travel mishaps

When Things Go Wrong, and I'm Alone

I get asked about this all the time:

What if something terrible happens to you?

Are you ever really scared?

How do you handle weird situations when you’re alone?

Finally I decided to write about it, mainly for those who don’t travel alone and are curious. I’ll tell you now, I’ve heard just about every travel horror story and have been warned many times by friends, family, and acquaintance to ‘be very careful.’ And I am. But I also have faith in myself.

Despite the trials and mishaps, I love exploring alone. 

Despite the trials and mishaps, I love exploring alone. 

I’ve had weird and unnerving experiences abroad, especially traveling alone. Yet every time, I am able to figure my way out of the situation, usually in one piece. Take for example, my arrival in the south of France during my gap year. I took the TGV train from Paris to the south of France and from there I hopped on a local bus. The bus driver helped me figure out where to get off, a tiny town with one small grocery store, a bakery, and a bank. From there I did my best to follow the directions my hosts had provided, thanking my foresight to look up the bed and breakfast on the walkthrough version of Google maps. Still I was confused when I got there. There were two gates onto the property, both of them locked. One was obviously for the bed and breakfast, and the other was down the hill and around the side of the property and looked to be for staff. I couldn’t see anyone and tried calling out to no avail. I checked my last email with my hosts, where I told them when I would arrive. I sat on my suitcase for a while, until a woman passed walking her dog. She knew of the people who owned the B&B, but didn’t have their phone number. I saw a group of people pull up and unlock the front gate, and quickly hurried that way. Chatting with them, they had no clue about the owners and had just been hired for the night. They suggested I go to the other gate. Now, a few hours after being dropped off, I was really wondering what I had  signed myself up for. Finally, as I was trying to figure out where to go for the night, I saw a figure walking down the road toward the back gate. I jumped off my suitcase, waving a little frantically.

It was another volunteer, and he told me that I was expected tomorrow due to an email mixup. He had been heading to the beach for a swim when he saw me. My hosts were visiting Morocco at the time so the B&B was pretty quiet. He helped me get settled in my small, sparse room before showing me around. Throughout that afternoon and laying in bed that night, I was anxious about my choices and situation. I took some basic precautions--I used my doorstop on my room door that night and my family knew where I was going. But I stuck it out, trusting my instincts. As I settled in, I made amazing friends, learned a lot about gardening and running a B&B, and enjoyed living between the beach and the mountains. This first workaway experience was unforgettable and changed my outlook on life. And I wouldn’t have gotten there if I wasn’t willing to take a few risks.

To be okay through almost any situation abroad, here is what you need:

  1. Travel Insurance - I recommend World Nomads, an affordable insurance that varies by length of stay and region of travel but always offers two levels of insurance. They have helped me find reliable emergency clinics in Bangkok when I had a staph infection and then covered the cost of the visit. They also will cover some electronics and personal items, helping me pay for a new iPhone when mine got wet while traveling. A dependable travel insurance that is easy to contact will help you know that you have someone to help if you get sick or your plans are ruined.

  2. Emergency money and medications - It is super important to carry some backup cash (this can be U.S. dollars or any currency) just in case ATMs are not accessible or your cards are not working. I usually keep $50-100 dollars stashed in a few places in my luggage.Also traveling with some basic medications is smart. This means Advil, Imodium, and any prescription medications you use regularly. It’s very possible to get medications abroad, but it’s easiest to carry some with you.

  3. Your instincts - There have been moments where I have switched metro cars or taken a better-lit street even if it was a longer route. Once I was waiting for a bus in Thailand, at a stop next to a police station. A policeman came out of the building and a driver pulled over. They obviously knew each other and chatted for a few moments. Then the policeman came over to me and told me the man in the car could give me a ride back to the city. I declined, saying I would wait. The policeman asked again and told me it was okay to go in the car. Reluctantly, I hopped in. We made light conversation and the driver was very polite. However, the second we got into the city and I knew the area, I thanked him and hopped out. Maybe he was fine, but I prefered to take the reins and control the situation.

  4. The ability to ask for help - I can’t even count the number of times I’ve stopped someone to ask for help. This can be directions, a translation, or to use their phone. At a small restaurant in Bangkok the businessman at the table next to me translated the menu for me and conveyed to the waitress that I was vegetarian. Asking for help is something that comes naturally to me now and I understand that often, people can be trusted. I believe the American viewpoint is often distrustful of others abroad, but so many people have been willing to help me that I now I have a different viewpoint.

  5. The knowledge that you’ll get through it - This may not sound like a lot, but often the simple understanding that I’ll come out on the other side of a situation keeps me calm and allows me to get through it. This stems from my past experiences that have tested my reflexes and emotions, giving me a confidence in myself and my coping abilities.

I hope you found these tips and stories helpful. Also I have a post specifically about safety and the questions I often receive about staying safe abroad.

A Traveling Day in the Life of Madison

The alarm goes off but I've already been sleeping light in anticipation. It's just after 3 in the morning and I have a flight out of Stockholm at 6. I change into my leggings, as I'm slept partially in my outfit and climb down from the bunk bed. Luckily, I have everything almost packed, as I knew last night that it wouldn't get done in the morning. Brushing my teeth and gathering my things, I set off to the express train that will get me to the airport. 

In the hostel lobby, there's one staff member awake jamming out by himself, and he lets me weigh my bag on the vintage scale. Just over 5 kilos--which is miraculous for how stuffed my bag is. However I've found the best way to fly without checking luggage and on budget airlines is to load up your 'personal item.' So to take advantage of this my purse, camera, and toiletries all go in a large tote bag and only my clothes and a few basics are in my backpack. After a ten minute walk to the train station, I find that the doors are locked. Lovely. A passerby stops and helps me, leading me down half a block to doors that open. 

After climbing down a flight of stairs I pop out on the platform. That's when I realize that the other doors were locked for a reason--they lead to the correct platform, that of the express train, which is not yet running. I wait for ten minutes, graced with free wifi, so I can check and I see that the trains start running at 4:30, so I should still be on time for my flight. I eat a banana I bought the night before. I think I hear someone on the opposite platform, so I climb down and walk across the tracks to the next, which is one over from the express train. But I dare not go one farther as the platform is taller there and I don't think I could pull myself up. 

Finally, there's a technician on the other platform who confirms that the train will run at 4:30. I decide to go up to the street again as that's the only easy way to the right train. There I find a couple waiting for the doors to open, which they do at 4:05. I find a seat on the train and try to doze for a few minutes. 

Next thing I know we're at the airport and it's busier than expected, so I work my way through security with a bit of a nervous knot in my stomach. I'm fine, walking fast to the gate, and arriving with enough time to go and buy a croissant while a very nice Swedish couple keeps an eye on my backpack. We board and the flight is simple, I manage a 30 minute nap and two cups of coffee. 

In Dubrovnik ahead of schedule, I stop at an ATM and buy a bus ticket into the city. The hostel I was to be staying at had given loose directions. My nose pressed to the window, I saw the city gleaming pale gold and orange on a deep turquoise colored ocean. 

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In town, I walked around the bus station for five minutes before finding the central local stop and buying a ticket from a 'tisak' or newspaper stand. After 20 minutes of waiting for either of two buses that would take me right by the hostel, I gave up and jumped on the next one that came. Using my offline map app, (I highly recommend it for all travelers), I got off at what I thought was the closest stop. Looking at my map I thought it would probably take ten minutes. More towards 30 minutes later, at 10:30 and in 90 degree (F) heat I stumble up the last flight of stairs and into the hostel. 

Dropping off my bags, I set off towards town, along a busy road. I decide-in my infinite wisdom-to forgo the route given to me by the hostel reception and go down an alley staircase. Thirty minutes later and sticky with sweat (probably a little delirious from the sun too) I'm in the old town, which is packed with tourists. Luckily, I start to take some turns off marble streets of the main boulevard. Soon I'm completely lost in a maze of tiny stone houses and clothes lines. I was on the side of town closer to the sea, where there are less restaurants and the alleys make a maze. This is where I found my true taste of Dubrovnik, my fingers slipping over cool, golden walls, my eyes catching in the tangles of window box flowers. Then walking around the outside edge of the wall, bordering the Adriatic, licking an ice cream cone and dreaming of sailing deep into the forever blue of the water. 

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This went on for hours, until I took the walk back to the hostel to check in to my room and avoid the heat. An hour of travel planning (I've only been making plans a few days in advance of where I am at the time) later and I set off back to old town once again. Next I scoped out a 'fast food' place called Barba, that served me a delicious shrimp burger. 

Feeling full and spurred to creativity by some street musicians, I found a good step to sit on near the gate to the port and pulled out my sketchbook (keep an eye out for a picture to come). Using my miniature watercolor set, I sketched the dome of Dubrovnik cathedral across from me before laying in the colors that the setting sun was casting it's way. Nearly an hour later, racing the sun for light, I let the painting dry and try to gather up my things. Still a slightly removed from the real world, I drift through the crowds on the Main Street without much purpose, heading vaguely towards the new city and my hostel. Climbing stairs upon stairs I am treated to the wall and the city alight while I catch my breath. Then I begin the walk back. Some thirty minutes later I realize that I am either too deep in my thoughts or simply exhausted and have passed my hostel, so swinging around I head back, planning to go straight to bed. 

Upon arrival and a quick shower, a few people are moving into the room and we begin chatting. Even when I'm laying in bed, I'm eager to make friends, but at some point I stopped mumbling responses and fell very asleep.

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