Sunday, June 07, 2009


1) Dresden, Germany, 2003
I was still jetlagged when Helka and I found ourselves with 65 litre backpacks weighing us down, dark setting in, late spring snow drifting to the ground and nowhere to sleep for the night. We had been looking for a hostel for hours. Sleeping at the train station was no longer an option--we hadn't anticipated that it would be open air. And the train station employees weren't helpful--they didn't speak any English. Neither did any of the young people we stopped around the station. But it was our own fault—who tries to travel through Europe for the first time at the age of 18 without a guidebook—or hell, even a plan?

Desperate, we boarded a packed tram. We didn't know where it was going, but maybe we would see something. Or someone. (It was about the third time in the day we had done this, riding the tram to the end of the line until the conductor told us to get off.) I lost it. “Does anyone speak English?” I called out. “We need to find a hostel.” There was silence. And then, a voice. A guy raised his hand and stood up, “I know of a hostel, and I will take you there.”

He had been a backpacker himself, from Spain, but had hitchhiked through much of Europe and South America, which is where he learnt English. “I’ve been there,” he said. “Even if the hostel’s full, you can sleep on my floor for the night.”

2) Fiano Romano/Rome, 2003
By the time we arrived in Italy less than two weeks after the Dresden incident, still without a guidebook, we about two weeks wiser in our accommodation finding-strategies. In Venice, we didn't mind our campsite. It was a little out of the way, but it was cheap and comfortable, so we booked a bungalow for ourselves (12 euros a night/person) at a sister campsite in Rome.

At the train station in Rome, the information desk didn't seem quite sure of the location. "I think it's about here," the agent told us, and gave us information about what commuter train to take and where to get off. An hour into the train ride, we started to get nervous, though. All evidence of the city streaming through the windows was gone.

An hour later, we got off the train in the middle of a field. The station was empty, except for a desk with a telephone on it, and three large burly men with mustaches, smoking cigars. They turned and stared at us. Again, scared but desperate, I handed them a slip of paper with the address for the hostel. They conferred in Italian. Even without a mutual language, it was clear that they had never heard of it. Great.

But they didn’t give up. Searching through the phone book and placing a couple of phone calls, they contacted the campsite. It was a good 20-minute drive away, but the campsite owner’s son came to pick us up. “I don’t even know how you ended up out here,” he told us. He dropped us off directly in front of our bungalow’s door. And for only 12 euros a night, it even included its own shower and mini-fridge.

3) Rab Island, Croatia, 2009

After an hour-long ferry ride, Jay and I arrived in Lopar, a village located on the northern tip of Rab Island. We had been instructed by the hostel owner in Pula that upon arrival, we should inquire at the "Number One" agency for a place to stay in Rab Town, the mecca of Otok Rab (Rab Island), for the night.

It was about 9 p.m. when we left the ferry docks and started wandering down the road through the village of Lopar. After about 20 minutes of walking (and wondering whether we should turn back, since all the signs of “downtown” were slipping away), we finally saw a restaurant. The bus stop was about a 100-meter walk away, they assured us, and we would find the Number One agency in Rab Town. Good. We didn't want to stay in Lopar anyway.

Only one problem. The last bus left for Rab Town, a 20-minute drive away, at 8 p.m. I was starting to get nervous. Up until this point, our trip to Croatia had been seamless—easy bus transfers, free accommodation and never a lack of vegetarian-friendly food. But suddenly the situation was reminiscent of Dresden. The sun was setting, we didn't have a place to stay for the night and we stranded in a port village.

Solution? Play dumb. Walking up to a restaurant nearby, I asked the waiter inside, "Are there any taxis in Lopar? We missed the last bus to Rab Town." (All with big, wide eyes, of course.) The waiter conferred with his friend. No, no taxis. (No surprise there.) And then, more conferring. "But my friend's brother will take you." Less than five minutes later, the friend's brother drove up, loaded our bags into the car, and drove us to Rab to a euro-trash techno soundtrack. He just grinned in the rearview mirror, not speaking a word of English. We paid him 100 kuna for his time. We arrived at the Rab Town bus station, just in time to catch the apartment booking agency before it closed for the night.

Maybe it’s overly emotive, but every last time, travel seems to find a way to restore my faith in humanity. And maybe it’s crazy, but I also can’t wait to get lost again.

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