said he was dismissed because of his low rank in the military).  4th April there was an explosion were my house.  There were Yugoslav bases 300 -400 meters from my house.  There was a wall around this area.  The main street in Mostar was 4 meters from the wall.  There was a truck with oil that exploded and made a whole in the wall 50 meters. my house was 300 metes away but the windows blew open.  This explosion ignited the war.  It was early morning and I was asleep.  This happened on the 4th of April.  6th of April war started.  My injury happened the 26th.  On the sixth day (April 6th) it looked like fireworks were going off. Red and green lights created by bomb.  Everyone was shooting.  Shooting was happening at night.  It was wonderful (visually beautiful) to see but still scary.  I couldn’t believe this was happening in Mostar, my hometown.  The Yugoslav army came from the east side.  My unit was 30-40 men.  Our commander told us to retreat to the west side over the river.  I lived in the east, now the muslim side.  I had to cross the Mostar Bridge.  Croatian army have metal explosive devices against tanks under the bridges with barbed wire fences under the bridge, so if anyone came it would explode.  We were on the west side of the bridge shooting towards the east, my home.  I was behind a wall trying to get into a garden wall to get more protections.  While we were doing this, I was shot in the hand and arm.  I lost most of my finger and much movement in my left hand.  It was that moment that the war ended for me.” 
            After he was injured he was flown to Zagreb, The Capitol of Croatia for treatment.  He didn’t speak much more on the subject than that.  I then asked him if there were ethnic tensions prior to the conflict under a united Yugoslavia
                “Before the war, the ethnic groups were held down by the communist government.  They were untied under one communist flag.  It wasn’t important during then.  For me it didn’t matter, but most other people had a dormant national spirit that was held down by Tito (Josip Broz Tito, the former President of Yugoslavia).  It didn’t matter where you were from to me, but there were many people who it did matter. (All percentages are his estimates) About 30 percent were hard nationalists behind close doors.  About 30-40 percent were ambivalent about it, but when fight came they stuck with their side.  They were good people, good neighbors, they weren’t nationalists but the war gave them gave them no choice.  20 percent believed in the Yugoslavian vision saying that a united Yugoslavia was better than separate republics.  There aren’t too many people who believe this now, but there are some people who still believed that the former Yugoslavia was a better way of life.  The problem is that the different groups cannot come together and make agreement.  The people in the middle like a peaceful life and don’t care about the politics. It doesn’t matter what flag they live under.  But what can they do, they have no choice.  I myself have no choice.  I have different opinion (on nationalistic pride and the necessity of war).  In 1991, I was in the position of 5 percent of people.  I don’t believe that Yugoslavia is necessary better, but I know that war was not good.  The tensions are bad that maybe Yugoslavia could be better, but I don’t know.  There are good things now, more freedom.  (Josip) Tito was against the West, against travel. He want to have small (closed) borders, can’t read what you want.  Yugoslavia was joke, all communist government get their views from Engels and Marx.  They said they were for the working class people.  They say that workers and rights, and capitalism give the everyday person no right.  The joke here was the Tito was the leader of the Communist party and put themselves above everyone else.  People could only eat and work.  But yet President Tito was very rich.  He had many villas in every city.  He had many planes, ships, cars, but everyone else was poor “.
        I was truly amazed by his pragmatic approach and foresight.  For such an unassuming man, he was very wise.  His position I believe is similar to many people’s at the time.  Most people did not want the war and didn’t have a hatred for opposing ethnic groups, but they were given no choice.  I could see the sadness in his eyes.  I then asked him about his thoughts on the political future of this region.
          “I think that there will be no more war between the areas.  At least not in my lifetime.  However, a political concern of mine is how can we come to a full resolution.  Living in Bosnia now is a hard thing (he splits his time in Bosnia and Croatia). Croatia is ok to live in because there is more choice, they are a part of the European Union.  There is more tourism. Croatia goes to better times if the EU goes to better times.  Croatia by itself can not grow, it needs the help from others.  Throughout history Croatian have more connection to other parts of the world.  More Croats go to other countries and they are happy to have other people come here.  If Croatia lives alone with closed border, it will fall, there will be political problems.  Here they have too much political partisan and division.  Living in Bosnia is difficult because there is not much infrastructure and lots of corruption.  There is less tourism so less money comes in.  But the people are strong and I believe they will live good lives.”
           After that, I bought us a couple of sandwiches and we talked about some less serious issues: his love of country music and western films, family, friends, and life experience.  We had one final handshake and then we went our separate ways.  I left that conversation with an extreme sense of humility and gratitude.  There I was, a 20-year-old study abroad student from America who is spending a semester doing what many people can only dream of, typing on my Macbook Air, and leaving to go back to my apartment overlooking the city.  And there he was, a middle age man who grew up in a war torn-country, has no real home and very few, if any people who will give him the time of day.  Yet despite all this (not to mention the language barrier) we were able to find a connection and share in the human experience.
          Study Abroad is the time to be selfish.  Get out and see the world, party on a Tuesday night, or eat pizza everyday if you want.  However, amidst all of this, don’t forget to take some time and just listen.