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.