Whoever said being a solo traveler is easy and everything will go smoothly if you just believe in yourself, has obviously never been much of a traveler. Heck, even traveling with your best friend or your parents or even an organized group can be quite a bumpy ride. Life is – and never will be – smooth as butter.
Shitty situations can arise at anytime, anywhere, to anyone.
As much as I try to take the precaution of avoiding seedy neighborhoods, learning the train/tram/bus schedules by heart, trusting myself more than I trust my friends, learning the city maps instead of following my GPS blindly and making sure I have absolutely all the right documents printed – sometimes, I fail to do so. Sometimes I even fail to walk straight without tripping over my own two feet. Other times I fail to eat without spilling sauce everywhere (even in my hair), as if I was a little baby. Sometimes that’s exactly what I am. A big baby, naive and lost. And just like you’d rescue a crying baby lost in the big scary city, strangers often come to my rescue and guide me to safety and give me a blanket and a nice warm cup of cocoa.
Okay, nobody actually did that.
Except from that one time when I was 2 years old and ran away from home (naked) with the 2 year old boy next door (also naked) and the police found us in some old folks’ garden party and gave us blankets to stay warm while driving us back to our parents.
I guess, already as a 2 year old I was ready to explore the world. These days, I usually travel with my clothes on, but I still manage to get lost and get myself into tricky situations and end up being “rescued”.
Here are five anecdotes from my travels. These are tributes to locals who could have walked away, but decided to help a stranger in need. These are people I will remember for the rest of my life, because of their kindness and selflessness.
The Colmar Teenagers
The most recent of these stories, happened only a week ago, in Colmar – a beautiful and fairytalesque town in the Alsace region in France. My mother, her friend and I were staying at a hotel in Strasbourg, another town in the same region. We made plans to take the train to Colmar and stay there for the fireworks display and celebrate Bastille Day, drink Pinot Gris (delicious white wine) and eat Alcasian cuisine, do a bit of shopping and take hundreds of photos of the colorful half-timbered houses and bridges decorated with beautiful flowers. Little did we know how much of a fairy tale we were getting ourselves into. While my mother and her friend trusted in me leading us back to the train station from the location of the fireworks, I relied on my GPS to take us there. Big mistake.
My GPS started acting up and guided us in the complete opposite direction. No wonder I didn’t recognize any of the streets, the buildings, nothing. To make matters worse, my phone was dying. We had no other choice than asking strangers for help with directions or maybe help us call a cab. “Excuse me?”, I asked an elderly couple (in French). They ignored us. I tried again.
This time I asked a boy and a girl who didn’t look a day over eighteen.
They listened. And told us what we already knew; the train station was in the complete opposite direction and we’d never be able to make there in time for the last train back to Strasbourg. Worried, I asked the boy if he could help us call a cab, as my phone was dying. He explained to us that calling a cab would be useless. By the time a cab would get here, we’d already miss our train. “My car is parked nearby. We can take you to the station, if you want”, the boy suggested. We really didn’t except this. Especially not from an age-group who is unfairly labeled as selfish.
They took us to the station, offered to drive us to Strasbourg (free of charge) if we didn’t make it there in time, followed us to the platform and made sure we made it onto the train. Colmar does not only look like a fairy tale town. Some of its people are everyday heroes, just like those you read about in the storybooks.
The Minneapolis Mom
While living in Florida, I spent most of my weekends off traveling to other states – even those on the complete opposite part of the country. I wanted to see as much as possible while staying in the US on a work visa. And at one point, curiosity brought me to Minnesota. More specifically Minneapolis (and Bloomington, to visit Mall of America). One day, while wandering around downtown Minneapolis, my GPS acted up (there seems to be a pattern here). I wanted to go back to my hotel, but my GPS guided me to the complete opposite part of town instead, and lead me to believe that I was on a good path. Little did I know that I was on the path to a somewhat dangerous neighborhood. Little did I know that Minneapolis even HAD a neighborhood that would be considered “dangerous”.
While getting more and more lost, I was starting to get attention from men who could easily tell I wasn’t from around there. Some were just staring, others were catcalling. I’m not even gonna get started on what level of vocabulary they were using.
A forty-something year old woman with two kids, pulled over. “Darlin’, are you lost?”, she asked. She looked genuinely concerned. I told her about my problem with my GPS and asked her for directions to the hotel I was staying at.
“Oh lord. The reception here is terrible. No wonder you’re lost. And your hotel..Honey, you can’t get there by foot. It’s too far away. Complete opposite part of town!”
She offered to drive me to the hotel. No, I wouldn’t normally get in the car with a complete stranger like that, but considering she had her kids with her, I decided to trust my instinct on this one. And I’m glad I did. The lady was lovely – so were her children – and my day ended on a good note.
The lady and the tramp in San Diego
After a lovely week spent visiting San Diego as a solo traveler, I packed my bags and headed to the Greyhound bus station to take a bus to Las Vegas where I’d made plans to meet some friends of mine to celebrate my friend’s birthday over a steamy Chippendale’s Show and drinks. Although San Diego had been great and I’d eaten my own weight in Tex-Mex and tanned myself into a less pale version of myself, I was ready to commit seven sins in Vegas.
Arriving at the station, I was certain I’d printed every document needed. Turned out, I had printed the wrong thing. I guess I forgot to read the fine print.
“Ma’am, this is not a ticket. You need to print your ticket”. I browsed through my emails and realized I had printed the wrong attached file. How stupid of me. I asked her if I could just show the ticket as a PDF on my phone instead of the printed version. “No, ma’am. We need to collect the printed documents. There’s a library just around the corner. They have printers”. I knew where the library was. It was not ‘just around the corner’ but a five minute walk. Five minutes are precious when you’re about to miss the bus.
“But… What if I email the document to your email address, and then YOU can print it from here. I’ll obviously pay for it”, I cried. My tears were worthless to her. She shook her head and smiled “No, Ma’am. I can’t do that. Go to the library. Now. Before you miss your bus”.
I was left with no other choice than going to the library. Which, by the way, didn’t open before 9 am. The departure time of my bus was 9:15. I was screwed. I had no way of making it to Vegas, and I knew it. I broke down crying in front of everybody who were waiting in line for the library to open.
At first I was crying because I’d miss the bus. Then I cried even louder because I felt like a spoiled brat crying over first world problems. What a misery.
A lady in her forties walked up to me to comfort me. So did a homeless man who had been sitting nearby, begging strangers for a little money so he could buy himself some breakfast. Neither of them could do anything to help me, but they listened to me, they comforted me and they both waited next to me while I called my mother to ask her if she could book me another bus ticket. She booked me a plane ticket instead. A co-worker in Florida had a daughter who lived in San Diego, who happened to be off from work that day. She drove me to the airport.
I guess in this situation, my mother, my co-worker and my co-worker’s daughter were all the biggest heroes. Still, the lady and the homeless man both deserve to be praised for their selfless act of kindness and compassion.
The bag-man in London
London is a perfect place to go shopping if you’re from a country where everything is ten times more expensive than in good old Britain, and frankly, I can’t walk through Camden market without buying a couple of bits and pieces here and there. What I should have known then – that I know now – is the importance of a solid, high quality suitcase to carry all those items in. And you might wanna be careful when buying those things at a market. If a price sounds too good to be true, there’s usually a reason for it. Exactly how that bargain dress from eBay turned out to look like a cheap version of your grandma’s curtains or your toddler’s fancy dress costumes. My leopard print suitcase was just like that. Why on earth I wanted something leopard print is another question I ask myself a lot. I’ll blame it on Spice Girls and nostalgia.
The tacky leopard print suitcase lasted three hours before it decided to fall apart. Unknowingly, I wandered the streets of London with my bright new suitcase used for my shopping spree, and a nice old backpack on my back, carrying all my other essentials for the weekend.
And then the unthinkable happened. Half of a wheel fell off. Half. The other half was still spinning around for a little while before it followed its other half and abandoned me. How odd. I decided to lift and carry my suitcase instead, as it was pretty much impossible to drag it around with only one wheel.
Bad idea. The handle came off and my suitcase fell straight to the ground and now had a major hole in it, from where the handle was attached. This was officially the shittiest suitcase I’d ever seen. Period. I tried to hold the suitcase with both arms, to hold onto all my things and balance it up and down staircases and while rushing down the busy streets of the city. I walked into the nearest shop and asked the shopkeeper if I could buy the largest bags he had, from him. He took one look at my suitcase and seemed quite surprised with how this could possibly even happen. He gave me two enormous plastic bags (same size as those found in IKEA) and said “take them, for free. And buy yourself a better suitcase”. You betcha, I did.
He may not have been a hero, per se, but he sure made my day a whole lot easier.
The LGBT family in Birmingham
Another one from England. I was never a tourist in Birmingham. I actually stayed there as an expat for a year and a half. But expat-stories still count. And this one is worth mentioning.
While staying in Birmingham, I often went to nightclubs with my friends there. After all, I was nineteen, and this is how a lot of nineteen year old’s spend their Saturday nights. Another thing that is sadly quite common when you’re nineteen, is having unreliable friends who’ll break whatever promises they had with you, if something better comes along. And that’s exactly what happened the one time I didn’t have enough money with me to take a taxi home, because I’d made plans to sleep at my friends’ house and was absolutely certain I wouldn’t need some kind of backup-plan. Turns out, I was wrong.
My friend took off with some guy and left me stranded outside of the club. I didn’t know any of the other people who were there, and I had no idea what to do. A girl sensed that I was sad and confused, and asked me if I needed help with anything.
I told her what happened, and she offered to let me stay at her house, together with her and her friends. “It’s my parents house, but they’re not home. They’re on holiday. If you don’t have to leave to early in the morning, I’ll cook us all a nice breakfast. If you like bacon and cheese sandwiches, that is”, she smiled. How lovely was she? How could I possibly turn down an offer like that? Again, I trusted my instinct and joined them.
The girl told me the story of her parents and how a lot of people had been mean and judgmental towards her while growing up. Her mother and father got divorced when she was a child, and the mother later came out as gay and had since been in a relationship with a lovely woman who was a great stepmother to the girl. I noticed a couple of photos of the two, on the fridge. Along with some old photos of the girl herself.
“I like both. Girls and blokes. People think it’s because of my mom, but it’s not”, she said and poured us all a cup of tea. We changed the subject and talked about music and movies until we were all too tired to stay up any longer.
The only thing I found strange in all of this, was drinking tea at 4 am. But that seems to be quite a normal thing in Britain.
If this girl hadn’t invited me to stay at her place, who knows what would happen if I’d have to walk all the way back to the house I was staying in – which was a one hour walk from the club, and near an infamous “red light area” (Gillott road, if you’re a local reading this).
Even though I’m now left with these amazing memories of everyday heroes, I might not always be as lucky. Your good Samaritan might not always be at the right place, at the right time – and who knows what would happen in a worst case scenario!
My advice is:
- Always have some extra cash on you in case you need to take a taxi somewhere.
- Studying a map and memorizing it is better than relying on your GPS.
- When buying a suitcase or a backpack, quality matters. It might be expensive, but it’s an investment! You don’t wanna end up picking up your stuff from all across the street because you bought something cheap and useless!
- Tell your friends and/or family members where you’re staying, who you’re staying with and keep them updated when bad things happen.
- Use Facebook groups/communities for solo travelers to ask for help/advice when you’re lost, abandoned by your peers – stuck in whatever situation where you need help from locals!
- I also recommend to write down the address and phone number of your embassy in the country you are visiting, in case your problems are way more severe than any of this!
Good luck – and safe travels!