The Traveler’s Approach

EuropeRoute

Our route, traveled 6/21-7/23

Ben and I just got back from an epic post-graduation trip through Eastern Europe. John, my roommate in college, joined us, as did a few other USC friends.

The first part of the trip focused on Eastern Europe’s big cities. Berlin, Prague, and Budapest were among our destinations. We climbed Berlin’s famous TV tower, which offered a view of the entire city, from sports arenas, to concerthouses, to parts of the Berlin Wall. We visited the Prague Castle, which was built in 870 A.D. and which has since been home to kings of Bohemia, Holy Roman emperors, and presidents of Czechoslovakia. We cruised the Vltava River in a paddleboat. We got to know each city’s jazz scene; many jazz clubs were set up in small, cozy, fifteenth-century stone cellars.

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Paddling the Vltava with our Swedish companions. We met them on the train from Berlin.

Our trip had been, thus far, everything a Europe trip should be. On our first morning in Budapest, though, I talked with Ben, and realized that neither of us felt entirely satisfied. For one, we had both brought backpacks and hiking gear, and we wished to use them. “What exactly does it mean to backpack through Europe?” I had asked John a few days earlier. “Well,” he replied, “we walk from the train station to our housing, instead of taking taxis.” I was disappointed to hear this. I had embarked on this trip expecting to engage in some real outdoorsmanship.

Beyond this, though: our entire trip so far had been somewhat, well, predictable. We had visited the Berlin TV tower and the Prague Castle, each respective city’s most recognizable landmark. We had diligently checked off the must-see items listed in each city’s entry on Trip Advisor. We had gone to all the right places and seen all the right sights. And that was just the problem: with unyielding rightness also comes a degree of monotony. We were doing what we were told, but not necessarily what we wished. Our trip wasn’t just lacking in the outdoors. It was lacking in adventure.

During the second half of our trip, Ben and I sought to remedy this lack. Firstly, we set off immediately on a hiking trip consisting of just the two of us (the others hadn’t brought hiking gear, and didn’t really want to hike regardless). Our plan was to train from Budapest to Ljubljana, and then to walk 70 miles to Rijeka, Croatia, over the course of six days. Where would we sleep? What if we got lost, or ran out of food, or got too tired to continue? Well, we weren’t entirely sure. That was the whole point. When we took our first steps out on the open road, just before noon on the outskirts of Ljubljana, I felt more refreshed and exhilarated than I had all trip.

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First steps out of Ljubljana

It seemed that the whole world lay open before us. On one side of the road were miles and miles of untouched meadow, dotted with wildflowers and traversed by a small, clear stream that ran parallel to the road. On the other, rows of corn stretched all the way to the base of titanic mountains, presiding over our journey, making our 70 miles look like mere steps. And straight ahead lay Borovice…then Cernknica…then Croatia, and Rijeka, and the Adriatic Sea. Straight ahead lay boundless adventure.

But the road ahead was not without difficulty. As the miles wore on, and the small farming towns approached and fell away, the sun grew hotter and the air more humid. My pack grew heavy; my back and shoulders and legs grew weak. Perhaps most painful were my feet. Blisters formed within hours: I hadn’t worn my hiking boots all trip, and it showed. After about 10 miles, Ben and I sat down to eat. Resting felt so good that, as soon as we sat down, we both groaned, and even laughed, with pleasure. But as soon as I stood back up, every muscle and joint in my body began aching at once, and I felt like I was standing on broken glass.

At nights, we slept in all manner of settings. About 100 yards off the road, through a short tunnel that led under the railroad tracks, we found a large plot of land containing a farmhouse, orchard, several barns and sheds, a greenhouse, and even an apiary. The whole complex seemed abandoned, at least somewhat—a newspaper dated 2012 rested on a workbench in one of the sheds. We slept peacefully in the tall, weed-strewn grass behind the farmhouse, interrupted only by the occasional buzz of a firefly or by the swelling-then-dying roar of a passing train. At one point, in the middle of the night, we awoke to a night sky so full of stars that there seemed to be more white than black.

Another night, we slept in the middle of a flat stretch of farmland, adjacent to a plot of apple trees (the apples weren’t yet ripe), under a typical farmer’s equipment cover. The roof sheltered a tractor, a trailer, and some firewood, but still left us enough space to lay our mattress pads out on the dirt floor. We kept dry that night, even though a storm raged so furiously outside that rain pelted the roof for hours, each thunderclap seemed to shake the very earth, and lightning lit up the sky.

Unfortunately, that storm persisted throughout the next day. We walked through a nature reserve outside of Postojna, and for miles, saw only trees, the gravel road, and pelting, relentless rain. We became thoroughly soaked, and grew worried, even panicked. Finally, we saw a single inn by the side of the road, which may as well have been an oasis in the desert. We dried off, unpacked lunch, and enjoyed some conversation with the innkeeper. After our meal, we couldn’t resist his cheerful offer to drive us to the nearest town. That day, with dampened plans but not spirits, we hitchhiked all the way to Rijeka.

A few days later, we met back up with the others. We had reentered the land of the warm bed and hot shower. But our appetite for adventure, though assuaged, was by no means quenched. And we learned that novel experiences are as accessible in civilization as they are outside of it. By the end of our trip, we had developed a distinct “traveler’s approach,” far from that described in Trip Advisor. And we tried, with measurable success, to convince the others of the merits of our approach.

Standard approach Our approach
See a famous site. Take pictures; take a tour. Brave the crowds, the crying children, the shouting tourists, the street entertainers hoping to fill a box of coins. Then head to the next site. Find a quiet café or coffee shop. Order tea or espresso. Sit. Relax. Take out a book, or play a few games of chess. Order another tea or coffee. Sit some more. There’s no rush; no goal; no destination. Just enjoy yourself and take in the atmosphere. Consider spending hours here.
The next day, check out some more sites. In a large European city, it could take weeks to see everything. With ideal efficiency, you can see everything in just a few days. Then it’s time to move to the next city! The next day, head to the same spot. Make friends with the proprietors and regular attendees. Gain a sense of welcomed-ness there.
Stick to the centers of the major cities. They’re the most popular spots and contain the greatest number of famous sites. Seek out the periphery of smaller cities. Here is where you might find that quiet bookstore or café. Here, you might find a group of old friends sitting out on their front porch, enjoying beers and tobacco, or a group of small children playing a makeshift game of soccer.
Each night, head out at around 9:00. Get an early start on the night. Each night, head to bed at around 9:00. Get an early start on the next day.

By the time we flew home, we were truly satisfied with all we had seen and experienced. Ben, I, and even the others swear by our “traveler’s approach.”

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Our idea of a perfect spot. A quiet, serene place to watch the world go by.

 

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Another one of our favorite spots. Ben sets up the chessboard.

 

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Our explorations also took us outdoors. Nathan sits by an austere little church outside the castle walls in Kotor, Montenegro.

 

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The bobsled track from Sarajevo’s 1984 Winter Olympics. Since then, Sarajevo has survived a brutal war and the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The bobsled track has fallen into ruin, but houses some beautiful graffiti.

 

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Bosnian coffee and chess at Sarajevo’s beautiful Cajdzinica Dzirlo tea house.

 

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John, too, learned to appreciate the pasttime of sitting for hours at one beautiful spot, talking with each other and with strangers, and playing chess.

The takeaway extends far beyond travel. Oftentimes, it seems that society has written a standard rulebook by which those who engage in a certain activity must abide. Society’s standard rulebook for travel looks like Trip Advisor. But many other aspects of life seem to have a standard rulebook. Standard rules are written on topics as fundamental as when to sleep and rise. During his semester in Moscow, Ben met a brilliant young math student who used to go to bed at 8:00 PM, and wake up at 4:00 AM, every day. If Ben hadn’t met this student, it would never have even occurred to him that the rules on sleep timing were breakable, or, in fact, that these rules even existed. But after some thought, Ben adopted this strange schedule himself, and reported success.

Whenever some practice doesn’t seem quite right, ask yourself if people act this way because they must, or because they’re simply following an arbitrary set of rules that they never think to break. If a ruleset seems arbitrary, and imperfect, and breakable, then one ought to break these rules. Monotony might be avoided, and adventure might be found.

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This entry was posted in Culture.

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