It was early evening, but already dark, and I was lost. Every Communist-era apartment block in Novi Sad, Serbia looked like every other Communist-era apartment block, and though I had the address of my couchsurfing host’s flat, I had totally lost my bearings. I knew I was on the right street but not which direction I should be going. I stopped a young couple to show them the address, they pointed, I thanked them and wandered on. After a few minutes of walking and still not recognizing where I was, I stopped an old lady with a cane, showed her the address. She pointed in the other direction.
I tried to flag a cab, thinking at least they could drop me to the right place. None would stop. I started to choke on the frustration.
Just then my phone lit up with a text; it was from my friend Lauren, back in Scotland. “I miss you, x”, was all it said.
The thinning dam burst, and I stood on that Serbian street corner and cried.
Novi Sad was my last stop on my solo backpacking trip through Central Europe and the Balkans. As my first trip travelling completely on my own, it brought me that sense of joy and freedom that makes me love travel above all other things. It also taught me something I’d not fully grasped when travelling with other people: Travel is hard work. It is rewarding and satisfying and thrilling; it is also frustrating and exhausting and tedious. I’d not noticed this before travelling solo because there was always someone there to share the load. Decisions were made together, if one person didn’t know the answer to something the other often did, and the journey felt … lighter.
The advantages of solo travel are everything you’ve heard: the route is up to you, everything you do and see is exactly what you want to do and see. There is no one else to appease. It’s the best thing about travelling alone, and also the worst thing, because you have no one to trust but yourself. Some days you would give anything to have someone to turn to and ask ‘What do you think?’.
Without the challenges of travelling, though, without the frustration of waiting for a Bosnian bus that never comes or trying to convince a Montenegrin toilet attendant to let you use the facilities even though you don’t have €0.40, the thrilling and satisfying bits would never be as good. Without the necessity of learning to rely only on yourself, you wouldn’t feel a sense of accomplishment when you finally do find the right block of concrete flats, and celebrate with a few shots of rakija. There would be no lessons learned.
So here are some of the lessons I learned, and will remember the next time I set out on my own:
If you’re stressing about where to go next and how you’re going to get there, stay put another day. I was travelling completely without an itinerary, and only a vague notion of where I wanted to go. I found myself staying longer in most places than I’d expected, and at first regretted that I didn’t get to see more. I learned, though, that I would rather experience fewer places more fully than skimming over many. I felt less rushed and stressed when I travelled more slowly. There will always be other trips.
Start to think of setbacks as opportunities. If that Bosnian bus had shown up, I wouldn’t have had an extra two nights in Mostar, where I ended up taking the best tour of my life (and where I’ll now be living for the month of May – more later).
Trust in the kindness of strangers. A very chatty lady approached me my way to the train station in Pula, on the Istria peninsula of Croatia, because of my backpack. She led me to the station, helped me buy my ticket, and made sure I got off at the right stop. Every host I met couchsurfing (which I highly, highly recommend), happily welcomed me into their homes, shared with me as much local knowledge as I could digest, and helped me get on my way again. People will want to help you. Let them.
Don’t marry your plans. Just when I thought I had an itinerary worked out in my head, I would end up heading in completely the opposite direction. I would meet someone or hear of an event that would completely alter my plans, and every time it was worth it.